“Frog Ponds and Choir Festivals”
Psalm 92:1-4; Matthew 4:18-22
Rev. Dr. Deborah L. Clark
September 17, 2017
It was Gena Dooley’s favorite story to tell, and it was one of my favorites to hear. The story dates back to the early 1950’s. Gena, then McGraw, was the secretary at Saxonville Elementary School, which is now Stapleton. One afternoon, after the children had left, she was sitting at her desk crying.
The school music teacher walked into the office. “Gena,” she asked, “what’s wrong?” When Gena could finally stop crying enough to answer, she replied. “I’m afraid our church is going to close. I’m a life-long member of Edwards Church–you know the one just up the hill. We hardly have any members, and we don’t have a pastor either. I don’t know what I would do without my church.”
The music teacher sat with Gena for a few minutes, murmuring words of comfort. Then, with a twinkle I now know is often in her eye, she said, “I have an idea. My husband is studying to be a pastor. Maybe he could help.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The church leaders met with Quentin Sewell and asked him to be their pastor. It was a time of great opportunity, with new ranch houses being built all over Pinefield. Quentin apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that Congregationalists don’t go knocking on doors to invite people to church, or maybe he just ignored the memo. At any rate, he knocked on hundreds of doors, and even inspired a few church members to join him. Neighbors responded, and the church revived.
That’s the story I heard numerous times from Gena while she was alive. I loved hearing it, and I had a feeling there was something more to it. As I’d looked through the piles of historical documents for the church, I’d come across a program for an Edwards Church Music Festival from 1954. There were 45 choir members listed in the program.
That program had always perplexed me. It was only a few years after Gena’s story took place. How did the church go from having a couple dozen members to having a choral concert with 45 singers?
Over the last few months, I have discovered the other part of the story. The choir director listed on that program was Joanne Sewell, who was also the music teacher who had listened to Gena with a twinkle in her eye. Joanne is the person we often find sitting about five rows from the back on the right-hand side, still with a twinkle in her eye.
What I learned from recent conversations with Joanne is that while Quentin was knocking on doors, Joanne was recruiting singers, not just for the festival, but to come make a joyful noise every Sunday. She didn’t care what their faith background was, she just asked—and many musicians responded.
A chance meeting in an elementary school office. A sacred encounter that changed thecourseof Edwards Church.
“There’s something about frog ponds,” Nancy Brown told me on the phone Monday afternoon. “I’m not sure exactly how, but somehow frog ponds fit into the story.”
I had called Nancy because over the last year I have learned that if you want to know something about people connected with Grace Church, Nancy is the person to ask. I had a vague recollection that Grace had supported a missionary for many years, but that’s all I knew.
Nancy told me what she remembered about Susan Onksen Frans, and then drove over to the church office with some more information. I took a chance and sent an email to the address I found in the papers, and was delighted to get a response the next day from Susan herself. Here’s the story, as I understand it.
Susan Onksen grew up at Grace Congregational Church and was an active participant in Pilgrim Fellowship. Through her Grace contacts, she attended several ecumenical work camps in San Francisco and Lebanon. In 1964, she really wanted to go to Africa with the World Council of Churches, but there was a revolution in the country she was planning to visit. Instead, she went on a year-long work trip to Indonesia. She wanted to see the world and also do some good. The group consisted of 20 people—10 Indonesians and 10 young people from other countries across the globe. They did 4 or 5 projects, each lasting a couple months. Maybe one of those projects involved frog ponds.
While she was there, Susan met a minister from the city of Kupang. They fell in love. Before she finished the year, she met his family and they became engaged. She returned home but a few years later went back to marry him—and also to serve God on behalf of Grace Church. For more than 40 years, she was Grace Church’s missionary. Her work was mostly as a teacher—all ages, even up to university. Donations from Grace Church enabled her to start a kindergarten and play group in 1974, which is still going today. She writes that the kindergarten and play group helped children be successful in school and also helped them to be honest in life–a challenge in a culture that struggled with corruption. She had a stroke in 2009, but recovered enough to continue her work with the children.
A chance meeting at an ecumenical work camp. A sacred encounter that changed the course of Susan’s life, leading her to a new home and a rich ministry.
I am struck by the resonance between these two stories and our gospel story. All three are about a chance–or at least an unexpected– encounter that changes everything. Matthew tells us very little about the encounter between Jesus and the disciples. We know the disciples are fishing. We know Jesus walks by. We don’t know what he sees in them that leads him to call out and ask them to follow him. We have no idea what they see in Jesus. We know that somehow, they recognize this moment as sacred. Somehow they realize God is at work in a special way through Jesus. They know they need to respond. They drop everything to follow him.
These three stories–one about biblical disciples and two about disciples from Edwards and Grace churches–offer insight into what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Through Jesus’ life, we know that God chooses to work through human beings and human relationships. To follow Jesus is to be open to the ways God works through seemingly chance encounters in our lives. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be willing for our lives to be changed forever by those sacred moments.
How do we prepare ourselves for those unexpected encounters? We don’t know when they will happen or through whom God might speak to us. Gena and Joanne and Susan point us to three qualities we can cultivate to help us be open to those sacred encounters.
The first quality is authenticity. If Gena had been faking it, if she had pretended everything was fine when it wasn’t, Joanne wouldn’t have known there was anything wrong. The sacred conversation that changed the course of Edwards Church might never have happened. When we are honest with ourselves and with one another, we open a channel for God to work through us. What does that mean in your life? How can you be true to yourself–to your grief and your disappointments, and also to your hopes and dreams? How can you let other people know who you are and what matters to you?
The second quality is passion. Joanne Sewell was passionate about music. Her encounter with Gena opened up a new opportunity to act on that passion–inviting, encouraging, even cajoling singers to come and lift up their voices. When we claim our passions–for healing, for justice, for beauty, for music–we offer an invitation to the people around us to claim their passions and bring all that energy together, to make a joyful noise, to build a bridge to understanding, to feed our hungry neighbors. What is your passion? Can you claim it for the healing of our world?
The third quality is curiosity. Susan Onksen was curious about the world, curious about people whose lives were different from her own. So she went to Indonesia, choosing a work camp that would enable her to build relationships with people from all over the world. Her curiosity–along with her desire to make a difference–opened her to the sacred encounter that changed her life. What are you curious about? Who are the people in our town, in our world, whose lives are very different from yours? Can you step out of your familiar patterns and put yourself in a situation where you can meet them? Dare to trust that, when you do, you will open yourself to challenge and beauty and deep connection, to sacred encounters that may change your life.
Let us follow in the footsteps of these faithful disciples from Edwards and Grace churches. May we be authentic–bringing our tears and our laughter, our worries, our yearnings and our dreams. May we be passionate–seizing opportunities and inspiring the people around us to use their gifts. May we be curious–going out of our way to meet people whose lives are different from our own, trusting they have gifts to offer us.
Let us be disciples of Jesus, open to unexpected encounters, open to sacred moments that will change our lives and our world. Amen.