I’ve been thinking a while about what I want to say today, and I asked Abbie if she thought it was OK if I didn’t base the talk on a passage of Scripture or mention God much. Her reply was that she thought I had done my fair share of that here and that I should feel free to do what I was hoping to do, which was tell stories. I have come to find her advice sound, so I’m taking it. I want to say a grateful farewell to you by telling a few of the many stories that could be told about what it has been like to be your pastor. By way of connection to Scripture and God, perhaps we can think of these stories the same way we think of the story of Esther in the Bible, in which the name of God is never mentioned, even as the presence of God permeates every scene.
When Abbie and I came to Cincinnati in the summer of 2006, I was fresh out of seminary, Abbie had just completed her work as a music therapist with developmentally disabled adults, and Eve was about as old as Ila is right now. Lily and Belle and Ila were not yet.
One of my first distinct memories of meeting the congregation was the day we moved into the small brick house two doors down from the church on Brownway Ave. There was a full group of CMFers there to lend a hand that day. We worked in two crews. Downstairs Abbie was with the more typical moving crew, getting boxes and furniture out of the UHaul, and bringing them into the house to stack in whatever space seemed most appropriate.
Upstairs I was with the other crew. This group was armed with hammers, crowbars, and a various assortment of power tools, tasked with demolishing the tiny and only bathroom situated between the two small bedrooms. The goal for the day: disconnect and carry out all the old bathroom fixtures, including a heavy claw foot tub, rip through the wall separating the bathroom from a closet in the adjoining bedroom, close up the existing doorway to that closet to now serve as a wall for the expanded bathroom, move the doorway for the expanded bathroom, and tear into another wall in the bedroom where we had just eliminated the closet in order to create a new closet. It is said that adrenaline aids memory, and I remember it well.
We had a fairly successful day, getting all the items out of the truck and into the house, and forever altering the floor plan of the upstairs. We had one week before I started in the church office and it took me most of the hours of the rest of that week to finish reconstructing what the CMF work crew had so skillfully deconstructed that first day. Fortunately several of you came back at different points throughout the week to lend a hand for a few hours. Also fortunately, although we didn’t have our own bathroom, we lived very close to Peace House, which, for us, quickly took on the name Pee House. This was the first of many instances in which living by the church was just right for our family.
I can honestly say that during my whole time at CMF I have never been so stressed and slept so poorly as that first week in that first house we had ever owned. I think it was about 102 degrees all week, at night. We had to leave the AC off and windows open because of all the dust I was raising. At one of the darker moments in the week, when I was seriously doubting what we had gotten ourselves into, I imagined a headline in the next Mennonite periodical that went something like this: “Recent AMBS grad bites off more than he can chew in house remodeling project and is too exhausted and embarrassed to begin pastoral work with any level of competency.”
If one were into spinning off metaphors or life lessons from these kinds of experiences, this one would have plenty to spin. Feel free.
During my time at seminary I attended a conference in which a panel of experienced pastors was asked an intriguing question that went something like this: “At what point in your ministry did you first realize that you had become a pastor?” The only answer I remember was given by a pastor who said that when he was called to the home of a family from the church where the son had died by suicide, and was asked by the family if he could haul out to the curb the mattress on which their boy had died, because they couldn’t bear to carry it themselves – that’s when he knew that he had become a pastor.
Sitting in the audience with other seminary students, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would answer that question if it were asked to me years down the road. At the time, I thought I may already have my answer, somewhat connected to that pastor’s response. Earlier that same year one of my closest friends died by suicide and I was asked to preach at his memorial service in St. Louis at the congregation Abbie and I had attended before moving to Indiana for seminary. My time spent in conversation and thought while writing that meditation, attempting to speak truthfully into such a difficult situation, was at least an important prelude to pastoral work.
But I think my answer would be different, and much less dramatic regarding when I first realized I was a pastor. It happened within the first few months here when John Simpson, who was attending CMF at that time, asked to stop in and talk. We sat out in the meeting space at Peace House and he asked me how one can know if a person is the right one to marry. John was about my age, and my first instinct was to joke around a bit with the idea. But a little ways into the conversation I had a realization – which was the point I would identify as the first awareness I had become a pastor. The realization was that John actually cared about what I said. He didn’t come to buddy around, as fine as that might be for some initial small talk. He came because he was searching, he wanted guidance, and he thought his pastor might be a legitimate place to seek that guidance. He was hungry. As strange as it may sound, this was something of a revelation to me. What I said mattered. Had an impact in the lives of real people in real situations. It didn’t mean I had to have any kind of authoritative word on anything, but it meant that really listening to others, and offering back the gift of words was a significant part of who I was becoming. A pastor.
