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Opening Worship

The last words of Rev. Rebecca Immich Sullivan’s sermon from opening worship at the Young Clergy Women’s Annual Conference on Monday, July 29.

Opening Worship
7-29-19

There were arches

and a peak

made of wood

and polished,

carved with a

clover symbol

for the Holy

Trinity.

 

And feathers were laid

on the altar,

beyond the rail

where the minister presides,

which was draped

with green and white

for ordinary time.

 

And the organ pipes

spread their arms

in welcome

and pursed their lips,

poised to sing,

but yielded

to the lighter notes

of the piano’s

joyous song.

 

And infants nursed,

And toddlers gave

their voices to

the large spaces

between our prayers.

 

And the pews

creaked amicably

beneath us

adding their amens

to the gospel

according to Mary

and to “Martha, Martha,”

too,

 

and “our presence was

gift enough.”

two gold rings on top of a Bible

Sacramental Presence

two gold rings on top of a Bible

As a single person, I need to remember that–while officiating weddings–I am a billboard for the unexpected and unearned favor of our Lord and Maker.

There are a number of things that I like about being single. I like changing into my sweatpants as soon as I get home from work. I like eating spaghetti and not worrying about how inelegantly or noisily I slurp up the noodles. I like having my own bathroom; I’m not grossed out by the hair in the shower in the same way as I would be by the sight of someone else’s hair. I like having complete autonomy over what entertainment to consume. I was on a date once, and after dinner the man asked if I wanted to get coffee and continue to talk. I politely and swiftly declined – I realized that I would rather go home and watch a DVD by myself than have the date continue. It was clarifying to realize that I preferred my own company than his. I watched the DVD and went to bed, enjoying a full night’s rest under the warmth of all the covers. Solitude has its perks.

Nevertheless, when it comes to officiating weddings, I feel very much at the disadvantage. Who am I to counsel couples as they make this serious and binding commitment, one that I have never made? Recently, I did pre-marital counseling with a couple who were planning to get married in my church’s historic chapel. They seemed appreciative of our counseling sessions. I created space for them to reflect, I asked questions, and I closed each session with prayer. I did not try to pretend that I was drawing from vast personal experience in dating and relationships during the counseling sessions.

But, as I considered what to say during my wedding homily, I felt my singleness acutely. I felt like an imposter. I feared my advice would be of little worth. Mercifully, I saw my friend Peter a few days before the wedding. Peter was a Catholic priest for many years and he officiated hundreds of weddings as a single, celibate priest. I asked him what weddings were like for him and what kind of advice I could give to a couple about to be married when I was single myself. He replied, “Emily, you are a sacrament. It is not so much important what you say. They aren’t going to remember much of that. But they will remember that you were there with them, that you loved and gave yourself to them that day. That’s what’s important: the sacramental nature of your presence.” Read more

Martha and Mary in Ministry

medium_6832493862This last week a miracle happened in my life. I had a full twenty-four hours with no “church stuff” in it. One might think that using the term miracle here is a bit flippant, but when you’re a solo pastor, in the fall, miracle is the only appropriate way to describe a real day off. Until this day occurred, I had not had a Saturday off since mid August, and my coveted Mondays off had not occurred in three weeks because of the funerals that kept popping up. Throw in my first-born child, who is 5 months old and needs to eat every 2 hours because, as his pediatrician says, “he’s too chill to demand food when he’s hungry”, and my life pretty much resembles a chaotic mess.  I don’t mean to whine (ok, maybe a little bit), but for real, that day off was desperately needed. There was a point last week when I seriously considered whether this pastor thing was all worth it. I’m approaching my first anniversary in this congregation and ordained ministry. Is this really how it is going to be for the rest of my life? I love Jesus and all, but come on; a girl needs a day off once in a while.

All of this to say, that when I read Luke’s brief account of Mary and Martha, in an all too uncommon prayerful moment that was truly Spirit led, I said, out loud, “Martha, I totally feel you.”

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

We’re so often told as women in ministry that we are to strive to be like Mary in this story, seated at the feet of Jesus, learning and being a good disciple. We hold her up as a role model; as validation that, yes, even women are encouraged to be followers of Christ. Mary has chosen the better part, Jesus says. So should we.

I’ve claimed Mary throughout my life; seen her in the women clergy who guided me through discernment, embraced her through missionary work, seminary and even the chaos of hospital chaplaincy. Mary was my model, the one who would not be distracted by life. Mary was the woman who wanted to be with Jesus because it is where she was called to be, and that was ok. She was a woman who gave me permission to “be” in ministry. Martha, on the other hand, was just that other sister, the one who let tasks consume her and didn’t take Jesus, Mary, and the other disciples seriously. Getting dinner on the table was more important than learning. That’s not who, or what I wanted to be as a woman in ministry.

