Opening of the 2010-2011 School Year

Phyllis Anderson—September 8, 2010
PLTS Chapel of the Cross

Luke 14:25–33

These verses from Luke have powerful associations for me. They once moved me to tears—of regret and anger and betrayal…in church. It was early September, like now. My internship had just come to an end. It had been a great internship, a fourth year internship. Actually for me it was a seventh year internship. That’s how long it took me to get through seminary. As that internship came to an end, I was totally wired for ministry. I was invited to consider staying on—they were going to call a second pastor rather than have another intern. It could have been me.

I agonized over that decision whether or not to let my name be considered for the new associate pastor position. There are lots of very good reasons why interns should not stay on. But I thought maybe those reasons did not apply to me. The church was in the town where we lived and I was geographically restricted. I knew that the options for another call close by would be limited. For a woman in 1977, they would be very limited. I knew I would have to wait. I did wait—for nearly two years.

In the end, I did not let my name go forward. I had two school-age children and my same wonderful husband who was fully engaged in establishing himself as a professor. I knew from my internship that being a pastor in this church was a 24-7 kind of thing. I stopped to count the cost. And I didn’t do the counting alone. I consulted with the contextual education department, with my supervising pastor, with my husband, my friends and relatives, with my bishop, with my seminary professors—who were also my husband’s colleagues. Everyone seemed to agree that the time was not right for me.

I was in church—this same church—the Sunday the new associate pastor was installed. And this lesson from Luke was the Gospel for the day: “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciples.” I never heard another word that day. I stared at those words. I studied them hard. I heard those words as woman… for the first time as a woman. Those words enraged me. And they awakened me.

There were three layers to this un-peeling of the text for me sitting there in the pew with my family with tears streaming down my face.

1. During this time of discernment, why had none of my advisors quoted this text to me? Why was it all about “Charity begins at home” and “Family First”? Why had they trivialized my call? I felt betrayed by my community that had not seen ME in this text, they had not challenged me to pick up MY cross and follow Jesus—no matter what.

2. I stared again and again at that text and looked in vain for the missing word: husband! Why is it ok to hate your children and you wife and your mother and father and everybody else, but not your husband? NO FAIR! Obviously this wasn’t written by a woman. None of it was. NO FAIR!

3. Then finally—a new flood of insight. A woman would not have written it—not like this. What woman would have opposed discipleship and relationships in this kind of cavalier way? Would God really require you to hate the child of your own womb? What kind of God is that? What if we rethought scripture from a woman’s point of view? What does discipleship mean then?

I share this story from my ancient past with you on the opening of this new academic year for three reasons.

First—I want to welcome you into the exciting, scary, transformative, gut-wrenching world of serious, critical theological study—here in this place. Welcome for the first time. Or welcome back. What we do here is look at the old, old texts—the old, old doctrines– the old, old Confessions through new eyes. We explore them from new perspectives: our time, our place, our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, our class. We ask hard questions. We try to put ourselves in the place of others and understand what these words might mean to them. We discipline ourselves to ask what these words meant way back then, why they were written. Why were they written as they were written? What might they mean to people today? What might turn them off so they can’t hear anything else? What will be Gospel to them? How can we tell the truth we know to our generation in a way that will set them free and give them life?

What we do here is really important, really essential for the future of the church, for passing on the saving word of Jesus Christ to the next generation. I am so very glad that you are part of it—bringing your unique experience and perspective. I’m so glad we are doing it together as a community of learning and faith.

Second—As I welcome you back—from internship or CPE—I want you to know that I understand that it is really hard to let go of ministry once you have sunk your teeth into it. That’s what I was really crying about that morning in church.

And to those of you who are coming from jobs where you had felt like you were really contributing something, where you had real responsibility and a bit of authority, where you got a paycheck every week—I want to say it isn’t easy to give all that up to be a student. There will be days when you cry as I did in that pew for what you have left, for the opportunities not taken, for the relationships interrupted. Sometimes going to seminary will feel less like a pathway to ministry and more like an interruption of ministry. It doesn’t have to be that way. Your gifts are needed—here in chapel for one place. Help the community learn to worship in the style of an emergent church on Mondays. Stretch us to experience God in new ways in contemplative worship on Thursdays. Step forward to preach on Tuesdays. Offer your gifts of music or reading or worship planning.

Use your gifts for ministry here and now. Help us figure out how to compost. Practice your well-honed listening skills on a neighbor in the dorm whom you really don’t understand at all. We want to make PLTS a home for all of us—regardless of where we come from, no matter what track we are on. You have work to do HERE. Help make this a safe and comfortable and engaging place for all of us—and particularly for those who for any reason what-so-ever might wonder if they really belong here.

And don’t limit your ministry to the circle of relatively privileged people on this campus. There is a whole world just below Creston that is crying out for justice and a square meal and a place to sleep and a chance to learn to read. Don’t take a year off from those people, from those struggles. Find some way to serve beyond the seminary community every term.

Finally—I tell my story as a way of welcoming you into the real and ongoing struggle of trying to figure out what God is calling you to—and whether you can make the commitment. Jesus invites us to follow him. He demands of us that we make a choice.

I’ve learned a lot of things since that Sunday morning. I’ve learned that there is not just one pathway. There is not one right call. Motherhood and graduate school WAS my path of discipleship in ways I could not see at the time. Those experiences, that seemed to be taking me away from ministry, made me a better leader, a more valuable disciple for the long, long haul. I’ve learned that waiting—hard as it is—is not the end of the world. I’ve learned to read that hard, hard text in new, more-nuanced ways. I’ve peeled off more layers. But it hasn’t gotten easier, or softer.

The bottom line is that the call to discipleship is radical. It is absolute. It demands nothing less than your whole self—without reservations or conditions. When I was a very small child I told people I was going to be a missionary—to New Guinea, no less. Well that never happened any more than I became the pastor of Holy Trinity in Dubuque, Iowa, when I wanted to. What I was saying in a child’s way was something about giving my whole self, holding nothing back, just the way God loved me in Christ Jesus.

Once you are claimed in that kind of way, everything else gets reorganized around that center. In a way it doesn’t matter what particular form your service takes. Once you’ve accepted the invitation to pick up your cross and follow, your priorities are reordered forever. It’s not that you do—or do not—have families or possessions or jobs—inside or outside the church. No rather, your family and your wealth and your talents and your position or your office are not excuses. They become the context, the way, the gritty matter through which you live out your call. Will you be Jesus disciple and follow his way of unconditional love? That is all you really need to decide.

You’d be foolish to start down this path without counting the cost. The cost is all. We see the sign of it in the cross. We take that totality into ourselves as we eat the body and the blood. Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.