Swan Song

This is the manuscript of the last sermon I preached at Doylestown United Methodist Church, on June 10, 2018. If you prefer to listen rather than read, you can find this on the DUMC page on Facebook, under the June 10 date, as a live broadcast.

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Swan Song

The title of this sermon started out as a joke.  Pastor Mike schedules the sermon topics a couple of months ahead, so as far back as April we knew that today was my day in the pulpit.  We started talking about my last day in the pulpit, or my last Sunday, but when he announced that at a staff meeting, that kind of made it sound like I was dying.  Staff meetings here are pretty raucous occasions, and there was a lot of hooting and laughter at the announcement of my Last Sunday.  You have to say that in capital letters, right? Then we started kidding around about it being my swan song, and it kind of stuck.  I looked into the term, and I learned more about swans than I really wanted to know, but I also learned that the term is legitimately used in reference to retirement.

I hope by now that you’ve grown accustomed to my quirky sense of humor.  I don’t tell jokes like Pastor Mike does; I’m more the storyteller type.  I plan to keep things light today, because I don’t want this to turn into a sob-fest, okay?  But just in case, you know where to find the tissues, right?  Under the pew in front of you, either end of the row.  By the way, that was my idea – tissues in every pew.  You’re welcome.  Just make sure you take the used ones home with you, or I’ll never hear the end of it.  Our Office Manager Karen Aduba will track me down in Ecuador to complain that I encouraged you all to create a mess. And by the way, Karen, thank you for being my straight man all these years.

There are big changes ahead. You have probably heard the plans that my husband Craig and I have made.  We are leaving town on June 30th, for our Victory Tour of the east coast, then off to Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, Guatemala, Cuba, and Portugal. I think I can speak for Craig when I say that we are alternately feeling excitement, anxiety, euphoria, and trepidation.  Daily. Change is tough, isn’t it? Craig and I have made a deliberate decision to make these changes, to uproot our lives, but you, dear church folks, have had this change foisted upon you, and it’s hard to be forced to change when you may not want to.

I’ve been thinking about this sermon for a long time.  In fact, I’ve even written the whole thing in the middle of the night, in my head, a couple of times.  Of course, you know what happened to those sermons.  But the other night I forced myself to get up at 2 am and find a pen and paper, because I finally figured out where to go on this momentous occasion.  I’m going to talk about different scriptures that have come into my life at different times, and have been incredibly important to me.

Let’s start at the beginning. No, not my birth. When I was in seminary in the early 90’s, I had an eccentric friend named Russell.  Nowadays we would probably say Russell had Asperger’s, but in those days he was simply socially awkward and definitely different. When I was appointed to my first parish, he sent me a note of congratulations.  At least, I think it was congratulatory.  It contained a scripture from the apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 16. “A wide door for effective ministry has opened before me, and there are many adversaries.” Not but there are many adversaries – and there are many adversaries.  Like it’s a given in the life of a pastor.

Old Russell was right – there were a few adversaries during that time of ministry, and I learned a little something from each of them. I came to view the National Register of Historic Places as an enemy, because it turns your building into a golden calf, and refocuses the work of ministry into merely maintaining the structure.  In the parsonage, which was built in 1841, I ran afoul of mice in the dirt-floored basement and bats in the slate roofed attic.  I learned that if you ignore a steeple which holds a thousand pound bronze bell for a hundred and fifty years, that said steeple begins to peel right off the front of the church building.  I also learned that black bears really like salmon scraps, and that they will spread the contents of three garbage cans over the surface of several football fields to make sure they have sniffed out every last fish scale.  My church learned that it paid me a lot of money that week to clean up their garbage.

But it wasn’t all adversity, of course.  I came away from that church with wonderful memories, and my son met his wife in that little NJ town, when they were both in middle school.  Oh look, they’re both here today, with that precious little grandson they made just for me!

During my years in ministry in NJ, I used to cross paths with Leonard Sweet fairly often.  At the time he was the dean of Drew Seminary, a popular speaker, and he is still a prolific author.  Parenthetically, there are a few of his books up for grabs in my office, and you are encouraged to go in there after the service this morning and help yourselves to whatever looks interesting on the designated shelves.  You may not have my Bible and my hymnal, however.

Anyway, in one sermon, I heard Len Sweet preaching on the 23rd psalm.  “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” And here was his line of thought, which I completely resonate with. If God is the Good Shepherd, and the people are the sheep of his flock, then we in the ordained ministry are the sheepdogs.  Now that’s an analogy I can really get behind.  So whenever you’re tempted to wander away from the path, or to do something you know you ought not to do, just picture Pastor Mike and me nipping at your heels and herding you back in the right direction.

Perhaps you’ve heard me say that I have a love/hate relationship with the Apostle Paul.  I admire him greatly for his devotion to the Lord, for his prolific ministry and writings. After traveling this past fall to retrace some of his missionary journeys, I marvel at the man’s stamina in enduring shipwrecks, imprisonment, beatings, and eventually martyrdom.  By why oh why did he have to write that line about women keeping silent in the church?

1 Timothy 2:11-12 (NRSV)

11 Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.

You have no idea how often I have been beaten up with that line. Sometimes it is a sincere question, where the person is innocently asking me how I can be in ministry when it seems to be strictly forbidden.  Other times it’s said with venom, with an attitude of “how dare you presume…”

So, on behalf of clergywomen everywhere, let’s discuss this piece of scripture today. Then the next time you hear it, you can spring to the defense of female pastors with an informed discussion of this controversial scripture.