Throughout my time here I have come to realize that I am among hungry people. I know this because I have seen your hunger – I know this because I myself am hungry and have been fed countless times by this community.
If this were a sermon in which I was referencing scripture, this might be about the point where I quote that Beatitude when Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” I might go on a bit about the blessings of hunger, and how you can’t be filled unless you first realize you are empty. But this is not that kind of sermon, so I won’t go there.
One of the great things about being a pastor is that there is always a follow-up to each story, because these relationships are sustained over time. John was soon engaged with Bethany Blough, who was also attending CMF. They moved to the Denver area where they were married, and currently attend Glennon Heights Mennonite Church, with their two young boys. Their success together is no doubt entirely dependent on that brief Peace House conversation in which I realized I was a pastor.
As I traveled around the wider church and people would learn that I was the pastor of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship I would inevitably get one of two responses. One response was: “Oh, you must know Ed Diller.” A second response was, “Oh, you’re the arts congregation. I’ve always wanted to go to that. Thank you so much for hosting that event and promoting the arts.” It took a little while to get used to getting thanked for something I had nothing to do with starting or maintaining. Rather than brushing off the thank you, or taking credit for Mennonite Arts Weekend, I found myself settling on an answer about how fun it is to be a cheerleader for what this congregation does.
It’s amazing to see even in the last few years, how the arts are being welcomed into church life as different congregations turn their foyers into art galleries and artists are recognized for their gifts. The recently built MC USA offices in Elkhart include many beautiful commissioned pieces of art from Mennonite artists displayed throughout. This would not have happened 20 years ago, and this congregation is a big reason for the embracing of the arts that is happening.
Embracing. Give me a C, give an M, give me an F. Go CMF.
My being thanked for CMF’s promotion of the arts also has its parallel in the Tuesday evening Community Meal. I show up right at 5:00, just as the opening prayer is sung and the food is ready to be served, get some food and hang out with people who have become friends, and as they leave they say “Thanks for supper, Pastor Joel.” After a few initial futile attempts of pointing out that I didn’t do a thing to prepare supper, I settled on a better response. “I’m so glad you were able to join us. Come again.” It has been my great privilege to have that gratitude for receiving a good hot meal and a welcoming space to be directed not to me, but through me, to this congregation, and you need to know just how grateful our Community Meal friends are for what you do.
Because we have lived so close to the church, it has been especially meaningful to see all the ways you have made and are claiming this neighborhood and this building home. For those of you who are too new and did not have the privilege of ever seeing it, this sanctuary used to have the only carpet in the world that was both red and green at the same time, depending on how the light fell on it. This was due to it having been aged like a fine wine in this sanctuary with layers of history both added and worn off. It was a paradox in our midst. An object of contemplation for all who entered. Actually being partially colorblind, I have no idea if it looked both red and green to others, but that’s how I saw it. It was special, but it needed to go. It is difficult to leave right in the middle of this new front entrance project, which, even though there are no visual signs of it yet, is being worked on diligently by the HOPE committee, which, in case anyone has forgotten, stands for Home, Our Place of Expression.
One of the most joyful parts of pastoring here has been the ceremonies and rituals. One of the great things about being in the free church tradition is that sometimes we just plain get to make stuff up rather than having a formal liturgy handed to us, and the creation and carrying out of the Coming of Age ritual is a truly unique event that this congregation has formed.
The great German theologian Karl Barth famously said that the Christian should read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. It’s a great line, and his point was that scripture must always be read in the current wider social context. Aside from updating that second hand to a laptop or iPad, my experience in preparing for sermons has been that there is a third text always present, requiring a third hand. That text is your lives. The newspaper/nytimes.com speaks to wider issues of the day, but the third text speaks to the specificities and particularities of your lives. With this, one can never rely just on good ideas, lofty ideals, or even power-packed quotes from German theologians. It is in the particularity of your lives where I have encountered Spirit so powerfully and it is one of the thrills of pastoring to listen intently to that place where all of those texts – scripture, news, and lived experience, intersect.
