SERMON: "Tending the Web"

OPENING WORDS
We have gathered today out of the variety and diversity of our lives—gathered to remind ourselves that we are not alone, for we have one another. Some of us do not want to be alone with our joy, but come to celebrate the beauty of life together. Some of us do not want to be alone in our sorrow, but come to grieve in the arms of our community. Some of us do not want to be alone in our commitment to create a better world, but come to share the struggle and the power. We bring our joy, our sorrow, and our commitment to this holy time and place where we tend to the web of connections that bind us together with this community, with the larger community of Unitarian Universalism, and with the world. Together we kindle the flame of hope.

MEDITATION
Let silence move among us for a moment as we remember our connectedness to life,
to the human community, to all that is holy,
and to our own deepest knowing of love, justice, and hope.
It is good to stop for a moment and consider the connections among us:
Connections with the children who have run off to their classes, eager to learn and play.
Connections to each other, sitting side by side, each with a story, connected in one community.
Connections to this city, this country, the earth and all humanity.
Let us remember our deepest connection: the connection to self, to spirit, soul, conscience, heart.
Let us commit ourselves to nurturing the connections among us
by noticing them and feeling their value in our lives.
We are not alone.
We are a part—and only part—of an amazing and beautiful web.
The web contains both joy and sorrow, for it holds all of life.
May we remember those who are struggling with loss, grief, conflict, or confusion
and are hard-pressed to catch a glimpse of hope.
May they feel the power of being held in our web of caring.
Likewise, may we rejoice with those who find reason to celebrate among us.
May we share the joy of new life, new beginnings, healing, and reconciliation.
May their joy be shared in every strand of this web of community.
May we, as we go about our daily lives, add our beauty unstintingly to the whole.
May we work together that all may see and know the power of our connection on to another.
May we, together, make life a little easier, a little sweeter, a little better for everyone.
Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.

READINGS
From Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Now I called this meeting in order to get suggestions. I need new ideas for the web. People are already getting sick of reading the words, “Some Pig!” If anybody can think of another message or remark, I’ll be glad to weave it into the web. And suggestions for a new slogan?

How about “Pig Supreme?” asked one of the lambs.

No good, said Charlotte, It sounds like a rich dessert.

How about “Terrific, terrific, terrific? Asked the goose.

Cut that down to one terrific and it will do very nicely, said Charlotte. I think “terrific” might impress Zuckerman.

But Charlotte, said Wilbur, I’m not terrific.

That doesn’t make a particle of difference, replied Charlotte. People believe almost anything they see in print…The meeting is now adjourned. I have a busy evening ahead of me. I’ve got to tear my web apart and write “Terrific.”

Wilbur blushed. But I’m not terrific, Charlotte, I’m just about average, for a pig.

You’re terrific as far as I’m concerned, replied Charlotte sweetly. And that’s what counts. You’re my best friend and I think you’re sensational. Now stop arguing and get some sleep.

—-

Wilbur was now the center of attraction on the farm. Good food and regular hours were showing results: Wilbur was a pig any [one] would be proud of. One day more that a hundred people came to stand at his yard and admire him. Charlotte had written the word RADIANT and Wilbur really looked radiant as he stood in the golden sunlight. Ever since the spider had befriended him, he had done his best to live up to his reputation. When Charlotte’s web said SOME PIG, Wilbur had tried hard to look like some pig. When Charlotte’s web said TERRIFIC, Wilbur had tried to look terrific. And now that the web said RADIANT, he did everything possible to make himself glow.

It was not easy to look radiant, but Wilbur threw himself into it with a will. HE would turn his head slightly and blink his long eyelashes. Then he would breathe deeply. And when his audience grew bored, he would spring into the air and do a back flip with a half twist. At this the crowd would yell and cheer. “How’s that for a pig?” Mr. Zuckerman would ask, well pleased with himself. That pig is radiant.

SERMON
The very first service I attended in a Unitarian Universalist congregation sticks with me. It happened to be a service in which the youth who had just finished a coming of age program were speaking. They had just completed their very last task, modeled on a Native American vision quest. They had gone out into the woods to spend an entire day—about eighteen summertime hours—alone in nature.

