Eighteen Years

I remember the day clearly. I was 29 years old. I wore my dark brown suit with dark brown heels and a tiger-striped scarf in my hair. My robe was from the on-sale section at the Catholic supply store in Saint Paul, my red stole was made by my grandmother and was a hand-me-down from my father.

I was ordained at my home church – Good Shepherd in Henning, MN. It’s hard to explain how much an ordination day means to those who haven’t experienced it. The vows carry such weight, each word so full. The bishop asks:

“Before Almighty God, to whom you must give account, and in the presence of this congregation, I ask, ‘will you assume this office, believing that the Church’s call is God’s call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament?”

The ordinand responds: I will, and I ask God to help me.

Bishop: The Church in which you are to be ordained confesses that the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God and are the norm of its faith and life. We accept, teach, and confess the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds. We also acknowledge the Lutheran Confessions as the true witnesses and faithful expositions of the Holy Scriptures. Will you therefore preach and teach in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and these creeds and confessions?

The ordinand responds: I will, and I ask God to help me.

Bishop: Will you be diligent in your study of the Holy Scriptures and in your use of the means of grace? Will you pray for God’s people, nourish them with the Word and the Holy Sacraments, and lead them by your own example in faithful service and holy living?

The ordinand responds: I will, and I ask God to help me.

Bishop: Will you give faithful witness in the world, that God’s love may be known in all that you do?

The ordinand responds: I will, and I ask God to help me.

Bishop: Almighty God, who has given you the will to do these things, graciously give you the strength and compassion to perform them.

The ordinand responds: Amen.

Then, prayers are said, blessings are given, the stole is placed on the ordinand’s shoulders, and finally the candidate is ordained. After four years of college, four years of seminary, countless approval essays, interviews, psychological testing, a year-long internship – I had a call to be a pastor.

That first call was in New York State – Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Newstead outside of Akron, New York – to be exact. After all that preparation and training and testing I so clearly remember standing by my window of my office on the first day and not having a clue what to do next. But then the phone rang, and then someone stopped by, and then eighteen years passed.

The feeling I have today is gratitude: the kind like when you sheepishly receive a gift you know you didn’t deserve. A gift you might have easily given back several times over the years, but one that you have come to understand is one of the most precious things you could ever have. I feel that way about this work. This simple, complicated, beautiful, infuriating, inexplicable work.

Eighteen years ago tomorrow, I packed up my two beloved cats, George and Sam, said “goodbye” to everyone who mattered most to me, and drove across several states – smoking Marlboros one after another, listening to the pile of cassette tapes next to me.  There was nothing but this calling, an invitation from a little German Lutheran church next to I-90, a hope, a prayer, a blessing placed on my head by the bishop and those gathered on my ordination day. Those things have proved to be enough. That is what God has always provided: enough.

I am thankful. For today and for anything God still has for me to do, my answer is still, “I will, and I ask God to help me.”

Wedding Sermon – Lars and Alisia

(Written for the wedding of my nephew and his bride in August of 2016)

I used to write in a journal every day – especially when I was in college and seminary and well, basically before I had children. It was before I had a cell phone, too – so it was kind of my default when there wasn’t anything else to do, I would write stuff down.

I was looking at a journal from my last year of college and I thought I would share something I wrote in the fall of 1991.

October 31, 1991; 11:23 a.m.

“I am an aunt. Nearly four hours ago my nephew, Lars Andrew was born! ”It is a beautiful, sunny, clear fall day – it is crisp outside – the kind of day that makes you want to praise God. (the famous Halloween blizzard that day hadn’t yet gotten to Moorhead) I concluded, “What will Lars be like? Thank you, God, for life, for love, for Lars.”

I remember writing that. The words had felt very full as I wrote them down. We had all anticipated that day for so long and we were all so excited you were finally here. We had no idea all that was ahead but there was just this wonderful sense of joy in what God was doing. A new life, created out of love; our family was growing, and we were so thankful.

Kind of like today, a day full of life and love. Today I gain a niece – although, truth be told, Alisia, it feels as though you have already been part of our family for a long time. What a true joy that today the commitment and devotion you two have shared for so long becomes official. What a great thing it is that we all get to come together and celebrate the love God has blessed you two with. Thank you for letting us share in your joy. Your joy brings us joy.

