“Expressions of Ministry”   Mark W. Harris

 May 5, 2019 – First Parish of Watertown

Opening Words –  from Jane Mauldin

For our community  gathered here, for the spirit that called us together and drew us to this place:

             “We Give Thanks This Day”

For the moments that we have shared with others; for the times that we have reached out and been touched, across barriers of distance and fear: for the moments when we have discovered another along the path:

            We Give Thanks This Day.

For this community of celebration, growth, introspection, times of solitude and, perhaps, a moment of that “peace which passeth all understanding:”

            We Give Thanks This Day.

For our gathering together out of distant places, for our weaving lives together out of many separate selves, in this hour of celebration:

            We Give Thanks This Day.

Reading –  from “The Comfort of Connection“ by Linda Weltner, Boston Globe column from October, 1995:  Column concludes:

“I feel blessed.  Ever since I dropped like a pebble into this community of faith, I’ve seen my definition of friends and family grow into ever-widening circles of inclusion.”

 “Expressions of Ministry”   Mark W. Harris

Convers Francis became minister of First Parish in 1819. After many years of active ministry, he saw the congregation build a new meetinghouse right next door on Church Street in 1836 in the wake of the disestablishment of church and state. Francis was Watertown’s last town wide, elected minister, but he also guided the church into Unitarianism. He remembered with fondness the old meetinghouse on Mount Auburn Street, right behind what is now the high school. In his farewell to the old building, he wrote: “I believe, after all, I can never love any new church as I did the old one; generations had come and gone, and had sought God and truth within its walls.” On September 7, the new church was dedicated, but its useful life as a building was short lived when it burned down in 1841. It was rebuilt in 1842, the year Francis departed for a new job in Cambridge. In his Journal he humbly reflected upon a devoted ministry. Feeling the loss very deeply he wrote on his last day, August 21, 1842:  “It was a deeply trying day for me; but I made my way through it with less distress than I had expected. It seemed like tearing up old roots and planting them again in a new place. Every family, every hill or valley, every walk in my parish, has a history; and all these histories of the heart come thronging upon me, and make a child of me.

What made him characterize himself as a child was the easy expression of emotion, or as we used to say, he cried like a baby. He went on to reveal that he hoped the “Head of the Church” would send his “dear people” a “good minister.” This person would “take the place hitherto so imperfectly led by me. I have enjoyed much at Watertown; and though frequently saddened at the ill success of my ministry, have likewise had bright gleams of encouragement.”   Thus more than twenty years of ministry ended.  Francis went on to serve as a theological school professor at Harvard until his death in 1863. He was succeeded here in Watertown by John Weiss, who will be the subject of a talk I will give at the library on June 4.

If you are new to the church, you should know that the building that was erected in 1842 was torn down in 1975, and the congregation then moved to the building we occupy now, which was erected in 1889 as a parish house.  In his reflection Francis waxes nostalgic about every family in his parish, every walk he has taken both within the boundaries of the town, and with the people as they have known birth and death, joy and tragedy, success and failure. I have been reliving Francis’ experiences these last months.  While our discussions may seem to focus on the rational faith that is free and open to new truth, or the rampant racism  or economic inequality we observe in the world and what we can do about it, or what we can do about getting these darn lights fixed in the sanctuary, our true sustenance comes not so much from discussions, worldly woes, or even building issues, but how much we gain from our personal relationships with each other. 

We may recall Harold and Evelyn Bejcek’s devotion to Watertown and how they inspired us, or Mike Altamari’s artistic vision and how he made us see the world anew, or what a lovely person Martha Urban was, or how interesting Mary Schlivek was.  They once walked among us, and made up the church with their living love for life, and we all got to know them and call them friend and fellow member. I still see all of those people as I look out into this room.  I also see the living who no longer walk among us, but have moved on to offer their love and service to other UUs congregations.  I see Aurora and Jeff now in Oregon, and Karen in California.  I see Ken and Jerusha in Connecticut and Sarah and Chris in Washington, and surely countless more in other locations. They are all people who made their mark here, and said this is a place I want to give time and energy to.  This is a faith and a community that nurtures my soul.  And today we welcome a handful more, and pray that this will continue to be a faith that nurtures your soul, if you practice it here, or even far away.

