Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sermon: "Ministers & Ministry" (Delivered 1-27-13)

Call to Worship
“A Parable for Pulpit Committees” by Clinton Lee Scott

Now it came to pass that while the elder in Israel tarried in Babylon, a message came to him from a distant city saying, come thou and counsel with us. Help us to search out a priest for the one that has served us has gone mad. And the elder in Israel arose and journeyed to that distant city. And when the men of affairs were assembled, the elder spake unto them saying, what manner of man seeketh thee to be your new priest? And they answered and said unto him, we seek a young man yet with the wisdom of gray hairs. One that speaketh his mind freely yet giveth offense to no one. That draweth the multitude to the temple on the Sabbath but will not be displeased when we ourselves are absent. We desire one who has a gay mood yet is of sober mind. That seeketh out dark sayings and prophecies yet speaketh not over our heads. That filleth the temple, buildeth it up yet defileth not the sanctuary with a Motley assortment of strangers. We seeketh one that put the instruction of the young first but requireth not that we become teachers. That causeth the treasury to prosper yet asketh not that we give more of our substance. Verily we seek a prophet that will be unto us a leader but will not seek to change us, for we like not to be disturbed. And the elder in Israel answered and said unto them, when I have found such a priest I will indeed send him unto you, but you may have to wait long, for the mother of such a one has not yet been born.

Sermon, Part 1
I’m somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, somewhere in the middle of a road trip.  I’m 21 years old and I’ve just been accepted to the Master of Divinity program at Harvard Divinity School.  I’m in the car with Tim, my minister and friend and mentor, and he’s taking me along on a weekend preaching trip to a small UU Fellowship.  Tim and I will co-preach the sermon for which I’ll receive a $25 honorarium, my first paid ministry gig.  I don’t think I was worth that much.

Tim was brilliant.  He had five degrees: a Bachelor degree, a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard, an MFA in creative writing (with Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard as his advisor), a Master in Interdisciplinary Studies (with Marcus Borg as his advisor), and a Doctorate in history.  He served churches in Texas, Oregon, Washington, Massachusetts, and Maine.  He died from cancer a few years ago and I miss him.  So, we’re in the car and Tim is holding court, professing about the vocation of ministry.

Tim observed that in medieval times, religious leaders were the ones within society who were educated and literate.  Disciplines that we understand to be entirely secular today were once extensions of theology and philosophy, available only to those who knew how to read Greek and Latin.  Civil law was an extension of ecclesiastical canon law; medicine was learned alongside theology; universities were established to train religious leaders.

Now, I don’t want any of you to get the wrong idea here.  I’m not holding up medieval society as a model.  I think the bumper sticker that says “Religion ruled the dark ages” makes a valid point.  And, especially at this moment in history when theocracy is ascendant in Kansas, when the separation of church and state is under attack, when science and reason and medicine and law are being willfully ignored, I don’t want you to take what I’m saying the wrong way.

All I am saying is that the ministries of many of those priests and monks and theologians from centuries ago were anything but narrow.  Take Michael Servetus, the Spanish theologian who wrote a Unitarian theology and who also was the first medical doctor to correctly describe the workings of the circulatory system.  British Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley advised Thomas Jefferson on religion and political philosophy and his science laboratory helped to advance science’s knowledge of the chemistry of gasses.  This is to say nothing of fascinating lives of hundreds of Roman Catholic cleric-scientists who advanced scientific understanding over the course of centuries.  The Trappist monks brew beer.  A broad definition of ministry, indeed.

I’ve begun with this long digression about ministry in the middle ages to make a point about ministry in a roundabout way.  When we think of ministry narrowly, we miss the point.  At Harvard Divinity School I was surrounded by hundreds of students preparing for ministry, but most of them were not preparing for careers as parish ministers.  The exceptions here were the Unitarian Universalists and some of those who belonged to liberal Christian denominations such as the United Church of Christ.  Many of my classmates who belonged to conservative or even mainline denominations had issues with the politics or the theological orthodoxy of their denominations, and the gate to serving the local church was the most tightly guarded gate.  Many of my classmates wouldn’t bother to seek ordination; some were barred from it outright on account of their gender or sexual orientation.  My classmates from Harvard went on to find ministry outside the parish, becoming chaplains, community organizers, and international activists.  Large numbers went on to become the CEOs or the Executive Directors of non-profit organizations and agencies.  One of my friends became the executive director of Boston’s largest domestic violence shelter.  Others graduated from the Divinity School and ran food banks or youth anti-violence programs or AIDS charities or hospice care centers or international human rights organizations.

