I Have Heard of your Faith: a celebration of the ministry of the Rev Peter Ives
The apostle Paul was a prolific writer because he had to be. Over the course of his ministry he traveled between 7000 and 10,000 miles planting churches. Just to put that into perspective, Paul basically walked from here to California, then back here then back to California.
Given the distance and difficulties of travel at that time, Paul couldn’t just pop back over to Corinth or Galatia every time someone had an issue, so he sent letters instead; epistles to comfort, guide, and encourage his fellow Christians in these far flung communities.
And one of the things that stands out in his letters, from the first to the last, is gratitude. Every single one begins with thanks: thanksgiving to God, thanksgiving for the people of the church, and thanksgiving for his call to ministry regardless of his circumstance; which is striking because when it came to his circumstance, things never seemed to go Paul’s way.
He devoted his life to spreading the gospel, but it appears from most of his letters that the moment he established a community and moved on, people fell into unsound beliefs or destructive behaviors. For every person who received the good news with joy, there were plenty of people who wanted nothing to do with Paul’s new found faith and they were not shy about letting him know it.
By the time he wrote his final letters, Paul had been mobbed, beaten, robbed, run out of town, shipwrecked 3 times, and imprisoned on several occasions for sharing the gospel. Indeed, if he wrote this letter to the Ephesians, he very likely wrote it from a prison cell in Rome.
And yet, as I said before, Paul never ceased to give thanks.
Give thanks, “in the midst of everything,” he said in his very first letter to the Thessalonians.
“Endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks,” he wrote in one of his last.
And here in Ephesians - before addressing tension within the community and persecution from without - Paul begins:
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.
No matter the challenge, no matter the circumstance, Paul was relentless in his love and gratitude for God and the people of God, because I think he saw God at work in even the most challenging circumstance. And I think developing that ability is at the heart of his prayer for the people of Ephesus and, by extension, his prayer for us all.
The language in this reading is beautiful. Paul prays for wisdom and revelation. He prays that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened that we might know the hope to which we have been called. There is a lot of triumphalist language here about Jesus being raised from the dead and ascending on high. It’s beautiful poetry but a little opaque, so let me tell you what I think he means.
Simply put, I think Paul wants us all to put our hope in the resurrecting power of God. He wants us to know that the same power that God used to raise Jesus from the dead is at work in us.
Paul wants us all to know that we serve a God who gets the last word; a God who can make a way out of no way. He wants us to know that love wins in the end because God wins in the end. Not sin. Not death. Not tragedy or disaster. Not the powers or principalities that rule this world. But God.
That hope is at the root of his relentless love and gratitude, because that hope enables Paul to believe that every set back, every loss, every pain, is only temporary. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t still hurt. It just means that hurt is not the end of our story.
Because of that hope, Paul can see God working even and especially in the midst of his suffering and his failures, the huge challenges and even the petty disagreements that faced the early church.
And because of that hope Paul never gave up the cause or gave in to despair, because he knew, that sorrow might linger for a night but … what? What comes in the morning? Joy! Because of that hope he believed the arc of the universe is long - so long! - but it bends towards what? Justice!
Paul’s relentless love and gratitude were rooted in his belief that God was constantly at work in us and around us working all things, but especially the hard things, toward the good.
And friends, I see that same relentless love and gratitude at work in the ministry of my colleague, mentor, and beloved friend, the Rev. Dr. Peter Ives.
Have you ever known a more generous, loving, or positive person? I have not.
Love, joy, and appreciation just seem to flow out of Peter, which is a big part of why we love him as we do.
In fact, I think it needs to be said that the desire to recognize Peter as our Pastor Emeritus was born purely out of our affection for him. We really didn’t need more of a reason than that.
But when we started thinking about why he actually deserved to be honored in this way, I was amazed by the depth and breadth of his accomplishments. I talked to many people in preparation for today, and frankly there is no way to sum up the amount of good Peter has done on behalf of this church or her people.
I mean, just by a show of hands:
How many of you were baptized by Peter? Confirmed? Married? Mentored?
How many of you have attended a memorial service or heard a sermon of his that brought you comfort or hope?
How many of you have benefitted from his pastoral care, his wise counsel, or his teaching?
How many of you have stood beside him at a rally or even sat beside him in a cell after demonstrating for a worthy cause?
And finally, how many of you have been touched by the ministry of one of the many, many pastors whom Peter has mentored? You can all raise your hands now, because I am one of them.
And friends, what you see here is just the tip of the iceberg.
I could go on in this vein or I could spend the remainder of our time celebrating some of the more significant things Peter has accomplished. But if I did that I think we’d be missing something important about the root of his faith and the depth of his trust in this power of God.
What I want you to know, is that the relentless love and gratitude that Peter displays is not just a function of his personality but a testament to his faith.
Because, you see, as I sat in awe of all the good that Peter has done here, I realized just how many of those accomplishments were born out of sorrows and challenges that would have felt insurmountable to a person of lesser faith.
For instance, today we celebrate the way Peter cemented the merger between the Baptists and the Congregationalists that created this congregation we now know as First Churches. Peter was even re-baptized and ordained as an American Baptist in order to assure everyone that he was here to pastor them all.