Oh, how wrong I was. I’m claiming it right now, Martha is the woman I resemble more often than not these days. Martha, the woman who is running that house like a boss. Making sure the dinner preparations are going as planned. Getting the rooms ready for all the visitors, who I am sure are also staying the night, meaning that beds have to be made, sheets clean, and don’t forget the extra tooth brushes in case anyone forgot to bring their own.

I now know why Martha came bursting through that kitchen door, mad as hell at Mary. “Can’t I get just a little bit of help around here? I shouldn’t be doing this all on my own.” Martha’s voice is my voice, at home and in ministry.

The challenge in pastoral ministry, I am starting to realize, is to find a good balance of Mary and Martha. The reality of being a solo pastor is that things do have to get done; bulletins, committee meetings, and funerals. The reality of being a mother and a spouse is that dinner has to be made, laundry needs to be done, and emergency trips to the pediatrician happen. Our Martha’s are calling out to the Lord, “please just tell someone to help me!” But there is another side to the reality of ministry and motherhood. There is a Mary side. Those moments of profound holiness, where time is allowed to stand still and I can sit at the feet of the Holy and listen. The difficult part is recognizing when I can give myself permission to do this. The list will always be full and something will probably get left undone. Instead of Jesus’ curt response to Martha in the passage, I wish what he had said was “Martha, you look really busy. Come here and sit with Mary for a while, then we will all go in the kitchen and help you finish dinner.” These are the words I need to hear in ministry. That what I am doing, even in those overwhelming Martha moments, is what I am called to be. But that I am also called to rest from my labors, to sit down and just listen, even if for a moment, because I am called to be there too.

Ministry of Presence…

Presence1

As I prepare for work/worship on Sunday, I realize that I actually don’t have any huge responsibilities – it’s a “regular” Sunday School day, and the high school youth are doing worship. It’s also the last week of the month which usually means I don’t have so many meetings. So…I’m thinking that my work Sunday morning will comprise generally of hanging-out…which means playing with the babies in the nursery and visiting Sunday School classes, oo-ing and ah-ing over the little creations made by little hands.

The ministry of presence is the ministry of hanging-out. I’ve discovered it takes different forms but the core of it is consistent. It means simply being with people and then being a space for people.

Read more

Miles to Go

Though it is in our lectionary, our Lamentations text – this prayer of pain and petition – is not something we hear every day. I doubt many of us could quote from Lamentations as easily as we could from Psalms, from Isaiah, or from any of the gospels or epistles. So when we do hear from this book, it may come as a shock to our system. When I’ve told people that one of the texts I would be preaching from this morning is Lamentations, I got very similar responses. There were a few “ohs” and “that’s interesting,” and even an occasional “oh my.” Not exactly the words of assurance a woman would want. But these words did not really surprise me for what we find in this book – undiluted expressions of despair – are rarely the passages we seek out for nice Bible studies or our bedtime readings.

We are fortunate, then, that though we may not seek certain passages out, they surely seek us out. The scriptures which testify to the Word made flesh are not just letters on a page. When engaged with the Spirit, they are a living witness. This living witness is a Word that does not sit quietly, waiting for us to stumble upon it. It relentlessly seeks us out, captures us in its warm grasp, will not let us go until we have thoroughly engaged it.

Though many of us may avoid a book which is consumed with such vulnerable grief, given the recent events in our country, in our world, perhaps it is not surprising that this particular Lamentations text is seeking us out. With its opening words “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people” the passage invokes disturbing images from our recent news reports: images of cities empty of people but full of water; images of homes, businesses, places of worship destroyed by rumbling ground; images of complete and total destruction; of ways of life and life itself lost.

These words recall such images because they were written in the midst of similar despair. Lamentations is a poetic response to perhaps the most traumatic series of events in Jewish history outside the Holocaust, the Babylonian exile. In 587 B.C.E. the people of Jerusalem were invaded by the Babylonian empire’s army. The siege lasted two years and saw the destruction of the city’s walls, buildings, and even the temple; saw a famine where men, women, children alike died from lack of nutrition; saw the deportation of Jerusalem’s king, the murder of the royal family, and the exile of many of its citizens. The lament we have before us, unlike the pain expressed in books like Ezekiel, does not come from those in exile. This lament is unique in the portrayals of the exile for it comes from those left behind. Those who look around and see the invaders in their homes, those who see their destroyed temple, those who see the mass graves. It is this people in this place who cry aloud as Daughter Zion: “Is there any sorrow like my sorrow?”

Through Daughter Zion’s words, I can hear the voices of the victims of the unrelenting hurricanes, of the earthquake in Pakistan, of the places – too many places – where war is a way of life. In the face of pain and suffering in a multitude of places on such massive levels, Lamentations cries out to us. It cries out, speaking of loneliness, speaking of desolation. It cries out to God and it cries out to this body, the body of Christ, demanding to be heard. Read more