Celebrating Amy's Five Years
Let us pray: God our sustainer, and redeemer, speak to us through the biblical witness today, that the stories that have formed us may continue to inspire, guide and give us hope for the journeys ahead. Amen
When Amy Norton arrived among us five summers ago, She was a new seminary graduate. She was not even yet ordained as a minister. Her position as our associate pastor was temporary. A year later, by mutual agreement, she became our settled, Associate Pastor. When she was ordained to the ministry, about that time, a service and celebration took place in her home church. Amy was already deeply involved in the ministry of United Parish.
Normally, a minister who is called to a permanent position in a congregation is celebrated with a formal installation service and we intended to do that. But busyness, the work of ministry, and lots of other things may have been distractions to keep putting such a celebration off. During Covid times, the Human Relations Ministry Team talked with Amy about finally formalizing her ministry among us in this way, but other events inside and outside the church kept us from settling on a date. Finally, we found that today would be the perfect time, though it seems a little late for formalizing a relationship that is now a five years long.
So Amy suggested that instead of launching her ministry five years late, that we celebrate and rejoice in our eventful and now rather long time of being together.
When Amy asked me to preach, I thought back to a time when I was contemplating going into the ministry…following some of the first brave women who sought to become ordained ministers in the Presbyterian Church. I was little uncertain about taking this then unusual path for a woman. I wondered if f I was up to it. As part of the process towards ordination I had to be sponsored by a congregation. Since my own congregation was far away from the seminary where my family now lived and my husband and I studied, I choose a new congregation to help me on my way. It was Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon, CA. On the day of my joining, I was surprised when I realized that the pastor, Doug Huneke, was speaking to each new person seeking membership in a very personal way. To each one before me, he said….You come to us in the tradition of (. ) and he would name a biblical character that the new member shared attributes with. When Doug got to me… he said to me…Cathy…you come to us in the tradition and in the spirit of Miriam.
That was a Wow! Moment for me. Miriam! The connection made an impression on me. It made me want to learn to know her better. Since then, I have tried to live into her example, and walk in her spirit.
It is this long ago and on going connection with Miriam that came to my mind when I thought of Associate Pastor, Amy. This congregation came to my mind as well. I see the people Miriam led through the wilderness, along with Moses and Aaron…in us.. So as I tell Miriam’s story this morning, imagine in your own mind how her story is reflected in Amy’s story and in our story.
Miriam’s leadership of the Israelites is first noted in the 15th Chapter of Exodus. The formerly enslaved people have just come through a miraculous deliverance from the Egyptian armies as they passed on dry land through the Red Sea. The Egyptian army as been destroyed in the waters.. Imagine the feelings of those Israelites as they made it to the other side, safe and free! Their leaders marked this miracle with worshipful singing and dancing! Quite a celebration! Moses led the singing first…but then, the prophet, Miriam stood before them. She took her Tamborine in hand and she sang to them…”Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously: horse and rider God has thrown into the sea!” And the people led by the women….took up their tambourines and sang and danced with her.
Can you recall the many times that pastor Amy has led us in celebration and prayer, and song?
Miriam is the first woman called prophet in the Bible. (Did you even know there are women prophets in the Bible?) What is a prophet? A prophet is someone who listens to God. A prophet is an inspiring teacher and proclaimer of the will of God. She speaks the truth to the people and to power. When she speaks, the people and the leaders listen.
How have we benefitted when Amy has spoken to and for us?
And so, the 40 year trek through he wilderness begins for the Israelites…forty years of wandering, being formed as a covenant people. Forty years of being led through all kinds of difficulties and life-changing events. Forty years of depending on God. And along with God in the lead, there were the prophets Moses, his brother Aaron, and sister, Prophet Miriam!
What has our own through wilderness entailed? Especially in the last five yers? What difficulties and life-changing events have we lived through? How has God been with us during these times? How have we depended on Pastor Amy and our other leaders?
Miriam was not only a skilled musician and preacher. We know that Miriam was smart and brave and creative. Her name is not mentioned, but much earlier in her life, we see her at the River Nile, watching the pharaoh’s daughter draw an infant out of the water. His life was in danger. Pharaoh’s evil edict had been given to kill all the Hebrew slaves’ male babies. The baby’s mother makes a basket, puts him in it, and sends him in it down the Nile. His big sister follows along. When the princess chooses to keep the baby as her own, the brave young girl steps forward. She cleverly suggests that she knows a Hebrew woman who could nurse him. She offers to bring that woman, whom we know as the baby’s birth mom, to the princess. The princess agrees. She names the baby Moses. The future savior of the Hebrew people lives to fulfill his destiny…thanks to that older sister, Miriam.
