Sermon 3-26-2017; Thank You
What would you say? What would you preach? What would you share if you were called into the ministry? If you were asked to step in to the ministry of the Gospel among Friends? Last week, we spoke about stepping out – in faith. But what about stepping in? What choices would you make?
I was caught off-guard, unaware, unknowing of my call into ministry while packing up and moving out into the unknown thirteen years ago, when God called me on the phone and asked me to consider having my name added to a list of pastoral candidates for a small Quaker Meeting in Iowa, where Jon and I had attended years before. (There are persons sitting in this room today who may one day be called to serve as your pastors.)
What would you say? If you had no training, no schooling, no seminary degree, nothing but a lot of experience in different faith communities and worship settings, and staff positions as a music minister? Nothing more than a deep love for people, a deeper love for the Quaker expression of who God is, and an even deeper love for Christ? Perhaps, after a lot of excuses, you would say what I said: “I have no idea what God intends, but instead of saying ‘no’, I’ll let God answer this one. Put me on the list.”
For the past twelve years, I’ve been stepping in, every day, to a strange and wonderful adventure, going deeper into myself, and my relationship with God. I have stepped in to places I never thought I would be, and wouldn’t have gone without God. I haven’t always wanted to go. I’ve been frightened. I’ve been overwhelmed. I’ve been ignorant. I’ve been naïve. I’ve had to face down my own shortcomings, and they’ve sometimes seemed very tall! And I’ve had to confront other peoples’ shortcomings, and count the cost. In other words, I’ve had to live my life, just like you do, stepping in.
Whether we move out or in, I believe God asks us an all important question… will we take a step? Or will we remain where we are, unwilling to risk, unwilling to change, unwilling to learn anything new, making excuses for ourselves, hiding behind God and what we believe about God instead of experiencing God for ourselves?
Thank you Lord, for calling me out and in. For making it clear to me, as I walked each morning during the autumn of 2004, that you were calling me to West Branch Friends.
Thank you, West Branch Friends, for moving me forward in securing my Recording as a Minister of the Gospel according to Friends, and for doing what you do so well – training new pastors at the very beginning of their journey in ministry. For nurturing me, challenging me, strengthening me, and helping me form the chrysalis from which the remainder of my ministry could emerge.
Thank you, First Friends Meeting, for forcing me to move in, and then out, by asking me to come as your Pastor. It would have been much easier for me to stay at a Meeting that I had served well, but had outgrown. The cocoon could have hardened there into a safe and secure shell, had it not been for you. Thank you friends, for partnering with me in the Gospel, which is the power of the Holy Spirit made real in our lives together. You have been loving and generous to me, allowing me the space I’ve needed to use my gifts, and to try and sometimes fail. You’ve been patient with me, learning that I process through ideas and decisions by talking about them – not by quietly pondering. (That seems so ponderous!) You’ve let me be goofy, but understood me when I was dead serious. You’ve allowed me, as did West Branch, to move into very private places in your lives and hearts, and to share in beautiful celebrations with our entire community of faith.
The first person who ever told me about you was my friend, Brent Bill. He’d become a great friend and resource to me as I pastored in Iowa, speaking at Meeting, leading retreats, etc. But FUM Triennials can be dangerous – that’s where Brent found me in 2011, and told me about this Meeting, and this pastorate! (I dare you to come to Wichita with me for Triennial in July!) I eventually sent in my resume.
Before you knew it, three strange women… or, I should say, three interesting visitors from Indiana, showed up in Meeting for Worship in Iowa: Brenda Rodeheffer, Mary Blackburn, and Beth Henricks. It was kinda hard to hide them, in a congregation of about 40 people, but they managed to pull it off! But then, I’ve learned that those three women can do just about anything!
During my ‘candidacy’ process, First Friends was speaking to many different people – gathering references, information, etc. And so was I. One person I will never forget was someone I have never met. His name was Curt Shaw. I knew he had been a significant part of the life of Western Yearly Meeting and First Friends, and I wanted to get his perspective about coming into both as a pastor. He not only gave me information, facts, etc… he pastored me while we spoke. And, he prayed for me before we ended the conversation. Something I was used to doing for others, Curt did for me. The most significant thing he told me was that, regardless of the choice I made, Christ would bless my life. Whether I stayed in Iowa or moved to Indiana, my life would be blessed. Why? Because I belonged to God.
Another person who matters a lot to all of us today is Lisa Baum. You don’t know her, but she’s one of the main reasons I’m here. Lisa is a member of West Branch Friends, who cares deeply about the success of the Meeting, but equally about the success of each of its members. She’s an incredible person, a joyful woman who can afford to live on the outer edges because she lives such a deeply centered life. In those few days after I’d been offered the position here as pastor, I called Lisa and asked her to come and talk with Jon and me. I told her what was up, and asked her for her advice. Her first question was whether Jon was supportive. Once she knew that, she told me I had to take it… and she gave me all the reasons why. Sometimes we are called to step in to other people’s lives so that they can step out into their own. That is what Lisa did for me, and I will always be grateful.
