My Final Sermon as an ELCA Pastor

[This is what I preached this morning at Messiah Lutheran Church in Amherst, NH, where I’ve been covering a sabbatical throughout the month of June. I’m grateful to the people of Messiah for being so welcoming and accepting of me these past few weeks, and for bearing with me today as I broke down in the pulpit. I’m also grateful to the people of Trinity Lutheran Church in Chelmsford, MA, who trekked all the way up to New Hampshire to share this last Sunday with me.

Today’s texts were 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; and Luke 9:51-62.]

Several years ago, when we lived in New York State, my husband and I began to have a regular date night. Every week we ate at one of four or five different restaurants, then walked laps around the local mall until it closed, then sat in the café at Barnes and Noble until it closed. Every single week without exception. We believed we did it because there wasn’t much else to do in that part of New York State, and we couldn’t wait to get back to the Boston area where we’d have more options.

And eventually we did get back to the Boston area, and we did have more options. And now every date night, we eat at one of five or six different restaurants, walk laps around whichever one of three malls is closest to that evening’s restaurant of choice, and then sit in the café at whichever Barnes and Noble is closest to that mall.

Only now we have to change things up a bit, because all three Barnes and Nobles changed their hours to close an hour earlier, and we have no idea what we’re going to do now in that hour between the mall closing and the babysitter expecting us home.

See, I hate change. I like routine and predictability, and I go out of my way to cultivate those things in my life.

Unfortunately there’s a great deal in my life that’s beyond my control, and I have to deal with changes I don’t want and don’t like regardless of how I feel about them.

Seventeen years ago I worked in government finance at Hanscom Air Force base, until I ran afoul of some politics and ended up unexpectedly out of a job. Three days later I had a chance meeting with the Dean of Admissions at Boston University School of Theology, who, after talking with me for ten minutes, offered me a full merit scholarship plus a small stipend for attending their MDiv program. I certainly hadn’t been looking for that kind of change, I certainly didn’t want that kind of change, but there it was.

I guess I felt a little like Elisha must have felt in today’s first reading. Elisha’s just doing his work, minding his own business, when out of nowhere this prophet shows up, throws his mantle on him, and keeps walking, expecting Elisha to follow. Elisha does follow, asking for permission to go home and say farewell to his parents before his leaves. Elijah grants him that permission, perhaps realizing what he was demanding and saying—I like to think with a twinge of guilt—“What have I done to you?”

We don’t know anything about Elijah’s life before he became a prophet. We first meet him at the beginning of First Kings chapter seventeen, and there he’s already a prophet, telling Ahab some bad news and then running for his life. This sort of thing was normal for Elijah, but not for Elisha. Elisha was probably from a fairly wealthy family, considering he had twelve yoke of oxen to work with. Given what he was used to, it’s pretty remarkable that he didn’t hesitate to give it all up and serve Elijah, except to ask to say goodbye to all that was familiar to him. I can’t say I accepted my call as easily. I came up with a thousand reasons why I couldn’t possibly accept that scholarship and go into ministry, but God cut through every one of them and I ended up going anyway, pretty much against my will.

Over time I learned to accept all the changes that seminary and ministry brought. I learned to accept my new normal, and I acclimated to it. This was clearly what God wanted me to be doing, so I figured I may as well do it as best I could.

Except it never really worked out. My first call was a disaster, working with a senior pastor who neither liked nor respected me. (To be honest, the feeling was mutual.) I left after a little less than two years. After that I had a pretty good experience as a transitional pastor, which would have turned into a regular call were it not for the fact that I got engaged while serving there, and the geography just wouldn’t work out with my husband’s job. From there I had an excellent experience serving as interim pastor, and I was sorry when they called a new pastor because I really wanted to stay. But that’s not the way it works.

My next call—let’s just say that one went worse than my first. And I was convinced that I had been wrong. I wasn’t supposed to be in ministry after all.

Except I couldn’t leave. Even though I didn’t want to serve anymore, I kept getting asked to do pulpit supply, or cover sabbaticals or family leaves. I kept getting asked to be chaplain at various retreats at Calumet, and I kept getting positive feedback for what I was doing. And I thought, OK, maybe I have found my calling. Maybe I’m not cut out for sustained parish ministry, but I am called to do short-term respite ministry. There’s certainly a need for that kind of thing, and maybe I’m called to fulfill that need.

And over time—a long time—several years—I finally embraced that as my pastoral identity.

Except respite ministry is not a recognized call in the ELCA, and I’ve overstayed my welcome.

I got pulled into ministry against my will, and now I’m leaving ministry against my will. June 27th, 2010, was the last day of my last call. On June 27th, 2016, tomorrow, I will have exhausted the time I can remain on the roster without a call, and I will be removed. Beginning next Sunday, I will no longer be eligible to stand up here and do what I’m doing today.

I’m not preaching on Paul’s letter to the Galatians today because I stand convicted by it. I’m a little short on things like joy, peace, and patience right now, but I’ve got plenty of strife, anger, quarrels, and dissention. And I’m hesitant to preach on the gospel because I kind of feel for James and John. They wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume those who would not accept the ministry they’d abandoned everything to support. I get that. I really, really get that.

