Photo: with my parents on the day of my ordination, September 29, 2002.

17th Sunday after Pentecost + Lectionary 27C
Sunday, October 2, 2022
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here (Minute 27:24)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

When I was a 21-year-old college junior, I sat in the hospital chapel waiting for the midweek chapel service to begin. I had just started a 4-week internship with the pastoral care department of the hospital as a requirement of the psychology degree I was studying at a nearby college. I was joined in the chapel by a nurse who had brought a patient for the service. After a while, it became clear that the chaplain assigned to lead the chapel service had forgotten his assignment and was not showing up. The nurse looked at her watch, then looked at me and said, “You work with the pastoral care department, right? Why don’t you lead the service?”

It was my first time in the chapel. I was just there to observe and watch. There was no “order of service.” There was no bulletin.  But maybe because I was young and foolish, and maybe because it was just the three of us, I said, “O.k.

I picked up the hymnal, flipped through it, found a hymn I knew, and I invited the nurse and patient to sing while I played it on the piano. There was a bible on the piano, and I opened it up, read what was on the page, and commented on it. I led us in prayer and the Lord’s Prayer, and then chose another hymn to sing to close our time together.

When it was over the nurse thanked me and told me that I had done a good job. She wheeled the patient out of the chapel and I stayed behind to reflect on what had just happened. I remember walking out of the chapel feeling that maybe I had what it took to be a pastor in Christ’s church.  I remember feeling that it just seemed right and natural. There was a need, I had gifts to meet that need, and when I used my gifts to meet that need others were blessed as a result.

This past Thursday, the Feast Day of Michael & All Angels, was the 20th Anniversary of my ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Looking back on it, I don’t remember the hymns I chose, the scripture I read, or what I said about the scripture on that Wednesday afternoon in May 1997 at Allen Memorial Hospital in Waterloo, Iowa … But, I do look back on it as my “ah-ha” “burning bush moment” After that experience, I decided to answer the call to public ministry and attend seminary.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus talks about faith the size of a mustard seed – I would also say that sometimes there are mustard-seed moments – moments that may seem insignificant, but which lay the foundation for so much of what is to come: three people, together for about 15 minutes, in a forgotten service on a weekday afternoon … the foundation for the next twenty-five years of my life and twenty years of ordained ministry.

Here’s one thought about mustard seed faith, or mustard seed moments, they don’t just happen by accident, they are gifts given to us IN and THROUGH community. The truth is, that mustard seed moment had been planted a long time before that experience in that chapel.

In today’s Second Reading, Paul offers encouragement to Timothy in a letter we identify as the 2nd Letter to Timothy.  In this letter, Paul (or, more likely, someone writing in Paul’s name) commends the faith of Timothy’s grandmother and mother. This is remarkable when you think about it – Patriarchal Paul did not commend Timothy’s father and grandfather for their faith, but Timothy’s mother and grandmother for bringing Timothy into the faith.  Before I could answer yes to leading a chapel service, I had already been nurtured in the faith my entire life.

The seed of faith was planted in me at St. John Lutheran Church, Maxfield Township, in rural Iowa. My great-great grandparents on my Dad’s side were charter members of the congregation in 1856. It was there my parents brought me as an infant to the baptismal font to be baptized in 1976. They took their vows seriously and did everything they promised to do: they raised me with God’s faithful people, they brought me to the word of God and the holy supper, they brought me to Sunday School, Vacation Bible School. I remember my Dad reading a children’s bible to me at home …my mom teaching Sunday School, and my parents taking me to church every Sunday as a boy, even when I protested and complained that other families didn’t go to church every Sunday – so why did we have to?

I give thanks for Sunday school teachers, and church members, and faithful pastors of that congregation who told me the story of Jesus, both in their words, and more importantly, in their deeds of love and care for one another.

I thank the congregation for nurturing my gifts for leadership in the church when they elected me to a three-year term on the Council as a 14-year-old boy, and a couple years later the Council elected me as Council Secretary. Specifically, I want to name and commend Don Platte, Warren Gaede and Gerald Zander (Warren & Gerald both of blessed memory) who welcomed me as a teenager onto the Worship Committee and invited me to participate in Sunday worship. When I went off to study at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, many people in my home congregation asked me if I was studying to be a pastor.  I wasn’t ready to commit to public ministry at that point, but their questions nurtured the seed of faith and leadership – they recognized potential in me before I was ready to embrace it.