How has our own Pastor Amy blessed us with creative and innovative solutions along with the courage to bring them forward, as we have navigated a pandemic and other challenging times?
Imagine what is was like leading a big group of formerly enslaved people through an unknown wilderness, into an unknown future. Sometimes the people even wanted to return to the land of their enslavement, when things really got tough….when water and food were scarce. The stories of Moses getting water from a rock and manna from heaven are very well known. In a later Jewish midrash or commentary on scripture, however, it is Miriam who provided water in the wilderness. In that tradition, the well, that initially saved the people from dying of thirst, travelled on through the wilderness with the people. Many years later, as told in Numbers 20:1, when Miriam died, the well dried up. So the well has since been named Miriam’s well. And Miriam has been revered for giving living water to the people. (Mayim Hayyim - Living water is also a term for Jesus and his life-giving, transformational spirit.
What living water has been offered to sustain this congregation over the years?
Miriams’ life and leadership was not without conflict and hardship. At one point, she becomes irritated with her brother Moses. He was taken a second wife, a Cushiite woman, and Miriam doesn’t agree with his decision. So she goes along with her other brother, Aaron to confront Moses. But God is apparently on Moses’ side and punishes Miriam for speaking her truth. She is stricken with leprosy….and like modern day pandemic protocol, she must go straight to quarantine so as not to spread the disease. But this is a traveling group of people, and they must move on toward the Promised Land. Will they leave Miriam behind? Will they shun her? Not at all! Moses even prays for her return to health. And the people….refuse to move on, even one inch, until she is well enough to travel with and among them again. So they all stay put an entire week, while this leader of theirs heals.
How have we supported and sustained our Pastor Amy during the last five years, so that she is affirmed and knows she is valued as our leader?
The esteem in which Miriam has been held through the centuries is documented by a much later prophet, Micah, who spoke God’s truth to the descendants of the Exodus people. Micah challenged a wayward Israel by bringing up their formational story…the story in which God delivered the Hebrews out of enslavement in Egypt, and gave them leaders to guide them through the wilderness….Moses, Aaron AND Miriam! Micah goes on to give the people of Israel a mission statement that still resonates with the church today. In response to all of this…what God expects…requires of us is…. to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. This people, formed by the wilderness and in the wilderness was and is given this role to play in the world.
How do you think formational stories like the Exodus inform this congregation’s sense of mission in the world? What is God asking THiS covenant people to be and do?
Miriam’s tradition and spirit has been a lasting one. She is still honored in new and meaningful ways. In the 1980s in Boston, a tradition was added to the Passover Seder by a Jewish feminist group, Rosh Chodesh. The Passover Seder is a sacred meal in which all the participants remember together the Exodus story….which modern Jews see as their contemporary story. The Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples was a seder meal. It is traditional to have a seder plate with foods that help tell the story. Also there are four cups of wine to drink in this celebration of freedom. The last cup is symbolically called the cup of the prophet, Elijah. He is the prophet who will announce the coming of the future Messiah. In 1980, a group of women added another cup to the table. They named it Miriam’s cup. This cup is slowly filled with water, as each person around the table gratefully adds water from their own cup to honor Miriam. This memorializes Miriam’s role in saving and sustaining the Jewish people. It is a powerful metaphor for all Jewish women who have sustained the Jewish people especially in adversity.
And so,, I think it is fitting on this, the fifth anniversary of Amy’s ministry, prophecy, and visionary leadership among us…..through our own wilderness times….that we say to her… “Pastor Amy, you have faithfully served among us all these five years, in the tradition and spirit of the prophet Miriam. So, this cup, Miriams Cup, is rightfully yours. Please keep it as a symbol of our on-going journey within God’s care, with you. Today we will take turns filling your cup with water, and blessings.
There are six congregational leaders who will start this for us. I them to come forward, to pour some water into Amy’s cup and offer a word of prayer, or blessing, or thanks.
WOMEN COME FORWARD - MOVE TO THE TABLE
Amy, will you now come forward to receive these gifts?
AMY COMES FORWARD
NOW I invite any of the children to come forward to pour a small amount of water into Amy’s cup.
CHILDREN COME FORWARD
Next to Amy’s cup is another symbol of her leadership in this celebration, a Tamborine. I invite you all to write a prayer, a blessing, or a word of thanks and bring it forward following the benediction to place in Amy’s Tamborine.
Pastor Amy, May these blessings and an over flowing cup fill you with with the living water that sustains you and all of us for the journey ahead.