My second call was a two point parish with a town church and a little country church. The first time I went to that little rural congregation I noticed that there was a cushion in one of the pews, but nobody sat in it. When I asked about it, I learned that the cushion belonged to a man named John, who was homebound. I met John and saw him regularly when I took Holy Communion to his home, but I never saw him in church. And yet, his place was still there; the cushion waited for him on the pew.
After John died, I wondered what would become of his cushion, if it would be removed, since now we knew beyond a doubt that he wouldn’t be coming back. But nobody touched it. For as long as I remained at that church, John’s cushion remained in the pew.
I often think of John’s place in that community, and the way it was marked, even after he would no longer occupy it. And I wonder about my place. Not so much the place I fill today; I think I can see what it is. But I wonder about how my place in the community will be marked when I’m no longer occupying it.
There’s an old African parable that tells about the process an ant goes through when it comes to a small stream and want to get across it. The ant comes to the stream and steps out into the water only to be swept away downstream. And the next ant comes to the water’s edge and the same thing happens. One by one the ants come, and they are swept away by the water. Eventually, there are bodies of dead ants accumulating on the water’s edge until, finally, there are enough dead ants that they span all the way across the water. Now, the ants that follow are able to cross the stream of water by walking on the backs of those who have gone before them. As the story goes, this is a metaphor for the whole human race.
It’s a story that has stayed with me over the years as I think about those whose backs I have walked upon in my life.
As a woman pastor, I think about women who came before me who didn’t make it to the other side of the stream, but provided a way for women like me. The women missionaries who came before me. The women who started the first women’s groups in congregations. The women who first served on their Congregation Councils. Way back when, this was a bone of contention in many congregations and those women took a lot of grief because they wanted to make their own unique contribution to the life of the church. I would not be a pastor in the church today, were it not for the courageous ministry of those women.
I look at the congregation I serve now, and the community of people I have grown to love and I know that every time we gather to worship on a Sunday morning, we are walking on the backs of those who came before us. The people of St. Mark’s Lutheran church who started our congregation as a mission church. Pastor William Lutz, the first pastor of this church back in 1916 and all the pastors who followed him. The people who decided to move Holy Trinity to its current location. All who contributed financially so that future generations would have a place to worship and do ministry. Those who struggled through times of crisis and wouldn’t give up. They weren’t just the ones who were here before us. They were the ones who made it possible for us to be here at all. No doubt, many of them could not have imagined what Holy Trinity Lutheran Church might be like today. But they provided the way for us to get here.
God willing, there will be others who will come after us. Others will be walking on our backs to get to the next place God is calling them. Just as others have left a legacy for us, someday we’ll be doing that for those who come after us.
I love how George Bernard Shaw put it:
This is the true joy in life - being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me, it is a sort of splendid torch, which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it to future generations.