SERMON: Coming Home

Today was my first day back in the pulpit since sabbatical. We had great worship and there is a lot of energy buzzing around the church. The congregation gave me a new stole, which was a real surprise. (I forgot to take pictures, but as soon as I get some pictures others took of the day, I’ll put them here.)

We went from the service to coffee hour (with cake to celebrate) and then to our annual picnic. It was great fun. One of the surprising things for me was that so many of the kids made a point to come up and hug me. I must have gotten twenty hugs from kids from two to teens. And many more from the grown ups. It was a delight!

Here are the major parts of the service, including the sermon I gave:

MEDITATION
Will you join me in some quiet moments of meditation and prayer?

Spirit of Life and Love,
There is so much for which to be grateful:
For being together again,
For this beautiful day,
For this community that holds us, nurtures us, challenges us.

Here we are on the bright cusp of summer,
Ready to recommit ourselves to the shared ministry
That is the heart of this congregation.
Ministry that holds us through times of struggle, times of grief, times of illness and trial.
And ministry that can hold our joys as well: the joy of learning, of celebrations, of growth, of hard work and accomplishment.
We are grateful for all that is our life.
I remember this morning the words read each week as we lit the chalice in chapel service at Starr King:

With the kindling of this flame, we reaffirm our commitment to accept Life’s gifts with grace and gratitude and to use them to bless the world in the spirit of Love.

May that flame kindle in us:
The flame of love,
The flame of grace,
The flame of service,
The flame of commitment.

May we be blessed, but more importantly, may we bless the world. And may all that we do be done in the spirit of Love.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed be.

READING
adapted from Growing a Beloved Community
by Tom Owen-Towle

Ours is a faith “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Our progressive faith will always require the collaborative gifts of both pulpit and pew. We share ministry at every level of church existence.

In this play called “life,” we can think of the congregants as the actors, God as the audience, and ministers as prompters who supply forgotten lines, recalling the lines that call us to our highest and holiest selves, the lines that fill us with enormous promise to make Creation more beautiful and just and loving.

Our congregation is a mighty group, full of power and purpose.

We are also a fragile enterprise, full of lethargy and nastiness.

We are both! We are a healthily imperfect group!

Through it all – clashes, celebrations, and heartaches – we pledge to remain companions on the spiritual path. Companions who willingly sit down together and talk and share bread.

As a robust church, we are a companionable family of all ages and backgrounds, orientations and classes – seeking truth, seeking to serve, seeking to be carriers of holiness.

Together, we create a shared ministry through which we can grow our souls in ways truthful to ourselves, caring of others, and sustaining of the planet.

Together, we create democracy in its religious form – NOT where I am as good as you are, but where you are as good as I am, with emphasis on equality rather than ego, with each of us listening to and learning from other stakeholders in our church community, where each person’s ideas and gifts are valued.

Our Unitarian Universalist Principles commit us to the rights of conscience. We each hold the final responsibility for how we act, given what we know and who we are.

Our faith tradition boldly challenges society to choose democracy in matters religious, and we choose this course where power is shared equally and everyone is answerable.

Ours is a faith “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

SERMON
We say it all the time. “You had to be there.” When a story falls flat, or is too specific, or a joke misfires. “You had to be there.” I have to admit that the thought of trying to convey four months of sabbatical in less than twenty minutes makes me just want to say, “You had to be there.” But that would be the easy way out and ironically, one of the lessons of my sabbatical was that life in religious community is not for the faint of heart. It’s not easy and furthermore, it should not be easy. If it were easy, our religious communities would not help us grow, and we wouldn’t help them grow either.

Many of you know that I spent my sabbatical in Berkeley, California at Starr King School for the Ministry, the seminary from which I received my degree seven years ago. I was privileged to be the Minister-in-Residence for their spring semester. That means I was fully involved in the life of the school—teaching, leading chapel services, attending faculty meetings, and maybe most importantly, “hanging out” in the student lounge, interacting with staff, students, and faculty as they dealt with the day-to-day business and pleasure of “formation.”

“Formation” is a word that wasn’t used as often when I was a student, but has come to be a central concept in theological education. It’s the word used to describe what seminary does. It’s more than book learning, more than personal growth, more than learning new skill sets. It’s the process of becoming—in this case, becoming a minister—that can’t be easily summed up in other ways.

One of the things I learned (or remembered) on sabbatical is that we are all in formation. Whether we are being formed into ministers, or teachers , or parents, or survivors, or lay leaders, or fourth graders, or grandparents, or Unitarian Universalists…we are all in the process of becoming. And that means we’re all a little sensitive, a little unsure of ourselves, a little vulnerable. One of the wonderful things about Unitarian Universalism is that it tends to draw people who love to learn and are committed to bettering themselves every day. Most UUs know that it takes a lifetime to “become who we hope to be” and so we remain, as the reading by the Sabbatical Task Force reminded us, “a healthily imperfect group!” And that, my friends, is wonderful.

