Twenty-one Years, Almost On the Nose!
On Sunday, September 22, 2002, the elders of the Kansas Christian Church asked me to serve as interim minister while they searched for a new preacher. That six-month interim ministry lasted twenty-one years, ending on September 24, 2023. It’s been a blessed and fruitful ministry with a very gracious congregation.
Staying in Kansas for the rest of my life would have been gratifying; it is my hometown, after all. But, long before the opportunity was presented to move on, I knew what text I would want to preach for my final sermon. I didn’t choose it for its finality but for its continuing promises. And it’s not the first time I have chosen this text.
- It’s the same text I used as my final sermon for the church where I served as an undergrad student.
- It’s the same text I preached after a difficult five-year ministry ended.
- And it’s the same text I preached on that first Sunday at Kansas Christian Church twenty-one years ago.
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”Ephesians 3:20-21
Sooner or Later, You’ll Get the Chance to Preach Your Final Sermon
Hopefully, it’s by choice, and hopefully, you’re not taken by surprise when the time comes. I fear one day having my sermon written and ready to go on a Wednesday and dropping dead before I can preach it!
When the time comes for that last message, give consideration to the gifts your words will leave for the people with whom you have labored and loved.
I wanted my final sermon to be a gift to the community we have loved and served with for so long. Reflecting on that message, I believe my message left the church with three gifts.
1. An Awareness of God’s Ability to See Them Through the Challenges Ahead
“To him who is able.” Verse 20 begins with those words, and the promise couldn’t be more precise. Paul’s attention is not on the size of the challenge ahead for his readers but on God’s capacity. Whatever troubles were against Ephesians, they were no match for the one who was for them!
I did not shy away from the challenges ahead for the church or our family. It’s been over two decades since they last searched for a preacher. The elders currently serving have never faced that! There are challenges for our family too, beyond the special needs we constantly live with. We’re moving from a small, supportive town of 650 to the capital city! We may be in the same state, but it feels like a different world!
Paul’s assurance for the Ephesians does not rest in their ingenuity, resources, or ability to navigate cities with more than one stop light. Instead, he points them to the God who is able—always able—to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or think.
We read this from the old NIV Bible when I started here twenty-one years ago. Remember that one? “To him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine!” I still hear the word “imagine” in my head. I also love what Eugene Peterson does with this verse in The Message. “God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!”
The church needed to know that the God they rely on daily is the one they rely on during this transition.
2. An Understanding of the Sacredness of Their Story
In twenty-one years, we’ve been through a lot. Ten years ago, we lost our whole building in a fire. That was minor compared to the loved ones we’ve lost over the years. I confess it’s been challenging for me in the last few years. This is my home church, after all. The people I have buried in the last two decades are not merely my charges in this ministry. They were my teachers, friends, and neighbors who welcomed me into their homes and considered me part of the family.
I’ve walked with them through cancer, Alzheimer’s, devastating accidents, COVID, and suicide. Likewise, they have walked with our family through autism, the death of my parents, and so much more. Those stories have eternal consequences. I needed them to know that our history is sacred and God has been present in every moment.
Moses and the prophets did this repeatedly in their service. They reminded the people of God’s faithfulness in the past to prepare them for the challenges ahead. We have the same God who still uses our stories to point to his continuing faithfulness. Pointing them to the past showed them the God that guides them into the future.
On May 5, 2013, we gathered for worship at the old grade school, just as we had for months after the fire and during the rebuild, but that day we had news. The organ and Clavinova had been delivered to the new building. So, we finished early and invited everyone to come over and join us as Donna and Shirley played a couple of songs for us. After worshipping, I closed our time together with this same prayer from Ephesians 3:20-21.
3. An Assurance of God’s Purpose for Them in the Future
Long ago, I heard the story of one of my predecessors who used his final sermon to scold everyone who had ever done him wrong in the church. He named names and disclosed details (what were they going to do, fire him?). Even in my most challenging ministry, I knew I didn’t want to do that. I believe in the wisdom of a dear friend who always encourages preachers to leave in such a way that they’ll want to invite you back.
More to the point, the final sermon is not just about looking back on where you’ve been. It’s an opportunity to cast a vision for the future! It’s one more chance to show how God can use them in days to come. Transitions are scary and confusing. Remind them that their mission has not changed and that the one who can do immeasurably more than they can ask or think will continue to bring glory in the church throughout all generations.
This world is not the same as the one you lived in the last time you looked for a preacher. There are new challenges, experiences, and questions about faith and life that you never dreamed of asking before. I want you to notice Paul’s prayer is not, “I wanna go back! I want things to stay the same!” That’s not more than you can ask, think, or imagine. And that’s not the point.
It’s Never Too Early to Start a File for Your Final Sermon
A preacher once told me that he always kept a resignation letter in his desk drawer, ready to go at a moment’s notice. I cannot see the wisdom in that, but what about having notes for a final sermon ready? A time may come when a scripture hits you, and you’ll think, “This would make a fine text for a final sermon.” If that happens, make a few notes, collect some stories, and be prepared to display grace for your people one more time.
Long after you’re gone and your name is another on the long list of those who served in ages past, that grace will live on, and the gospel will still bring salvation. Let your final words reflect your faith and trust in the God who guides your words every week.