“The Strangeness of this Business”  by Mark W. Harris

November 2, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown

 

Call to Worship – from Walden by Henry David Thoreau

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of woman to elevate her life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”

Reading from Parish Parables by Clinton Lee Scott

A parable for pulpit committees: 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 and women of affairs were assembled, the elder spake unto them saying, what manner of woman seeketh thee to be your new priest? And they answered and said unto him, we seek a young woman yet with the wisdom of gray hairs. One that speaketh her 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 joyful 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 her unto you, but you may have to wait long, for the mother of such a one has not yet been born.

 

Reading from “Demands of the Age on the Ministry” by William Ellery Channing

(1824)

To suit such an age, a minister must communicate religion – not only as a result of reasoning but as a matter of experience – with that inexpressible character of reality, that life and power which accompany truths drawn from a woman’s own soul.  We ought to speak of religion as something which we ourselves know. Its influences, struggles, joys, sorrows, triumphs, should be delineated from our own history.  The life and sensibility which we would spread should be strong in our own breasts. This is the only genuine, unfailing spring of an earnest ministry.  Women may work themselves for a time into a fervor by artificial means; but the flame is unsteady, “a crackling of thorns” on a cold hearth; and after all, it is hard for the most successful art to give, even for a time, that soul-subduing tone to the voice, that air of native feeling to the countenance, and that raciness and freshness to the conceptions, which come from an experimental conviction of religious truth; and, accordingly, I would suggest that the most important part of theological education, even in this enlightened age, is not the communication of knowledge, essential as that is, but the conversion and exaltation of religious knowledge into a living, practical, and soul-kindling conviction.

 

Sermon

When the Rev. David Rankin was a young minister, perhaps even when he was minister here, he received a letter from a parishioner.  It read in part: “The church has become too religious . . . I joined a liberal church to get away from religion. . . I am greatly disappointed.”   This is perhaps the most serious challenge that faces a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and the UU ministers that serve those communities: how to cultivate religious fervor without the fervor or the religious.  Times have changed since Rankin was here.  He preached next door in a huge Victorian meetinghouse that has since been torn down.  There was organ music and bats in the belfry.  We have Guy’s magic fingers on piano and mice in the basement. They had mimeographs and box pews, and we have websites and moveable chairs.  Today ministers and congregations struggle to ascertain what the future of church will be as the mainlines decline, and increasingly religious liberals have no religious background rather than one that rejects the orthodox faith of the past.  Those old UUs wanted to throw away their childhood faiths because they were hurt by them, or felt they were a pack of lies, and UUS of today want to construct a religious present, while longing for community and identity and enduring values.  Yet some things do not change.  We remain a questioning and seeking faith that is grounded in democracy and freedom. We like authority to reside with the people, rather than a clergyperson, if we accede to any authority at all.  So when the newcomer says give me something that is “spiritual but not religious,” we know they mean nothing traditional or formal, but instead something that gives feeling and nurtures relationships, and not just individual knowledge and reason.  Those who cry for this approach, may not know our tradition is grounded in finding novel ways to understand the religious.  Andrea Greenwood, remembers that Emerson launched the Transcendentalist movement when Nature came out in 1836, with these words: “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”

Today is scripted as a celebration of Andrea’s 25th anniversary of ordination to the Unitarian Universalist ministry.  I could simply give you lots of platitudes about this amazing woman, whom I love so much, and am in constant awe of, to say nothing of my appreciation for having an ever willing Gin Rummy partner, especially patient when I  get angry, talk to myself, and fume about losing. Or I could craft those complementary words into a bit of a roast.  Over the years, congregations have often unfairly scrutinized what women in the pulpit wear, or how they look. I recall vividly when Andrea’s slip lost its mooring one day, and she gracefully kicked it away like a prima ballerina.  I personally have been brutal about the texture and shape of her hair, and the Olympia Brown story combing her hair before the mirror certainly provides the perfect entree for a quip.  Unfortunately only a week or so ago, the former Brillo pad was shorn, and the kinky,  weather predictor was gone, and I am only left with short curls to ridicule.  And who am I to talk? Look at the balding, white haired elder, who needs a transplant and Grecian formula.

