The Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister and Director of Administration, the Memorial Church. File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
By the Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan
Associate Minister and Director of Administration
The Memorial Church
(The following is a transcript of the service audio)
Will you pray with me?
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight, O' God, our rock and redeemer. Amen.
This week, the Yard has come alive with preparations for Harvard's first commencement in three years. Poles, caution tape, elevated platforms are scattered throughout Tercentenary Theater in anticipation of over 32,000 people who will gather there in less than two weeks. And although this scene is a familiar one in the life of our community and this university, I am sensing a dampness to the celebratory atmosphere this year. Commencement is supposed to be a time of festivity and revelry, yet this year, grief and melancholy also accompany it.
As writer Kate Bowler shared, plans are made. Plans come apart. New delight or tragedies pop up in their place. And nothing human or divine will map this out. This life is more painful than I could have imagined. This life is more beautiful than I could have imagined. And for many of us, we are just so acutely aware of the things that we are missing this commencement. Aware of family members who are no longer with us and will not see us walk across that stage. Friends who started out together are no longer graduating with one another. And another reason I suspect is that we know how difficult it is to say goodbye to one another.
Goodbyes are tough. There's no way around it. Especially if our plans have changed and our parting might not look like the one that we have dreamed of. So it is not at all surprising that so many of us are uncomfortable in moments like these. So often we stumble through them or dodge them all together. Some of us may try the avoidance tactic. We just simply pretend it's not happening. Perhaps we say to ourselves, I don't even know what to say. Where do I even begin? What words can provide comfort or capture all that I'm feeling right now?
And then the parting goes unacknowledged, either with our words or in our hearts. Other of us try to escape the finalities of goodbyes by making false promises. I'm sure we'll stay in touch. We'll have a chance to talk again before you leave. We'll see each other again, soon. Yet in our heart of hearts, we know that none of this might be true, But we say it anyway. Social media makes it even easier to pretend that we know the true intimacies of one another's lives. And sometimes we are so uncomfortable with saying goodbye that we redirect our emotions and divert our attention by getting angry or picking a fight or withdrawing entirely.
It's easier to create an excuse then address the underlying grief. And there is a particular feeling of grief that comes when we are the ones being left. It stirs up insecurities about our sense of self and our worth. Are we enough? We may doubt that we will have the right words. And if we do find the right words, that can be difficult too. Because once our parting is acknowledged, our separation can't be ignored/ To offer words is to make the painful reality all the more real. To say goodbye is to close a chapter. To be sure there will be other chapters ahead, but not this chapter.
And in the moments of our parting, we encounter not just the limits of relationship, but the limitations of ourselves. We cannot be both here and there. We cannot stop time. We cannot be with all of the people that we care about and love. And we cannot write that new chapter without turning the page first. We confront the limitation of our humanity, how fragmentary and incomplete we are, how fragmentary and incomplete our relationships are. Someday, we'll get together. Someday, we will finally go for that walk and I will tell you everything that's been going on in my life.
Someday I'll tell you all that you have meant to me. Yet, as we have all too intimately learned during our time apart this pandemic often that sometime someday doesn't come. Goodbyes always seem premature even in the fullest of lives and the richest of relationships. Those two are fragmentary and incomplete. In contrast, many of the partings in the Bible are tender and lingered over. They also are marked by unwavering honesty and without a trace of denial. Jesus for one did not avoid the pain of parting by merely slipping away. In fact, the final third of John's gospel consists of Jesus' parting words to his disciples. In our gospel lesson for today, read beautifully by Anna, we find Jesus at the Last Supper with his disciples. Judas is gone. Jesus knows what that means. The others do not. Jesus knows that he's about to be betrayed.
This is his last opportunity to say what he wants to his friends. And he does not use his last few minutes trying to escape or cast blame or speak words of anger or revenge. Instead, he says, "I am with you for only a little longer. Where I am going, you cannot come. I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. So you should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
Well, it doesn't get much simpler than that. With his imminent departure, Jesus forgoes his usual parables and forgets the paradoxes. Instead, he goes right to the heart of the matter. "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." Jesus made it easy for us. Yet, we find so many ways to complicate it. New Testament Scholar D.A. Carson offered, "The new commandment is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, but profound enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend and put it into practice." Another way to translate the commandment from the Greek is "I have loved you in order that you also love one another."
We show Christ's love for us in how we love one another. And I believe a way that we can demonstrate our love is to say goodbye well. Christ calls us to love one another and that includes in our parting of ways. It is a loving act to say goodbye, even if imperfectly. Palliative care and hospice doctor, Ira Byock shares that there are four sentences, 11 words that dying people long to hear and say to those that they love. "Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you."
We don't need new words. In fact, we can trust many of the words that we have heard our entire lives. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you. These are important and powerful things to say. They still hold value. There's a reason why we turn to them again and again. And as we part, it is not in time for ambitious speech. It comes down to the fundamentals. A matriarch of my home church once put it this way. When the end is near, there is no time to waste on anything, but the truth. Over and over again in scripture, we read of people who imparting remind one another of the promises of God. And what other ways are we to part lovingly? How else can we leave those we care about unless we entrust them to the love of God? That is after all what the word goodbye means. God be with you.
This single word is a prayer and sharing it is an act of love. God be with you as I can no longer be with you. God be with you as you are about to turn the page and write that next chapter. God be with you because if God is with you and if God is with me, somehow we are still together. God be with you because though we have limited ways of expressing care for one another, we are still in need of care. All of us. Indeed, there may be no way to part from those we love without either kidding ourselves or being drawn into the shadow of despair, unless we say goodbye, God be with you.