There were many powerful stories, but I remember one in particular. A young woman stood in front of the congregation with great poise and began talking about how much she hadn’t wanted to go on this all-day quest because she thought it seemed stupid and contrived. She described her “bad attitude” so accurately that I began to worry where the story was going. Did these Unitarian Universalists make a mistake when they let their youth into the pulpit?

The young woman continued to talk about her disillusionment. She said that she decided that if she had to spend a day alone in the woods, she might as well get some rest, so she set about to sleep through it. She managed to make herself a nest under a tree, just comfortable enough to get to sleep. And so she slept through most of the day.

I was getting really worried by this point, thinking that this youth was going to spend ten or fifteen minutes of the service letting the adults know that the vision quest was, in her opinion, something so pointless that all she did was sleep. But something in her tone changed as she began the next part of her story. She began to struggle to hold back the emotion in her voice.

The story she told went something like this: “When I woke up the sun had moved through the woods and was just beginning to go down. I was a little confused and was looking around to get my bearings, when the light seemed to begin to sparkle. All around me were hundreds or maybe thousands of spider webs. The light was just right and was shining through them all and making them glow like gold threads. They were everywhere: from the trees to the ground, from tree to tree, from the tree up into the sky, and even from the trees to me. And in that moment, I realized that it’s really true. We really are connected to everything else. We really are part of an interdependent web that connects us to every other living thing.”

And then she told of coming back to the church and opening the hymnbook randomly, looking for some words to help her hold on to the experience. She opened to this poem by Denise Levertov:

Intricate and untraceable
Weaving and interweaving
Dark strand with light:

Designed beyond
All spiderly contrivance,
To link, not to entrap:

Elation, grief, joy, contrition
entwined;
Shaking, changing, forever
Forming, transforming:

All praise, all praise to the great web.

As she finished her story, the young woman gave into the power of the memory and began to cry. So did most of the rest of us. It was a simple, beautiful image told with great power, and we were all moved by it and by the way this young woman dared to tell us about such an amazing and transformative moment in her life. Each of us, for a moment, felt the power of our connection to everything, but especially to each other as we shared a moment of delight, pride, and awe at her insight and courage.

The image from her quest has stuck with me for over ten years now. Her description of waking up and being able to see the web that connects everything to everything else has become one of the central metaphors of my own spiritual search. And as my spiritual journey led me to seminary, the metaphor has expanded and grown with my own sense of ministry, which is how I got to the title of this sermon, Tending the Web.

You all have known me long enough to know that I do not reserve the term “ministry” for what I do as the professional minister in a congregation. In fact, I believe that ministry must be a shared undertaking of the entire congregation. It takes the entire church to succeed in envisioning, planning, implementing, and making ministry real in the world. The professional minister does have some special responsibilities and tasks to attend to, but the ministry itself is shared. We tend this web together.

When I first began to describe ministry as tending the web, I immediately thought of Charlotte’s Web. The words she wove into her web are a good summary of Unitarian Universalist ministry. I think we can learn a lot from those four messages: “Some pig!” “Terrific!” “Radiant!” “ Humble!” Like Wilbur, most of us will work hard to be some pig, terrific, radiant, and humble if someone tells us and the world that’s what we are. Charlotte’s web helps Wilbur learn to believe in his own inherent worth and dignity, and that is something that we as Unitarian Universalists recognize as ministry.

But ministry is not limited to Charlotte and her web. As I read the story again, I began to see that each of the characters had a special ministry and that without each one, Wilbur’s life could not have been saved.

There is Fern, champion of justice for the little ones and willing to stand up to her father. There are the geese, who instruct Wilbur and their goslings about the realities of life in the barn and even show him a loose board in his pen which leads to an exciting, but short-lived escape. There are the sheep, prophets and truth-tellers, who let Wilbur and Charlotte know of the farmer’s plan for Christmas ham and bacon. There is Templeton, the rat, who is bribed and cajoled into looking for new words in the garbage heap, first on the farm and then at the county fair. Without him, Wilbur could not have been “radiant” or “humble.” They work together, sometimes purposefully, and sometimes reluctantly to change things on the farm and eventually to save Wilbur’s life.

