Monday, September 21, 2015

An Invitation to Service

I read something really interesting recently.  Some of you may have, too.  It was just after Bernie Sanders spoke at Liberty University.   That’s democratic socialist, secular Jew Bernie Sanders speaking at the school that Jerry Falwell built.  Afterwards, a piece appeared on the internet called “Biblical Argument for Bernie.”  It was written by a graduate of Liberty, a Conservative pastor, who worked on the George W. Bush campaign, and who calls himself, “pretty much a card-carrying Evangelical Christian.”  And, funnily enough, that is why he is now a supporter of Bernie Sanders.  His basic argument is that this “wild haired Jew” (and he calls him that several times) is more closely aligned with the teachings of that other Jew – Jesus – than those who are running on the Republican ticket calling themselves “Christian.”

It’s a really interesting piece, and I’d encourage you to look it up and read it if you haven’t already.  There is one passage that really jumped out at me, though.  At one point the author says to his fellow Evangelicals:
When we chose to follow Jesus, we decided that the Kingdom of God, and the men and women and children of this world, were more important than us. And that accidentally made us all liberals. The day we decided to follow Christ, and the day we decided that we value other human beings more than ourselves, we accidentally became liberals.
A lot of people have focused on this self-avowed Conservative Evangelical Christian asserting that by trying to follow Jesus he had “accidentally become [a] liberal.”  But there’s something else to hear in that passage.  “[W]e decided that … the men and women and children of this world were more important than us. … [W]e decided that we value other human beings more than ourselves.”  More valuable.  More important.

Now I’ve been around enough Unitarian Universalists to know that that’s the kind of religious language that drives a lot of us right up the wall:  that whole “do-unto-others-before-you-do-unto-yourself” thing.  After all, “others first” has often understood to imply, “and yourself really, really, really far behind.”  “Put others first” has done a lot of damage to a lot of us, and so for the most part we reject that kind of self-depreciating, others-first mind-set.   We know, for instance, that if we take care of ourselves – our own mental, emotional, spiritual well-being – we’ll have more to give and a healthier and more solid place to give it from.  A lot of us would say that ours is a “put-the-oxygen-mask-over-your-own-head-before-assisting-others” kind of a religion, and we’d say it with pride.
Yet I’ll just point out that in this we buck the trend of virtually every other religious tradition we humans have ever created.  They all – each in their own ways – teach that we should “value other human beings more than ourselves.”  All of them … except us.  So maybe they’re on to something.  And we?  Maybe we’re missing something.

More than once I’ve preached a sermon on Matthew 22:39 –  “Love your neighbor as yourself” –  pointing out that this tells us to put our love of others on a par with our love of ourselves.  Not above; not below; but on the same level.  And those sermons have been received with a great deal of relief by people who had been taught – sometimes explicitly and often more subliminally – that love is a zero-sum game, so that the more you love others the less you can love yourself.  Hopefully, it’s clear that our faith does not teach this.  I wonder, though, whether we’ve gone too far in the other direction.

What would happen if, as that Evangelical pastor put it, we value other human beings more than we do ourselves?  What would happen if we were to live our lives so that, all things being equal, we did put others first?  If we let a coworker have the last cookie, for instance, or if you and your spouse were both really tired and you realize that the garbage needs to go out, and you get up to do it – what would happen?  We can, of course, go overboard with this, but what if we don’t?  And what if we could do it not out of a forced sense of obligation but as the result of a free choice to put that other person first?

That’s the basis of service.  That’s the foundation from which true generosity springs forth.  That’s the very definition of “ministry,” which comes to us from a Latin word meaning “less than” (same root as “minus”) but also meaning “to serve.”  We minister when we put someone else’s needs ahead – even if just a little bit ahead – of our own.

A few years ago, while I was working at our Association’s headquarters (which I can’t resist calling “UUHQ”), I was asked to write something that might be useful to congregations.  What came out was the book Serving with Grace: lay leadership as aspiritual practice.  It proposes the somewhat radical notion that what we do within the context of a faith community – everything we do within the context of a faith community – should provide an opportunity for spiritual practice, a way of nurturing our souls.  Everything.  Even serving on the Finance Committee.  Even cleaning up after the church auction.   Not really so radical, of course – the great Christian mystic Brother Lawrence said that his work in the kitchen was prayer, and the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that washing the dishes is meditation.  It really isn’t such a radical idea, but its application is a rare thing indeed.  All too often we find ourselves doing the work of the church, while watching our spiritual connections to the community withering away; the very antithesis of lay leadership being a spiritual practice.

