Excerpt From the Installation Sermon Preached by Johnny Wray (Shaped Through Mentors)




On March 2nd, my long time mentor and friend and one of my idols- the Reverend Johnny Wray- preached my    installation service at Community Christian Church. All 1600 words were carefully crafted and preached- but this is part of his message. Every time I re-read his sermon, I am reminded of the importance of mentors that have gone ahead of us and paved a way for us to follow.





Preached March 2, 2014 by the Reverend Johnny Wray

The word “install”… comes from an Old French word (estaler) – meaning to place, to set up, to position, to establish. And that is precisely what pastors are called to do — getting things in place and making the space for the Spirit of God to move and to work; and preparing, setting up, positioning the congregation to hear and to heed the words of Jesus.

For example, Sarah, I’m thinking of: the children in the congregation-and the responsibility you have, as their pastor, as the installer of faith in them. To nurture them in the love of God, to teach them the stories of Jesus and the ways of Jesus, to instill in them a deep appreciation for Holy Communion and all the traditions and practices of the church, to provide a safe place for them to share their stories, their joys and sorrows, to welcome them as a child of God. You are an installer of faith.

There are also folks here who draw every breath in pain – may be the physical pain of illness, of the parental pain of watching one’s child suffer, or the emotional pain of loss – the loss of a spouse, a child, a parent, any beloved… And as their pastor – you are called to install comfort – to hold the hand at the bedside, to wipe the tear at the graveside, to provide a shoulder, a listening ear, a caring heart. An installer of comfort.

There are also folks here who are afraid. We live in fearful times – the world can be a dangerous and dark place. People are afraid – some are afraid of death, some are afraid of life. Some are afraid of change, some afraid of anything different… and you are called to install hope.

You, Sarah, are also called to be an installer of compassion. When we are tempted – as we often are – to withdraw into ourselves, to look out for self first, to neglect, ignore the needs of the neighbor next door, across town, around the world — You are called to install in us, to help us live with the suffering of others — that will include the suffering of others right here in this congregation and in this community. It will also include the suffering of survivors of hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and tornadoes in the Midwest and those in our society who’ve fallen out, been left out, cast out. It will include the suffering of victims of civil war in Syria and South Sudan, of hunger in Zimbabwe, of earthquakes in Haiti, of poverty in Bangladesh. You are the reminder of one of the fundamental teachings of Jesus: we find life when we give it away in self-emptying, self-giving love. It is in learning to live with and share the suffering of others that we are able to realize a life of passion, peace and joy.

You are called Sunday after to Sunday to stand in this pulpit, open the scriptures, listen to the world around you, peer into the hearts of these people and install a fresh, relevant word from God; sometimes you’ll need to install justice – when the wrong seems oft so strong, when things must be set right; other times you’ll be called to make the space for a spirit of generosity or a spirit of hospitality; or make the space for a sense of wonder or a touch of humor. . .

But even more — neither is it you and the congregation alone. There can be no service of installation more necessary, more critical than your making that space within your own life and in the life of the congregation to be open to receive the gift of the Spirit.

So Sarah – with your gifts, with the gifts of this congregation, with the gifts of the Holy Spirit – there can be no doubt that the best days of this congregation still lie ahead. Amen.


Antiracism Training (Shaped Through Awareness)


+ Micah 6:8 What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

I spent the last few days in Columbus for the “New to the Region” Clergy training. For our session today, we focused on antiracism.

We mapped out a timeline of racism and resistance in this country since 1492.

We explored individual, institutional and cultural racism that still seeps in to our society in 2014.

We heard a personal testimony from a member of the Christian Church who has endured profiling in his search for apartments and encountered fear from his neighbors on vacation.

At the end of the class day, the white members of the class took turns reading statements aloud that started with “As a white person…” and some of the phrases pierced my heart:

As a white person, I can, if I wish, be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

As a white person, I can turn on the television, the front page of the newspaper, read the corporate annual report, and see people of my race reaching their dreams and widely represented in the success stories I aspire to.

