16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Our Shared Ministry
Presenter:Rev. Amy Russell
Sermon Date:Sun, 06/04/2006
The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.
When I was growing up in an Episcopalian church, if you had asked me what “ministry” was, I would have pointed to the man in the long black robe and white collar standing at the front of the church. I never would have considered that the people sitting in the pews had a lot to do with ministry.
In our reading today, you heard Anne Lamott tell about the healing ministry of her church. Anne Lamott was an alcoholic and had hit bottom when she discovered a church community by mistake. She liked to visit a flea market downtown on Sunday mornings. Around eleven o’clock while she was visiting the stalls of the open air market, she would hear beautiful singing wafting through the air until she discovered the source -an old downtown church across the street. Eventually, she began to find herself just standing right outside the entrance of the church so she could hear the music better. And then she’d allow herself to go inside and stand while she listened. Slowly, week by week she was enticed to sit for the first part of the service, but never for the sermon. And eventually, the beauty of the music and the gentle loving nature of the congregation drew her into loving community. She tells about how that experience of finding community and spiritual sustenance saved her from her downward spiral. And then in the reading today, she describes this beloved community as it finds healing and caring power in being together in powerful spiritual community.
You have heard me tell you about the Miami Valley Unitarian Fellowship of Dayton which was the first UU church to which I belonged. You have heard me tell stories of how this community became my saving grace when my husband was diagnosed with cancer, through his illness, and later as I grieved for his loss. The minister of that church at the time, Richard Venus, says this about religious communities:
What makes us a religious community, is not a set of beliefs, but how we are with each other. Being religious is living as though life mattered, others matter, and that we ourselves matter. It has to do far less with what we believe than who we are. It has to do with how we heal ourselves and the wider community of which we are a part.
In our Unitarian Universalist communities, we don’t share common religious beliefs but we share a ministry - our ministry is what we do together. Our ministry has to do with a lot of what we do here on Sunday morning. It has to do with the music that we make and all the people here who work hard to weave it together to make a meaningful Sunday service. It has to do with all of our teachers who show up on Sundays and help hold an infant or teach a song or a story. It has to do with our greeters who show their friendly faces to our guests and introduce them to their first experience here and everyone who greets the guests later and talks with them to make them feel welcome. It has to do with the people who show up early to set up the chairs and all the happy noisy activity that happens before we start the service. And it has to do with the conversation and laughter that happens before, during, and after the service.
And there is plenty of ministry that happens not on Sunday but at other times. A lot of ministry happened here recently when we experienced a lot of illness and difficulty with some of our members. Ministry happened when a barbershop quartet showed up in Joann’s hospital room one night when she was sitting alone one night and the nurse announced that she had some “gentlemen callers”. Ministry happened when we lost a dear member of our congregation, Tommie Scott Gottlieb and we all got together to remember her. And mysteriously, food appeared out of nowhere to make a beautiful reception for her family. And ministry happens everyday when one of you calls another member and just checks up on them- finds out how they’re doing and if they’re doing all right.
Ministers are not the “ministry” of a congregation. Everyone makes up the ministry. Meister Eckhardt, a fourteenth century priest said, “Do not think saintliness comes from occupation.” When some of us decide to take up ministry as an occupation, it often comes from the experience of watching ministry happen each day in a congregation. That was what happened to me.
After my difficult time and my amazement at the kinds of things that a caring community does to hold and provide sanctuary for me and my family, I began to observe more closely the kinds of ministry that happened in a church.
My first regular contact with that UU congregation had been attending a women’s group that met before the regular Sunday service. Many women who were not members came regularly to this group every Sunday. It was their church. But after my husband died, this group became even more important to me. It was a place I knew where I could go and be myself and get nurture.
One day before the women’s group started, a good friend of mine pulled me aside and told me that her husband had just told her that he wanted a separation. This announcement seemed to be completely out of blue, she was in a state of shock. During the group, she hesitantly told the rest of the members about this recent occurrence. Her tears began to fall. I held her hand as she cried. And slowly, other members of the group got out of their chairs and came to touch her, pat her back, touch her hair, be in contact with her. Many of us held her as she cried and cried. Over the next few weeks, as my friend grieved her marriage, many of us would call her, bring her food, just show up for a walk on a summer evening. We would just be there with her. Nothing we could say would make it better. But mostly, we were just there for her.
Ministry is a lot about just showing up- like Adam says sometimes. We show up for each other, we are here. We are here in our real selves, nothing fancy, nothing special. We don’t need to know a lot to do ministry. We don’t need to be a certain kind of person. We are just present. Being present is a lot of what ministry is about.
