"Unprecedented Hope"

Pregnancy, Labor, Ordination and Death

(My ordination service, St Paul Lutheran in Denver, 2008)

I was recently hired to give a talk on “Unprecedented Hope” to some lovely Presbyterians.

I’m sharing part of that talk with you today.

Click here to watch a video of me giving this mini-sermon

Share The Corners by Nadia Bolz-Weber

First, a reading from Romans:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

-Romans 8

1.   Labor Pains. As a woman who herself has groaned in labor pains, I love – like, I adore this passage from Romans. I was in labor for 44 hours with my first child; a relentless freight train of pain that just got progressively more intense.  I’m not sure “groaning” is a primal enough word for the sounds I made. To be honest, I was scared and overwhelmed …but the one thing that kept me from completely going over the edge was to think about, despite how weird it all felt, how abjectly normal birth actually is. I kept repeating to myself “Every woman. Every woman.” If every woman throughout history who has birthed a child has ridden this freight train then I can too. Somehow I had to reach back to my fore-sisters and grasp on to their fortitude, their strength, their resiliency. Had I been the only one to ever experience childbirth I would have given up, sure I couldn't possible survive it. 

2.   Ordination. I was 39 years old when I knelt in front of the bishop in the stone chancel of a beautiful old church as I made some promises. Images of the saints, made from tiny pieces of stained glass, looked down as I vowed to pray and study the scriptures, to bear the burdens and keep the confidences of those I served. And eventually I was asked to make my favorite ordination vow: I promised to not offer “illusory hope”. In other words, I promised to not blow sunshine up people’s asses. 

Then the bishop and the other clergy gathered around and laid their hands on me, as clergy had laid hands on them at their ordinations by they who had had the same done to them at their ordinations and so on. Merging us all with those saints robbed in colored light, into something strong enough to allow me to answer “I will, and I ask God to help and guide me”

I think illusory hope in that moment of my ordination would have been to cheerfully claim, based on my own feelings or my own history or my own virtues  that yes, I could keep these promises myself. But realhope came from the strength of all the women who had fought for that moment but never saw one of their own, real hope came from the martyrs and the suffragettes and the really old prayers spoken by generations of the faithful.

Somehow I had to reach back and grasp on to the succession of the apostles who came before me. Had I been the only one to ever experience ordination I would have given up, sure I couldn't possible fulfil it.

3.    Pregnancy. Ingrid Rassmusen pastors a Lutheran church in South Minneapolis – the church that happens to be directly across the street from the police precinct that was burned down in protest of George Floyd’s murder. The day after it burned Ingrid posted a video showing us the scene around her church – police in riot gear, smoke rising, helicopters overhead. A few minutes into the video you realize Pastor Ingrid is moving a little slowly because she is 8 months pregnant. Before the video ends she’s in tears, both about her community burnt down around her, but more so about the generational pain and injustice that caused the upheaval - and in a halting voice she reminded us of Harlem the Langston Hughes poem …that what happens to a dream deferred is that it explodes. Her congregation, by the way has been transformed into a massive food bank and community organizing center and is feeding and providing services to their community in profound and needed ways as they rebuild. I think I saw the real thing in that video – like, actual hope. It was a hope of the Christian variety because it was the kind of hope that still stands after being drudged through good Friday first.

I’ve thought about her so much recently. Her baby nearly ready to be born as helicopters circled above Minneapolis, Minnesota.

4.   Death. Over 130,000 Americans have died from COVID in the last few months. Maybe one or more of them were people you yourself loved. One of those who passed was Michael Van Myers. Mike served as a minister at my parent’s church of Christ for 47 years including in the mid-eighties when, God bless him, I was in his youth group. That day in the Winter of 2008, when I knelt and promised not to offer people illusory hope, I was ordained as a Lutheran Pastor…. but the church I was raised in doesn't allow for such things. Women are still not permitted to preach in most of those church, although many have been called.

Mike and I still saw each other a few times a year and we shared a deep love and affection for each other. And he would tell me that he was proud of me and my work. 

When it was clear that Mike was not going to make it, and was near to death, hundreds of his friends and parishioners gathered in the parking lot circling the hospital, socially distanced and in masks and they sang hymns while he passed from this life to the next. The human eye could not see it, but my friend Mike was already pulled way too deeply into the arms of his loving savior to bother with hope in the form of wishful thinking. When he passed, surrounded by the hymns of his church, Mike reached forward to the great cloud of witnesses in which he now resides.

5.    Unprecedented Hope. So… all of that is to say, I realized this week that my struggle with knowing what to say about unprecedented hope was not about the hope part after all – it was about the unprecedented part. Because for it to be a hope on which I can truly rely, it has to be a hope for which there is indeed a precedent. It has to be a hope that has been worn smooth by the tears and prayers and struggle of our ancestors in faith, through Sarah’s laughter, and Hagar’s steps and Mary’s labor. For it to be a hope in which I can trust, it can’t be unprecedented. It must be already established in those who came before me. By Martin Luther and Fannie Lou Hamer and Marsha P Johnson. 

Those who have come before us have already lived through pandemics and social upheaval and loss and grief and death and labor pains. Which means we are never alone in our struggles. That has never mattered more to me than it does now. 

By the way, a few days ago Pastor Ingrid Rasmussen had her baby. Due to COVID, she had to do it without her husband present, but she said that she felt surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses. 

They named him Lars. He was born on the 50th anniversary of women’s ordination in the Lutheran church. 

So, I guess I just want to say that no matter what our lives look like in this moment, that something stronger, deeper and more beautiful is moving around us, sweeping us and all those who came before us, and all who will follow, up into God’s really big story. 

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. 

From our first breath to our last and beyond. Amen.

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