When I went to seminary, almost 40 years ago, I had no idea that it was such a big deal for a woman to be a pastor. I felt called, and I responded, and then, when I got there, I found out that there were only a couple other women in my class. This was a new thing for Lutherans and they didn’t know quite how to handle it. Getting calls to serve in the church was especially challenging. It was hard for congregations to imagine a woman as their pastor because they had never experienced it before.
Later, when I served on the bishop’s staff in my synod and worked with congregations in the call process, this was always an issue. Whenever I met with a congregational call committee and presented them with the name of a female candidate, it was never easy. The fact that I was a woman didn’t help. They thought I had an agenda and that, because I was a woman, I was trying to force a woman on them. The fact was, I did have an agenda. I wanted them to have the best pastor possible. And it just so happened that a lot of women clergy at that time were the best pastors around.
I remember Liz, who was a little younger than me and had been serving as an associate pastor at a big church in the Columbus area. She was married to an Episcopal priest and when he got a call way up in the northeast-most corner of Ohio, she moved with him, hoping to find a call to a Lutheran church somewhere in the area. The problem was, there weren’t many Lutheran churches up there, so her options were limited. And when one opened up, she needed the opportunity to interview. Well, one did open up. It was Messiah Lutheran Church in Ashtabula. They were not a large congregation, and they were located in a small town that was depressed economically. When I met with them to give them the profile information of a candidate for them to interview, I got some pushback. Not only was this candidate a woman, but she was already living in the community. They didn’t hide their mistrust from me. They clearly suspected I was trying to railroad them into calling a woman pastor, and one who was already living in the community at that.
I told them that I understood how they might feel that way, and I assured them that they weren’t in any way obligated to call this person as their pastor. But I also told them that once they met her, I felt confident that they would realize what a stroke of luck it was for them that she was already living in their community.
Well, they met Liz and were duly impressed. I had the privilege of installing her as their pastor. She served them well and was much loved. The only reason why she eventually left them was because the Northeastern Ohio Synod elected her their bishop. At the 2013 churchwide assembly of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, on Wednesday, Elizabeth Eaton was elected our presiding bishop.
As I watched all the drama unfolding on the livestream on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but think of the evening I met with the call committee at Messiah in Ashtabula and introduced Liz’s name to them and had to defend that decision because they suspected I was trying to sell them a bill of goods. Amazingly, this happened only around 20 years ago. What a difference a couple decades make!
I wish that I had known at the time that the pastor in question would one day become the presiding bishop of the ELCA and I could have said to them, “Are you nuts?! Do you not realize what an HONOR it would be for you to have this woman as your pastor?!” But I didn’t know that at the time. And we never do know how things will unfold in the future, how the moment we’re enduring, the one where we’re holding on for dear life, actually has purpose in the long run. And how, despite appearances to the contrary, God is always pulling us forward.
This week’s text from Hebrews 11 & 12 is about the God who is always pulling us forward. It’s a continuation of last Sunday’s reading where the writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are part of an amazing family of faith. Much like looking through a family photo album, we see snapshots of those who have gone before us. And we learn that we didn’t invent faith. We come from a long line of people who lived the life of faith just as we do. People who were figuring it out as they went. Sometimes they got it right, sometimes they got it wrong. But through whatever came their way, God was always faithful. And as they experienced the never-failing faithfulness of God in their lives, they grew to trust it.
If we look over the pages of the family photo album that Hebrews 11 shows us, we see people who knew times of triumph in their lives. They conquered their enemies, they administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions. They quenched raging fire, escaped the sword, won strength out of weakness. They even gained victory over death. And the writer of Hebrews could have left it at that and we’d all be happy. But there’s another side to the life of faith, too. And so we read on about people who were tortured, mocked, imprisoned, beaten, stoned, sawn in two. Those who lost everything and were left to wander about homeless.
The life of faith is not reserved for those who seem to live charmed lives, nor is it only for those who live through hell on earth. It’s a mixed bag. Because our lot in life is not a measure of our faithfulness. And so there’s hope for all of us, no matter what the circumstances we must endure. Because faith endures.
