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San & Jan Williams
April 26, 2015
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In the verses we just read, Paul concludes a major section of his letter. He attempts to wrap up the essence of his thought, and he introduces this concluding section with a question: what then are we to make of all this?” Or put another way: What is there left to say? As I contemplated my last Sunday in the UPC Pulpit, I found myself riveted to Paul’s question.
In 39 plus years as a teaching elder, I estimate I’ve preached well over a thousand sermons. What is there left to say? Add to that several hundred weddings and funerals, numerous retreats, and 468 Session meetings (not that I counted them up).
This past week I cleaned out my files. I filled a large recycling contained with notes and outlines of classes that I’ve taught over the years—confirmation classes, elder training classes, new member classes, classes on Reformed theology, prayer, Lent and Advent classes, classes on Christian Doctrine and Bible, eschatology, the resurrection, evangelism, mission, spiritual practices and others. In addition I tossed presentations prepared for men’s retreats, confirmation retreats and the all-church retreats at Mo Ranch. So given all this, I circle back to Paul’s question: What then is there left to say?
Jan Williams, from the lectern:
Well, San, I’ve got something to say!
A couple of years ago I ran into a friend who knew me before I married San. “Hey, Wilson,” she said, using my maiden name. “I hear you’ve gone all in on the preacher’s wife thang.” After a beat, she added: “I thought you weren’t going to do that.”
She was right, of course. I hadn’t intended to. When San and I got married, I assumed that he had his work, and I had mine. I was a highly engaged teacher and writer, and I already had a full life when we married at age 28.
However, I hadn’t counted on San’s serving such amazing congregations. Beginning with St. Paul in Houston, where San was ordained, he and I have been blessed with wonderful churches. In Houston he also served a spirited inner-city, mainly African-American church—which, coincidentally, was called University Presbyterian Church. And he worked as minister of pastoral care at St. Philip, another marvelous church.
Edward was born in 1982, and when he was six months old our family moved to Corpus Christi, to Parkway Presbyterian Church, yet another strong church of committed Christians. Then, at the end of 1995, came our move to University Presbyterian Church in Austin, and this morning I’d like to talk about our nearly twenty years as a part of this vital, healthy congregation.
When I describe UPC as a vital, healthy congregation, what do I mean? New York Times journalist Diana Butler Bass writes about religion, and she has researched what makes a healthy mainline Protestant church. She concludes that “solid, healthy churches exhibit Christian authenticity, express a coherent faith, and offer members ways of living with passion and purpose. They exude a renewed sense of mission and identity. . . They are their own best selves—creative and traditional, risk-taking and grounded, confident and humble, open and orthodox.”
I think UPC meets that description. Christian authenticity? There is so much wisdom in this congregation, and it’s wisdom coupled with intellectual curiosity. Whatever we think we know, we want to understand in a deeper way. In this pursuit UPC is guided and counseled by a wonderful staff, by professors and theologians from Austin Seminary, and by a community of people who ask good questions, and hard questions, in a safe environment.
People here express a coherent faith, too. This is a community of people who gather around the font, table, and word, and are then sent into the world to serve in Christ’s name. Often when we greet new members, we invite them to breathe with us, to inhale the love of God, and then exhale that love into the larger world.
As for offering members ways of living with passion and purpose, consider the Micah 6 food pantry, which allows eleven university-area churches of various denominations to join hands in feeding up to 500 families and individuals every week, from the basement of this building. On Tuesday mornings, our UPLift ministry welcomes the working poor and homeless with hospitality, respect, and warmth. Or again, our Border Mission trips, our support of Manos de Christo, our Fair Trade Initiative, the UKirk ministry to college students—and I haven’t even mentioned the many opportunities for teaching, singing in the choir, serving on Session and the Diaconate, participating in UKirk suppers, women’s circles, Bible study groups, and on and on. Yes, people at UPC live with passion and purpose every day.
Now you might say, that’s lovely, but why church? Why not find your altruistic outlets in secular organizations? Well, that can work, but I find myself in agreement with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.” I believe I have become a better Christian through weekly worship with you, here.
