Are You Invited?
Our reading today is adapted from the words of Kenneth Untener, the former Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The Beloved Community is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is work we are called to. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Beloved Community always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said. No covenant fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the congregation’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way…. We may never see the end results…. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
One of the things I loved most about living in New England for a year is that it became immediately clear that Massachusetts was a place that prized its history. It held dear its many stories, it cherished the artifacts of the past, it saw itself as a cradle of American history, and of particular note to me, it treasured the conflicts and disputes of the past as well.
It was often joked at the church in Concord that while the church itself was over 375 years old, it’s conflicts did not need to last that long. It certainly felt like some of them did. I do not share this as if it was a bad thing — it was all charming, it was all part of my personal and ministerial growth, and while I am a lifelong Chicagoan —
I know that a part of my heart carried away some New England Yankee. Having only lived there a year, I feel that it was never truly home, but its uniqueness and the many stories I was witness to will be with me for some time. Many of those stories are things we still deal with in some way today.
There is a wonderful old story that comes to us about a 17th century Puritan minister who was having a dispute in his congregation. His congregation was situated on the exact geographical boundary of what was then the Plymouth colony — where the pilgrims originally landed — and the Massachusetts Bay colony which included Boston.
At that time, Plymouth was seen as an outdated relic of the past and in the middle of nowhere. To the north, Boston was the center of culture. It was where high society life dwelled and innovations in culture were expected — as best as it could be expected from 17th century Puritans. Both the minister and the districts were unclear as to where this minister’s church belonged.
But so intense was the dispute in the congregation, he knew he needed to reach out to his fellow ministers and seek assistance. So he did what he thought was best, he wrote to the ministers in each district — Plymouth and Boston — and awaited their replies. Sure enough and very promptly, the Plymouth ministers replied. They sent a large packet of information.
It included wisdom on how to deal with the congregational dispute, notes of encouragement from his colleagues, and some even offered to come out and mediate the dispute if that would help. All of them complimented him in his willingness to reach out to them in his time of need. The Boston ministers wrote back just as promptly. Their thin envelope held a single piece of paper with one line of text. Why, the Boston ministers asked, are you speaking with those people in Plymouth?
When I hear this story, I find myself realizing that not a whole lot has changed in how human beings communicate with one another. We can either meet each other where we are and offer up what we are authentically able to — or we can refuse and instead focus our energy on a question or approach that serves no purpose other than to foster greater disconnection.
I know I’ve been the perpetrator and receiver of both approaches. Not just in my personal life but in the life of many of the communities I’ve belonged to — including church. Many of those barriers experienced by that 17th century minister are no longer as strong. Many communities of faith will speak freely to one another, assist one another, and work together — both within and beyond their own faiths.
But as we heard in our reading today, the work is never done. We are participants in an ongoing endeavor to build the beloved community and see only a glimpse. We never achieve it fully in our lives. It is not that we are lacking in resolve or in conviction, but simply that the more we do to seek justice and compassion and the more we do to love one another beyond our beliefs, it becomes self-evident in our world that the needs of humanity will always be changing and that we cannot act alone.
This is certainly true for Unitarian Universalists. While we are a small and mighty religious movement, we should not fool ourselves even for a moment that the aspirations of our principles and vision are easily obtainable. We need others — people who are not Unitarian Universalists — to accompany us, but above all else we need the members of our congregations first.
Each and every person that claims the title of Unitarian Universalist is needed in this work to build the beloved community. While this is not a unique goal for our faith tradition alone, it is certainly one that is talked about quite a lot. But for something so unachievable in multiple human lives, why bother, why put forth the effort.
I believe the reasons for continuing in our shared work together is important because the places where we see those glimpses of beloved community begin right here and in our endeavors outside of these walls. And it is all due to those of you who make this community what it is — it certainly has nothing to do with me. The work we engage in here at UUCL is not the work I set forth as our vision — you’ve already done that.
It’s not my pet projects or the the dictates of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston. The work we engage in here is a shared ministry. It is a ministry that recognizes that all are called to contribute in some way that is authentic to who they are as a person. Shared ministry is not a new concept.
In many circles of Engaged Buddhism, there is the active application of meditative insights into building up communities and acting for justice. The Holy Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam, speaks of “those who gave shelter and help, they are the true believers,” and from our Christian brothers and sisters, the words of Martin Luther speak to the “priesthood of all believers.”
