In United Methodist tradition, ordination happens at Annual Conference (you can read a summary of our annual conference here or here) through the laying on of hands by bishops. My experience was a blessing, especially because in addition to my wonderful bishop, the bishop who ordained my mother and another bishop were present. The bishop who preached the ordination service preached the exact sermon I needed to hear. But I also like how in other traditions the local church has more of a role in the ordination service, and how it is more personal. So the Sunday following my ordination, I designed the service with a nod to our ordination service to include my local church, Presbury United Methodist Church, who has had a pretty big part in shaping me as a pastor after all, and share my call story.
Scripture: Matthew 28:16-20 (NRSV)
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, we give you thanks. We should always start with thanks because no matter how low in the valley we may feel, and no matter how steep the climb up the mountain can be, there is always something to give thanks for. So we do. We thank you. And we ask through the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts this morning that you may help us always to give thanks for your presence all around us. Amen.
In our scripture today, Jesus directs his disciples to go up a mountain. Mountains have great symbolic importance in scripture. One of the names for God that you will find in the Hebrew Bible and you may have heard in praise songs is El Shaddai. There are a few different translations for this name, especially some interpreted as a feminine name for God, but one of the usual ways we translate it is God of the Mountains. It is a name that symbolizes power and majesty, as mountains also illustrate power and majesty. Mountains are also the site where pretty important things happen in the lives of people of faith. Remember that guy Moses we sometimes talk about? Well, he was called to lead the Hebrew people to freedom when he was on a mountain. Later, he received the Ten Commandments when he went up a mountain, Mount Sinai or Horeb. In the New Testament, Jesus takes Peter and James and John up a mountain to pray and he is transfigured before them. His face and clothes glow and Moses and Elijah appear beside him. God speaks, revealing to these disciples that Jesus is God’s beloved son and they are to listen to him.
Throughout the history of our faith, even modern day history, mountains are synonymous with God’s presence and power. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech given before he was murdered. He said:
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.Powerful words. Mountaintops are a place of vision, where Rev. Dr. King saw the kindom of God or the Promised Land, saw God’s intentions for us and was moved to continue God’s work no matter what he may face.
So mountains are important physical and symbolic sites for us as people of faith. And one mountain in particular in our scripture today served as both physical and symbolic in the disciples own journey. At this point in the story the disciples are in a valley. Valleys we have also heard of before--- does the verse, I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, sound familiar to you? Jesus has resurrected by the time we get to our story today, he has appeared to women, and they've shared what he told him with the disciples, but some doubted. The pain and horror of Jesus’ death is too fresh. But no matter their hurt and confusion, they go up the mountain anyway, and there they meet the risen Christ. Some still doubt. But they meet him all the same. Jesus does what he always does. He teaches, gives them direction, loves them. Some of them are finally getting it. Some still aren't. But then he says: And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
I've preached on this verse before, and within the last two years, so it's probably bad form to preach it again. But I'm going to anyway. Because that's the key to everything. I am with you always. God is with us in the valleys and on the mountains. God is with us in our worship and in our doubt. God is with us when we are joyful and when we are despairing.
I have experienced this in my own life. My call to ministry, which I have also used in a sermon fairly recently--- it's terrible to be ordained for a day and already reusing sermons! Ah well. Anyway, my call to ministry happened after a sojourn in the valley. God had called me to be a missionary. When I was fifteen, I had such a transformational experience on a mission trip to Bosnia that I understood God to be calling me to similar work in my adult life. I planned to go to Cameroon to study abroad and my parents would not let me go, which felt like a betrayal by God since my mother was also my pastor. I studied abroad in France instead, and while that was an amazing experience, it was also lonely. I was confused. I didn’t understand why God would call me and then wouldn’t open doors for me to live out the call (now of course, as I go on our AppalachiaService Project trips I see God is, but that’s another story). All this to say: I was nineteen and in a very dark place spiritually. When I came back to the states, I lived in DC and would not have gone to church except someone told me just to try a church called Dumbarton. Dumbarton is a radical place, a church that explicitly welcome all people regardless of sexual identity or gender expression. This was a place where anyone could lift up personal prayer concerns and joys in the same moment one could plead for prayers for far away war-torn countries. It was a church where people could open up their hearts and use their hands and feet to do the work of Christ in the world. I joined their young adult group that met in the Methodist building on Capitol Hill to do bible study together and talk about science fiction. And even though I was still mad at God, even though I still didn’t hear God’s call on my life anymore, I felt myself moving out of the valley and slowly back up the mountain.
An ordained elder attending the church who was working at a faith-based, non-profit invited me to Student Forum's MOSAIC service, which in that year was held in DC. MOSAIC is the young adult ministry working for a fully inclusive United Methodist Church. This is not just about sexual identity but about welcoming people of all backgrounds and races and ages, about helping us as a church to truly reflect the diversity of the body of Christ. It was there that I could no longer deny God's call on my life.
The lights were dim, the chapel small but filled with warm bodies swaying slightly to the music from the guitars. And my friend walked up to the altar where communion lay and she took the bread and broke it. It was rainbow challah bread. And at that moment I felt like I belonged, I felt that this was home. It was a feeling of completeness that I wish for everyone. And I knew in that moment that God was calling me to be like my friend, breaking bread and building community in such a way that all people feel welcomed and loved.
Now, as I always say when telling my call story, there were plenty of times before May of 2008 when God called me. People in my home church will tell you that they knew I was called when I was in elementary school. My mother knew when I was in middle school. The agnostic and atheist I lived with in DC at the time knew it. Heck, I remember looking a little at seminaries when I was in France--- I knew it but just wouldn't admit it. This is how the call on our lives works--- and we all have a call, whether or not it is to ordained ministry. God is always calling us because God is always with us.
And there have been valleys and mountaintops since. My experience of the exam for becoming a provisional elder was emotionally awful and followed by the ugliness of General Conference 2012, I wasn't sure I was going to stay Methodist. And then I went to Deer Creek and Mt.Tabor, and they reminded me that God has given me gifts for ministry. They have a gift for teaching pastors, and they took a tired, nervous young woman who was frustrated with the church and even a little frustrated with God, and you turned her into a confident pastor.
And I have been in a valley since my miscarriage. Maybe even before, frankly, because of our battle with infertility before we even got pregnant. And I certainly am not far away from that valley yet. But the overwhelming love I received yesterday--- the cards and texts and messages and posts about the live stream on top of having almost my whole immediate family, people from my home church, people from Mt. Tabor, people from Presbury, friends from high school, friends from seminary, congratulations from colleagues--- that was a mountaintop when I heard again the call to go therefore and make disciples. People all around the world need to feel that kind of love, so if I'm feeling it I can't keep it bottled up! I need to go, therefore, and share that love.
Bishop King, who preached the ordination service, told us we have to keep moving. So that is my invitation to all of you. When you are in those valleys, keep on walking. Try looking for higher ground, if you can, but keep on walking. Because the Force is with you always. I mean, God. God is with us always, to the end of the age.