The past month has been incredibly hectic. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I am starting a new call. December was busier as I tried to get everything in order before I had finished as pastor. As if getting ready for Christmas wasn't enough, I also was making sure the parish record was in order and all that sort of stuff. Then there were the people who really wanted me to do one or another pastoral task before I left...
So during December, I had three baptisms and five First Communions... not to mention two memorial services. Granted those folks didn't arrange this task with me when I announced I was leaving... but it was just extra stuff. At any rate, I do not think I have had such a cramped month in my eight plus years serving St. Paul.
There was a part of me that wondered if I was doing something wrong by acquiescing to these requests. After all, there was no need to rush. A perfectly competent pastor would be serving as an interim after I left. There was nothing special about me doing it. Performing the baptisms or instructing the First Communicants did not require me. There was a part of me that worried about creating inappropriate expectations about pastors.
But then my last Sunday came. That Sunday was Christmas day. I was emotional from the get-go. I climbed into the pulpit to set up my recorder and manuscript. As I went up the steps, I realized that this day was the last day I would climb into the pulpit as pastor. During the announcements, when I asked the small crowd to bear with me if I got emotional, I teared up. Once the liturgy got going I was fine. While there are many who decry the liturgy, I find great comfort in it. This day the familiarity acted like a friend walking with me through grief. I didn't shed one tear as I preached and we sang and prayed together. Until we came to the Eucharist, of course. There I saw the families whom I would not commune again as pastor. I would not stand again behind that rail to proclaim gracious gospel words "The Body of Christ given for you." When it came time for me to commune with the worship assistant and acolytes, tears could not be held back any longer. I sobbed.
Body and blood met me graciously. I wanted to do nothing but cling to them as long as I could, knowing the service would all too soon after that meal. And at some point my mind, in its emotional state, made a connection between the incarnation and ministry. God the Father didn't just use an ephemeral spirit when humanity needed saving. God sent Jesus to dwell in flesh, to live with us as one of us. God doesn't use some disembodied persona to serve congregations either. As imperfect as we are, pastors are flesh and blood creatures who form deep and abiding relationships with the people in our congregations.
Pastoral ministry is inherently incarnational. The people whom I served wanted me to do those last few pastoral tasks not because I was somehow special. They wanted me to do those tasks, baptizing and communing them because I was a particular embodiment of the gospel for them. I was the one they had to come to know who spoke the gospel. It was not mere sentimentality that had them wanting me to do these things before I left. The pastor builds a relationship with the people over the years of service, and this relationship is rooted in the relationship that Christ forms with us in the incarnation.
While it was a challenge for me, and no service would have been easy as my last, I found that Christmas was an incredibly appropriate day as my last. I am thankful for my time at St. Paul and the relationships we shared there. I am also thankful for the relationship begun in and by Christ that is an embodied relationship because he was incarnate.