Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sermon: "Time Turned Into Life" (Delivered 6-14-09)

First Reading by Theodore Parker
“For the last year or two, the congregation did not exceed seventy persons, including the children. I soon became well acquainted with all in the little parish, where I found some people of rare enlightenment, and some truly generous and noble souls. I knew the characters of all, and their thoughts. I took great pains with the composition of my sermons; they were never out of my mind. I had an intense delight in writing and preaching; but I was a learner quite as much as a teacher, and was feeling my way upward with one hand while I tried to lead with the other…

“I sought illumination and confirmation from all sources. For historical things, I sought historical evidence; for spiritual things, I found ready proof in the primal instincts of the soul, and confirmation in the life of religious people. The simple life of the farmers, weavers, mechanics, about me, of its own accord, turned into a sort of poetry, and reappeared in the sermons, as the green woods, not far off, looked in at the windows of the meeting house.

“I think I preached only what I had experienced in my own inward consciousness, which widened and grew richer as I came into practical contact with living people, turned time into life.”

About two weeks ago, early on a Monday afternoon, the ten Coming of Age youth climbed to the third floor of Harvard’s Divinity Hall and entered the Chapel. This small room was the place where Emerson delivered his famous Divinity School Address in 1838. All around the room there are plaques honoring many of the great Unitarian leaders who passed through the school such as Ware and Hedge, Emerson and Parker.

As a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School I was presented with the passage from Theodore Parker’s journal from which I earlier read. The passage was written early in Parker’s ministry, when he served a small congregation in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. They did not have internships in Parker’s day, so when Parker graduated, he left Harvard with his knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin, his theological training in the thought of Kant and Hegel, and his scriptural understanding based in historical-critical interpretation which had come from Germany and was the en vogue mode of Biblical scholarship of his day. Parker took all of these and arrived at his congregation of 70 people to do ministry.

Parker’s journal is a confession of “On the Job Training.” He is describing that moment when theory and classroom preparation end and when practice begins. What Parker describes is something that is experienced not only by ministers. Parker is describing the feelings of medical students at the time when they leave the lecture hall and step, for the first time, into the clinic. He is describing the teacher who has learned educational theory and now steps in front of a classroom to teach, and he is describing the psychologist or social worker seeing her first client: “Finding my way through the dark with one hand while trying to lead with the other.” And somehow, through a combination of intuition and grace and learning from mistakes, something magical happens: “Practical contact with living people turns time into life.”

My words this morning have a bit of a swerve to them. So far I’ve been talking about ministry, but this won’t really be a sermon about ministry. And, even though today has been billed as a celebration of the Anne Griffith’s internship with us, I won’t really talk about Anne all that much. Instead, this is about you. And that is the swerve.

So, what do you think? Has it been a good experience having a second minister with us this year?

So, what do you think? Would it interest you to have another intern spend nine months with us in the future?

How has it felt to have a much greater number of hours of ministerial presence?

Across our movement there are specific churches that have made an institutional commitment to having an intern each and every year. To give you just two examples, one of the UU churches in St. Louis and another one in the Twin Cities have a special part of their endowment that fully supports the presence of an intern every year. At the first church where I worked, the oldest church in Boston, I served just after the official retirement of Rhys Williams who had just completed a forty year ministry with them. Over those forty years, Rhys Williams had supervised some 100 interns and student ministers; serving as a teaching church was and continues to be of the most central ministries of that church. Those who interned under Rhys Williams are known, playfully, as “Rhys’ Pieces.” Could our congregation—should our congregation—make the formation of ministers, the transformation of seminarians into ministers, into one of our hallmark ministries? That is a question for you, and not for me, to answer.

Next week I have a feeling that Anne’s sermon will reflect back to you some of her observations about this church from the perspective of being your intern for the last nine months. I also imagine that we she will talk about some of the ways that you are particularly well suited to support and develop interns.

From my own perspective, it has been a joy serving as Anne’s supervisor. I’ve witnessed her grow in her ability to lead worship, in her comfort with stepping into the ministerial role. And, I know that as a congregation we have received much for her time with us. But, the old saying is true. It is better to give than to receive. And serving as a teaching church requires giving.