From our own tradition, the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams famously said that within our faith there is not just a priesthood of all believers but a prophethood of all believers. All are called to speak their truth, to speak their truth to power, and to add their wisdom to the interdependent web of which we are a part. Shared ministry is in all reality the trendy way of talking about being engaged in a rewarding way in the life of your faith community. It has been with us for quite some time.
Shared ministry is not about ordaining everyone in this room and telling you that you are a minister. It is not about the minister skipping out on his or her duties and expecting the congregation to fill in the gaps. It is not about volunteering for everything, donating to all church events, or debating about the color of the order of service.
Quite simply, shared ministry is the acknowledgement that the ministry of this congregation could not exist without the passion and faith of its members. While it is great to have volunteers and a healthy budget is necessary — in order for shared ministry to not be a demand for more time and money, it has to make room for each and every one of us to discern where the life of this community is calling us to be.
Where are we being called to speak our truths, where do we need to be in our lives within and beyond this community? It is clear to me, then, with such questions before us, that shared ministry is just as much about saying yes as it is about learning to say no — and to let the no we offer up be necessary in our own paths. I know saying no is not easy. I don’t quite know how it is here in Kentucky, but as a life-long Midwesterner, I do not like to say no.
Midwesterners will say “maybe” a million times before we ever get to a no — and often we find ourselves wondering how we got involved in something when, really, we never wanted it in the first place. If only we would say no. But whether or not this is a culture here where saying no is not a general practice, church certainly is such a place — whether it’s in Kentucky, New England, or California.
Unitarian Universalists might be free in their faith, we might be a people that love to discuss, debate, and think long and hard about pretty much everything — but like so many churches, there is that fear that we will have to disappoint one another by not doing something. I won’t ask for you to say who you are, but I wonder how many of you have left church in one heck of a hurry on certain days because you knew someone was going to ask you to do something.
It might sound odd that I’m encouraging you to say no more often, especially when it comes to the very clear needs of this church. We have a great need for religious exploration volunteers, we have a need for pastoral associates, we have a need for more people to jump in so we can make room for leaders to step back and take a break — so why on earth do I want you to say no?
For me, I have found that in this practice of discerning what is right for me in my community — here or elsewhere — and being clear in my passions and needs, I find that I offer up the possibility — that by saying no — a more authentic yes can then emerge. In order for any ministry of this congregation to work in a healthy and meaningful way, authenticity in how we discern and engage, is what will invite us back into an ever deepening relationship with this church.
So ask yourself — where do you need to say no in your life — or more appropriately — where do you need to allow space for a more authentic yes to emerge? Where in this community will you be able to say, yes, this ministry belongs to me, too?
So what does this mean for this congregation. What does a priesthood and prophethood of Unitarian Universalists look like? How does a more engaged practice of discernment — where we offer up a joyful yes or a grateful no — guide us in how we jump into this community or take a deep breath.
As we know, and as I often say, there is always more work to do in a community of faith. And we can start small and keep drawing the circle wider and wider until we are all involved. You are all invited to join with our youth today during Fellowship Hour.
Through their Pay It Forward Lunch they will not only offer us food for fellowship, but they will ease the hunger of those in need. That it shared ministry. You will hear more about the good work being done at Cardinal Valley Elementary and be invited to give generously. That it shared ministry.
But beyond that we will continue to focus our energy on the things that this community needs and on what this community already does an amazing job at. That, too, is shared ministry. I truly believe the overarching mission of Unitarian Universalism is to heal disconnection in our world.
I say this knowing that our Puritan ancestors, as we heard in that story, were struggling with disconnection just as our culture is today. But as always there are plenty of high hopes to be had. My hope, as your minister, is to see us all, including myself, invite ourselves into the shared ministry of this congregation.
To allow ourselves room to hear where we need to be in this community either in this moment or in years to come. It’s an ongoing process and is often not immediate. But if we allow this to be a place where that practice is central to how we engage with one another I trust that we will all have a glimpse of that beloved community which is central to the vision of Unitarian Universalism.
You are all invited into the ministry of this congregation. It is not just because you called me here to be your minister, but because you answered the call for yourself — whatever that means to you — and are here every Sunday. Where will the life of this church invite you next? May it always be so. Blessed Be. Amen.