In 2011, soon after he graduated from Middlebury College, Andrew Forsthoefel decided he would spend the next year walking across our country. He started out in his hometown of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and he headed south through Virginia and Alabama before turning west and walking through Texas and New Mexico. Nearing the end, he veered north and endured the treacherous heat and the dangerous isolation of Death Valley before winding up in Half Moon Bay on the coast of California, some four thousand miles later.
With a backpack on his back and sturdy boots on his feet, Forsthoefel wore a sign on his shoulders everywhere he went. “Walking to Listen.” And those three words would be his mantra along the journey as Forsthoefel relied on the generosity of strangers to feed him, to occasionally put him up for the night, to break up the lonely monotony of walking for hours on end, and to tell him their own personal stories.
Of the books I read during my sabbatical, Forsthoefel’s book, Walking to Listen: 4000 Miles Across America, One Story At A Time, was my favorite. If you have a young adult in your life, I recommend the book as a great Christmas present. At the same time, Andrew Forsthoefel offers a message of simplicity, kindness, and hope that speaks to life’s timeless truths no matter your age.
Throughout the book, Forsthoefel recounts the stories of numerous compelling characters he meets on the road. Including James, a Navajo man living on the Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona, who hosted him and ultimately blessed him as he set off on the remainder of his journey. The blessing which James bestowed upon Andrew is captured in two Navajo words which I pronounce as best I am able: “Ashkii Naghahi.” Which translates in English to “Boy Who Walks.”
As Andrew Forsthoefel walked through California and made his way ever closer to the Pacific Ocean, several of the people Andrew met on his cross country hike traveled for miles to California so they could greet him at his journey’s end. James was one of those people, and James positioned himself on the edge of the ocean with blue corn meal in his hand…the last one to greet Andrew before he stepped from the shore into the water to mark the end of his four thousand mile sojourn.
This time, James put his hand on Andrew’s shoulders and welcomed Andrew as if he were his own son. And as he beckoned Andrew to walk into the ocean alone he gave to Andrew a new blessing. No longer “Ashkii Naghahi” or “Boy Who Walks,” Andrew was now “Hastiin Niha Naghahi,” which means “Man Who Walks for Us.” With that blessing, James affirmed the sacredness of the epic task Andrew had accomplished. And as a ritual offering, he poured the blue corn meal from his own hands into Andrew’s. “You carried us with you on your walk,” James assured Andrew, “and now you can take our prayers with you into the ocean…”
I still remember clearly the day back in 1992 when I was ordained into the Christian ministry. There were some faces in the sanctuary twenty-five years ago that are forever etched in my memory. The ministerial advisor, himself a retired seminary professor, who mentored me and advocated for me through the ordination process, three of four beloved grandparents who were alive and well, and especially my father who preached the “Charge to the Ordinand” on that special day. They were people who charted a path for me in so many ways during my lifetime and who nurture me still as accompanying spirits, even though they are no longer here on earth.
I still remember clearly other faces from that sanctuary twenty-five years ago. In fact, some of those faces are here in this sanctuary this morning. Kristin, who was right beside me that day, one year into our marriage and two years before we would have our first child. And my mother, who was the first one to lay her hands on my head as she prayed the Ordination Prayer.
The entire congregation that day circled the outside of the sanctuary at the Wellesley Congregational Church in Massachusetts…each person holding the hands of the person next to them…every person and every hand connected to the hands which rested on my head. I felt the holy gravity of God’s call in those moments. Twenty-five years later, it remains a highlight moment in my life…
I also remember the next day when I went to work at my first church in Waterbury, Connecticut. Freshly blessed with a new title, “the Rev. Mark B. Abernethy,” I sat at my desk and stared at the wall in front of me. To be honest, part of me wondered what I had gotten myself into. And part of me was curious about what I was supposed to to do now that I was an official clergyperson.
I looked at that wall in my office, thinking, reflecting, reminiscing, praying for a good five or ten minutes until it became clear to me. I wasn’t going to figure out who I was as an ordained pastor by sitting in my office. So I set out to meet people in the congregation and the community, counting on people’s generosity and hospitality, and hoping to hear people’s stories. There was no sign on my shoulders…but there could have been.
Back in 1992, I was just beginning to forge my own pastoral identity. Now in 2017, my professional identity is fairly well-defined. Which isn’t to say there’s no room for growth and change. I tend to like trying new things I haven’t done before. What it does mean is that I spend less time staring at my office wall. Indeed my revelation about the work of ministry the day after I was ordained remains crystal clear to me years later.
It also means the blessing has changed for me over time. I’m not talking about the blessing from God on my ordination day, which steadfastly sustains and inspires me. That holy blessing is still the same. What I am referring to is the blessing granted by the church. Twenty-five years ago, the blessing was the title that goes with the ordained pastoral vocation: “Reverend.” But titles don’t make ministers happen. Any more than titles make the work of ministry happen. People are the ones who make ministers and ministry happen.
Maybe the new blessing for me then at this twenty-five year ordination anniversary mark is similar to the Navajo blessing James gave to Andrew Forsthoefel as he waded into the Pacific Ocean. “Man Who Walks For Us.” At its best, ministry for me and ministry for all of God’s people is about carrying one another with all our prayers and hopes and dreams as we go through our lives. Particularly in those moments when we can’t find the strength or the voice or the courage to carry ourselves.
Or maybe the wording for my new blessing would vary slightly. “Man Who Walks With Us.” Ministry for me and for all God’s people means walking side by side. Listening carefully to one another as we share our stories. Companioning one another and celebrating with one another through the best days that life has to offer. Embracing one another and persevering with one another through the worst days that life has to offer. Serving one another and reaching out to those who are left behind vulnerable and fragile. Forgiving one another and restoring one another when someone falls short.
Over the course of the last twenty-five years, I’ve learned how important it is to live for others and to love others. As important, I believe, as it is to live for and love myself.
Which brings me to this day when you have gathered from near and far to celebrate this twenty-fifth ordination anniversary with me. I haven’t been privy to all the details and to all the planning that has gone into this event. And that’s fine with me because I’ve always liked surprises. Still, I have a sense of how much energy and effort has been put into this day by so many people. For all of you who are here today and who helped make this day possible in myriad ways, I am deeply and profoundly appreciative.
And I want you all to know that even though the luncheon this day marks a significant milestone in my life, this day is really, actually a story about us. It’s a day to lift up the ministry you and I have shared together here at Wapping Community Church over the years. All the worship services and the mission trips. All the prayers and the meetings. All the weddings and funerals and baptisms and special occasions. All the times I have visited with you in the hallways of this church building and all the times I have seen you in the aisles over at Stop and Shop. Listening and laughing and crying as we shared stories with each other…the very thing I figured ministry was about from day one.
Andrew Forsthoefel concludes his book, Walking to Listen, with these words…
“The ocean couldn’t wait any longer. It sent out a wave and took me by my feet, the final welcoming. I followed it, offering the cornmeal in my hands to the cold blue, remembering everyone who was with me even as I walked out into the water alone, whispering thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
For being such a wonderful part of the twenty-five years that have led to this day, I echo Andrew Forsthoefel’s words to each of you and to God. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. And I look forward to walking and listening as the story of us unfolds in the days ahead. Amen.