At Wartburg College, for the first time in my life, I had friends who talked about their Christian faith, and these friendships nurtured my faith and helped me speak openly about my faith and its importance in my life. Two of these friends were discerning their own calls to ministry at that time, and when one of them announced he was going to seminary and talked about what he was looking forward to in a life as a pastor, I found myself jealous. He was ultimately ordained one year after me – next year he will celebrate his 20th anniversary of ordination as an ELCA pastor.

I was also blessed with campus pastors who faithfully and joyfully, proclaimed the inclusive love of Jesus. Twenty-five years later I referenced one of those pastors in a conversation just last week. The other showed up when I preached at my home congregation just last year.

All of this was the fertile ground the mustard seed was already growing in when I attended that Chapel service and decided to answer the call to ministry. All of these men and women were gifts of community through which the Holy Spirit gifted me with faith. My path of faith was not a solitary pursuit of spiritual fulfillment, my path of faith was the result of community – of a cloud of witnesses who inspired, and nurtured, and challenged me to live as a disciple of Jesus.

At this point, I had decided to attend seminary, but ordination was still over five years away. 

When I decided to go to seminary, my path took me to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. At LTSP, I met classmates from around the country and world who broadened my understanding of Christ’s Church as a global church for persons of all cultures and countries. Campus life was rich and vibrant in those days, and living and studying side-by-side with these classmates broadened my understanding of faith and how faith was lived out publicly in the world.

While I was in seminary, I attended my first protest. I went with my Puerto Rican classmates to the steps of City Hall in Philadelphia to protest the U.S. Naval testing on the Puerto Rican island of Viequez. “Viequez SI – Marino – NO” I sang in solidarity with my classmates as an expression of our Christian faith.  

At LTSP, I had professors who were great preachers of God’s grace announced in Jesus Christ, preachers solidly grounded in Lutheran tradition and committed to living out that faith in the world today. Their preaching and teaching embodied Martin Luther’s witness that in Christ’s grace we are free to love and serve our neighbors. It was in seminary that I learned that faith is not a private enterprise where individuals work out their salvation, faith is trusting that God’s promises spoken to us are real, and that in response we live out that faith in community, where in public action we witness to the abundance of God’s love for all people.

My first time in Massachusetts was on a frigid cold January day in the year 2000. When it came time for me to do my internship, I wanted to do my internship in a place I had never been before, and that turned out to be the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Woburn, Massachusetts.  I drove to New England with a seminary classmate with the thermometer on the car at 0 degrees. Pastor Ted Asta, my soon-to-be internship supervisor, greeted me. He would later serve as Associate to Bishop Margaret Payne and both a member and pastor here at Trinity.  I’m humbled and in awe, that on the long list of pastors who have served Trinity that hangs on the Chancel wall, my name is etched in the woodwork immediately below Pastor Asta’s – forever I will look up to him as my mentor. 

Because of my connections with the New England Synod in my internship, I was connected to the New England Synod for my first call. Bishop Margaret Payne, and her staff, offered me the opportunity to interview at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in North Quincy, Massachusetts.  The Call Committee consisted of Tim Hult and Randi Richards (both of blessed memory), Kim Bakeberg, Rick Carlson, Ken Cook, and Denise Norden.  I name them because it was these saints who moved my name forward to the Council and the second round of the call process. When the chair of the call committee asked me point blank during a tour of the church building: “How old are you?” I responded slyly: “Old enough to do a good job.”  The answer was 26.  I WAS really young

It was the saints at Good Shepherd, North Quincy, who took a chance on a pastoral candidate who was gay. This was seven years before the 2009 Churchwide Assembly lifted prohibitions on partnered LGBT persons serving as ordained ministers.  It also coincided with the height of the clergy sexual abuse crisis that was hitting the Archdiocese of Boston at the time.  Some of my friends counseled me this was not the best time for me to be open with them about my sexuality, that it was none of their business, that I should stay in the closet …but I knew for the sake of authentic witness I needed to be open.

At the meeting in which they voted to call me, they shared my sexuality with the congregation. It was reported to me later that 89-year-old Randi Richards, the daughter of Norwegian immigrants and the granddaughter of the conductor of the King of Sweden & Norway’s train, addressing some concern about the congregation calling a gay pastor, stood up at the meeting and said, “I believed God is leading us to call Pastor Pipho as our pastor.”  The congregation voted to call me as their pastor with just one person voting no.  