As a white person, I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

Naming our white privilege and spending time listening to the stories and personal experiences of our brothers and sisters of color deeply moved me today. I felt the weight and the responsibility of my privilege- and the importance of awareness, advocacy and partnership across all racial/cultural lines.

When have you felt shaped through awareness? #ShapedByGod

When Andrew Prayed for Me (Shaped Through Love)


We said our ordination vows in unison. We have seen the world together. We have presided over infant dedications, weddings, and funerals together. We have led mission trips together. We laugh together. But one of the most meaningful things that Andrew offers me comes in the form of prayer.

On March 2nd, as Community Christian Church officially ‘installed’ me as their new minister- Andrew offered this prayer at the service:

God of Creation, God of Compassion, God of New Beginnings,

We give thanks for bringing us all together today to celebrate the new chapter in the life of this historic church.

We ask you to bless the ministry of Rev. Sarah as she leads this gathered body of Christ into a future filled with hope, filled with grace and filled with joy.

God of infinite wisdom- guide this community as we work together to fulfill Your will to bring light to the dark places, to bring hope to the hopeless and mercy to all of your children in this world.

Be here working through this community, knitting us together into a family, weaving the threads of these people gathered into one great story.

We pray all of these things in Your many holy names. Amen

Through Andrew, I remember each day how much we can all be shaped by love.

Who shapes your life through love? #ShapedByGod

Meeting at the Well (Shaped Through Thirst)

woman at the well

+ John 4:6-7, 15 Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water…and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”… The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty…”

Two thirsty people meet at a well, in the hottest part of the day as the sun beats down in the Samaritan desert. And they need each other.

I love this story.

A rabbi intentionally wanders into enemy territory alone, to a well, with no bucket- in the sweltering heat of noonday. Other Jews would have warned him: do not speak to Samaritans- it will make you unclean. Do not associate with that group of unholy people- you will be cast out.

He ignores convention and expectation- and he intentionally wanders to a well in the middle of a desert with no vessel for water: putting himself at the mercy of strangers to quench his thirst.

There, he meets an untouchable woman who is fetching water in solitude.

Going to the well usually meant a time to socialize with the women of the village: to share stories about their children, to laugh about their husbands, to catch up on community gossip. But instead, this woman ventured to the well alone- did she have anyone in her corner? Did she have a single friend to spend time with at this social well in her community?

She ignored the stigma and loneliness of collecting water in isolation. And yet, she had a deep thirst too. She longed to be seen, to be spoken-to, to be offered a sip of community, friendship, and inclusion.

The rabbi and the woman- both thirsty. Both in need. And at the well- they helped each other. They created a bridge where there was once a barrier.

I love this story.

What are you thirsty for?

What ways are you called to offer something to your unsuspecting neighbor?

What do you seek at ‘the well’?


Born of Water, Spirit, Baptism? (Shaped Through Birth)


+ John 3:4-5 “How can someone be born again?” Nicodemus asked… Jesus answered, “No one can know God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”

The five bright souls in my pastor’s class this year continue to inspire me. They are preparing to be born of water and spirit as they submerge and rise from the waters of baptism.

Last week, I invited each of the participants to draw a picture of God, and I asked them to come prepared to answer these questions: Who is God? When did you feel close to God? Have you ever been angry at God? Have you ever felt that God was not there?

One brought a drawing of God as a large pair of arms stretching out around the whole world. One brought an image of God above the clouds, looking down at the earth. One brought an image of God as a beautiful woman- dressed up and ready to conquer anything.
And then, we asked the questions: have you ever been angry at God? Have you ever felt that God was not there?

Slowly, quietly at first, my pastor’s class participants began whispering their deepest concerns. “What about the Boston Bombing at the marathon? I was angry at God that day.”