Faith trusts God’s promises even when we may question them. Faith holds on and holds out because we are in relationship with a God who always has something better in store for us. God is always pulling us forward.
We can learn that from those who have gone before us. This is especially important for us when, in the moment, it’s so hard to see reason to hope.
The theme of Moral Mondays is “Forward together, not one step back.” Although no one bills it as a theological statement, that’s what it is. It reminds us that we’re not in this alone. And we’re heading somewhere. Forward together, not one step back.
We need that reminder because it sure feels like we’re going backwards. Take the whole issue of voting, for example. For a long time, North Carolina had one of the lowest voter turn-outs in the country. But then a lot of changes were made so that in recent years we have ended up with one of the highest voter turn-outs. We had been the most progressive state in the South in that regard. And now, all that progress has been wiped away with a stroke of the governor’s pen as he signed one of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation.
It includes cutbacks in early voting, restrictions on voter registration, requiring voters to present government issued photo i.d.s, limitations on poll workers, and other actions that can be motivated by nothing other than a desire to make it harder for some people to vote — likely poor people, people of color, old people. Why would anyone in the United States of America want to make it harder for people to vote?
It’s difficult to see that we’re moving forward because when we’re bogged down in the moment; we lose sight of the bigger picture. That’s why the Martin Luther King quote, that’s a paraphrase of the thoughts of the abolishionist Theodore Parker, is one that I hang onto in times like this… “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
For the fact is, as people of faith, we’re not sprinters. We’re running a marathon. That’s the image we get in the 12th chapter of Hebrews. We’re long distance runners. Have you ever run in a marathon? One of the main rules for a marathon runner is that they can’t expend all their energy at the beginning of the race, or they’ll have nothing left for the end. From the beginning of the race you have to have the end in mind. You have to pace yourself or you’ll never finish. It may be hard to see this when you start out. And you may be tempted to quit along the way. But you gotta keep on keeping on. You gotta press on to the finish. As the song says, “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
Do you ever get so discouraged with what’s going on around you, or maybe what’s going on in your own personal life, that you just wanna give up? I know there are times when I do. It’s like I’m running in a marathon and I just can’t take another step. I can’t do it anymore. And I just wanna sit down on the side of the road and cry. And sometimes, to be honest, that’s what I do.
But then, while I’m sitting there on the side of the road crying, I look up and I see a stream of people running in front of me. I look back, and as far as I can see, there are people running on that road. And I look forward, and as far as I can see, there are people running on that road. And when I see this procession of saints, I realize that there’s only one thing I can do. I gotta get back up and join them. Because that’s what the life of faith does.
You know that little poem “Footprints in the Sand”? It talks about how when things are at their worst we only see one set of footprints in the sand because that’s when God carries us. Well, it’s a lovely sentiment, but that’s not the way it works, folks. It’s not just about me and God walking together through life. That’s not how it works. It’s about me and all the people of faith who walk with me, and all the people of faith who have gone before me, and all the people of faith who will come after me. And, as I see it, that’s how God walks with me. Through the procession of saints that flows like a river through history. So, there is never a single set of footprints in the sand. There are never two sets of footprints in the sand. The fact is, there are so many footprints in the sand you can’t even see where one ends and the other begins. That’s how God carries us through the times of struggle when we’d just like to give up. We’re swept along by the community of the faithful who are running the race with us.
The author of Hebrews describes how Jesus himself leads the way for us. And when the race is over, and we run into the stadium to take our victory lap, we hear a thunderous roar from the stands that are filled with people cheering us on. They are the ones who’ve finished the race ahead of us. They’ve been rooting for us all along. And in the end, they celebrate our victory. We made it. We didn’t give up. We may have wanted to give up, but we couldn’t. Because God was pulling us forward all along. In a world filled with violence, and hatred, and injustice, God was pulling us toward something better. God was pulling us toward the one who ran the race before us. God was pulling us toward Jesus.
“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.”