According to my friend Tim, parish ministry is one of the last true generalist professions.  In the course of any given week I write sermons, design worship services, teach classes, counsel parishioners, visit people in their homes or in the hospital, officiate at weddings and memorial services, work with committees of volunteers, and do all kinds of behind the scenes management and administration.  I also work with and speak on behalf of local organizations whose values are aligned with Unitarian Universalist values.  If that is not general enough for you, consider these recent examples of ministry: a family in our church invited me over to decorate Christmas cookies and answer their young children’s questions about death; before the November elections and the August primaries I received calls from members of the church on both the Kansas and the Missouri side asking me for whom they ought to vote; a manager of a successful company came to my office to talk through a difficult personnel decision and its ethical implications.  When the phone rings, there is no telling what I’ll be asked.  I may never have been asked to make a scientific breakthrough as relates to our understanding of the circulatory system – I’ve never been asked to brew a Belgian ale either – but there are many years left in my ministry.

This first part of the sermon is about my ministry, and I have to say that one of the things that suits me particularly well about parish ministry is that it does ask me to be a generalist.  The demands of the work are diverse.  The work includes solitary study, research, writing, and reflection and public speaking in front of several hundred people and teaching and facilitation of small groups and meeting one-on-one.  It demands interactions with people of all ages.  The work is done in the minister’s study, in the sanctuary, in the hospital, in people’s homes, in the program spaces of the church, in public, and, well, just about anywhere.  I also should confess that I really do like that the work is largely self-directed, well, self-directed and God-directed, but that is another sermon.

Another thing that makes me a good match for parish ministry is the fact that I really like the church as an institution.  That may seem obvious, but it’s important.  I’ve met people who thought they would like teaching, but couldn’t stand students.  I’ve met parish ministers who’ve discovered that they don’t like parishioners.  I like church people.  I do not have any illusions.  There is no such thing as a perfect congregation just as there is no such thing as a perfect minister.  Every church, even this one, has its share of warts and blemishes, its challenges and frustrations.  But despite all that, I like congregations.  I like the way they bring together a pretty startlingly diverse collection of people and asks them to go deep together, to be vulnerable with each other, to be a community.

So, I’ve just said why I think parish ministry suits me.  But, I haven’t actually shared what exactly I understand ministry to be.  The very first hymn we sang this morning, the lovely “Wake, Now My Senses,” with its lyrics by UU minister Thomas Mikelson and its lilting Irish tune, is really a hymn about ministry.  And, I think it is points at what I see as the essence of ministry.

The first verse begins, “Wake, now, my senses, and hear the earth call.”  The hymn is about receiving a calling.  The second verse announces, “Wake, now, my reason, reach out to the new; join with each pilgrim who quests for the true.”  So, perhaps the calling is to be a teacher, a professor.  The third verse continues, “Wake, now, compassion, give heed to the cry; voices of suffering fill the wide sky.”  Now the calling is different.  The hymn is describing a doctor, a practitioner of the healing arts.  But then the fourth verse changes the calling again.  “Wake, now, my conscience, with justice thy guide; join with all people whose rights are denied.”  The fourth voice is about the calling to be a lawyer.  So, is the calling to be a professor in search of truth, a doctor in search of healing, or a lawyer in search of justice?  Which is it?  The fifth verse, answers with a resounding, “Yes.”  “Wake, now, my vision of ministry clear.”

And, just like that we’ve come around to my friend Tim’s point about the generalized medieval figure of the minister, overlapping with scholarship, medicine, and law.  Understanding, health, and justice.

Learning, healing, doing justice: these are not in conflict with one another.  However, they can be in tension with each other.  And, ministry is there in that tension, and, also, somehow above it.
That’s what I want to say for now about my ministry.

“Anyone’s Ministry” by Gordon McKeeman

Ministry is

a quality of relationship between and among human beings
that beckons forth hidden possibilities.

inviting people into deeper, more constant
more reverent relationship with the world
and with one another.

carrying forward a long heritage of hope and
liberation  that has dignified and informed
the human venture over many centuries.

being present with, to, and for others
in their terrors and torments
in their grief, misery, and pain.

knowing that those feelings
are our feelings, too.

celebrating the triumphs of the human spirit
the miracles of birth and life
the wonders of devotion and sacrifice

witnessing to life-enhancing values
speaking truth to power
standing for human dignity and equity
for compassion and aspiration

believing in life in the presence of death
struggling for human responsibility
against principalities and structures
that ignore humaneness and become
instruments of death.