The distance between this idea and its application is a decision.  A decision that we make freely, not out of obligation.  And it’s at least in part the decision to see this community as maybe even just a little bit more important that we are.  I mean, if we didn’t see it that way, who would stay in a Board meeting for three hours?  Or give hours of their time visiting another congregant who’s in need?  Hardly anybody would!  We all have other things we could be doing with our time (our talents, our money, or any of the other things we share with this church).

The sad truth is, though, that many people who give of themselves to this community don’t do it as a spiritual practice; don’t do it because of a freely made decision to apply the idea that service is salvific.  More often it’s because the church needs a chair for this committee or that task force, so we step up because it seems clear that no one else is going to do it.  And while that’s laudable, it’s also a set up for burn out because that makes service to and through the church into merely doing the work of the church, and that’s not why most of us are here.  If we haven’t made the free choice to put others even if just a little bit ahead of ourselves it can be so easy slip into resentment, because it hasn’t been a free choice but a decision thrust upon us.  If we haven’t freely chosen it, it can be really hard when we’re forced to do it anyway.

In a moment we, as a congregation, are going to recognize some of the people who are volunteering their time in a leadership role.  We’ve done this for the past few years in what we’ve called a Service of Commissioning.  I hope that this service is more than simply a way to recognize and thank some hardworking volunteers.  (Although I hope it’ll do that, too.)  The word “commission” means, “the act of granting certain powers or the authority to carry out a particular task or duty,” and it also has its roots in a Latin word that meant, “to entrust.”  Simply put, when we commission these volunteers, these ministers, we are entrusting ourselves and the care of this community to them as they carry out their ministries through the various roles they play here.

Today we’re taking seriously the service these folk are offering to the rest of us, by seeing it as, recognizing it as, and naming it as a true ministry and not a mere job.  It’s my hope that this will help to invite these leaders to see their own work, their own lives, in this way; to recognize in them the possibility of and the opportunity for real spiritual growth and deepening.  I hope it will help to remind them of why they’re doing what they’re doing, and help them to be conscious that the choice is, and always has been, theirs to freely make.  And, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind it at all if today also inspires some of us who have not yet found a way to be of service here to seek out opportunities to do so.

And so, let us begin our Commissioning of Congregational Leaders.

Commissioning of the Worship Weavers Guild
Members of the Worship Weavers Guild:  we thank you for your work as ministers of worship.  Week after week you strive to create a safe space for us in which we can explore and engage with things that matter.  Know that we will try to bring our whole selves whenever we gather. We bless you and your ministry as Weavers of Worship.

Commissioning of the Pastoral Visitors and CareNet Coordinator
To our Pastoral Visitors:  we thank you for your work as ministers of pastoral care.  When we are in need of a companion during difficult times you bring your hearts and minds not to solve anything but to sit with us.  We thank you for your willingness to give of yourselves to others and we offer you our support.    We bless you and your ministry as Pastoral Visitors.

And to our CareNet Coordinator:  This work, too, is a ministry of pastoral care.  It falls to you to strive to match the resources of our community with its needs and this means that it falls to you to hold those needs.  We thank you for your willingness to bear this burden, and to remind you that you do not have to hold those needs alone.  We offer you our hands and our hearts to use as they can be of use.  We bless you and your ministry of CareNet.

Commissioning of the Committee on the Ministry
To our Committee on the Ministry:  we thank you for your work as ministers of and to the congregation.  At different times each of us will have things that delight us and things that distress us about our experiences here at TJMC.  You provide a safe place for us to bring our questions, comments, concerns (and praise).  We thank you for your willingness to listen to us and to help our voices be heard.   We bless you and your ministry as members of the Committee on the Ministry.

Commissioning of the Board of Trustees
To our Board of Trustees:  we thank you for your work as ministers of leadership.  We have elected you to represent the whole of us and to act on our behalf in fulfilling the mission of this church in collaboration with our staff.  We offer you our support and trust, and thank you for your willingness to give of your time and your talent.    We bless you and your ministry as trustees of our beloved community.

Commissioning of all the Ministers at TJMC
And to all who serve this congregation and the wider world around us, know that your ministries are recognized, honored, and celebrated too.  Each of us have gifts to give, and our faith calls on us to share them.  May we at this time commission one another to our individual ministries, and our congregation as a whole to the fulfillment of its mission in the world.  We bless one another, and receive each other’s blessing.

Pax tecum,


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Anonymous said...

Please note that it is little "d" democratic, little "s" socialist, not Democratic Socialist. The difference in the meaning of the two is significant. Bernie will undoubtedly have to continue explaining that until he's elected (I hope) and after, no doubt.

RevWik said...

Quite a difference indeed. I've now corrected the mistake. Thanks.