Just like church, wouldn’t you say? I’ve known these characters in every church I’ve been a part of: some folks who, like Wilbur, are just trying to understand life and the fate that’s befallen them; people who always tell the hard truth about life; people who are determined to fight injustice wherever they see it; a few folks who, though skeptical of just about everything, sometimes find just the right word to move things along; and those wonderful people who just believe in everybody and are determined to make sure good things happen.

The exciting part about shared ministry in Unitarian Universalism is that there is room in this web—or barn, if you prefer—for all our different styles. When theologians and historians such as James Luther Adams speak of the priesthood and prophethood of all believers, this is what they mean. If you are working toward goals in concert with Unitarian Universalist principles, you are already a part of this ministry. Your style, your wisdom, your realism or idealism are necessary for this web to hang together.

Unitarian Universalist congregations are especially blessed in this regard. We have a wide variety of approaches to life and that enriches our congregations at the same time it makes them very complex. We can learn from all the different characters in the congregation. From some we will learn a respect for rationality and intellect: We are the church where you are not asked to leave your brain at the door. From others we will learn to explore nature and the cycles and seasons that for so long have been ignored, resisted, and sometimes destroyed. From some people in our congregational web we will learn to love mystery, magic, spirit, and devotion. Each story, each person, each character in this church has something to teach us about life. And it takes all of us to tend the web that holds us together.

And though I used a children’s story as the metaphor for this ministry, don’t be fooled into thinking it is unimportant. I believe we have a life-giving and a life-saving ministry. In this culture of competition and consumerism, where the richest and the meanest seem to get the farthest, our ministry is needed. There are thousands, maybe even millions, of people out there who have never been informed that they already have worth and dignity and don’t have to earn it or buy it. There is a whole society out there that needs to learn that it is a part—and only a part—of a larger web and that we must tend to the web of all life if we are to survive. There are people out there, and in here, in these seats, that need to be reminded that they are radiant. There are people—out there and in here—that need to be reminded of the beauty of being humble.

The wonderful, empowering thing about Unitarian Universalism, is that we are all a part of the story. We do not have to do it alone. There are many of us building and tending this web, and that makes our web stronger and our message clearer. Which brings me back to the story. There is one more character in Charlotte’s Web. He’s a bit player, mostly a foil for the author’s need to insert his own beliefs into the story. He is, of course, the minister.

When Fern’s Uncle sees the first web—the one that says “Some pig”—he goes to the minister to talk over the implications of this strange new happening. The minister urges him to keep the story of the web quiet for awhile, until he can explain it to the people.
At the end of the chapter the story goes like this:

On Sunday the church was full. The minister explained the miracle. He said that the words on the spider’s web proved that human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders.

That’s it. That’s the role of the professional minister in the story. It is my job, and the job of other ministers, to remind you to be on the watch for the coming of wonders. It is not our job to create the wonders, or even to interpret the meaning of them, but to remind you that they can and do happen. Whether it is your own awakening to the beauty of the interdependent web, or the wonder of many people coming together to save someone’s life, there are wonders all around us for our notice. Sometimes they are miracles that we just witness and from which we learn, and sometimes they are miracles of our own making. And always, the work of noticing and sharing what is important and wonderous in the world, in each other, and in our own hearts is the work of ministry. Thank you for sharing that work with me and with each other. May our shared ministry continue to thrive and prosper as we notice and tend the beautiful web.

Amen, Ashé, and So May it Be.

CLOSING WORDS
Would you rise as you are willing and able, and join hands for the closing words? We join hands this morning as a physical reminder of a great spiritual truth: We are all connected.

As we go back into the world, may we not lose sight of the strands that connect us each to the other. May we tend to those connections, nurturing our own souls, our relationships with others, and with the great web of the earth which holds us. May we be courageous, creative, compassionate, and kind as we minister together in the world. Amen, Ashé, and Blessed Be.

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