It is all these and much, much more than all of them, present in
the wordless
the unspoken
the ineffable.

It is speaking and living the highest we know and living with the knowledge that it is never as deep, or as wide or as high as we wish.

Whenever there is a meeting
that summons us to our better selves, wherever
our lostness is found
our fragments are united
or our wounds begin healing
our spines stiffen and
our muscles grow strong for the task

there is ministry.

Sermon, Part 2
The first section of my sermon began with medieval clerics.  The second part begins with the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther.  One of the core organizing principles of the Protestant Reformation was the idea of the “priesthood of all believers.”  This meant that people could experience God directly, without the mediation of a priest.  It also meant that people could be trusted to read the Bible on their own and discover God’s word for themselves.  The Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, expanded on Luther’s idea, speaking about the “prophethood of all believers,” essentially saying that the work of justice making is shared among us.  This second section of the sermon is about your ministry and our shared ministry.

I spoke about my ministry existing in that space of confluence and tension between the seeking after understanding, the healing of hurts, and the work to advance justice in our world.  Interestingly enough, our congregation’s mission statement touches on these three:  spiritual growth, caring community, a peaceful, fair, and free world.  Your ministry?  I would say that your ministry is exactly the same:  to grow deeper in understanding, to tend to each other’s pain, and to work for a more just world.  This description seems to work as well as any.

I asked members of the church to express what ministry means to them.  One member wrote, “My online dictionary gives one broad definition as ‘to attend to the needs of someone’. In that sense, as members of the human species we are called to that level of ministry for each other. Religion codifies what that might (should) look like, and church gives us an opportunity to know what needs are out there, and the collective inspiration, coaxing, and courage to step up to the plate and do what needs doing.”

If ministry is the advancement of understanding, healing, and justice, it follows that each of us, in our own differences, might feel particularly drawn towards one of these more than the others.  However, any one of these, on its own, may become grotesque and unhealthy.  Those who seek only after truth may become paralyzed by inaction.  Simply being right may not save us.  The search for healing can become about simply feeling good.  And, the pursuit of justice can become an ineffectual martyrdom.

Ministry, writes Gordon McKeeman, means speaking and living the highest we know, uniting our fragments, healing our wounds, and stiffening our spines.

In Unitarian Universalism, there was a term that began to be used in the early 1990s.  The term was “shared ministry,” a term that described the relationship between the minister and the congregation, and between the members of congregations themselves.  I’m interested in why this term emerged when it did.  This term was developed by a Protestant woman named Jean Trumbauer whose concepts were carried into Unitarian Universalism.  It’s been pointed out to me that it was at about precisely this time that Unitarian Universalism as a whole began to become more comfortable with theological language.  Many lay people began to see their service to one another and the world as ministry.  Earlier in our history, many ministers even rejected the concept of ministry!

One of the biggest programs of the UUA during this time was the extension ministry program, a program designed to help small, lay-led congregations to be able to get a professional minister.  The UUA matched ministers with congregations seeking their first minister and then gave the congregations a considerable amount of money.

This program had its share of successes as well as its share of failures.  The ones that were successful were the ones that had a shared and expansive sense of ministry while the ones that failed had a limited sense of ministry.

The ones that were successful saw it this way:  What a boon!  What an opportunity!  Now we have the capacity to create and develop and experiment with and explore all these new avenues for ministry.  We rejoice in these possibilities.  They reacted to the presence of professional minister by feeling liberated to develop their own ministries as members of a congregation.  This was the path towards expansiveness.

The ones that failed saw it differently:  now that we have a professional minister, we have someone to do all the work of ministry.  This ministry is important, so let’s make sure we manage our minister.  She represents a big investment, so let’s watch her closely.  This was the path towards smallness and frustration.

In the words of Gordon McKeeman, “Ministry is a quality of relationship between and among human beings that beckons forth hidden possibilities…  being present with, to, and for others… celebrating the triumphs of the human spirit… witnessing to life-enhancing values and speaking truth to power... all these and much, much more than all of them.”

As long as there is truth to be discovered, as long as there are hurts to be healed and pain to be lessened, as long as there is justice to be pursued, there is the need for ministry calling us, calling all of us, on.