My time at Starr King reignited my passion for teaching and learning. In case any of us forget—I LOVE teaching. I spent sixteen weeks with ten amazing students, looking deeply at the history and theology of anti-racism and anti-oppression efforts in the Unitarian Universalist movement. It wasn’t always pretty. We have faltered and failed many times in our efforts to live out our commitments to equity, justice, compassion, and welcome. But there was also so much beauty! The beauty of people wrestling with the limitations of habitual thinking. The beauty of people setting aside ideas and behaviors that hindered justice. The beauty of witnessing people make mistakes, forgive themselves and each other, and move on together without fear or shame. And the beauty of new ideas and practices emerging , being tried, refined, and renewed in a spirit of loving acceptance and joy.

More than once I thought, “This is just like the best of our congregations.” And more than once I thought, “I want more of this! I want to take this home to South Valley and watch what happens. I want to know what my people would think.” And I do. I want to know what you think and I want to find ways to give more people more opportunities to think together, to wrestle with ideas and complexities, and to challenge all of us to rely less on the over-abundance of “information” and actually be in formation. I imagine South Valley as a teaching and learning community where every person—from the youngest baby in our nursery to the oldest and wisest among us—is learning. Consciously, intentionally learning together and choosing to become the people and the community we want to be.

In the reading earlier, we spoke of shared ministry. Any of you who have been around for a while have heard that term many times. And so often, it seems like just another way to get people to do their part. We remind you that this congregation is committed to “shared ministry” so would you please join a committee or give an extra few dollars or come to the church clean-up. But listen to what was read again, “Together, we create a shared ministry through which we can grow our souls in ways truthful to ourselves, caring of others, and sustaining of the planet.”

I was reminded on sabbatical that the profound and joyful purpose of our congregation is to grow our souls, and to do it side by side, in community. As I spent time with students who are becoming ministers, I realized that what they are doing and what we are doing is much the same. If we truly believe in shared ministry, then we are all learning to become ministers. We are all in formation. We are all becoming the people we hope to be—the ones who will make a real difference in the world.

Now some of you may be getting a little restless. I can almost hear the thoughts of somebody—over there? In the back?—thinking, “Wait a minute. I did not sign up for this. I am not and don’t want to be a minister. That’s your job, Sean!”

And in one way, you’re right. I am the lucky one who gets to focus on this congregation and this work every day. I am the one who will read reports and go to meetings and write articles and talk to people every day about all of this. But the word “minister” doesn’t only denote my particular role. The word “minister” means “to serve.” And as we sang earlier, “For all life is a gift that we are called to use to serve the common good, and make our own days glad.”

Shared ministry is not about trying to get you to do my job. Shared ministry is working together for the common good. It is being of service—being of use—to our family, to each other, to this neighborhood, this nation, our world.

I’ve told you several times that when challenged to explain Unitarian Universalism in just a few words, I say that deeply rooted in our history is a belief in three things: “You are good. You are loved. And you can make a difference.” What I haven’t told you is that people always react the same way when they hear me say that. When I say, “You are good,” they get a pleasant, but slightly skeptical expression on their face. When I say, “You are loved,” they look hopeful and pained at the same time. And when I say, “You can make a difference,” they light up. I think one of the defining characteristics of healthy humanity is that we want to make a difference. Being good and loved is not enough. We also want to be of use. We want to serve; we want to change the world (even just a little bit) for the better; we want to be of use.

I think we know, down deep, that this is the way our souls grow. We grow when we take what we have learned, what we have been given, what we have discovered or nurtured or made by our own sacred effort, and we offer it to others. We want—or need—or long to be of use, of value. We want to know we’ve done something more than simply meet our own needs. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not simply a reminder to be fair. It’s a reminder to do something—to act, to put into motion real and tangible acts of care and kindness. It’s not enough to be good, we must do good. It’s not enough to be loved, we must be love in this world.

And so I come home to South Valley ready for us to continue learning together how to be of use, how to serve each other’s needs and the needs of our communities, how to truly share the ministry we all need to be part of.

As we embark on the next adventures in our ministry together, I am grateful to be home with all of you, serving the common good, and choosing to bless the world.

May it be so. Amen. Ashé. And Blessed be.

CLOSING WORDS
by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker

In the midst of a world
marked by tragedy and beauty
there must be those
who bear witness
against unnecessary destruction
and who, with faith,
stand and lead
in freedom,
with grace and power.
There must be those who
speak honestly
and do not avoid seeing
what must be seen
of sorrow and outrage,
or tenderness,
and wonder.
There must be those whose
grief troubles the water
while their voices sing
and speak
refreshed worlds.
There must be those
whose exuberance
rises with lovely energy
that articulates
earth’s joys.
There must be those who
are restless for
respectful and loving
companionship among human beings,
whose presence invites people
to be themselves without fear.
There must be those
who gather with the congregation
of remembrance and compassion
draw water from
old wells,
and walk the simple path
of love for neighbor.
And,
There must be communities of people
who seek to do justice
love kindness and walk humbly with God,
who call on the strength of
soul-force
to heal,
transform,
and bless life.
There must be
religious witness.

Let us minister,
Let us serve.
Let us be of use.
Let us make a difference.
Amen. Ashé. And Blessed be.

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