Friends, San and I are profoundly grateful to this congregation for your depth, compassion, generosity of spirit, and Christian inquiry. We want to thank you for so many things—more than we can ever enumerate. Thanks to the remarkable UPC staff members, both present and past, who have walked in faith with San during these two decades. Deep appreciation to Ara and Scott and the choir for the blessing of your music Sunday after Sunday. When I start trying to name all the things that have blessed us here at UPC, I am overwhelmed. The children’s ministry, Mary Ann Parker and the Sound of Angels choir, Melinda and A Gracious Plenty, the friends I look forward to seeing every week, the conversations, the shared sorrows and joy.
In particular this morning I want to say it has been a privilege for me to work with the Parenting and Faith class. UPC is blessed to have an unusually large number of church members between ages 25 and 45, which means we have many young families and lots of children. What a blessing it has been for me to serve on the coordinating team for the Parenting & Faith Sunday School class! Together we have explored what it means to live the Christian life and preserve the Christian family in the modern world. I have watched such trust grow in the class, and when I observe the people in this group, I have great faith in the future of the church. I know these impressive young adults will step up to leadership at UPC, and they are so capable and faithful that the church can only thrive under their leadership.
But for now, San and I are saying goodbye to this beloved congregation with whom we have shared so much. I look out at you and I see children who have never known a senior pastor other than San. I see couples San has married, babies he has baptized, and I see family members of loved ones who have died, and whose funerals San led. It is the deepest of honors for a pastor to be invited into people’s lives at these essential moments. Connections are formed through shared lives, and those connections run bone-deep, both for San and for me. That’s what makes our leaving so poignant.
We will retain our friendships with you, of course, and we plan to remain in Austin. We look forward to many more happy times with you, but our association will change, and change is hard. Letting go is hard.
Two weeks ago, our annual Mo-Ranch family retreat was led by our own Dr. Paul Hooker, Associate Dean at the seminary. The theme for the weekend was transitions, especially transitions in congregations. Using biblical examples, Paul talked about change and the inevitable anxiety that accompanies it. That afternoon, San explored the transition we’re undergoing at UPC. He reminded us of how Moses led the people of Israel to the brink of the Promised Land—yet Moses could not cross over himself.
Well, retirement from active ministry isn’t equivalent to Moses’ forty-year sojourn, but it does give San and me a way to think about this unique transition.
The thing about retirement—and this is for anybody, even Moses—is that it calls for a monumental giving up of control. I’m not talking here about control of your company or firm. Not control of the programs of the church, and certainly not control of other people. The sort of control I’m pointing to is both deeper and trickier. In fact, it’s an illusion, because it involves the notion that we control things, or events, or people, or the material world in ways that we don’t, and never will. It’s holding on to a power one never actually had.
Here’s a story to show you what I mean:
The year was 1982, and San had just been called as senior pastor at Parkway in Corpus Christi. We lived in Houston at the time, and Edward was a newborn. We knew that when we moved we’d need furniture. One day I saw an ad for five pieces of living room furniture of unique structure and history. The ad insisted that the whole set should go to a home where it would be used and cared for properly. Because the seller seemed so invested in the furniture, I couldn’t resist going to see it.
When we arrived, San and I met a bear of a gentleman, dignified, with a stentorian speaking voice. He was a retired opera singer of some note, we learned, and he and his wife were breaking up their home. They had no children, and they had simply collected more beautiful things than they could take with them as they downsized.
“But I’m no less interested in the future of this furniture just because I’m not going to own it,” he told us. “I want to know you will use it and care for it.” Then he proceeded to outline exactly how it should be treated.
We bought the whole shebang, had each piece conditioned and re-covered, and we have used the furniture for the past forty years. I think the opera singer would be pleased with how it has been treated. The hard truth, however, is that once he parted with it he had no control over what happened to it, regardless of how much he cared.
Here’s my point: we are all in transition, all through our lives. Babies are born, people change jobs or move to new cities, people marry or become ill or end relationships. There are cycles to human life. Seasons. When we bought the furniture from the opera singer and his wife, we were just starting out on our professional and family life. Now San is completing his active ministry and we have furniture of our own to distribute, so to speak.
Yet there comes a time—whether in regard to people, or material things, or institutions, or even congregations—when a person has to relinquish the beloved Other to the future. A person has to trust in the ultimate progression of all human life toward the kingdom we have been promised.
San, from the pulpit:
Well said, Jan! What now is there left to say? Only this: We are absolutely convinced that neither death, nor life, not things present, nor things to come, not pastoral changes, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
So now truly there is only one more thing to say.