But God’s Word is there to convict, to instruct, and to console.

There were a couple of articles in the June 8th issue of The Christian Century that really helped bring things home for me. One of them was a reflection on today’s gospel lesson, and the author talked about how sometimes what we perceive as rejection is really a path being cleared to the purposed destination. She states, “There is wisdom in knowing when your mission in a place is over, when it’s time to move on.” She acknowledges that life circumstances can bring us out of focus and off our purpose, just as James and John forgot that Jesus had sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and heal the sick, not call down fire from heaven to consume villages. And we have to constantly ask ourselves, “Is our direction in line with God’s purpose for our lives, our assignment for these times? How can we recalibrate, get back on course? Where is God calling us to set our faces?”

I don’t have the answer to any of those questions right now, but there was another article in that issue that gives me a little help. That article was called, “Why I Left the Ordination Process.” The author wrote about her experience being called to the Episcopal priesthood, only to discover partway through the process that she actually wasn’t. At first she ignored her doubts and stubbornly doubled-down, but God made it clear to her that he was not calling her to set her face toward ordained ministry. While she was drawn to the mysteries priests proclaim and to the realities of priestly ministry, she knew that her husband hated the idea of being married to a priest, with all the moving and uncertainty that would entail. She knew that the hours and stress involved in her job as a lay minister were negatively impacting her health and her relationship with her children. She knew that some of the priests she encountered had been wonderful public leaders but were barely functioning in their private lives. She eventually realized that Jesus says, “Follow me,” not “Follow me into one specific overarching vocational destiny,” and she dropped out of the process.

I don’t know if I ignored such warnings during my process, or if I was just called to ministry for a time and now it’s time to move on to something else. I think it’s the latter. I hope it’s the latter. That’s what I’m going with, anyway. Because the thing about cultivating routine and predictability in your life is, the rest of the world doesn’t care about your routine and expectations. The world changes, whether we like it or not. The political process in this country has changed significantly in the past fifty years, to the point that the rules of engagement and public discourse have changed beyond recognition. The United Kingdom just voted to leave the European Union, and world politics and economies are changing in response, even though no one knows what this is going to look like or what they should be changing into. Every time we acclimate to what’s going on in our world and in our lives and set our course, something in our world and in our lives changes, and we have to recalibrate and get back on course.

After Jesus rebukes James and John, someone comes up to Jesus and tells him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus responds by saying, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” I always thought that was a warning. But now I see it as a promise. Fox holes can be filled. Nests can be destroyed. Foxes and birds can be displaced. But the Son of Man is not dependent on worldly circumstances. No matter what changes in the world or in our lives, God in Christ will remain, inviting us into his grace and mercy. My life is not what it was ten years ago or seventeen years ago or thirty-five years ago. This country is not what it was fifty years ago or a hundred and fifty years ago or three hundred years ago. Jerusalem is not what it was five hundred years ago or a thousand years ago or two thousand years ago. But Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. If we’re on the wrong path he’ll guide us to the right one, and he’ll guide us again when that path changes, because at some point, you can be sure it will change.

Everywhere I look I see problems. I don’t know what the world’s going to look like next year, and I don’t know what my life is going to look like in three months, and I don’t know how to respond to any of that. But there is one problem I can solve. I can figure out what my husband and I are going to do after the mall closes, now that Barnes and Noble is no longer an option.

Amen.

Comments

My Final Sermon as an ELCA Pastor — 1 Comment

  1. I am glad you chose to share the story of your leaving. It is important for people to know what is happening. Sometimes humans make the biggest muddle out of trying to do things right. The need for rules should not supersede logic or common sense. Below is what I posted in response to your FB post/sermon.
    So glad I was there to hear this in person. This sermon was painful, powerful and, oddly, unexpectedly~ very uplifting.
    I am not you. I cannot wrap my brain around what must be going through your head. What is going through my head is not pretty. I am sad, mad and confused. I am not feeling overly fond of church bureaucracy. It was so, so powerful (I need a thesaurus!) for you to stand there, relate what is happening, pause to compose yourself and then calmly remind us what we were supposed to be focusing on. You quoted an author from an issue of The Christian Century “… And we have to constantly ask ourselves, “Is our direction in line with God’s purpose for our lives, our assignment for these times? How can we recalibrate, get back on course? Where is God calling us to set our faces?”
    Watching you hold on to this thought, speak with grace and composure (yes, composure) despite extreme adversity was a gift. I walked into church filled with bitter thoughts. By the end of the sermon I found myself feeling a renewal of faith, a refocusing on what Faith is truly about. THIS is what ministry is about. Not just speaking about faith but being a living example that Christianity practiced by humans is sometimes difficult, baffling, painful, messy, and illogical, BUT no matter what human stupidity puts in our way- Christ is the center point. God is our rock and our guide.
    I am sad for the circumstance but for me it was an indelible reminder to not lose sight of the important questions… “Is our direction in line with God’s purpose for our lives, our assignment for these times? How can we recalibrate, get back on course? Where is God calling us to set our faces?”
    God’s blessings!