On reflecting upon the meaning of ministry, we naturally look to cultural attitudes towards ministers. There is a long history of doing so with male ministers. We see hypocritical and flamboyant fakes like Elmer Gantry. We see naïve and bewildered but well meaning practitioners like Father Mulcahy of MASH fame.  We may visualize pontifical or rigid or judgmental dolts.  But being a more recent phenomenon, what images do we have of women in the ministry?  Perhaps none is better known than that of Geraldine Granger, the “Vicar of Dibley,” that British sit com of the 1990’s that still brings a laugh to countless millions. In 1992 this little fictional Oxfordshire village was assigned a new-fangled female vicar, the same year that this ancient parish called Andrea to its ministry. Geraldine’s arrival was met with a mixture of wonder and horror by a motley crew of crazy but ever loyal parishioners, nothing like what a clergyperson would ever actually encounter. She tells them: “You were expecting a bloke with a beard, a Bible and bad breath. Instead, you got a babe with a bob cut and a magnificent bosom.”  David Horton the head of the church council tries to get her removed, but failing that soon finds common ground with her and, although they have their differences, the community is revitalized, and David eventually admits that Geraldine’s the best thing to have ever happened to Dibley.  But it is mutual.  They have transformed her as well. So the stereotypes of women in ministry might bring us back to the afore mentioned appearance, and certainly Geraldine also shares stereotypes with the male clergy, including occasional bumbling ineptness, like when she is totally drunk on Christmas Eve, and has to conduct the most important service of the year.  Yet the show has the deeper meaning of reminding us that we are all inept at times, all misfits trying to make sense of crazy lives, struggling together to build community and know love and care. The “Vicar of Dibley” reminds that we that we are all in this together.

And I think that is what Andrea Greenwood has done over the course of twenty-five years  in a myriad number of ways. But let me try to do this in general terms. I say that because I want to achieve some kind of sermonic quality here, so that there is a larger message beyond the achievements of one person, but moreover I do so because in this case, there is no other person I know who probably less wants to be lauded and feted than Andrea.  She probably finds this all a little embarrassing.  While some clergy do like to talk about themselves (naming no names), that is not applicable to her.  That is just as well, because today when we speak of ministry, while we are aware that there are persons like Andrea and me, who were professionally trained in our response to a calling, we believe that ministry is something we all do in a religious community.  We know for a church to be healthy, we all must pastor to each other – we must each share in the work, show dedication to the institutional needs, and feel compassion for one other.  As we said last week, to be in covenant with each other, requires this kind of commitment. Together we carry forward a community that is bound up in a tradition of celebrating human triumphs and joys, being faithful to one another as we face challenges and sorrows, and affirming personal dignity and worth as we search to find universal meaning by speaking the truth to one another in love.

One of the biggest challenges of professional ministry is evoking that sense of the universal in worship services. Where is the line between sharing something personal for its own sake, and using that individual story to evoke something larger or universal?  It’s tricky, but  Emerson defined this skill as the number one requirement of the calling, when he wrote,  “The capital secret of  [the] profession, namely, to convert life into truth.”

I suspect that is what each of us is trying to do in our lives as well.  Where is the truth in this little tale of my own journey?  Sometimes, after I have preached, Guy will say to me, that was like an Andrea sermon.  I think what Guy is saying is that she takes many elements, and weaves them all together, and although you may not know how they all fit as you are listening, somehow they magically come together. What I like about Andrea’s writing is her ability to take traditional religious resources and make them fresh.  One thing I have always loved about this congregation is their curiosity about the Bible and other mythic stories.  Some humanist groups have been known to be skeptical of  such explorations, but you have a thirst, it seems to me, to understand, to go deep, to be receptive to where others have traveled religiously. I think that evolves from a sense of trust.  Guy says that when Andrea is giving a sermon, she invites us on a journey, one that is often deeply spiritual and moves us to tears. This commercial means you can see her in action next week. Come along with me, she says. And in a way that is how the congregation must see itself, as they venture into ministry.

That journey begins side by side.  Andrea grew up in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reading where she was ordained 25 years ago on October 25. A recent minister of that church, and a friend of ours Jane Rzepka, wrote this a couple of years ago. “When I was a baby, I was dedicated in our Unitarian church. I won’t be remembering the exact words, but I’m pretty sure the minister said something like, “Little Baby, in our religion, everybody gets celebrated. Everybody gets loved. Today it’s your turn, you get the rosebud to hold in your hands and chew on if you like, but, little baby, each of us is worthy of celebration.”  That summarizes why Andrea would be squeamish about us celebrating her today, but it also provides a sense of our vision of equality- no one is more special than anyone else. It is our vision of justice; God’s love for all, if you will, measured in this particular community, at this certain time. When Andrea resigned as Director of Religious Education in 2002, she spoke about making a commitment in time.  She said, “In some ways my resignation from a professional position here represents an even deeper commitment to that original [pledge I made to you], of walking together – not in a role, but as a parishioner.  She went on to say, we all have this impulse to the universal which needs to be shared, even if we cannot name it in ways familiar to orthodoxy.  I remember saying, “Oh church people can be like family, and I get annoyed sometimes, but I really believed that they have saved me.”  While salvation is not a term she or we would generally use, what she meant was that the “congregation had granted a longing for relationships in time; not perfection, but commitments to changing and working together, to valuing who we are, and why we do what we do, and recognizing principles which remain even when the expression of them takes on new form. “  The column closed with words from Albert Camus: “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.  Just walk beside me and be my friend, and we’ll be together til the end.”

