Stephanie Haskins Maquoketa UCC
Genesis 12:1-9 September 16, 2018
Phyllis Nissen—a longtime member of this church and a 74-year veteran of the choir before she died in February—told me more than once about a pivotal crossroads in her life. When she was in high school in Maquoketa, her talent as a flute player began to draw attention. So much attention that when it came time to decide what to do after high school she received an offer to attend a college out of state on a music scholarship. Very out of state. In fact: in Tempe, Arizona. In 1948, I’m not sure she had ever traveled outside the Midwest. As Phyllis told the story to me, she surprised herself when she accepted her Arizona State scholarship. But she got on the train. And she kept going.
Phyllis, in turn, never forgot one of her Sunday School teachers, a woman who graces our bulletin cover this morning. This extraordinary woman’s name was Carolyn Campbell Pendray. The daughter of a state senator, married at the advanced age of 39 (!) in 1920, she was a smart, dedicated person. Active in politics, two years after women were eligible to sit in Iowa’s Legislature she was elected, first to what is now the House and later the Senate. While she was in the Senate, she sponsored two landmark bills for women. One gave women the right to own property; the second made it legal for women to be “heads of household.” And she taught Sunday School. Here. Phyllis talked often about Carolyn. Who she was and what she had done. And now I wonder whether Carolyn’s example, whether Carolyn’s groundbreaking life helped Phyllis to get on that train.
The place God calls Abram to leave is Haran, a Hebrew word that means “crossroads” or “highway.” Of course it does. There are these hinge points in life, forks in the road, where two (or more) pathways appear. You can go this way, or you can that way. You decide. Abram has that choice in front of him. He can stay where he is, with his wife, Sarai, in his father’s house, the place he’s always known, the place where his ancestors lived and died, or he can open door number two, and take the Lord God’s word for it. That the small, somewhat provincial life he expected to live is too small for what God intends. Abram and Sarai are genuinely in Haran. They’re at a crossroads. Do they get on that train, or do they stay right where they are—safe, yes—but maybe too safe?
But they’re not the only ones. Guess who else is in Haran right now? You guessed right. We are. We are at a crossroads. All of us. By some coincidence or divine design or I don’t know what, we get to live through not just one change, but many. There’s my departure—all the grief and joy of that. There’s a new secretary, a building project wrapping up, an interim search in process, probably a settled pastor search after that. There are new members of our community bringing their gifts and graces. When we do change, I guess we do it big! One change can be hard enough. And when more than one thing is changing, our web starts to shake a bit. And in the last couple of weeks, it’s been trembling in the wind. Frayed tempers, frustration, tenseness, grief. It’s not always fun, it’s not always pleasant—but, in a strange way, these are the surest signs that we are at a crossroads. That there are doors opening as sure as other doors are closing. In Haran, at the crossroads, the call reveals itself. Never mind the symptoms of change. Those will come and go. We can’t let those distract us from the crossroads question: Will we choose to play it safe, or will we accept God’s offer? To take the next leap of faith. To get on that train.
This is how I see it. That as we celebrate 175 years of life and ministry, that the best moments of our life together have involved these leaps of faith. It goes back to the beginning. With William Salter sitting in Andover Seminary in the early 1840’s talking with his friends about what they can do to stop the spread of slavery to the territory of Iowa. Cleveland, OH was the wild west in those days, but he came here. To start a congregational church. That was a leap of faith. But it wasn’t the only one. It was a leap of faith for the people who dissented from the state church in Germany to immigrate here and start their church on the very street I live. That was a leap of faith. It was a leap of faith to build a building. It was a leap of faith to add a stop on the orphan train. It was a leap of faith when the local congregational and evangelical-reformed churches joined together as one in 1962. (After all, they do communion differently than we do). It was a leap of faith to house a daycare and a domestic violence resource center. To hire a woman pastor. To hire a young woman pastor. It was a leap of faith to move on after some tough years in the aughts. It was a leap of faith to hang a rainbow flag outside. We can tell our story as a story of continuity and stability. But really, in 175 years, it’s just one leap of faith after another. One crossroads, a plateau, and then another crossroads. Abraham isn’t the father of three faiths for no reason. The decision he faced is one we face again and again. God keeps knocking on the door. God keeps offering bigger and bigger blessings. God wants to bless us so we can become bigger blessings. But you have to leave Haran first. You gotta get yourself on that train.
That’s why I’m telling you about Phyllis and Carolyn, Abraham and Sarah and William Salter. I want you to remember that we’ve been here before. Each of us individually in our own individual journeys. And we’ve been here before as a church. See? We’re right on track. So let’s take a deep breath. And remember: the spider weaves a delicate web that is stronger than steel. We have a great cloud of witnesses who, I believe, are with us in spirit, who encourage us to take this next leap of faith. Blessed be all the ties that bind. Amen.
 You can read Phyllis’s obituary here: http://www.carsonandson.com/obituary/240487/Phyllis-Nissen/. Retrieved on 9/16/18.
 This information is taken from Maquoketa UCC’s history book Jeanne Jorgensen compiled in 1993.
 An insight from Donald P. Olsen in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor’s edited Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 2010), p. 52.