Most of you know that I have been working on a history of the church.  It is not a narrative history, but rather a kind of patchwork affair that links together the various history sermons, articles and lectures I have given here at First Parish, in the town, and even as far away as San Diego.  In the introduction to that book I write:  “Much of a church’s history depends upon the laity, even though minister’s are the ones with their names on the wall. The laity over the centuries have raised the money, planned the social events, made the committees function and sat in the pews/chairs. I apologize that this work is so minister centered. There are many unheard voices, and we all know that ministry is a shared calling. Any program in a church requires congregational support.” In fact, I learned this many years ago here when I tried to put together a concert with Jim Scott on my own, and we had about twenty people attend. I have needed you to make the church run and to show up on Sundays.  It is an amazing privilege to have people who make the sacrifice to get out of bed on a Sunday and come here and sit through admittedly long sermons, which hopefully occasionally provided a small ounce of inspiration. 

It is also a ministerial privilege to have been drawn into your lives: to touch your children’s foreheads and I say I welcome you to the family of all souls, to grasp your hand on Sunday morning, look into your eyes, and find out how you are, to walk beside you carrying a load of books from a rummage sale, or digging a giant stump out of the ground, to touch your parent’s arm as they lose their grip on life, and to touch and help join two hands together in loving marriage.  I have had the remarkable privilege of doing all that as minister of this congregation. It is no different than the experience Convers Francis had in 1836: “all these histories of the heart come thronging upon me,” he said,  “and make a child of me.”  Ministry is about the depth of relationship we cultivate in a community.  

What is enduring about a child dedication is that it is the opportunity to give a blessing to someone, and I think that is really what ministry is all about. Whether it is a Sunday morning service, or a child dedication, or the people who attend a memorial service, the goal of ministry is to send you out into the world with a blessing. With the sense of strength and purpose and human care that you can get through the trials of the day, week and month, and that you will see that the world needs all of us, needs this community to give our love, to give our vision of justice, to give our vision of understanding and acceptance to others, and to keep doing that over and over again. In my 23 years of ministry here, I don’t know of any more moving book I have read or used in a Sunday service than Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  She writes this about blessings:  “There is a reality in blessing… It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is one of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. I don’t wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out. Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you. I don’t know why there is so little about this aspect of the calling in the literature.”

Today we commonly say that ministry is the work of all the members of a congregation. And, if you visit a member who is ill, or mentor a child, or sit in protection and care of a woman in sanctuary then you embody the ministry of the church, and bestow a blessing by touching the sacred through what you have done. While clergy have professional training to be religious leaders of our churches, it is, as the Rev. David Pohl once said, a path of service calling all of us into ways of relating to a larger reality that can transform us as persons and as a society. That path of service calls us to a life of relationship rather than isolation, of compassion rather than mean spiritedness, of striving for justice for all rather than looking out only for ourselves.” Relationship, compassion and justice for all are three bench marks I would see as vital to any ministry, that are not the task alone of the minister, but of all of us together. Yet we are human, and in our efforts to create a better world, or a better community, or a better self, we often fall short. This is why Emerson once said that everything God creates has a crack in it.  We are all flawed beings, and recognizing our flaws helps us see that when we say love is the spirit of this church, we mean love is what we are trying to achieve, not what we have already accomplished.  It is a vision we strive for, not a reality. 

As he was leaving Watertown, Francis said in his journal that he hoped the “Head of the Church” would send his “dear people” a “good minister.” This person would “take the place hitherto so imperfectly led by me. I have enjoyed much at Watertown; and though frequently saddened at the ill success of my ministry, have likewise had bright gleams of encouragement.” Francis was probably a lot more successful here that he would ever acknowledge, as just keeping them from splitting into Unitarian and Trinitarian was a major accomplishment that did not happen in most towns in Massachusetts. I will let history be the judge of the success or failure of my ministry, but I can repeat as he did, that I hope the head of the church sends you, my dear people a good minister.  Now who the head of the church is, is a complicated question around here. While he meant Jesus, and not the settlement director of the association, I don’t think we can name quite so lofty a head. We are just going to have to settle on Sue Twombly, and an imperfect parish committee.  But guess what?  My replacement won’t be perfect either. 

Sometimes congregations pick a new minister as an antidote to the old one – but a young woman who preaches shorter sermons won’t be quite enough.  Of course the interim minister will help you determine exactly who you would like to see here as your minister, and how they can help you fulfill your vision of what you want First Parish to be. What they won’t be is Jesus or Paul, or Mother Theresa. What kind of preacher or prophet or pastor they are will be partly up to you, and ultimately whatever imperfect human you select, their success will depend mostly on how much you support a ministry of the whole congregation, how much you are engaged in caring for others, in growing a faith, in nurturing children, and in having a vision for a just world that you will enact together as a congregation.  No matter who you select to help you articulate the vision for the church, the vision still must come from you.