Thank you Jon, for loving me enough to encourage me to send in my resume, even when neither one of us thought I’d ever get the job. When it seemed impossible, you still encouraged me to try, and when the offer came, you told me we’d work it out… and we did. You’ve made it possible for me to live here, with you in Iowa, traveling almost every weekend to Indianapolis for five years. And when things were difficult in the Meeting or in our relationship, you always told me not to worry, that everything would be okay – and you were right. God has been so good to us.
Do you realize that I’m your first woman pastor? I mean, your first paid pastor – senior pastor – regular pastor? Whether intentional or not, you made a significant choice when you brought me here five years ago. Many incredible women have served First Friends in ministry in paid positions as Christian educators and associate pastors, Gale Stutz, Kara Farris, Kathy Harris, Beth Henricks… but the Meeting had never had a salaried senior pastor who was a woman. I’m thankful that the long line of men who proceeded me has been interrupted, and that the testimony of equality of women is borne out on the inside back cover of our Directory! Or at least, the nearest page!
Speaking of women in ministry… thank you Beth. Beth’s brother calls us “The Dynamic Duo”, and my ministry has been just that… a pairing of my gifts with an incredible force of nature named Beth Henricks. Where would Laurel be without Hardy? Fred without Ginger? Hope without Crosby? Beth has been my hope, many times. Within two months of my arrival, the Christian Education Director quit. Now what were we going to do? Beth felt a certain call – to step up, and in to a new life of ministry for herself, for First Friends, and… for me. Beth has known how to take my energy and ideas and turn them into action. What was once ‘Affirmation’ [show notebooks] turned into ‘Affirmation’. In so many ways, my concerns and vision for our Meeting was met with possibility because of my partnership in ministry with Beth. She has taught me so much. Thank you Beth, and thank you First Friends, for seeking God and finding clarity in the choices you’ve made for staffing ministry positions at FFM.
I do not dare to list all those I have to give thanks for because I will miss you, and you, and you. Each person whose life has touched mine has changed it. You have stepped into mine and helped me step out into that moment, that day, my life in a new way. I sincerely thank you.
‘And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.’ We, as Friends, know that today is that day. That the kingdom of God is at hand… it is present, and we are called to do the good work of God that’s been begun today, and every day, through the power of the Holy Spirit. We like Fox, Burroughs, Mott, Whittier, Jones, Woolman, are called into the life of our culture, our politics, our society today. Ours is not an historic faith. We’re not Cereal Box Oddities. We are a people, continually called by the Holy Spirit, to be reckoned with. Christ calls us, in the presence of the assembled faith community, to proclaim good news to the poor – what would that be to a poor person? To proclaim liberty to captives – who are those being held captive? To recover sight to the blind – how many people do you know who are living in darkness? To set free those who are oppressed – do we even notice them any more? To proclaim the Lord’s favor – God’s loves for us all. Do you believe that God loves you?
In spite of fear, distance, worry, stepping in or out of the common, ordinary, safe, usual experience of our lives, God loves us more than we could ever love or care about ourselves. In spite of the disagreements we have with God, the ways in which we don’t understand God, the ways we’re not certain we can trust God, God loves us. God loves you. And if you can’t believe it, I will believe it for you, until you can. And if anyone asks you how you know that God loves you, you can tell them, ‘Ruthie said so.’ And if you wonder how I know, I will tell you that God told me so, and reminds me of it every day.
Thank you for loving God enough to allow me to come here and love you. Now, the best gift you can give me is to give the next pastor the space to share who he or she is, to allow them to be themselves among you, to earn their trust, and to give them the gift of your love. There’s nothing quite like it.
For Good; from ‘Wicked’ – Duet sung by Ruthie and Jon at close of Meeting
I've heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return.
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you...
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun,
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood,
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But, because I knew you -----
I have been changed for good.
It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You'll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend...
Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
Because I knew you
I have been changed for good
And just to clear the air
I ask forgiveness
For the things I've done you blame me for.
But then, I guess we know
There's blame to share
And none of it seems to matter anymore.
Like a comet pulled from orbit Like a ship blown from its mooring
As it passes the sun, By a wind off the sea,
Like a stream that meets a boulder Like a seed dropped by a skybird
Halfway through the wood, In the wood,
Who can say if I've been
Changed for the better?
I do believe I have been
Changed for the better
And because I knew you... (Because I knew you...)
Because I knew you...
I have been changed…
For / good...
Written by Stephen Lawrence Schwartz • Copyright © Universal Music Publishing Group