Faith Acts (VIII): The Farewell
by Louise Westfall
The hardest things to say in life are “hello” for the first time, and “goodbye” for the last time.
I don’t know who observed this, but they nailed it. And somehow the two often occur in close proximity. I’ve loved seeing “first day of school” photos on Facebook–yet each one represents a goodbye, as you watch your beloved child, teen or college student head off to a new school year–and those same offspring excitedly, nervously get ready to say hello to new teachers, friends, and learning experiences. Even when I knew the school bus would return my son home seven hours later, I always felt a little teary on the first day of school, acutely aware of time’s swift passage. Psychologists tell us that each tiny farewell helps prepare us for the final farewell, the one that begins with a capital D. Hello, farewell. Farewell, hello.
The text today that ends our summer sermon series on the Acts of the Apostles, is appropriately a farewell. In this book, Paul emerges as the pre-eminent missionary apostle, traveling throughout the Mediterranean world sharing the good news of God’s love demonstrated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Most of his visits were not “one and done;” he usually remained in the city or region for some time, preaching and teaching and building community among diverse people. He returned to churches established earlier, and his written letters were circulated as authoritative teaching as well as unifying messages. To finance his ministry, Paul plied his trade as a tentmaker and to this day we refer to clergy who serve a congregation while holding another job as “tentmakers.”
For three years, Paul had worked among the house churches and growing faith communities of thriving Ephesus. Now he is moving on, and this time, he senses that he will not walk this way again. The text describes the way he says goodbye. A reading from the twentieth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, at the seventeenth verse. Listen for God’s Word to you and me, a Word of hope for all our endings. [Acts 20:17-38]
How do you say goodbye? There are many ways: a letter of resignation to formally end an employment contract; a “Dear John” letter announcing the end of a relationship; a farewell party with roasting and toasting can inject some humor to keep sadness at a distance. With social media you can simply “ghost” someone–just disappear into cyberspace with no further communication. It’s tough to be left with no warning, no chance to speak words of appreciation, apology, and if nothing else, to simply say goodbye.
Recently I watched The Farewell, a heartbreaking, funny, and ultimately hopeful new movie about a Chinese family’s decision not to tell their aging matriarch about her terminal illness. Instead they gather in her hometown on the pretext of a cousin’s hastily-arranged wedding in order to see grandma—“Nai Nai”—one last time. Various family members struggle with the decision, wondering if it in fact robs the grandmother of her need to say goodbye or complete unfinished business. But they keep up the ruse, and without spoiling the outcome, come to some peace by sharing in the grandmother’s absolute delight in being with her family, and enjoyment of the festivities uniting the new couple. At one point Nai Nai says Life is not just about what you do. It’s more about how you do it.
How you say goodbye speaks volumes about your understanding of life and what you know to be true.
How you say goodbye speaks volumes about your understanding of life and what you know to be true. The apostle addressed his farewell directly. He told the people outright that there was little chance of his return—that this was goodbye. He allowed himself and them the luxury of tears. He offered final words by commissioning the congregations to carry out the work he’s done: testify to the good news of God’s grace, support the weak, care for one another. He reviewed his ministry among them, and warned of potential pitfalls in his absence. Then he commended them to God in prayer, received their hugs of affection, and sailed away. The narrator gives us enough detail to break through into Paul’s humanity, which included some apprehension about what lay ahead; his sense of loss of the relationships that clearly meant so much; and his trust that the God who had led him in the past would surely lead him and the congregations he was leaving into the future.
Maybe there’s no one right way to say goodbye, but I wonder if Paul’s example offers some insight to make the ones we face throughout our lives more meaningful and more able to contribute to our growth rather than diminishment. For starters, face them, instead of dodging or disappearing. When it comes to goodbyes, don’t pay attention to Paul Simon’s advice in Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover (despite its catchy tune and lively rhythm): You just slip out the back, Jack. Hop on the bus, Gus, Don’t need to discuss much, Just drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free… Nope. Use your words. Speak the truth in love. Listen. And hold your head high as you depart by the front door. Face the music of farewell.
As a brand new pastor serving a church in rural Iowa, I met Maryann, who had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly before I arrived. My first visits with her were during a chemo regimen that ultimately didn’t stop the relentless assault on her body. She knew–her family knew, and everyone knew–that she was not going to survive. One afternoon as we visited over tea, she sighed wearily and said “It’s a relief to talk about my death with you.” I must have looked quizzical because she continued, “My husband just can’t do it. I know he and the kids are trying to cheer me up by talking about all the stuff we’ll do when I’m healthy again, and how I should eat to keep up my strength. But it doesn’t cheer me up–it petrifies me to think what will happen to them when I don’t get better.” From then on, I understood my role–the church’s role–as helping that family learn to say goodbye to their beloved wife and mother. Her death was no less sorrowful, but the family’s ability to acknowledge that reality brought great peace to Maryann during her final days.
Recognize the spiritual dimension to farewells. You know that our English word “goodbye” is a shortened form of “God be with you;” both the Spanish, “Adios” and French “Adieu” are literally translated “To God”–a way of commending each other to the care of the Almighty as we depart from each other’s presence. Fact is, loving someone–whether it’s a child; a friend relocating for a job; a trusted employee moving on–love necessitates farewells because love lets go, to give the other person room to grow, to journey on the path to which they are called. When it takes them away from us, from a secure and comfortable place into the wide open spaces that may discomfort, disorient, and even endanger–we can trust God to be with them, to watch over and keep them no matter where they roam. Seems like that might be a truth worth expressing–as Paul and the Ephesians did–in a prayer, including both the leavers and the stayers.
I usually file my sermons in the Cloud, and at first I had trouble saving this one. My computer kept saying there was already a file named “The Farewell sermon.” But I knew this was the only draftuntil it hit me. 8 ½ years ago I preached my final sermon at Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. For shorthand I had filed it as “The Farewell Sermon.” It took me back…but also propelled my mind forward. One day there will be The Farewell Sermon by me from this pulpit. I’m glad this isn’t it! I hope it is a number of years from now, but in the meantime, I invite us to do two things: one, keep on sharing God’s love with everyone; and two, practice the art of farewell always and often.
Vaya con Dios, mis amigos. Go with God, my friends.