A Place for You

Date posted: Sunday 22 October 2023

Bishop’s Theological Conference 2023
Arrowwood Resort, Alexandria

Philippians 4:1-9, John 19:25-27


Grace and peace to you in the name of the Living God. AMEN.


I didn’t know this passage from Philippians 4 very well when I was ordained, but the preacher at my ordination did. Back in 1979 I was one of those first women to be ordained to serve in the Lutheran church, and the preacher knew that I was setting sail into uncharted waters, as I began a call on the shores of Lake Huron in northern Michigan.


Some of you don’t need to reach back far into your memory to recall being brand-new as a deacon or a pastor. For others of us, the years have turned into decades. But those memories from when we were brand-new stick with us for a lifetime.


In my first call I was the only ordained woman anywhere around – Lutheran or otherwise. I was the outlier at every church meeting; the strange new one on the church scene.


In that first year I remember once seeing a large group of middle school boys, gathering in our church parking lot to have it out with a fistfight after school. I flew out the church door and marched into the center of their circle. With an authority that surprised even me, announced that I was the pastor, and they would stop what they were doing and go on home. Now. And they did.


More than once in that first year I gave cash from my wallet to strangers, who stopped by the church, needing money for gas to get to a grandmother’s funeral or hospital bedside across state. I eventually caught on that there was no grandmother behind those requests.


I went to every women’s circle meeting, not yet knowing they could meet perfectly well without me and learned I could invite myself to the men’s breakfast even though I wasn’t a man. Once I sat quietly with a woman, who had driven an hour to talk with me about the abortion she had had. Could she be forgiven? She came to me because I was a woman and that made her brave enough to ask.


In that ordination sermon, the preacher did not dwell on who Euodia and Syntyche were or exactly what the tension in Philippi may have been. His point was simply that women had long been co-workers in the Gospel. Like other Bible stories we are now learning to hear with fresh ears – the gifts of those we may have overlooked have not been lost to God.


And that is one of the great treasures that passes down from one generation of church leaders to the next. We are not as alone, as we may fear in our most isolated and desperate hours. And for all that seems novel and unprecedented in our own experience today, it is hardly ever the case that we are as unique or singular, as we imagine.


In John’s Gospel, the Evangelist captures this intimate two-verse scene from the cross, as Jesus entrusts his mother and his beloved disciple to one another. Maybe they were already comfortable with each other; already “at home” in each other’s presence. Whatever the case may have been, anticipating the new form of life they must now embrace, Jesus ensures that neither one needs to go-it-alone into the uncertain days that await them. Imagine if Jesus did that to us?


As a culture, we are living in a time when the inclination to define our own “bubble” of relationships -- our definition of family and self-selected, close friends -- is far narrower than it is in some other parts of the world. Even as church leaders, we have a hard time imagining that God could interrupt our plans by giving us new plans, new people to love, strangers on which to depend for our livelihood and wellbeing.


The Longer Table and The Crowded Table of which we sing today is also the table at which we are invited to sit as we discover relationships with people not just like us. Deacons and pastors can be as lonely – and as stuck-up – as all other human beings.


So, friends, know that God is moving a chair aside to make room to welcome even you in all your busyness and frenzy to get others to their place at the table. God continually gives you siblings in Christ to accompany you in ministry, as Euodia and Syntyche undoubtedly learned to abide once more with each other and the rest of the crew in those early years of being church.


In fact – stand up – take a look around. These are the siblings Jesus has given to us. Can you believe it? Back when you were young, could you have ever imagined that this would be your glad company of colleagues some day? (Thank you.)


Friends, we are at the close of this Theological Conference, so it’s too late for me to ask you to pay attention to who you spend your time with here, who you pick out to join at meals, who you cross the room to greet, who you choose to be with in the leisure hours of these few days. But because we are all from the same synod, our lives will continue to intertwine when we drive away from this resort. And I hope you will hold in your heart that these – your peers, your colleagues – are another treasure from God to give you support and encouragement in the days ahead.


At my ordination, the big point the preacher was winding up to make was that even I – his little sister – could not do everything that would be asked of me in ministry. How right he was. We are but stewards of the mysteries, saints and sinners, fallible human beings. We are sometimes lonely and weary, other times confident and brave – real people, bearing the mantle of God’s Word to be shared with others and also to be heard by us, as the Word alone, which can sustain us when the foundations shake.


Beloved child of God, God’s grace is for you, too. God’s grace is made manifest in your weakness. God’s power shines through you when by your own strength and might you have nothing more to give.


And now -- at this table of grace and mercy – trust that there is a splendid place for you, along with the promise of new life and a fresh beginning. Thanks be to God. AMEN.


Bishop Patricia Lull