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The Long Goodbye

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We have a daughter who lived in Britain for 12 years. Each year she usually came back to visit. And as most of you, with similar circumstances, will know, the delight of the welcome is offset by the pain of the goodbye. I remember taking her to the plane and saying inside myself: Every time we say goodbye I die a little, every time we say goodbye I cry a little… every time we say goodbye. Or, I think of one of the most painful days of my life: getting in the car and driving away from Manurewa to a new parish in Christchurch, but leaving behind our two older children, hardly out of their teens. Coming down this side of the Bombay hills was bitter. Every time I say goodbye I cry a little.

I tell you this because these were the thoughts that came into my mind when I took a sneak preview of the lectionary lessons. I skimmed Genesis, Philippians, and Luke, but as I whizzed by Paul a flash entered my mind: Paul is saying goodbye. I recalled my biblical study which suggested that Philippians seems to be the last of Paul’s letters, one he is writing from prison, maybe in Rome. He believes his life is drawing to a close and he is saying goodbye. Therefore my brothers and sisters whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, my beloved. Here is a Paul we don’t always recognise: warm, affectionate, and he is saying a last goodbye to people he cares about. And, yes, he cries a little.

But that wasn’t all. In mulling over those goodbyes, in feeling again something of their pain, it occurred to me that Lent is a long goodbye. Like Jesus we turn our face to Jerusalem and go to the cross and the passion. Jesus says goodbye to his favourite lake, to Nazareth his home town, to Galilee his territory, never again will he shout for the Galilee Giants in their Super Seven, and inevitably he cries a little. I know the feeling. I enjoy the blue skies, the warm days, the magnificent scenery of bush and sea and lake and mountain, and I don’t want to say goodbye to that any more than goodbye to the people I care about. So why would Jesus want to say goodbye to his people, his home, his patch? Well, you may point to the Transfiguration and say, surely that was a reality more important than the pain of goodbye. I’m not sure. Peter almost got trapped in the illusion of the heavenly as we are apt to do. He was all set for anchoring Moses and Elijah and Jesus in three huts. But they dissolve, disappear, and Jesus is alone. There is no way to heaven for any human from the Mount of Transfiguration. Not for Peter or James or John. Not even for Jesus. Next time Peter and James and John go with Jesus they go into the garden of Gethsemane – which is entirely different. Jesus cries there – and it’s because he is really having to say goodbye; he is saying goodbye to friendship, to love, to life, to the expectation that God will keep him safe, to those very things that make us human and put us in God’s image. It’s a long and hard and very painful goodbye. Every time we say goodbye I cry a little. No wonder we talk about the garden as an agony; There he emptied himself of all but love; every time we say goodbye.

Lent is a long goodbye, at least it is if we enter into it and struggle with the issues that surround our lives and what it is to be human. Easter often doesn’t work for us because we haven’t properly engaged with Lent, or, for that matter, with all the Lents through which we have lived. Sometimes we’ve seen Lent as a time to say a short term goodbye to some material things. That’s more like dealing with the effect than the cause. The long goodbye in Lent asks us to farewell that which matters to us, that which we love and cherish; and to say goodbye to these things hurts us. You see Lent isn’t particularly materialistic. I don’t hear God telling me to sell my long and luxurious BMW 750 to buy a Toyota or Daihatsu. Lent is more spiritual. It’s beginning to say goodbye to our beliefs, our hopes, our loves, our life.

One of the beliefs the long goodbye of Lent calls us to leave behind is that God is the easy answer. How wonderful it would be if it were so. But it is not. I look back at the lives of my parishioners: problems that don’t disappear, depression that doesn’t lift, cancer or strokes that hold people in their relentless grip. Or, in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, there’s Abraham and Sarah, still childless as the years roll by. I’d be rich, as you would be, for the times we wanted God to intervene – and there’s no easy answer to God’s absence. When we say goodbye to the easy answer God we cry a little.

One of the hopes the long goodbye of Lent calls us to leave behind is that somehow we are important. How wonderful it would be if it were true. But it is not so. None of us is indispensable, which is not the same as being missed or even having our name in Who’s Who. We struggle on, stubbornly, independently and at times rejecting good advice firm in the belief that we are the centre of the universe. And when we say goodbye to the hope that we might be important, we cry a little.

One of the loves the long goodbye of Lent calls us to leave behind is that church will work like Parliament. How wonderful it would be if it were so. But it is not. We cannot talk the Kingdom into coming any more than we can legislate for morality. Peter at the Transfiguration demonstrates it: We love the place O God, wherein your honour dwells – and we do our human best to manage and control it, like most of our other loves. Imagine if John Keys, Rodney Hide and Dick Hubbard went up Mt Eden with Helen Clark, and Helen Clark was last seen talking to Dick Seddon and Micky Savage; it would be the quickest way to the great stadium that Auckland is seeking. And if you took them away and replaced them with a bustle of bishops, you would probably end up with a Mt Eden Abbey. If only we could manage, organise, control our human relationships with God. When we say goodbye to our love for church, we cry a little.

Don’t think that it’s easy to let go the harmful stuff from out of our living. That’s popular religious fiction. Lent is a long goodbye with tears. It is having to let go our most cherished and dearly loved attitudes, some of the bits of ourselves we most admire. If only we could do it by making morning tea and doing the dishes at Probus. Or if it came down to the nitty gritty we could even say a reluctant goodbye to Sky and colour television; we’d give them up for sainthood. The long goodbye isn’t at all like that. It’s like giving up our family – do you love me more than these? Never think Lent is casual or easy. Ask Abraham; the price of assurance of a child is not only the sacrifice but the deep and terrifying darkness that goes with it; ask Peter, the price of observing transfiguration is not being able to say a word about it. Ask Paul who struggles with the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of Christ’s glory. Every time we say goodbye…

I have a great advantage over you: You hear the scriptures, I read them. I read them and I read them again – and I had this sneak preview of the goodbye Paul is making to his congregation at Philippi – and on one of my readings I realised a paradox. Don’t go that way, says Paul in his farewell. Don’t go that way, their end is destruction. Come this way with me, our citizenship is in heaven. Don’t go that way, their end is destruction. I hear the echo of Jesus: for whoever would save their life will lose it; for what does it profit us to gain the whole world and forfeit our life. Come with me, our citizenship is in heaven. Whoever loses their life for my sake and the gospels will save it. We are citizens of heaven. We are people who say goodbye never to say goodbye again. We cry a little never to cry again for every tear will be wiped from our eyes. We die a little never to die again for death will be no more. So let’s cry now, let’s die now, let’s say goodbye now in the long, long goodbye of Lent that we may dwell with God and be his people where there are no goodbyes.

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