Another spoke up: “when the bomb went off, I felt that God wasn’t there…”

The Pastor’s class talked about those moments when bad things happen in the world. Where is God? Why do we feel angry at God in those moments? Why do we doubt? What would it look like to see the Boston bombing through the lens of faith?

Even on the journey to baptism, we have questions…

The bright souls in the Pastor’s class began to use their lens of faith- they began to show signs and signals that they were being reborn by water and the Holy Spirit.

I asked them: if you were going to draw a picture of God on the day of the Boston bombing, what would you draw?

One student said: “I would draw God weeping, kneeling, with tears rushing down.”

Then, another student said- “I agree, God would be weeping. But then, I believe God would get up and begin to pick up all the broken pieces on the ground from the bomb, and hold them close…”

With these images of hope and renewal and transformation, this year’s Pastor’s Class taught me something about what it means to be born again by water and the spirit- about what it means to put on a lens of faith, to submerge deeply into the waters of baptism and to rise re-born- with eyes to see God in the world.

This is what it means to be shaped by birth in the hope of our creator. May all of this come to pass for you in the days ahead as we journey toward Easter. #ShapedByGod

If you could meet a figure from the Bible, who would it be? (Shaped Through Imagination)


Yes, I am sure we would all love to meet Christ, but that was out of the question, who would you want to meet?

When I studied at Harvard I worked under theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. Elisabeth invites her students to explore the untold stories of the scriptures. She urges all of us to reclaim the influence of women in the early church. In her classes, she encouraged us to look beyond the power and politics of the biblical cannon and use a hermeneutic of imagination to explore the lives and voices of minor figures in the Bible.

Because of Elisabeth’s influence in my own faith journey- if I could meet anyone from the bible- I would probably choose someone who isn’t even named. In fact, I’d choose more than one…

I would spend a day with a collective of biblical women to learn more about their dreams, their visions, their convictions, and their role in shaping the movement of Jesus Christ. Most of these women are unnamed, but I imagine if I first began speaking with Mary and Martha… soon, I would begin to meet other women who were fed in the crowd of 5,000 in Luke 9, then, I might meet some women who were part of the 72 disciples sent out to teach and preach in Luke 10… I would want to spend my day hearing the untold stories, the voices of women without political power and yet filled with spiritual wisdom and depth.

Who would you want to meet? #ShapedByGod

This One Time: We Moved to Canton, Ohio (Shaped Through Call)


+ Matthew 4:18-22 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two people…they were casting a net into the lake…  “Come, follow me,” … At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two… in a boat with their father, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

“I think God is calling me to North Canton, Ohio.” I said.

“Where?!” – said my whole family…

Last summer, after one phone conversation and one small Skype interview, I remember telling my family that I felt called to Northeastern Ohio- and it didn’t make any sense to any of us.

Life was good in Memphis, Tennessee.

After taking our ordination vows in unison and praying for a place to partner in ministry- Andrew and I finally served a beautiful church together. We lived 2 miles from my parent’s house. We recently finished a renovation to our first home that we’d dreamed of for years.

And we had never heard of North Canton, Ohio.

More than this- I wasn’t even the final candidate for this position, yet. I knew that Community Christian Church was in conversation with several other ministers with incredible gifts.

But I felt a strong, clear tug to North Canton, Ohio.

I cannot tell you what the search team said- exactly, or how they presented Community Christian Church. I cannot point to one particular ministry or one program that stood out. I cannot even remember exact questions they asked me.

For months, I’ve tried to find words that describe what it felt like to be called.

I felt like I was on the cusp of remembering something from long ago- or stretching towards a familiar, warm, refreshing place of refuge. I felt an incredible thirst, and piercing clarity. I felt compelled to cast a vision, to rise to the occasion, and to take a leap of faith.

Doors continued to open in the direction of North Canton, Ohio. In another post for another day, maybe I will try to describe them.