And so, on Sunday, September 29th, 2002, at St. John Lutheran Church, Sudbury,  Massachusetts, with Bishop Margaret Payne presiding, Pastor Ted Asta preaching, and Deacon Lois Toeppner playing the organ, and alongside of fellow ordinand Ann Deneen, I was ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament. My parents and grandparents (both my grandparents of blessed memory) who had in their own unique way nurtured me in the faith were there.

My ordination sponsors were Pastor Ted Asta and the Rev. Dr Kathryn “Kit” Kleinhans who now serves as Dean of Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. It was Rev. Dr. Kleinhans who had blessed me with wisdom and guidance as both a professor at Wartburg College at the time, and as my relator on the candidacy committee of the Northeastern Iowa Synod. I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to Dr. Kleinhans for her encouragement and wisdom in navigating the call process, and for her advocacy on my behalf with the committee.

Five years and four months after that mustard seed moment in the chapel at AllenHospital, and after being blessed by a great cloud of flesh and blood angels who ministered to me along the way, I was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in Christ’s Church on the Feast Day of Michael & All Angels.

Before God and those gathered, I made the promises all those ordained make:

  • To believe that the call extended to me from the people of Good Shepherd, North Quincy, and now from the people of Trinity, Worcester (and the Call Committee here: Maureen Stake – Chair, Andrew Gingras, Carol Hartz, Tim Horan, Pastor Susan Nachtigal, Jennifer O’Connor, and Karen Short) was indeed “GOD’s call to the ministry of word and sacrament”
  • To preach and teach in accordance with the holy scriptures, the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, and the Lutheran confessions,
  • To be diligent in my study of the holy scriptures, faithful in the use of the means of grace, pray for God’s people, and nourish God’s people with the word and sacraments, and lead them by my own example in faithful service and holy living
  • That I would give faithful witness in the world – that God’s love may be known in all that I do.

For 20 years, I have strived my best to live out these promises. Where I have failed and come up short, I ask forgiveness. In those times I relied on my own strength, and failed to find my strength in God.

Where there have been successes, I give thanks and praise to God. In those times, the Holy Spirit worked out God’s purpose and witnessed to Christ’s grace through a community of believers open to following Christ in discipleship.  

“For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher,” wrote Paul in 2 Timothy 1:11, “and for this reason I suffer as I do.”

The one year I stepped out of the parish in the past 20 years was when I was a student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. When I was in seminary the first time, perhaps as I listened to Cantor Mark play the organ back then as the seminary cantor, I had the vision of returning to seminary after my first call in order to be nourished in a faith community. Seminary life was rich and a blessing, and I wanted to reconnect with another studying and worshiping community.

Somewhat surprisingly, I discerned that place for me was not a seminary, but the Harvard Kennedy School of Government for a Masters in Public Administration. I felt a degree at a School of Government, honored our Lutheran tradition and what I had first learned in seminary – that our faith is lived publicly, in the world, in the intentional ways we publicly shepherd and steward the abundance God has blessed the world with.

At HKS, again like at seminary, I met classmates from around the world.  I met people of faith living out their Christian vocations in public service, in a variety of governmental and non-profit positions. But, I wasn’t in the school long before I missed parish ministry. I missed having faith as a central part of my daily professional life.  While I enjoyed a full year off from preaching, and I was blessed by countless numbers of preachers over that year, I knew my call was to the parish. The time away from the parish affirmed my call to the parish and the unique and special role parish pastors play in the national discourse, as we foster local communities of action and study, service and advocacy.   

Today, I give thanks for a mustard seed moment, in a forgotten weekday chapel service twenty-five years ago … that by God’s grace, and nourished in the communion of saints … has grown into a twenty-year ministry of Word and Sacrament.

To close, I commend to you what Paul commended to Timothy:

“Do not be ashamed of my testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace …”

May God bless each of us in our mustard-seed sized faith and moments. Trusting in the grace and mercy of God, may we, like Paul in his encouragement to Timothy, “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that we have heard from the saints in our lives, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. May we guard the good treasure entrusted to us, the treasure of Christ who grows mustard seeds into overflowing blessings, and may we always do so with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

Thanks and praise to God!