But in order for this new congregation to be born, a lot of things had to die, and ministering to people in the midst of that kind of grief had to be hard. Thanks be to God, Peter tapped into that resurrecting power we have been talking about, and with love and tenderness helped you all let go of what was in order to birth something new.
I am so thankful to have a wheelchair ramp and an elevator, but I can only imagine the cost of installing both and I know how difficult such discussions can be in a church that is already struggling to get by. Centering those on the margins requires sacrifice, and yet Peter helped this congregation see that in giving they would receive.
Today we are proud to say that we are an Open and Affirming congregation. When we marched this past year for Pride, I learned from someone in the crowd that First Churches was the first congregation to march in the parade. Nowadays, churches make up a huge portion of the celebration and many of our neighboring congregations are O&A, but back in the mid 90’s, Peter’s willingness to even broach the topic came with considerable risk.
It was risky, Peter, because you loved the people in this congregation who came out to you- people like Jim Olsen and Evelyn Rivera - and you didn’t want to see them hurt or disappointed, just as you loved all of the people in the congregation who had a lot to learn about it all. Just having the conversation took a tremendous amount of courage, because whenever we confront controversial topics we risk hurting, disappointing, and losing people we love.
Peter, you guided this church through a process of discernment with no guarantee that they would choose the side of love and inclusion and no guarantee that you would stay with them if they didn’t.
But you waded into those waters all the same because you believed God would meet you there, and I dare say that God did, because love won. We would not be the church we are today if you had shied away from those tough conversations.
Friends, the State Hospital closed during Peter’s tenure, and hundreds of people with special needs were suddenly set adrift. During his time here the number of people experiencing homelessness increased dramatically. One of our neighbors, Yoko Kato, lost her daughter and grandson to a tragic act of domestic violence that I know broke Peter’s ever-loving heart.
Climate Change, the Rodney King riots, September 11, and countless other challenges, tragedies, and disruptions occurred while Peter served among you and each and every one required a pastoral response. And we haven’t even gotten to the part of the story where the ceiling falls in.
Any one of these challenges could have been the straw that broke this pastor’s back, especially if this pastor thought he had to deal with it all alone. Thankfully he didn’t. Peter has the most amazing partner a pastor could ask for in his wife Jenny, he has his brilliant daughters, this wonderful congregation, and a network of support throughout this city.
And so, instead of giving up or giving in, Peter looked and found within each crisis an opportunity to work with God and God’s people to make something new.
This is why First Churches has consistently been able to open its heart and its doors to help whenever there has been hurt. It is why people with special needs have felt especially welcome here since the hospital closed, why this church opened it doors to the whole city on September 11th and formed a peace and justice committee in response, why Jenny Fleming-Ives created an Environmental task force to combat climate change, why the Interfaith Cot Shelter and Safe Passage can trace their roots back here, and why our whole city knows that this beautifully restored sanctuary is a safe place to gather for solace and celebration, music and worship, the work of recovery, the work of justice, the work of peace.
When I spoke with the Rev. Kelly Gallagher, she said that one of Peter’s greatest gifts was calling out and nurturing the God given gifts in others. It is why, to this day, if you ask him about any of these initiatives he rarely says “I” and almost always talks about what “we did” to respond. As each crisis reared its head, Peter helped the people around him figure out what was theirs to do, and then leveraged his power to create space for them to work.
He saw gifts in Denise Karuth that helped move her into ministry and this church toward accessibility. He saw gifts in the Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian and Dr. Beverly Tatum that helped move this congregation and the wider community toward the work of anti-racism, erect the Sojourner Truth Statue in Florence, and propelled Andrea into a ministry that continues to make God’s love and justice real to this day. Liza Knapp, Claire Overlander, Susan Grant Rosen, Matilda Cantwell, Dudley Rose (my field ed director in Divinity School?!): more pastors than I know of or can name, have been mentored by Peter.
And Peter saw gifts for the common good in people beyond our church walls as well. He built relationships with some you may have even heard of; people like Francis Crowe, Bill Dwight and Bill Newman, some lady called Rachel Maddow and Monte Belmonte, our senators, like Jim McGovern and Jo Comerford, and all of our mayors, including Mayor Gina Louise, who is here to honor him today.
Peter built relationships with inter-faith colleagues, like Rabbi Justin-David bringing us all ‘The Rev. and The Rabbi, on WHMP,” with community organizers, and with so many, many more, seeing gifts in them all. To say nothing of the congregation before me, you who have carried on Peter’s legacy with the same relentless love and gratitude he models for us even now.
Peter, we have heard of your faith, but even more so, we have seen it in action and we give thanks for you, thanks for your faith in God’s resurrecting power, and your deep love for all the saints. We give thanks that, like Paul, you never gave up because you were able to see the power of God at work in all things, but especially the hard things.
We are the better for your faithful ministry among us. First churches is the church it is today, because of you. Amen? Amen. And so I’d like to invite you and your family to come forward. I’d like to invite any pastors who have been mentored by Peter to come forward. Rev Chris Mereshuck representing the association, Marielle, Nancy, Marti? (From the search committee that called Peter.) Rabbi Justin David, as well as our moderator Donna, Kathy, and Marion, and I’d like you all to take a seat up here. Peter if you would stand here, The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian has a brief testimony she wants to share before we formally name you as our pastor emeritus.