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Ministry as Midwifery

This was the final sermon I preached at the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, San Francisco, on the occasion of my retirement on Sunday, June 11, 2006.  I had served the congregation for 17 years and the date of my final sermon was also the 40th anniversary of my ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament (Teaching Elder).

Exodus 1:15-22


For the past 48 days, I have had this Wells Fargo Y2K countdown clock sitting on my desk, staring me in the face.  It belongs to Eddie Kam who loaned it to me.  I don’t know what he’s planning to do with it when he gets it back, since he has quite a few years to go before his retirement.  There may be other deadlines in his life that he wants to use it for.  For your information, the clock reads at this moment, 3 hours and 39 minutes.  I don’t really need a clock to remind me of deadlines.  I tend to plan ahead, try to be organized, and to meet deadlines on time.  I am  “J” on the Meyers-Briggs.  We all live with deadlines of some sort.  Making an appointment or meeting someone for a date at the appointed hour is about deadlines.  Final exams and final papers and projects carry a deadline.  Filing your taxes on time is about meeting a deadline.  Paying your bills on time is meeting a deadline.  When you get a learner’s permit, you have only so much time to get your driver’s license before the permit expires.  Coupons come with a deadline.  Warranties have expiration dates.  In a chess tournament, you have only so much time to make your move.  When you are given only so much time to live as cancer ravages your body, that is a deadline.  And of course, retirement is a deadline.  As Jon Hee reminded me as early as 2 months ago, “Your days are numbered!”

I.    This pulpit holds a lot of memories and history for me.  The very first sermon I ever preached was from this pulpit.  I was in the second year of seminary.  In the introduction to that sermon, I remember talking about the challenge of the first sermon.  It is very common for first time preachers to want to impress the congregation with everything he has learned; and so the preacher ends up putting everything she knows into that first sermon.  Even though I was forewarned that I would be tempted to do that, tried as I did to resist that temptation, sure enough, I found myself putting everything I had learned in seminary and knew up to that point in my preparation for ministry into that first sermon, which I believe some of you here today actually heard back in 1964.  The problem, I discovered to my dismay, was that the finished sermon was only 3 minutes long.  Well, 40 plus years later, I suppose a preacher’s last sermon before he retires should be more than 3 minutes long.  In some ways, this last sermon was more difficult to write than my very first one.  It is harder to cut out material than to try to find enough material to preach on.  There is so much I want to say to you.  I know that one of these days, I will be invited back to this pulpit as a guest preacher, so I don’t expect that this will be my very last sermon from this pulpit.  I don’t have to say everything I want to say to you.  Yet, who knows what will transpire between this moment and the next time, whenever that may be, when I stand before you in this pulpit again.  Some of you will have passed on.  Some of you will be in a new covenant relationship, otherwise known as marriage.  Some of you will have newborn or newly adopted children.  Some of you will be grand and even great grandparents.  Some of you will suffer serious illness, if not terminal.  Some of you will have redirected your lives to a new calling.  Some of you will be retired.  Life doesn’t stop does it?

II.    For this last sermon as your pastor, I am departing from the lectionary, something I rarely do except on special occasions which summon a departure.  This morning, I chose a text that carried the message I wanted you to hear.  In Exodus 1, we find the wonderful story of the Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah.  They are persons who model pastoral ministry for me.  Pastoral ministry, for me, is being a midwife.  Among the many heroes and heroines in the Bible, notice how Shiprah and Puah are hardly noticed.  Have you ever met children named Shiprah or Puah?  No, we name our children Sarah, Mary, Rachel, Ruth, Naomi, Lydia, Deborah.  As your pastor, my call was not to give birth to my own dreams for the church.  My primary concern has been your birth pangs.  A congregation does not exist to fulfill the needs of the pastor.  I am not the dreamer of your dreams, nor are you the characters in my drama.  You dream your own dreams, and live your own lives.  And I am here to encourage that, to midwife that.  As midwife, the pastor refuses to impose her mind.  Instead she honors the minds of her people.  She treats all within the congregation as lovable and trustworthy, even when they are not.  The pastor does not try to improve people.  It cannot be done.  Try to improve someone is to treat them as an object.  The Holy Spirit will bring whatever change and growth is necessary.  By accepting and loving his people, the pastor then becomes the instrument for the Holy Spirit to do her work.  As your pastor/midwife, my call has been to equip you to live out your dreams and and your calling in the workplace, the family, the neighborhood, the community as well as the church.

III.    William Martin, author of The Art of Pastoring writes:  “When your congregation despises you, it is a great sorrow.  When your congregation holds you in awe, it seems somewhat better.  When your congregation praises you far and wide, it seems even better still.  But when your congregation hardly notices that you exist, you have become a pastor.  When the pastor’s work is done, the congregation will truthfully say, ‘We did it ourselves.’  And the pastor will rejoice!”  It is time to move on, to look forward to the future.  In his book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman writes:  “One thing that tells me a company is in trouble is when they tell me how good they were in the past.  Same with countries.  You don’t want to forget your identity.  I am glad you were great in the 14th century, but that was then and this is now.  When memories exceed dreams, the end is near.  The hallmark of a truly successful organization is the willingness to abandon what made it successful and start fresh.”  Friedman is talking about companies and countries; but what he says speaks for the church too.


In an end of the summer gathering of camp counselors, who used the occasion to share some of the highlights of their summer with children, one counselor shared her experience with one of the campers, a sunny little girl she called L.  At camp, this counselor had the tendency to gravitate towards the child who needed the most help, and L was one of those.  And here is what she shared:  “This last summer, the camper I got closest to, L, was a magical child who was severely disabled.  She had 2 genetic diseases, one of which kept her from digesting any food.  She had to be fed through a tube at night and she had so much difficulty walking that I drove her around in a golfcart a lot.  We both liked that.  One day, when we were playing duck-duck-goose, I was sitting behind her and she asked me to hold her mail for her while she took her turn to be chased around the circle.  It took her a while to make the circuit, and I had time to see that on top of the pile was a note from her mom.  Then I did something truly awful, which I’m reluctant now to reveal.  I decided to read the note.  I simply had to know what this child’s parents could have done to make her so spectacular, to make her the most optimistic, most enthusiastic, most hopeful human being I had ever encountered.  I snuck a quick look at the note, and my eyes fell on this sentence:  ‘If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, L, we would only have chosen you.’  Before L got back to her place in the circle, I showed the note to Bud, who was sitting next to me.  ‘Quick.  Read this’, I whispered.  ‘IT’S THE SECRET OF LIFE.'”  It’s the secret of pastoral ministry.  If God had given me all of the congregations in the world to choose from, I would only have chosen you.  That’s the meaning of a call.  Thank you for the honor and privilege of serving as your midwife.  It has been a wonder-filled journey which we have shared together.  And I will always love you.

2 thoughts on “Ministry as Midwifery”

  1. Last week I had many questions and needed to decipher how to “apply” horizontal and vertical leadership in my church ministries’ activities. I am involved with two churches in which I am not a member.

    One church ministry involvement has been ongoing for almost two decades. The other started only 21 months ago. The second one is headed for merger which is extremely likely to finalize in a month and a half. I was invited to be an Associate Member of the merged entity and have accepted. Thus my quandary about what my role should really be. Cal, your framing it as “midwifery” is just perfect. Thank you.

  2. What a sermon! Profound diptych. So meaningful. A stellar model of brevity with wisdom, sentiment, and depth–multum in parvo (sorry for not sticking with English), “less is more”–ironically everything you know (the everything that matters) in one compact sermon.

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