The real frustration with goodbyes is that they emphasize how finite our lives are: that we are bound by limits we often don’t like. No matter when we say goodbye, we’ll always sense there was more to be said and done, more life that could be have been lived together. There were conversations that never happened. There was healing that needed to occur, but time ran out; there were plans to do things with one another, but then it was time to say goodbye.
Our Scriptures today are filled with moments of goodbye. St. Paul is constantly moving from place to place—launching a new church, staying for a year or two, and then moving on to the next place. In today’s New Testament lesson we’ve overheard him in one of his letters to the church he had founded in Corinth. Different leaders have different roles, Paul says. “I planted, Apollos watered”—leaders have different roles for different moments—but here’s the key: “God gave the growth.” Leaders shift and change, but what doesn’t change is God’s energy and life at the center, guiding and sustaining them in their life together.
But it is the story of the last moments of Moses’ life we heard in the Old Testament lesson that I have always found especially moving. Moses had led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and after escaping through the Red Sea they had wandered for forty years in the wilderness in search of the Promised Land. They arrive at last on the border, ready to claim their new home, and Moses pauses to deliver a long, long sermon—at 34 chapters’ worth, the longest recorded goodbye in the Bible—reminding them of the God who had set them free and had called them into a new life.
Moses is now near death, and he comes to Mt. Nebo, a craggy overlook from which he can see in every direction and can feast his eyes on the land they have looked forward to for so long. But here’s the tragedy: God has told him that this is as far as he will go, that he will not be allowed to go into the Promised Land himself. He will not live to see the fulfillment of the work of his lifetime. “I have let you see it with your eyes,” God says, “but you shall not go there.” Moses has given everything he had for 40 years, all the skill and creativity he could muster. But this is where his work ends, and it is on Mt. Nebo that he dies and is buried.
For Moses, it is the end. But the community, the people of Israel, will go on. They will enter the Promised Land; and as always they will find there both the delight and success they dreamed of, and also the peril and failure that come with being human. And as always, God will go with them, sustaining them, leading them toward the vision of what they are meant to be. The fact is that Moses was given the only gift that really mattered: being called by God to lead his people some major steps along the way, laying foundations so that they could continue to move forward.
All of us will die without having completed what we had hoped or intended. The goodbyes always intrude before the quest is completed. All contributions are partial. But we each have parts to play. In our work, in our families, in business and politics, in works of art and great scientific achievements, we are always part of grand endeavors that began long before we arrived on the stage and will continue going long after we have exited, and this is part of why I have for so many years loved cathedrals in general and this one in particular. No one can name the designers and builders of Chartres or Salisbury. What makes Canterbury and Westminster Abbey such immense achievements is not simply their graceful, soaring beauty but also the extraordinary fact that generations of people gave their lives to create them as links in a human chain, collaborators in the great quest called “cathedral.” We all give our lives, with all their seasons and phases, to intergenerational tasks far beyond what we can contribute in our own small handfuls of years.
Part of what has inspired me in my years here has been the profound devotion by Bishop Satterlee in launching a National Cathedral he would never actually see. Although he “saw” it vividly in the book he wrote seven years before the first stone was laid, envisioning a cathedral for the nation, Bishop Satterlee died only months after the laying of the cornerstone. Nevertheless, he had had his Mt. Nebo moment, just like Moses—and we stand in the long line of those who have traveled on after him. We are here this morning, yes even in this handsome NCS field house, because of stonemasons and volunteers, deans and bishops, and countless volunteers, giving of themselves unstintingly in this cathedral project that will always remain incomplete.
And so here I stand on a Mt. Nebo of a sort. My season in the Cathedral quest has come to an end, and I’d like to close by offering a few glimpses of what I see:
I see our luminous and holy Cathedral claiming its full vocation as the nation’s spiritual home: a place of pilgrimage, reflection, and worship. I see the holy community we call the Congregation growing in the depth and clarity of its calling as its life of prayer deepens, its eagerness to share the Gospel takes its members in new directions, and its passion for serving in our city and the world continues to expand.
I see this Cathedral continuing to be rooted in its life in Christ, and also eager to be a Cathedral for everyone; if I look really hard, I seem to glimpse an interfaith chapel with the signs of all the great religions here within this Cathedral’s walls. If you think of our cross-shaped cathedral as embodying Christ’s wide-open arms, aren’t those arms big enough to honor and welcome God’s faithful from all the great traditions?
I see a radiantly beautiful building restored after the ravages of this year’s earthquake, as years of patient work and generous gifts one day return the Cathedral to its full grace and beauty.
I see a Cathedral that is at last finding its financial footing as the patient, determined work of building a solid financial foundation continues.
I see a Cathedral where the struggling of our world know they have a friend. I see a Cathedral that has taken up the cause of the desecration of the earth and is known as a leader in protecting this vulnerable nesting place of the human race.
I see a Cathedral community that cherishes its building—that extravagant act of adoration and devotion—but knows that the Cathedral is above all a cause, a spaciousness in the heart: an awareness that there is a cathedral-sized space, inside every human being, where God dwells.
“Goodbye,” you know, actually means “God be with you, God go with you.” And that is finally what I have to say to you today. Go forth in God. There is much to see in the distance, so much for this community to explore: a great mission for the healing of our world and the spreading of Christ’s love has been entrusted to you and to this place. I am deeply, deeply grateful to have traveled this stretch of the way with you. You will stay in my heart and in my prayers.