“The Call of Ministry” – June 6, 2004
Mark W. Harris

OPENING WORDS (Responsive) from R. Tagore

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean – cradle of birth and death, in ebb and flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.

Sermon – “The Call of Ministry”

What is a call to ministry? I am sure many of us think of the idea in traditional terms. Perhaps it is a bellowing voice from on high shouting I want you, sort of a Uncle Sam poster in the sky demanding your service in the Lord¹s army. In the famous examples of God¹s revelation it is abundantly clear that some higher power is making a claim on you body and soul. Mohammed receives a call from God to carry out a special mission, but he never conceives of himself as more than an ordinary human being. Unlike Jesus he is never thought of as a miracle worker, but only as one person who is charged with an unrelenting devotion to serve the revealed truth. What is also obvious from many of these stories about receiving a call is that there is a clear human reluctance to accept it. You may remember the famous story of Jonah. How do you think you got swallowed by that whale in the first place? He gets the call to warn Nineveh to repent, but then he runs away. Or even Moses who feels he is not worthy enough to receive this call because he is slow of speech and tongue. His brother Aaron, who is a good speaker, then ends up with the job, and the creation of the priesthood occurs in the Hebrew scriptures.

The stories of human reluctance probably seem most relevant to those who call ourselves Unitarian Universalists. More often than not stories about being called by God are tales that set one person apart as being more special in the eyes of the divine. Catholic tradition seems to connote this with its priesthood that individual persons are not capable of understanding divine truth but rather need some kind of intermediate person who speaks to God for them. These go-betweens tell them what the truth is, and they are expected to conform. I remember being surprised when I visited York Cathedral in England in the 1970¹s. There were the pews on either side of the nave, and then a massive choir screen blocking the people from viewing the altar. This was a sign that the rabble stayed on one side of the screen, and those who God had called forth to have a special relationship with him would work God¹s communion magic on the other side.

In Protestant tradition much of this changed with the advent of Martin Luther who encouraged everyone to read the Bible in their native language, and also, more importantly, also preached that each person could understand the meaning of holy scriptures for themselves. As soon as Luther theorized that the people represent a priesthood of all believers, he opened the door to a potential for reform that led all the way to Emerson, and the much quoted passages you frequently hear from me about each of us having the ability to acquaint ourselves with divinity at first hand. This position may also be theological extension of our own Puritan heritage, where each member of an independent congregation had a right to speak and vote. While it was hardly democracy, because it was restricted to male landowners at first, the congregational impulse was to remove the hierarchies of creating categories of people who were either closer or further away from God. The Puritans emphasized that their clergy were people who were called out from among the people – just one of the gang – who had certain roles and duties of pastoring and teaching to fulfill, but were not any more ingratiated to God than the next guy. Like Aaron, maybe he was simply a good speaker.

That reminds me of some of the first words spoken to me when I was a student minister in Davis , California in 1975. Two things happened in the very first service I conducted there that bear a relationship to the experience of the 25 years in the ministry that I celebrate this year. The first took place in the wake of my first sermon, which included the story I told a few weeks ago about the 18th century minister from my hometown who rode out of town, only to ride cross country to sneak back through a church back door so that his Trinitarian parishioners could hear the liberal offerings they usually avoided by only coming to church on days he exchanged pulpits. After that address, I was wandering around the coffee hour shaking hands and feeling the warmth of parishioners who seemed to like what I had to say, only to be stunned silent by one elderly man who remarked, I have no idea what you said, but it sure sounded good. One should never have an over inflated sense of one¹s own wisdom and power to entrance the people. Someone is going to say, you make no sense. Always remember your weaknesses. I remember the organist of one church remarking about his minister. He is not as smart as he thinks he is. I have always remembered that. And so when one of my predecessors in Milton said never move tables, let the people do that (or better yet, hire someone), I completely ignored his advice, and have ever since moved my share of tables and chairs, and now pulpits, even when they have your name on it. The first lesson I learned was to remember my humble origins among the congregation.

Second in that same first service that I conducted in Davis, I was interrupted by the shouts of the estranged husband of a parishioner. He stood in the back, just before I ever spoke a word of that good sounding but meaningless sermon and shouted that this didn¹t seem like a church to him. What kind of church is this? To a greenhorn having someone alter my script was tantamount to a ticket to disaster. I calmly answered that we would respond to his concerns after the service, but we would appreciate it if he would sit down for now, and remain quiet during the service. And it worked! The second lesson I learned in the ministry was that anything can happen. This is not just in a worship service where microphones fail and babies cry, but in all of life. This 20 something fledgling minister needed to learn that he would witness in his ministry that anything and everything does happen. Babies give off terrible smells, and you still have to dedicate them; grooms fail to show at the altar, and you have to deal with hysterical brides, and car accidents end the most wonderful lives long before their time. Terrible tragedies of immense and seemingly senseless pain. And was it my job to explain what it all meant? No, it was my job simply to be present. The answer was not on page 22 of the book of truth, but was in my heart¹s ability to witness to life. In magical ways, too – in the wonder of birth, in the joy of celebrating a lasting love, in surviving a difficult time. These were my first lessons in ministry – Be humble. Be ready.