Real ministry then is a vision of radical equality.  Your views and your opinions have weight and value, but they should not carry more weight than anyone else’s, and no one has the authority to behave badly, trying to manipulate others to serve their personal needs or opinions. We are guided by a sense of humility, of sacred understanding that we are a flawed people, capable of both love and judgement, caring and ambivalence, doing as best as we can, to be together in community, naming meaning in the context of our relationships.

If ministry helps cultivate a sense of humility, we also know that these yearnings for community happen in this particular place.  While the fictional village of Dibley had a farmer who had unusual relationships with animals, a verger who took everything literally, and the worst cook in the universe, we also know our share of characters in Watertown. I think I can say Andrea and I both understand real diversity, and as a result believe strongly that a sense of place is central to our ministries, and should be central to the ministry of the church.  Andrea has been a vital presence in the greater community even when she was not officially serving in a professional role.  I would especially name her service to the Commission on Disabilities, but moreover her tremendous knowledge and understanding of people and school systems and her compassion for the struggles families and children go through when their issues are not understood, and their needs are not served. She has been a valuable resource to countless people to help ease their pain and find a smoother pathway to serve educational needs.  Long ago Puritan churches had two ministers – a pastor and a teacher.  As an advisor, parent, confidant, religious educator, and teacher to countless children here, she has been a creative, and supportive teaching minister, as well as a pastor in our FPW community, and in the greater community.  What that means in the larger context is that in our mission as a church we have a greater role to play. We have a vision of what the good community is – where people are listened to and needs are served, and if we believe in our faith, then it calls upon us to enact its values in this community, to live up to our responsibility to see our faith have an impact on where we live, to make a difference in the world.

My sermon title today, “The Strangeness of this Business,” differs from what was printed in the newsletter, where it said profession instead of business.  I changed it to business because Andrea once said that running a church was like running a small business, and that both of us, rather than coming from church families, came from parents who owned small local businesses. With everything in our society being conducted like business now, perhaps we were both ahead of our time. I hope you don’t think of yourselves as customers or consumers, as that happens in church life these days, too. Yet churches seem to be in the business of branding and marketing a product.  If it is a business, what we are selling is a ticket to human kindness and caring.  I used strangeness because ministry as a profession is unusual.  People stereotype clergy as different from normal, and yet we are just people, same kind of misfits as you and the residents of Dibley. I guess strange, too, because we think of our calling as serving others.  Someone once said to me, you couldn’t pay me all the money in the world to do that job, and yet all the money in the world does not equal the kind of personal rewards we sometimes receive when we are loved for being kind.  I buried someone’s mother this week, and her gratitude was palpable, and later in the week, a parishioner simply expressed her love for my presence.  It is a strange business because we carry this kindness card.  The stereotype is that being nice makes us kind of simpering wimps, and I suspect we are sometimes a little naïve.  I had a colleague who once said that being a minister was being professionally kind. He sent out cards to the sick, the bereaved, the lost.  I send out some myself, but not as many as I should.  I was talking to someone this week, and they mentioned how Andrea had once sent them a card expressing thanks.  The person said, she didn’t have to send that card, but she did. She wanted the person to know she cared.  I would like to work on nurturing my kindness gene more.  As Emerson once said,  “We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken.” That is a calling for all of us, telling each other how much we appreciate or care for each other.  It heals damaged trust.  It reminds us that we are loved.

If ministry is about walking together as equals, about being mindful of our sense of mission in this place, about showing kindness in how we treat others, then it is finally about how willing we are to look into our own souls, and see the truth about who we are, and thus have no facades in our efforts to build a community.   A couple of weeks ago someone asked me to tell them what Andrea was like.  I told them that above all she had more personal integrity than anyone I had ever met.  She is just herself, nothing more, nothing less, and she expects you to be the same.  This is incredibly meaningful and refreshing in a world that is grounded in appearances and what you can buy. None of that means anything to her.  Annie Dillard in her book, An American Childhood, wrote: “Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool. Her fingertips enter the fingertips on the water, her wrists slide up her arms. The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.”  I think this says something about ministry because it calls us to be natural and honest with each other, and never fake. I love that it describes a swimmer, because that is one thing Andrea loves to do. You know that phrase, comfortable in your own skin. Perhaps that is what our ministry to each other can help nurture in each of us – how we can be more comfortable in our own skin. Andrea Gruber’s chalice lighting today was about being real, and I think that is what ministry does at its best; helps us take down our defenses, and be real. Together, in all our flaws, we challenge each other to be our real selves and our best selves.  The continuing challenge of ministry, as Channing defined so long ago, is to “communicate religion, . .  . as something we ourselves know.”  We are all the models, showing the way.