During the internship Anne has received my supervision, direction, mentorship, advice, and, from time to time, some gentle prodding. She has also had the time to discover and reflect on her own, to become self-aware. But, I want to focus, as I said I would, on the most important part of the entire formula: “Practical contact with living people.”

“Practical contact with living people turns time into life.” That is the fabulous alchemy, the amazing wonder of being a Teaching Congregation. You’re not here to teach her theology. She has studied that. You’re not here to teach her the finer points of scriptural interpretation. So, what does it mean then to be a Teaching Congregation?

In his journal, Parker writes, “The life of the farmers, weavers, mechanics, about me, of its own accord, turned into a sort of poetry, and reappeared in the sermons, as the green woods, not far off, looked in at the windows of the meeting house.” At SMUUCh we have more engineers than mechanics, more social workers than weavers, and more gardeners than farmers, but the point is the same. The first part of being a teaching church is to let the Intern into your life, to trust that person with your struggle or your story, to take that risk of opening up to someone who is only going to be here for a few months, which, by the way, can sometimes be easier than doing the same with someone who will continue to be here. However, that openness, that generosity of self, is only the first part of what makes for a great Teaching Congregation.

There is also what you teach. There are some things that can be taught explicitly, but many more things that can be taught implicitly. There are certain things you can teach explicitly. You can tell the intern that she should speak more clearly into the microphone. You can give her feedback on a sermon or a workshop. You can invite her to observe how a program in the church runs.

But the implicit lessons that an intern learns are actually far more valuable. An intern gets to learn the answers to questions like:

“If I take a calculated risk in the pulpit, and, if it flops, will I be written off or will others say, ‘We appreciate you trying something new?’ Keep trying.”

“If I speak my mind at a meeting will others respect my contributions or will I be ignored?”

“If I inadvertently rub someone the wrong way, will they deal with me maturely, directly, and compassionately?”

“What capacity does a congregation truly have for forgiveness? For reconciliation? For dependability? For honesty? For forbearance?”

My colleague across town, Jim Eller, who will retire from All Souls next month and who has supervised four interns has said that a congregation leaves its imprint on an intern. How a congregation behaves is the model the intern will carry forward with her in the years that lie ahead. And believe me, if I did not believe that this congregation had the capacity to imprint an intern with a positive mark, there is no way we would let an intern come here.

A teaching congregation takes a responsibility, if not for the intern’s life, then for this person’s future in our movement. We’ve been entrusted with a sacred duty: to take this person out of the classroom and launch her with our imprint out into the larger world of Unitarian Universalism. Wherever Anne goes in ministry for the many decades of ministry and service that are before her, she will take part of you with her. We’ll be able to say, with pride, Anne was our intern.

But, here is the secret, what Theodore Parker wrote in that journal is not just a wonderful encapsulation of what it feels like to be a novice minister. It is not just a wonderful encapsulation of what it is like to be a novice anything. This idea of turning time into life, the alchemy of it, the magic of it, the poetry of it is something that can be ours not just when we are serving our larger movement as a teaching congregation. Indeed, it is something that each and all of us can do.

We turn time into life when we really dare to get to know another person.

We turn time into life when we recognize the poetry of the lives around us.

We turn time into life when we experience those divine moments when we are blessed to step outside of the daily hustle and bustle, the sturm and drang, and take the time to be attentive, still, and to see each other.

The philosopher bard of Unitarian Universalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, speaks to our capacity to live in this way, writing, “How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to… How many we see in the street or sit with in church, whom though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams.”

Are you living time? Watching the clock tick through the seconds and minutes and hours of the day. Or, are you turning time into life? Perhaps, the presence of a blossoming minister in our midst has led you to come out of your own shell and shake free some of the shackles of time.

An intern comes to us pre-fired, to stay with us for a predetermined period of time and then to depart and follow the journey and the path of the ministry that lies before. But, if we have dared to let time be transformed into life… if we’ve dared to truly open ourselves up… if we’ve modeled forbearance and forgiveness, a delight and curiosity in growing together, then wherever Anne goes in ministry for the many decades of ministry and service that are before her, she will take part of us with her. And we will be able to say, with pride, Anne was our intern. And we will have helped to turn time into life.