Rachel Naomi Remen, a psychotherapist for people who are experiencing terminal illness writes about how we offer each other ministry. One day she was sitting in a plane with a young mother with an young child sitting in her lap. The mother was feeding her young child a happy meal from a fast food restaurant. Rachel was a little irritated when she first sat down because often sitting next to a small child in a plane is not always a happy experience. But despite her irritation, Rachel resigned herself to a long noisy plane ride. And soon she found herself talking to the mother.
When Rachel described her profession of working with people with cancer, the mother’s eyes filled with tears. She began to describe for Rachel the young mother with four young children who was her neighbor. Since both mothers were single parents, they had spent a lot of time caring for each other’s kids. But now this friend had been ill with cancer for several months. The young mother sitting with Rachel described the difficult kinds of treatments that her friend had experienced. When Rachel asked the young woman how she knew so much about the treatments, the woman explained that since her friend had become ill, she had just moved her friend and her children over to her house and had been caring for them ever since. There wasn’t any bragging or martyrdom about this admission, just simply one person doing what another person needed, all that needed to be done. Reaching out and taking care of another person’s family because there wasn’t anything else to be done. I’ve seen that kind of deep caring without thinking of ego here in this community countless times.
Rachel Naomi Remen says that, “Service is a relationship between equals . . .. My wounds have made me gentle with the wounds of other people, and able to trust the mysterious process by which we can heal. …Most humbling of all, I have found that sometimes the thing that serves best is not all my hard-earned knowledge but something about life I may have learned from my grandmother or from a child.
Ministry is not just about the caring and sharing we do as a community. Ministry is also about having the vision to see where we are going as a congregation and having the leadership to get there. Ministry- both lay leaders and professional leaders- must work together to see what kind of church we want to be and how we are going to get there.
Our chalice lighting today from Mark Morrison Reed, one of our truly great UU ministers, says that “The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.” Alone our vision is too narrow- but together we have clearer and wider vision. But we can only get that when we are working together and visioning together.
Right now I feel that we are having a little slump as a community. We’re a little weary from the long road we’ve been on in getting toward our goal of moving into our own home. So many of you have been working so hard, planning, organizing, doing actual physical labor, cleaning up, feeding the workers, mowing lawns, and then all the other functions that we continue to do to keep the church going including having to come here on Sunday mornings and set up the chairs. The road is long and the way is weary. We never knew when we began that it would take this long.
But you have been so persistent in making this happen. You’ve been so resilient. When one problem comes up, you huddle around, figure out a solution, and then go on. Until the next problem comes up. I’m amazed that you just keep going.
But I’m sensing that people are feeling like they would just like to put down the heavy load they’re carrying and just take a little break. And that is so understandable.
And that’s where our shared ministry kicks in. When one person gets tired, then another person helps that person by picking up their pack and carrying it for a way down the road. I’ve seen the Sugarloaf community be so good at this. I’ve seen this tag team effort going on in the construction of the building and in committees as well. When one person gets over-loaded, there always seems to be another to step in place. It reminds me of the way that geese fly south. When the lead bird gets tired, he drops back and the next in line takes over the leadership. We may not always feel like we have the wind in our wings to carry on, but knowing that there is another leader waiting behind us, makes it possible.
What I keep telling the JPD members who tell me how amazed they are by what we’re doing here is how I’m constantly renewed in my faith by all of you. How all of you keep this community going. There have been many times when I was not sure we were going to get this difficult project off the ground. And every time, a group of you have figured out how to keep things moving along. My vision is widened and my strength is renewed.
The vision of our ministry together is growing. We are beginning to see more and more of a picture of what we want to become. We are still working on filling in this picture. We’re beginning the work of figuring out how to move to two services. There’s the results of the strategic planning survey that the was compiled by Chris Hager and is now available. There are people planning the interior space of the sanctuary and how that will look. Some people are planning publicity to tell the wider community about who we are. And we’ve begun our community action work at Germantown Help which is a start in our outreach efforts. The RE Committee is so busy planning next year’s program.
Our vision is growing and becoming more clear. Our ministry together includes caring for one another, laughing together, being together in joyful times as when some among us plan their marriage, or being together as we say our good byes to friends we’ve lost. While Sugarloaf has created a culture of caring, a family like atmosphere, we have more that we are becoming every day. We will become what we envision together.
Ministry is what we all do—together.