This call has been right for the beginning. Every day, this ministry strengthens my soul and expands my heart. Every person I’ve met feels like my family, my life-long friends, and my true partners in ministry. Every opportunity to pastor and preach here has felt like an incredible privilege and a humbling opportunity.

Just this week, my husband finally joined me in Stark County. He, too, has a call here. He will begin his ministry this weekend. And even though we didn’t arrive at the same time, and even though the last few months have been difficult, I always knew this week would come- I knew it way back in July when I whispered those words: “I think God is calling me to North Canton, Ohio.”

Tonight, I am reflecting on the power of being shaped through a call from God. I am remembering my favorite quote by Barbara Brown Taylor in her book The Preaching Life: “If my own experience can be trusted, then God does not call us once but many times. There are calls to faith and calls to ordination, but in between there are calls to particular communities and calls to particular tasks within them–calls into and out of relationships as well as calls to seek God wherever God may be found.”

Have you ever been called by God to something? #ShapedByGod

PS- I apologize for my lapse in writing over the last few days- I’ve been deeply immersed in the joy and adjustment of my wonderful husband’s arrival this week! But, I’m baaaack!

Shaped Through Elders


I hosted the Community Christian Church Elders at this table today. At our 2nd monthly breakfast, 9 (soon to be 12) Elders shared wisdom, encouragement, support and insight with me. We are working our way through Rev. Gary Straub’s book “Your Calling as an Elder.”

Around this table, the chair of our Elders read aloud this anecdote from Gary’s book. The story moves me every time I read it. Gary reminds me that as a pastor, I must be shaped by the Elders of the church every day, in every decision, and in every vision for the church. What a blessing.

Here is the story:

In September of 1977, with two years full-time experience as an associate and a newly minted Vanderbilt doctorate, I had just been named senior minister of First Christian Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I was overwhelmed! My first official task was to attend the General Assembly in Kansas City, where Dr. John Paul Pack, a beloved former Chattanooga minister, sat me down and preached me the gospel: “You can’t succeed in that church without elders; with them you cannot fail.” So we gathered the elders in the living room of Jack and Mavoreen Mullins, two beloved elders. We frankly discussed the obvious: I couldn’t possibly do this without them. After we talked late into the evening, we stood in a circle, joining hands and hearts to pray. That was the beginning of the elders’ circle. Over the next five years, we would meet often to puzzle out problems, encourage one another, and pray. In two succeeding decade-long pastorates, I would stand in the elders’ circle week after week, month after month, year upon year. In fact, I am still standing in the elders’ circle and being sustained in spiritual partnership as we share servant leadership in the congregation.

 The spiritual revitalization we seek for our Disciples congregations begins with the vitality of the elders as spiritual leaders, practicing their faith in the community. If there are signs of health, ongoing growth, vitality, and joy within the circle, there is a hopeful future for the congregations. Without this spiritual vision guiding the core spiritual community of the congregation, we are simply shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

Amen. #ShapedByGod

Field Trip to Temple Israel (Shaped Through Roots)

ImageTonight I took the Community Christian Church Pastor’s Class to Temple Israel to worship. We were all moved by the singing, the Hebrew prayers, the glimpses of the Torah, and the beauty of it all. I loved seeing the bright minds of 11 and 12-year-olds begin to open up as they worshiped along side our brothers and sisters and neighbors in the Jewish faith. We were all shaped by this experience of going deep into the roots of our faith on a Friday Night.

This was a prayer we all said together in worship from the Jewish prayer book, and it strengthened my soul:

I begin with a prayer of gratitude

for all that is holy in my life.

God needs no words, no English or Hebrew,

no semantics and no services.

But I need them.

Through prayer, I can sense my inner strength,

my inner purpose, 

my inner joy, my capacity to love.

As I reach upward in prayer,

I sense these qualities in my Creator.

To love God is to love each other,

to work to make our lives better.

To love God is to love the world God created

and to work to perfect it.

To love God is to love dreams of peace and joy

that illumine all of us,

and to bring that vision to life. Amen.


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