I have spent the last many weeks discussing with Boston University students where they derive their authority as ministers. Mostly we concluded that authority is drawn from the communities we serve.  We must live with people and engage with people.   As I disentangle from 23 years of ministry in Watertown, we all must ask what our expressions of ministry are in a congregation where we teach that we are all ministers to each other. Of course the idea of all of us being ministers together comes from our Protestant progenitor Martin Luther, who declared the priesthood of all believers. What he meant was that everybody could read sacred scriptures and discover truth for themselves within the guidelines of the community.  Ordained ministers would help everyone understand what those truths are, but we have to discover them together.  The Puritans also emphasized that their clergy were people who were called out from among the people – just one of the gang, who had certain roles of pastoring and preaching to fulfill, but still part of a community.  I was ordained to the ministry 40 years ago.  At that service, the preacher, Charles Slap said, “to ordain a man or woman to the ministry is an awesome responsibility. Through the agency of the congregation a claim has been made upon Mark, and he has dared to accept.  He has accepted divine service.  Henceforth his ultimate loyalty cannot be to you, who have called him, or even to his family, who has nurtured him.  For he is pledged, you have pledged him, to serve the source of life itself.  He now bears the burden of distinguishing true religion from false.  He made it sound like it was my burden to discern the true from the false, but I believe it is our common struggle as a congregation.  As a people of faith we must determine these truths together.  Do we confirm a blessing on others? Are we serving a larger reality that can transform us?

Over the years since I graduated from seminary, I have kept a little quote from the president of my seminary, a minister named Bob Kimball, who was best known for being the literary executor of Paul Tillich’s estate..  He once wrote, “The decision to enter religious leadership is one of the most demanding and courageous moves of our times. Whatever religious leadership is, there is nothing abstract about it.  There is a continuing decision that the word, the wisdom, the truth, must become flesh, take form with and amongst people.  The religious leader must be prepared to be fully there for others, that’s the only thing that truly counts, your body and soul on the line. A decision to be present. Everything else is too distant.”  What struck me about this was that ministry was about being body and soul on the line, it is a lived faith, and not a faith that comes out of our heads, or is, in his words “abstract.”  I think my students have concluded that our UU faith has been too abstract over the decades. We have been a smart faith or a questioning faith, but not a soul transforming faith. Too often we have not practiced a lived faith in our communities.  We have talked about what we believe, or talked about equality, but we have not shared how we each live through the pains and struggles of human life. So we must share our journeys.  We must share how we confront life’s challenges, and make a faith grow from them. To be a minister is to be in relationship with others, and that requires full participation from those others. Like Convers Francis, I know my ministry and our ministry was imperfect. At times I failed to give a blessing, to tell you I loved you or modeled what a compassionate way might be. At times I failed to be honest, and smoothed things over, avoiding conflict. Giving a blessing to each other means we have the potential for ministry that could go deeper and could discover or uncover a more emotional or compassionate way.  Our expressions of ministry could be deeper sharing of our journeys, and expressions of care in a soul transforming community.  Ministry is how we are together. We are friendly and we are warm, but the ministerial challenge may be can we uncover more and more of the joy and pain of the growth of the human spirit in this community.  I hope the good minister who comes to you will help you uncover even more what you do together in a journey of expressions of ministry that bestows blessings and confirms and reveals, all that we do and are together.


Closing Words from Gordon McKeeman  “Ministry is all that we do—Together”

Ministry is all that we do—Together

Ministry is that quality of being in community that affirms human dignity—
beckons forth hidden possibilities, invites us into deeper, more constant, reverent relationships,
and carries forward our heritage of hope and liberation.

Ministry is what we do together as we celebrate triumphs of our human spirit,
Miracles of birth and life,
Wonders of devotion and sacrifice.

Ministry is what we do together—with one another—
in terror and torment—in grief, in misery and pain,
enabling us in the presence of death
to say yes to life.

We who minister speak and live the best we know with full knowledge
that it is never quite enough…

And yet are reassured
by lostness found,
fragments reunited,
wounds healed,
and joy shared.

Ministry is what we all do—together.