It’s important to remember that Paul’s restriction regarding women’s participation was written in the context of a personal letter to Timothy giving advice about a specific issue in the church at Ephesus.

There is no command from God here, and no suggestion that Paul intended to establish church policy for all time. There is no mention of this in the rest of Paul’s writings, or anywhere else in the Bible for that matter. So then, using this passage to restrict women in leadership requires elevating a few lines of scripture over the rest of Paul’s writing, not to mention the entire New Testament.

When you read all of Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts in one sitting, it is apparent that Paul supported the leadership of women. We see this in a number of churches, including Philippi, Thessalonica, and Rome. I don’t understand why some church leaders, theologians and church folks give such weight to this one sentence when many other portions of scripture support equality. And aside from Paul’s perspective, such a gag order upon all women contradicts the teaching of Jesus and the Kingdom of God values he ushered in.

Any questions? Now, let us never speak of this matter again.

As I mentioned before, I attended Princeton Theological Seminary in the early 90’s on a full scholarship, and graduated in 1995. Now, I have to tell you the truth about that statement.  It’s really good for my ego to toss around the Princeton name, but the seminary is not the same as the university.  At the time I attended, the seminary had a 400 million dollar endowment, so it could certainly afford to throw me a few thousand.  There were very few seminarians who actually paid tuition in those days, and I’m guessing that’s still pretty much the practice, unless someone in management has really bungled the investments.

I have often said that if one’s faith is not firmly in place upon entering seminary, one would graduate as a complete heathen.  Unfortunately, a lot of the course work focuses upon the historical background of scriptures rather than simply reading and understanding them.  Personally, it never helped much in my parish ministry to know that certain OT texts bear a resemblance to Babylonian creation myths, and that comparisons have been drawn to the Gilgamesh epic as well. This less than spiritually fulfilling course of study was fortunately balanced by my participation in the various seminary choirs. Hence, much of my memorized scripture is set to music.

One of my favorite pieces is the John Rutter arrangement of the 27th psalm. After all, the psalms are the hymnal of the early church. The Lord is my light and my salvation, King David wrote. Whom them shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life. Of whom then shall I be afraid?

When my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord taketh me up. Be strong, and he shall comfort thy heart. Put thou thy trust in the Lord.

Proverbs 27:9 says,

Sweet friendships refresh the soul and awaken our hearts with joy, for good friends are like the anointing oil that yields the fragrant incense of God’s presence.

I am so blessed that I am able to count so many of you as friends; as my brothers and sisters in Christ. I have had the privilege of meeting God’s people in the many circumstances of life, and it has been an honor and a privilege to be invited into your sacred moments of joys and sorrows.

One of the comforts in my leave-taking is the assurance that my work will continue, and that the Caring Ministries will be enhanced and expanded by my successor, Debbie Hudson Schultheiss.  When Deb first expressed interest in the position, I was so happy because I knew she would bring her experience, her deep love of the Lord, and her radiant nature to the ministry. Deb has been a member here for 11 years, but perhaps you don’t know her name. Here she is. As a bonus, you also get her wonderful husband Arthur, who has also been a member here for 7 years, because let’s face it, when a church hires one part of a couple, the spouse pretty much goes along for the ride.  Just ask Craig, my long-suffering husband. Honey, I’m not going to say I couldn’t have done it without you, because I did, for a lot of years.  But you have made my life and my ministry so much richer with your sweet nature, your broad shoulders and listening ear, and your five lovely children that I got to claim as my own. Thank you for being my travel partner.

And now I turn my attention to my work husband, Pastor Mike, who has been a support, an encourager, a partner in crime, and my left-hand man for 12 years now.  I can remember only one occasion in all those years when he lost his temper with me, and I have never seen him lose his cool in any contentious situation here at church. He has never once behaved in a sexist, condescending, or authoritarian manner toward me, and ladies, I know you know what an honor it is to work with someone like that. Mike, I don’t know what you’re going to do without me.

Decades ago, in the darkest time of my life, God spoke to me in a dream.  He said quite clearly, I will love and care for you. It is a message that I have carried in my heart for the last 30 years, and let me tell you: when God whispers that in your ear, there is no situation that is too difficult; no problem that is insurmountable. I will love and care for you.

Back to that troublemaker the Apostle Paul. At his finest, he wrote inspirational, encouraging scripture that was pure poetry. In what has come to be called The Love Chapter, Paul gave us the ideal – not for romantic love, but as an illustration of God’s love for us, and ours for God.

1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

In the end, that’s what I want to leave you with – love.  My love for you, your love for me, and God’s love for all of us.  I know sometimes it’s so hard, to love.  Sometimes you’d like to throttle that neighbor rather than love them.  I know too that sometimes you and I are so much less than loveable, and yet there are people who love us in spite of ourselves, and there is God who loves us unconditionally.

When I taught high school, I entertained the kids by choosing a quote of the week, writing it on the blackboard (yes, you heard me, a blackboard) and hopefully generating discussion about its source and meaning. When I closed out my teaching career I chose one last quote to leave the kids, and I leave you now with the same words: Au revoir, mes amis. Je vous aime beaucoup.

Goodbye my friends.  I love you very much.

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