Now it sounds like I’m trying to recruit some of you to seminary, which, if it happened, would be a nice side effect.
Over the course of its almost forty years, CMF has had four long term pastors. Mark Weidner, Weldon Nisly, Ann Nofziger, and me. Each of us was ordained in this congregation, which means that this was our first pastorate and you taught each of us how to be pastors. John Kampen is a fifth person ordained in CMF. He’s the really long term pastor, for whom this pastor is very grateful. Now it’s up to you to decide whether nurturing new pastors is your great gift and something you wish to continue, or whether you feel you have done your share of that and it’s time to welcome a pastor with some experience. One word of advice: Build this new front entrance with extra strong fortifications, because there will be large groups of both ready to knock down your front door to be that next pastor.
For this last part I want to share four pictures, the first three of our family and the last one of you.
This first picture was taken my first day in the office at Peace House and that, as you can guess, is Eve on my lap. I don’t remember if I planned it this way or not, but notice how I have on my desk all the tools a pastor would ever need. A Bible, a laptop, a notepad, a mobile flip phone, and one of those papers on the desk is a church directory. Poised and ready for action.
That was seven years ago.
And this next picture is an attempt to somewhat reset the stage this past week with similar kinds of items. Clearly neither baby Miller or I have aged a bit, although the Bible took a beating over the years, which hopefully is a good sign in this line of work. There are also a couple technology upgrades.
There’s the joke about the young pastor asking the mentor about how many points a good sermon should have. The mentor answers. “At least one.” So at least one point in this sermon is that the end is like the beginning. That first year we spent a lot of time eating with you in your homes and getting acquainted. These last couple months we have again been eating a lot of meals, enjoying one another’s presence and reflecting on these years together. Our family is again in limbo with our housing situation, now using Peace House as the occasional home away from home as we have brought supper over multiple times as a realtor, right over the supper hour, shows a client our house who will inevitably conclude that they like the house but didn’t realize it doesn’t have a driveway. The end is like the beginning because, to spin a metaphor, the floor plan of our respective lives is being rearranged in difficult, but hopefully, ultimately beautiful ways. What was solid and firmly in place is being taken away and there are openings where before there was defined space.
The next picture is with all the girls now. So, a second point is that the end is not like the beginning.
By my calculations, just this week, of the 116 people who mostly regularly attend CMF, 58 were here before we got here, and 58 are new since we got here. For one thing it’s pretty remarkable that it ends up being exactly half and half – a ratio also true in that second picture of us. But it’s also pretty remarkable that this is really a different congregation than it was only seven years ago. One of the things I love about this congregation is that dynamic relationship between the longer term members and the newer members. The stabilizers and the destabilizers, using that second term in a good way. In this lively river that is CMF, some of you are the rocks giving solidity and shape and some of you are the flowing water. For those youngish adults who are perhaps newer and are not sure where life is taking you, whether you are water or rock in this place, I challenge you to step into positions of leadership nonetheless. This is a congregation that welcomes that and it’s a wonderful place to not only share your gifts, but to discover gifts you didn’t know you had. The experience also just might transform you into a rock.
The end is not like the beginning because Spirit is flowing through us, and we are changed people.
The fourth and final picture is a picture of you all, the people of CMF, although it is not a power point slide, so I’ll try and use words to draw it.
A picture of CMF life that to me represents what this point in time is all about for this church family, happened at the last Community Meal. The neighborhood guests had come and gone and CMFers were all sitting around the table in the dining area eating and talking before cleaning up. Suddenly around the corner, from the kitchen, come Chris and Lisa Land, carrying baby Samuel, their first time out of the house together as a family of three. Everyone stands up and surrounds them. We are surprised, we are curious, we are grateful. And this is how we respond.
This feels like a similar moment. Something brand new is coming around the corner. We rise, and greet it with open hearts.
I don’t exactly know where to end this. The word that comes to mind is that same word that I’ve had directed at me so often on your behalf. Thank you. Abbie and I and our family are so grateful to have been your pastoring family, and we very much look forward to the friendships that we know will continue. You are a blessed gathering of souls. Thank you for being who you are and for helping make us who we are.