Pastor’s Blog: Thirty-Eight Years

Pastor’s Blog: Thirty-Eight Years

Thirty-eight years ago, last night, I gathered for the last time with graduating classmates for the Eucharist and commencement. It was the day after the Feast of the Ascension. Paul Manz was at the console of the large pipe organ. Walt Wangerin, Jr., a graduate of my seminary, was the guest preacher. His sermon was from Luke 24 when the ascending Lord Jesus said: “Wait in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” It was a very moving service. My mother, a sister, two small nephews and a young niece were there. After the sermon, we graduates processed one by one to the front of Third Baptist Church, which was located across the street from our seminary in midtown St. Louis, there we received our diplomas and handshakes from the president John Tietjen, the academic dean John Damm, and the board chairman Theodore Jungkuntz.

Thirty-eight years ago, this afternoon, I was ordained in the midst of the congregation of St. Martin of Tours Lutheran in Mascoutah, Illinois, under the aegis of the English Synod of the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC), the smallest and noisiest of the three partner churches that formed the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in 1988. I had served St. Martin of Tours as their seminary fieldworker and later deacon for almost four years, before and after vicarage (internship). Friends from the seminary choir were present to lead the congregation’s song and worship. Pastor Peter Hoyer’s father, George, the dean of the seminary chapel, was the assisting minister (liturgical deacon). Robert Smith, my academic advisor, was the guest preacher. Since it was late afternoon, we used the propers (the lessons and prayers) for the Feast of the Visitation, when the Virgin Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth. Doctor Smith preached on Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in Luke 1. My Uncle Nick and Aunt Marifrances were present along with an older Zumwalt cousin from Michigan. Alan Campbell, my first chaplain supervisor, and my mother read the first and second lessons. It was a most moving day.

Thirty-eight years ago, tomorrow, I presided at the Eucharist for the first time at St. Martin of Tours on the Seventh Sunday of Easter. To teach me that you never know when an emergency will interrupt one’s sermon preparation, the pastor of the parish told me at the reception after my ordination that I would also be preaching the next day. What a way to learn how emergencies govern a pastor’s life! I would go on to a chaplain residency and part-time work as a pastoral assistant in an AELC congregation. Fourteen months later, I would begin serving a Lutheran Church in America (LCA) congregation in Lancaster TX.

When I look at a photo of that ordination day, I see a twenty-seven-year-old man with a full head of curly hair, weighing 75 pounds less than the older man in today’s mirror, humbled and thrilled by the events of those three days, and I had no clue what my life would become or what it would mean to keep the vows taken on that ordination day. I promised to teach and preach the Word of God according to a Lutheran understanding of that Word. We called it a “quia” subscription to the Lutheran Confessions, meaning in Latin “because” the Lutheran documents teach what Scripture teaches.

I don’t feel old even though my brother died at forty-six and my father at sixty-two. I don’t look very much like the young man in that picture. I suspect small children would take a while to figure out who that guy is in that picture. Perhaps, with prompting, they would get it eventually. I haven’t lost my passion for the life and work of a pastor. I’m grateful to be alive for as long as I have left and to be able to serve as pastor for as long as God gives me the grace and strength to do so.

Being a pastor isn’t a career. Those who think of it that way invariably retire as quickly as possible and resist doing pastoral work again. While small congregations go crying for pastoral help, those who retired from a career often won’t lift a finger to help them. I am so very grateful for the retired pastors of our parish, who continue to take joy in serving our congregation in worship leadership, pastoral care, and teaching. They all understand that the holy ministry is a way of life and not a job. God bless them!

The Lord God called me to be the Senior Pastor of St. Matthew’s fifteen years ago last weekend. I will be faithful to that call no matter what until such time as God wills to call me to another ministry or, more likely, until God gathers me in death to Himself. I have striven to keep my ordination vows for the past thirty-eight years. I will continue to strive to be faithful to the Lord of the Church. This congregation is His and not mine and, please remember, not yours either. When the people of God murmur, as they did in the wilderness for forty years, the Lord God is not pleased. Jesus teaches us to pray: “Thy will be done.”

This Sunday at 11 a.m. we will celebrate the Baptism of Alexis Louise. We will renounce the devil, his works, and his ways. We will confess the one true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, if you are indeed a member of St. Matthew’s, as you are physically able, you will gather for worship at St. Matthew’s this weekend. (There is no such thing as a church that doesn’t worship together.) You and I will renounce all that is unholy and will confess the One who is Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, who has made Himself known in the Word made flesh, who has poured out upon His Church the Holy and Life-giving Spirit through the Word and Sacraments. Holy Baptism is the ordination to ministry of all God’s people. Our relationships and life’s work are the places where we exercise the ministry of the baptized people of God. As we celebrate Lexi’s Baptism and bless our graduates, we will remember who and Whose we are!

I treasure being your pastor. While I am the only one called to be pastor of St. Matthew’s, I can only be the “sheep dog” of those who allow me to be their pastor. Whether sheep dog or sheep, our calling remains to keep our eyes on the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus, who feeds us and leads us all safely home to our heavenly Father’s waiting arms.

St Matthew's Pastor Sam Zumwalt

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The Rev. Dr. Samuel Zumwalt has worked in churches for 43 years and in May 2019 celebrated the 38th anniversary of his ordination to the holy ministry. He is a member of the Society of the Holy Trinity (www.societyholytrinity.org). In 2004, Pr. Zumwalt moved with his family to Wilmington from Texas, where he served for 23 years as pastor of small, midsize, and large congregations.