What was true of that first worship service in Davis was that the heart of what I did as a professional minister was the life of the community on Sunday morning – their humor, their pain, their relationships. In today¹s reading from Channing our spiritual founder, he says it is not the louder voices or tricks of oratory, it is the conviction that religion is a great concern, and all must feel its claims. The truths we struggle with as a community on Sunday morning must come from our common life – our struggles, our sorrows, our triumphs. Emerson said the task of the sermon, or the service is to convert life into truth. Truth comes through the living of our lives, and this is what the preacher tries to hold up before the congregation Sunday after Sunday, sometimes more successfully than others. And lives are built upon relationships. Where is the truth in our lives? Honesty, integrity, compassion. How are we with one another?

Today we commonly say that ministry is the work of all the members of a congregation. As I said in the newsletter this is part of the reason for changing the name of the church committee that relates directly to me as minister. Rather than the ministerial relations committee which monitors how I am getting along with you, as a professional outsider, the committee on ministry asks how we are doing in our common ministry. Clergy have professional training to be religious leaders of our churches, but ministry, as former UUA Director of Ministry, David Pohl writes, ” is 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 my task alone, but ours together.

Martin Luther, when he was elucidating his ideas of a priesthood of all also said some things about calling. Luther believed that each and every one of us has a calling. Now he might have believed that God determines what our particular role and place in the world will be, but the larger point is that each of us has some work, some love, that is right for us. We might say that is the perfect job for her. She is so good with children. Someone was joking the other day about a smart child with no social skills, and said they were the ideal candidate for early admission to MIT. On Memorial Day we saw my son Joel smoothly and warmly glad handing every other person on the streets of Portsmouth and we said what a perfect business man. He is good at it, and he seemingly loves it. I have used the word call about my understanding of being a minister, even in my journey from Christian to humanist. I have never said that God ordained me to do this work, or did any special shoulder tapping. It is work I love. It feels right and good for me. It is how I want to be in the world. I feel called.

Perhaps that sense of calling is what the ministry of the church challenges each of us with by our presence here. While I use the word calling to affirm my sense of the professional ministry, I also believe in calling as something that life demands of each of us to find our own center, our source of personal integrity to live as honestly and openly as we can in the world. When I was ordained 25 years ago in Palmer, Massachusetts, the preacher Charles Slap said, “to ordain a man to the ministry is an awesome responsibility. Through the agency of this 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 religion, of living and preaching the true, and exposing the false. ” His words make it sound as if it were an individual burden to discern the true from the false, but I believe it is through our common struggle as a congregation, as a people of faith that we determine these truths together.

In the reading from Jane Rzepka , “To Life Ordained,” she speaks not of the separate power she received form being ordained, but of the fragility and mortality she felt from being away from her baby. The burdens of her own life were as parent – caring for those she loved, responsibility and separation. Becoming a humanist has taught me that the truth of religion is not in something beyond my life, but has its foundation in the very life I live. I, too am ordained to life, and the ordination is to live this life of the spirit, this life of building compassionate loving community to the fullest extent and with complete devotion from what I discover to be truth in my experiences and my relationships. If I have a separate call from yours it is to lead us to accept more fully the call that is before all of us to live a life ordained. And so when we ordained Jim Sherblom a few weeks ago, and I recalled how Charles Slap had suggested that my ultimate loyalty must be to the source of life itself, it was not that a congregation or family were unimportant, but that the deepest loyalty must be to truth and love and the life source that upholds us all. And my ministry, his ministry, our ministry together is to bring us all to a fuller realization of that compassionate loving community. While serving that greater love may have been the call issued for my ministry, it also points to the call of the entire ministry of the church.

David Pohl reminded us that the church calls us to a life of greater relationship, a life of caring more deeply for others, and a vision of achieving justice for all. While I might teach, or preach or envision ways we might discover that life of faith in our midst, the larger truth is that life of faith will unfold only in the midst of all our lives. As a congregation we model these deeper truths of life for and with each other so that we might take that vision, that lived experience into the world. Long ago I learned that one needs more than a slick voice in ministry – one needs humility to learn from others, and reverence for all that is greater than me – one also needs to understand that anything can happen in life, and we must be prepared at all times to give our hearts and hands to each other. Recently we have begun to talk about growth, but growth in ministry has nothing to do with numbers. We are not talking about how many people sit in these chairs, but rather we are talking about how many people who are part of this congregation are willing to answer the call in their own lives to be transformed by a larger reality; how many are willing to grow beyond self and feel they can make a difference in the life of someone or in the life of the world; that personal, selfishishness will end for enough people, so that the majority can get on with the serious business of religion. So it is hope that our ministry ultimately gives to the world – in times where people torture and kill, humiliate and shame, where 49 states deny our loving friends their just and equal claim to a life of committed love, where too many people are poor and hungry, we are all called to stand up and offer our lives as living examples of hope – that people can do better, can be better, that all can live in more loving relationship, with more compassion, and with justice for all

Closing Words – from Theodore Parker, from “Experience as a Minister”

May you be faithful to your own souls; train up your sons and daughters to lofty character, most fit for humble duty; and to far cathedral heights of excellence, build up that being that you are with feelings, thoughts, and actions, that become a “glorious human creature,” by greatly doing the common work of life.

Reverend Mark Harris
Minister | + posts

Mark was minister at First Parish from 1996 until he retired in 2019. Mark’s ministry was grounded in the importance of carrying on the traditions of the congregation and the UU faith. He loves congregations like First Parish where everyone ministers to one another, and the community is central. On his retirement in June 2019, Mark received the title Minister Emeritus.