Closing Words – from Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.”

 

Story for All Ages- “The White Ribbon –  A Woman’s Ministry”  

Adapted from a story by Denise Tracy

Tracy Johnson, Olympia Brown

Lauren Strauss, Antoinette Brown

Asher Harris, Mr. Fisher, Dean of the St. Lawrence Theological School

Mark Harris, narrator

 

Narrator:  Olympia looked at herself in the mirror.  Her hair was her finest feature.  Everyone said so.  She brushed it one hundred strokes every night, so it would shine.  She had just transferred from Mt Holyoke to Antioch College.  She was struggling.  She had grown up as a Universalist believing in a God who was loving and forgiving, but at Mt. Holyoke they talked about a God who punished and reminded people they were sinners.  Olympia had even dreamed about being a minister, but at Mt. Holyoke they told her only men were ministers.  She brushed her hair harder and harder.  She was angry about the rules and the people. But now she was in a new place, and she hoped it would be different.  One day, a woman named Antoinette Brown came to the school.  The students worked to arrange for her to speak at chapel. It was the first time Olympia had ever heard a woman preach.

Olympia (to Antoinette):  “You have lifted my spirit up with a sense of victory.  I can do this..  I feel like the Kingdom of Heaven has come.”

Antoinette:  “We all need little things to remind us how we can keep our dreams alive.  Otherwise, we lose sight of them. Look, Olympia, I keep a little piece of white ribbon under my collar.  It is a symbol of my own dream, and reminds me to keep going after it.  Whenever I feel down or discouraged, I just rub my ribbon, and it tells me don’t give up.

Narrator: After that Olympia wore a white ribbon, too.  It was hard to keep her dream alive.  Rules and traditions did not change easily.  Even when she went to a Universalist school to be a minister, the dean of the school discouraged her.

Mr. Fisher:  Olympia we agreed to admit you to the school, and  I told you in a letter that we would allow you to study here, but I must say I do not feel that women are called to the ministry.  So, I am surprised that you showed up.  I was hoping you would stay home, and do something more appropriate to your sex.  But since you are here I will let you and the Great Head of the Church, decide what will become of you.

Olympia:  Thank you Mr. Fisher.  I think that is just where it should be left.  I am sure the Great Head and I can have mutually beneficial conversations. . . .  (to audience).  I think his discouragement will become my encouragement.  I am going into this with high hopes and great expectations to like everybody and everything.

Narrator:  Of course Olympia faced real opposition at every turn.  People said her voice was funny, She would not have the stamina.  Women were too delicate. People insulted her sermons, saying things like, “it was good, but I would hardly call it a sermon.”  They stood under her window at night and imitated her female voice (Olympia).  Nevertheless she continued to wear the white ribbon and keep her dream alive. And the dream came true.  She was ordained and went on to serve churches in Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Connecticut.  She also took on a larger ministry, a community ministry of working to give women the right to vote.  If they could preach, they should vote too. One day at a rally for women’s suffrage, several women talked about needing a symbol for their dream of winning the right to vote.  Olympia told them the story of the white ribbon..

Woman (Lauren):  “I want to wear such a ribbon to show what I am fighting for.  I hope everyone can know how much I support this dream. I want a voice.  I want to be heard.”

Narrator:  And so the suffragettes began to wear white ribbons, and when they marched in parades, they put on white sashes to symbolize their dream to cast their votes.  When she was 85 years old Olympia Brown walked to the ballot box to cast her first ballot.  And what do you suppose she was wearing?  (a white ribbon)  Today we celebrate one woman’s twenty five years in ministry, and the ministry we share together as a people trying to build a world more fair and just.  All of us have dreams about what we will do in our lives.  Long ago a woman dreamed about becoming a minister, and then in 1863 she became the first woman in the world to be ordained with full denominational authority. She dreamed of helping women win the right to vote.  She dreamed of equality, and every day she lived for that dream, as the white ribbon reminded her to have hope and never give up.