I thought for a very long time about what I might say today. About fifteen months, actually, ever since you asked me if I would officiate today. Although I have officiated at a lot of weddings, I’ve never gotten to preside at a wedding for a family member before. I wanted to be able to convey so much in this message, to say just the right words and share with you just the right bits of clever wisdom. I fall into that trap all the time, thinking stuff is all about me. This service isn’t about me or what I am doing.  And it isn’t about you two or any of us here, really. Because we are gathered here in God’s house, to ask for God’s blessing on you two, whom God has seen fit to bless with life and love. This service is about God and what God is up to. That is why we are here, to thank God, to praise God, and to point to God, from whom all blessings flow.

The scripture reading I shared with you from Colossians talks about what we need to wear as God’s people. And although everyone here today looks really nice, all dressed up for this special day, what God wants us to be sure to wear for our everyday clothes is a different kind of wardrobe.  God tells us to dress in compassion, kindness, quiet strength, humility, and to be even-tempered, quick to forgive. Long after today is over, after the tuxes have been returned and the dresses have been put in storage, clothe yourselves with these kinds of attributes and the peace of Christ will keep you in tune with each other.  Dress in compassion. Dress in kindness. Dress in humility, quick to forgive. We have to dress right for the occasion. If you are going snowmobiling, you don’t wear shorts and a t-shirt. If you are going swimming, you don’t wear a floor-length gown. And if you are setting out for a long, happy life together, you don’t dress in selfishness or anger or grudges.

A long time ago, about 26 years ago, I was in a wedding. It may or may not have been a family member’s wedding. Okay, it was your parents’ wedding, Lars. The bridesmaid dress I got to wear was really pretty – lots of pink and lace and ribbons going on. The shoes were pretty, too – but I realized at the last minute I had ordered shoes that were way too small. All I could think about during the whole wedding was how I couldn’t wait for it to be over because my size 11 feet were crammed into these really cute, size 8 shoes. It’s hard to maintain a good attitude if you are trying really hard to make something fit that just does not fit. What you wear can affect everything.

So I don’t think it’s strange that the Bible gives us this advice on what to wear each day. Our days look different if we go about them wearing kindness rather than cruelty. Our days are richer if we go about them wearing thankfulness instead of bitterness. Our days have more life to them when we keep God and others at the center rather than our selves.

Which brings me to a reading from the Gospel of Luke.

When Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a story. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This is the Gospel reading for this Sunday. I hear an important message in this for all of us, but maybe especially good advice for a young couple just beginning married life. The message of this gospel is to remind us how living God’s way looks. Living God’s way means we put our best energy toward serving and loving others. It means we get our focus off ourselves and onto others, lifting others up, not ourselves. In a marriage that means each day working to make life better for your partner.

That doesn’t mean we don’t take care of ourselves or treat ourselves with compassion, too, but very few happy marriages can be built if the only question we are asking is, “What have you done for me lately?” No, if we listen to God’s wisdom about putting others first, and both partners are each day seeking to make life better and richer and more full for each other, then the peace of Christ will be at the heart of your home.

I bet if you think about your parents, your grandparents you can remember ways they lived examples of this for each other and for you. The examples are often quiet and understated but they are what good lives are built upon. I’ll never forget when Chad and I were dating – the first time he came out to visit me when I was at the church in New York. He was only there for a few days – but after he left I kept finding things around the house that used to be broken but were now fixed. The sink no longer leaked, my computer was working better – he had been fixing stuff around my house when I was at work and never said a word about it, just quietly and sweetly making my world a little better.

When I think of love, real love, selfless love – that is what I think of…those thousands of teeny-tiny opportunities each of us get every day to try to make life better and sweeter for each other. Chad’s always been better at it than I am. But I’ll keep trying. And my prayer for the two of you is that as you enter this new stage in your life together, you will always look for those opportunities to love each other better each day.

Some days that will be easy. Some days that will be the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do – but don’t worry – because just as God brought you to the moment you met each other years and years ago, and just as God brought you to the moment you fell in love, and just as God brought you to this wedding day, God now goes with you into the future.

In a few moments we will share in the vows – and the vows you are about to make are not ones that two human beings can fulfill on their own. When times get hard, call on God who promises to be with you and help you fulfill the vows you make today. Vows to live in love, real love. Love that is knit together through thousands of small kindnesses, humility, and grace.