Sunday, October 4, 2009

Your Pastor's Witness

Sermon for 10.4.09
Genesis 32:24-28; Psalm 139:1-12; Hebrews 12:1-2, 12; Luke 12:22-31

Please pray with me: “O Lord, you have searched us and known us. You know when we sit down and when we rise up; you discern our thoughts from far away.” Amen.

From today’s Epistle: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith….”

When my grandmother was twelve, she asked her father, a physician, for a dissecting kit for her birthday. He replied—tough old Presbyterian that he was—that she could have one if she perfectly dissected a robin. She did, and so he did. She went on to a remarkable witness: a practicing physician, wife and mother of five children, and my dear grandma. But she followed a specific and early call, and that was to become a doctor at a time when few women were able to do so.

I, too, had an early and specific call, though I didn’t share it with anyone. It was a kind of inner light that I held within me for years. The wonder to me is the way in which God has brought this call to birth and growing fruition, even though I seemed to have buried it.

When I was still in elementary school, I remember putting myself to sleep at night after prayers with my mother, by imagining that I was in a pulpit preaching. There I was in that pulpit, telling the people all about Easter and Christmas! That I did so seems unusual to me since I did not attend a traditional Christian church and had been in such churches only a few times. I know I loved going and longed to go more often.

My mother, a deeply spiritual woman, could not accept the harshness of the theology of the Presbyterian church of her childhood and had been seeking a more mystical and loving path. I remember her telling me about Saint Francis and the witness of relatives when I was quite small. She honored the daily prayers and Bible study that she had learned from her grandparents and parents and taught me to begin each morning in that way. One of her favorite memories was of her grandmother, who was actually in physical pain most of her life. My mother would wait outside the bedroom where her grandmother went to pray. She emerged, Mother said, looking like an angel. My mother eventually became a Christian Scientist and I went to church with her, although I always struggled with the basic beliefs of that church. By my mother and my Sunday School teacher, however, I was given an unfailing sense of God’s love and a knowledge of the Bible. Both have supported and directed my life.

When my father had to flee his native Ukraine during the Russian Revolution, he also left the Orthodox Church of his childhood. I know the church was precious to him because of stories he told me. But once in his new country, he turned to nature and the out of doors for his sense of God and of the holy. This was one of his great gifts to me. I have wonderful memories of being in his garden with him when we lived in rural New Jersey, of walking, and of flying over the fields with a horse borrowed from neighbors.

Once I left home for college, I was free to look for a church on my own. My extended family had sent a number of faith missionaries to the Far East and others were Presbyterian or Episcopalian. I spent many weekends in Connecticut with cousins whose lives centered around their Episcopal church. They always invited me to come. Sometimes—if I slept in—I would hear their voices drifting into my window as they came walking back from church, and I was nurtured by the calm, kindness, and steadiness that they carried with them. I truly felt that I was beginning a new life when I asked them how I could be baptized. A year later, I was confirmed and joined their church.

I remembered my early dreams of preaching and being a church leader, but in the 1960s, there were no women priests in the Episcopal Church. I became a teacher and loved sharing what I knew with my students and mentoring them. It wasn’t until I had taught in a shelter and then in two inner-city districts, that I knew I needed a fuller way to serve the spiritual life of my students. I was pushed in my search by the witness of my African-American colleagues. It’s wonderful how such things work: I was standing by the door after the students had left one day, looking I’m sure, as though I’d been hit over the head by a log, and one of the other teachers simply came up and said, “Jesus loves you.” Next thing I knew, I was invited to early morning prayer meetings. These are not mentioned during teacher training, but they must go on all over the country. When you’re there, you know that everyone in the system needs God’s help. I was also struck by how powerful these times were, even though our prayer styles were so different. I surrounded my students with the light of Christ; they covered the students with the blood of the Lamb. We were all inviting God to be with us.

Then an enrichment course offered to public school teachers by Yale University led to my working with a professor who sometimes taught at the Divinity school. When she handed back my project, she told me that she would help if ever I should want to do more graduate work. For the first time, it occurred to me that it might now be possible for me to attend seminary.

