Farewell Sermon by Rev. Nicole M. Havelka to the Iowa Conference UCC 8/4/13:
Even though I grew up just west across the Missouri River in Omaha, Nebraska, 14 years of living amidst direct speech and aggressive behaviors in the urban “jungle” of Chicagoland, I could barely make out what people were doing and saying in the far more subtle land of Iowa when I first arrived nearly 5 years ago. Everything from benign chatter about the weather and potluck menus to more serious conversations about church decline held deep layers of meaning that made coffee hour feel more like an archeological dig.
I spent countless hours on the phone and typing emails asking people to take a leadership role here or there or to participate in yet another new program idea I had. Many, many, many times I heard a polite “No.” Or worse yet, no response at all. Even I, stubborn as I am, began to get discouraged. I finally went to my colleague, Jonna, a native, multilingual Iowan to translate. I’m sure the conversation went something like this. Let me act it out for you:
Nicole: (Putting hand to forehead dramatically.) “Why is it so hard to get anyone to say yes to anything.”
Jonna: (nodding politely with arms thoughtfully crossed over her chest). Well, in Norway no one would say yes after you asked only once.
Nicole: (crinkled, perplexed face) Why is that?
Jonna: (still nodding politely) Well, because saying yes would mean that you are prideful.
Nicole: Really? Does that also apply to Iowa?
Jonna: Yes. Many of us come from Nordic descent.
Nicole: So, does that mean I just have to keep asking?
Jonna: (Slowly) Yes.
(It’ll come as no surprise to you that many of our interactions had this kind of rhythm.)
It’s a really good thing that one of God’s gifts to me is persistence, aka “the stubbornness” I already referenced. I continued to ask and ask and ask you all to do things. And, after the third, fourth, fifth or 20th time, your “Norwegian-ness” began to wear off and you said, “yes” much more often. You began to attend training programs, you were willing to teach your own workshops, you would even (dare I say it) join Facebook or Twitter and begin to use it as a tool for ministry.
But, even if I think it was frustrating to invite you into this crazy new ministry we were creating, God has a much tougher job with all of us. If you read Biblical call stories, you see quite a lot of dramatic signs from God that seem obvious to the reader, but not as obvious to the one being called. Once they do get it, they usually follow up with denials, lame excuses and outright avoidance. Here’s some cases in point: Moses saw the burning bush and the tablets with the 10 Commandments and still had the nerve to whine to God that he wasn’t a good enough public speaker to lead the Israelites. Jonah hears God tell him to go to Ninevah and then he proceeds to take the next boat out of town in the exact opposite direction of where God directed him, only to be caught in a storm, thrown off the boat and swallowed by a large fish.
In the scripture that was so beautifully read only a few minutes ago, Isaiah doesn’t seem nearly as reluctant to take up God’s call, but he certainly doesn’t jump at the chance after his first encounter with God’s overwhelming vision either. The first thing we learn is that Isaiah was living in the year that King Uzziah died. Now, we are not at all familiar with kings, or the impact of one’s death on the people. But, if we can take the feelings surrounding more recent tragic events — the JFK assassination, 9/11, even the Trayvon Martin murder — and amplify those feelings, we might get an inkling of what the people of Israel may have felt. Pure and simple, it is grief and all that comes with it — anger, denial, sadness, confusion, uncertainty, fear. Definitely fear.
In the midst of this earthly chaos, Isaiah sees an otherworldly vision. One in which the throne, the space we might expect to be occupied by an earthly king, is replaced by a divine one. This divine king is decked out in flowing robes, the hem of which fills the room. This divine king is accompanied by not one, not two, but six angels. These angels are even overcome by this vision and they sing to one another of the glory of God, “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of [God’s] glory.’”
Isaiah looks on, I imagine his jaw dropping nearly to the floor with eyes and neck craned up toward this heavenly vision. His first reaction is NOT one of confidence or strength in who he is or whose he is, but rather feelings of unworthiness to even be seeing the glory of God. One of the angels must fly down to him with a hot coal taken from the altar to cleanse the prophet’s lips so that his guilt departs and his sin is blotted out. What a dramatic gesture it takes to get Isaiah on the right side of God!
When God then asks, “‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’, Isaiah, with clean lips and a lighter heart, is able to respond, “Here I am. Send me.”
This fantastical story could easily be dismissed as fictitious nonsense. But, what it demonstrates is that we all need someone or something to prompt us into becoming fully who we are created by God to be.
A scene from the 2006 movie, Akeelah and the Bee, demonstrates a real world example of this. Akeelah, an 11-year-old girl with a photographic memory and a genius for spelling, acknowledges that even she needs a coach if she wants to get to the Scripts National Spelling Bee. She goes to the office of Dr. Larabee to make amends for previously giving him attitude. He pushes her to think past the spelling and delve instead into who she is and whose she is.
Reading that Marianne Williamson quote is a game changer for Akeelah, she acknowledges the most basic fear we all have — the fear of ourselves and our potential for greatness. Moses’ complaint to God that he couldn’t speak well enough to lead the Israelites was a fear of himself. It took his brother, Aaron to help him lead in the way Moses already could. For Jonah it took a ride in stormy seas, being thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale, only to be vomited back up before he got to where he was supposed to be in the first place.
So, what was your game-changer? Who was your game-changer? At your table, share a story with the people around you about who that person or thing or situation was that affirmed your worthiness? That thing made you confident enough to step into God’s call?
We name these game-changing experiences not just to show how our lives have been changed, but because the telling of the story might be an instrument of transformation, of affirmation, of grace for others.
Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege to go away on retreat with some of the wonderful people who have participated in the Called to Lead groups I started here in Iowa. Let me say that these women, who nurture the faith lives of young people in the Iowa Conference, have been some of the most adventurous, risk-taking ministers I could have possibly worked with. When I asked them to do theological reflection online, they did it. When I asked them to read books loaded with unfamiliar ideas for 21st Century ministry, they did it. When I asked them to pack their bags and head to remote retreat centers in Iowa, they did it. During our last moment together, they gave me a gift. They gave me this Isabel Bloom statue that’s entitled “Courage to Shine.”Heidi Hulme explained that they wanted to give me the statue that was the image of an angel in child’s pose because of my passion, some might
say obsession, with yoga. But, they discovered that particular statue had been discontinued. So, they chose this one. Courage to Shine. It’s more appropriate, I think. In yoga, child’s pose is wonderful, restful. Because it’s a forward bend, it’s naturally introspective, even self-protective. This statue, however, reminds me of one of my favorite poses (that I can’t quite do), dancer’s pose. This huge back bend requires intense strength, groundedness and flexibility all at the same time. The line of this pose and the statue tilt their eyes skyward, heart opened, waiting to share her light.
Whether or not you or I are ever able to do this full pose, I do hope we all aspire to the openness it requires. I hope that in the time I’ve been in Iowa, I’ve helped you have the Courage to Shine in all your gifted glory. I learned that all those times that you told me, “No;” in all those times you made up excuses, in all the times you didn’t even return my calls or my emails, you were really wondering, like Isaiah, if your sin made you unworthy to see the full vision of God’s reign here on earth.
I’m here to remind you that you ARE enough; YOU are a magnificent creation of the Divine. God needs only YOU to answer the call that will help transform the world.
I’ll leave you one more time with the words of Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our Light, not our Darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you NOT to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel unsure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. As we let our own Light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” –Marianne Williamson