I suppose most preachers muse over the topic of their last sermon...the one they will preach right before retirement.
My very first sermon came in the summer of 1972 and was on the topic of peace. So, I've toyed a little with making that the topic of my last sermon as well. But then this week I came across a verse in Galatians that jumped out at me: "From now on, let no one make trouble for me." Galatians 6:17
Is there a grouchy old man alive who hasn't thought this...a million times? According to the American Association of Retired Persons, I've been "old" since I turned 50. And I've been developing "grouchy" even before that. So, of course I want this to be the topic of my last sermon!
I first started thinking about retirement half a dozen years ago when I got fed up with some of the trouble the Methodist "hierarchy" was causing in my local church. It is the job of the hierarchy to deploy the different pastors to the various churches in our conference. The superintendents (hierarchy) can actually help a church and a community if they pay attention to them. But when they try to make changes without paying attention, they just mess things up worse...causing everyone trouble.
I suddenly had this desire to retire...because I was tired of the trouble that inattentive district superintendents were causing. I'd always worked well with my superintendents in the past. But it seemed like we were entering a time when things were different...and I wanted to bail out.
This is, of course, only my humble opinion. And I'm sure these superintendents would have their own humble opinions if you knew them and knew to ask. I'm also pretty sure that the group of superintendents, when they received news of my requested retirement last year, likely paraphrased Paul by saying, "From now on, let us have no more trouble from him."
The same goes with parishioners. The ones who have caused me the most frustration are undoubtedly thinking the same thing about me. One thing about pastors moving on...or retiring, is that we hope everyone will stop causing each other trouble.
That doesn't always work. In a church I served back in the mists of the last century, there was an old woman who really hated me. I reckoned that when the bishop sent me to another church, she would take up a new sport and go after someone else. (She did go after several of my successors.) But more than three decades after I left that church, I was still getting hate mail from her.
Some people are just troublemakers.
And then, the thought occurred to me, I'm a troublemaker. While I've never sent hate mail, I have stirred things up in every church I've ever served: I've merged churches, integrated them racially, replaced leaders, gotten congregations involved in controversial community issues, opened church doors to the poor, challenged people's hostility toward the United Methodist denomination...
And I've been a trouble maker for the hierarchy: I started a four year argument with bishops and superintendents over the meager pastoral care that is given to pastors...and then I went behind their backs to get things done in that area. I've challenged long standing practices on the conference board of ministry...over how we equip and approve pastors who are entering the system. I've argued with the Illinois Conference of Churches in trying to get them to do more for social justice issues. As a member of the conference merger committee, I loudly opposed the structures that were being adopted as "too unwieldy and too disenfranchising for people."
So...do I have any right to complain about others causing me trouble? I've done nothing but cause trouble, for almost 50 years now.
And then I realize: I'm not retiring in order to get away from trouble. I'm retiring so I'll be freer to cause trouble: freer to write, freer to organize, freer to recruit, freer to speak the truth in love.
And this brings me back to "peace," the topic of the first sermon I ever preached. It is very easy for the "ministry" to become one long, exhaustive trek to "keep the peace." Keep everyone happy. Keep your mouth shut. Keep things steady. Keep on keeping on. Keep the windows shut. Keep certain people out. Keep doing what we've always done. Keep your anger under control. Keep the money coming in.
No wonder 25% of all pastors show significant symptoms of clinical depression. No wonder laity think most pastors lack authenticity.
But then I notice that we've missed something all these years. Jesus doesn't say "keep" the peace. He says, "Blessed are the peace-makers. Make the peace...not keep the peace.
And to make the peace, we sometimes have to take things apart, take a courageous look at what is causing us to flounder, own up to the ways we have turned a deaf ear to the living God... You get the point.
If our aim is to keep on trying to keep the peace, we will pray the prayer of Galatians 6:17...over and over...and hope that we will soon be rid of troubles...and troublemakers. But if we truly want to make the peace, we ourselves must cause trouble. And if we ourselves are causing trouble, surely those who trouble us will keep on keeping on.
So, since I aim in my retirement, less than five months hence, to try making the peace...instead of being so preoccupied with keeping it, I guess I will NOT preach on Galatians 6:17 on my last Sunday. Thus, it's back to the drawing board...