But something else happened as well. Shortly before I began teaching in New Haven, I became the sole bread-winner for the household; I felt overwhelmed and frightened. I was tired, money was short, and I seemed to have lost my spiritual direction. On Christmas Eve, I decided there was no sense in going to church. It was bitterly cold and I was anxious to get the animals into the sheds and fed as quickly as possible and go back into the house to huddle by my own fire. Then I realized that my smallest sheep was missing. Turning around, I saw her against the snow. Suddenly she was more than a little grey rescue. Her poise and sweetness spoke to me of the Lamb of God. This was perhaps my first real experience of the risen Christ, but given to me so gently, on the eve of Jesus’ coming to be with us. As Lissa trotted into the warm shed to join the others, I realized that there was a place of warmth and community for me too. I quickly went inside, changed, and was just in time for a service a few minutes from my house.

But the Holy Spirit wasn’t stopping there. Once I began teaching in New Haven, I was awakened on at least two nights, perhaps a month apart, by hearing my name called. So clear was the voice that I jumped out of bed to see if anyone in the house was in trouble. Since everyone was snoring away, I went back to bed and prayed to know why I had been awakened. On a third occasion, I was awakened by my own voice saying so clearly that I can still hear it, “I must preach God’s creation.” And once more, my experiences crystallized through the witness of others. This time it was the women in a small squatter’s village in Honduras. When a group from my church visited, I was awed and humbled by the way the women prayed for the hearts and souls of us rich Anglos.

What followed was my rejection for ordination, on the basis of age, by the Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut and several years of struggle and prayer in which I begged God to help me reshape my life and lift the burden of failure and worthlessness. I could not dismiss the call I had been hearing and the love and purpose I had been experiencing in my classes at Divinity School and in my internships in several Episcopal churches.

It never occurred to me to jump ship and change denominations, but it had occurred to God! Gradually I began realizing that the Methodist Church had already touched my life. I had always been attracted to John Wesley and felt that I would had to have followed him had I lived in his time. I owned a little cottage in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, on the Methodist Camp-Meeting Grounds for some twenty years, often spending most of the summer. Central to those summers was the community life that centered around the Tabernacle with its services and hymn sings. My ministry of bringing my farm animals to Advent Pageants brought me into two outstanding Methodist churches. In each case, I was impressed that these big churches were not producing lavish Christmas shows but offering the Good News of Jesus through outdoor events to the community. At Yale, meanwhile, I began to work at the Ministry Resource Center, under the direction of an outstanding Methodist married to the then District Superintendant.

Finally, when I had a liturgy project for school, I decided to attend several Methodist churches. In them, I felt fully at worship. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I saw a posting for a job as Youth Director at Katonah United Methodist Church, called and was hired. I joined the Methodist Church several months later. Only later did I remember that years ago my dad had been brought to this country by a Methodist group. He always spoke with gratitude of “the Methodists” as having been responsible for his coming here and being my dad.

After a year and a half in which I built a Youth Group at Katonah, I wanted time to worship from the pew. I joined my local Methodist Church and actually listened when the pastor urged me to write to the Bishop. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I received a phone call from Jim Moore on Memorial Day, inviting me to interview here! This church is an inspiration and a joy, with so many possibilities for growth and fuller community engagement. Your witness is the latest in such a wonderful series of gifts. There may well be some differences ahead, but with the help of the Holy Spirit and of you, we’ve gotten off to a solid start.

Note the “we.” This sermon of Witness has not been only about me. It’s been about the active faith, the doing, of my people, of my colleagues, of women met briefly in Honduras—and about you. These continuing threads that we weave together are formative lifelines, Witness in the fullest sense for us all. And we’re not in it alone. I hope you’ve heard my awe at the way in which Christ, our sustainer, is always at work among us.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, Thank you for being with us on our journeys, even when we think we can’t see you. Be with us here, now, as we begin another part of our journey. Help us find marvelous opportunities for learning, leading, and serving together. Continue to startle us with your love! AMEN.

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