Longings of the Heart; Queries of the Mind

Reverend Furrer preaching on ministry, with particular attention to the nature and purpose of preaching. Building on the work of Steve’s distinguished colleague and ESUC member Alice Blair Wesley, he wants to preface his seven-part sermon series on our UU Principles with an explanation of what preaching, in our tradition, is supposed to accomplish: stirring listeners’ hearts and enlisting their critical intellect. Steve also expects to share a story about himself and what drew him—lured him—into the ancient guild of the ordained.

“Longings of the Heart; Queries of the Mind”

I want to preach this morning on ministry. I want to focus on preaching: what I understand preaching, in our tradition, is designed to accomplish: stirring listeners’ hearts and enlisting their critical intellect. I hope, too, in the process, to share a little bit about myself and what drew me—lured me—into this ancient guild of the ordained.

What is ministry? What, after all, do ministers do? People joke about us all the time, how we work only one day a week, how we come to dinner and eat all the chicken, how we preach morality, Elmer Gantry-like, while hustling scams. But people also reach out to ministers daily, including this one, and when they do, it’s usually no joke. In researching this sermon I was strongly influenced by ESUC member Alice Blair Wesley’s 2000-2001 Minns Lecture. Alice points out that the American Heritage dictionary defines “ministry” as 1 (a) “the act of serving; ministration,” and (b) “one that serves as a means; instrumentally.”  Ministry then is service, and ministers are people who serve. But there’s more. The second definition reads: “the profession, duties, and services of a minister of religion.” So a minister is one who serves, but serves in a religious way.

There are different types of ministers. Parish ministers work in churches, but our work is complemented by ministers of religious education, community ministers, ministers of music, ministers who teach, and ministers who counsel. There are no clear boundaries between them. Indeed, each type of minister in asked to do all of these things. For most people, however, I suspect that parish ministry is the model we think of first. This is ironic, since many of the most famous ministries—including those of Isaiah, Jesus, and St. Paul—were not parish ministries.

Nevertheless their ministries were and remain models; models that set a standard we’re called to emulate. From a factual standpoint, we don’t know much about these three. A careful reading of the bible suggests that Isaiah (author of this morning’s responsive reading [#571, SLT]) was a well educated, upper class inhabitant of 8th century BCE Jerusalem. Jesus, born 700+ years later, came from an outland province (Galilee), spoke a provincial dialect, and—after a brief ministry—was put to death. Both Isaiah and Jesus spoke in poetry.  The Apostle Paul’s ministry was more that of a district executive. He was a first century Jew and a Roman citizen. A profound experience transformed him, virtually overnight, from a persecutor of the early Christians into one of their foremost champions. He became a missionary, planting congregations across Asia Minor and Eastern Europe and tending to them from afar via the mail.

Others have followed, down through the centuries; some whose names we know—Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, Olympia Brown—right down to today in the persons of Leon Hopper, Joan Montagnes, and others who we ourselves have reached out to, and who have reached back in service. There have been men and women of other traditions—pagan, Buddhist, or what have you—who have ministered, and who are ministering as I speak. What are these people up to?

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There are many aspects to ministry. Few of us are good at all of them, or even most of them. Service, after all, is a broad concept. We are asked to be counselors, teachers, cheerleaders, confidants, administrators, confessors, public spokespersons, ritual masters, caregivers, toastmasters, and all-around good souls. We are expected to be well-read careful scholars and good researchers, fully versed in our own—and other—traditions. We are always on call. We’re expected to be at dozens of social events, committee meetings, and a good number of civic proceedings. Members want their minister to be forthright without hurting anyone’s feelings, erudite but down-to-earth, resolute but flexible. Funny but not too funny; serious but never overly so; five-star quality without asking for much remuneration—as that would be unseemly, all agree, for a person of the cloth.

When a church is discouraged or demoralized, it wants us to be shepherds, artists, and poets bringing fresh waves of encouragement. When it needs organization and order, it requires that we become gifted administrators able to lead the way through chaos. When it needs edification we’re asked to have the gift of teaching. In addition, Unitarian Universalists usually want their ministers to be up-to-date: widely read in current events, scientific advances, and pop psychology. To be old salts that are also hip to what’s happenin’ now.

Above all, members want us to be good preachers. But what does that mean? Ask ten UUs and you’ll get ten answers. Most, however, say they want to be entertained and enlightened, touched and affirmed, given hope and strengthened consciences. Now that shouldn’t be too hard, should it? A few years ago a frequent visitor to the church I was serving in Santa Fe told me she liked my sermon, but that she couldn’t stand the word “sermon”: it should be a presentation or address or lecture. “Sermons,” for Laurelee, were just too religious.

There was a time when I more or less agreed with her. But after over 1400 attempts at this I’ve changed my mind. Unitarian Universalists expect to hear sermons that are thoughtful—didactic and edifying—and if they’re not the minister may soon find her- or himself in trouble. But ministers whose sermons are only thoughtful are apt to find themselves in trouble, too.  In one of her newsletter columns my colleague Christine Robinson, Minister Emerita of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque, explains: “sermons are different from talks, speeches, and lectures. The sacred aim of sermons is not to inform, to teach, to please, or to entertain, (though all of these things happen). It is to examine Life in the light of value and Spirit, and speak the resulting truth in love so that lives are changed. [And] changing lives,” concludes Christine, “is a tender, painful, glorious thing.”

Moreover, good sermons tell us something about the preacher, too. What does she care passionately about? What does he truly love? In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, preaching should be “life forged through the fire of the mind.” Life. Concrete life. The preacher’s life. Life forged through the crucible of his or her heart, as well. Emerson, like UUs ever since, dismissed most of the Church’s forms and rituals. But he never repudiated its mission. Though he moved away from traditional religious language, Emerson never moved away from that language’s intention. If only preachers would “acquaint men at first hand with Deity,” he wrote, they would breathe life back into the church. Emerson liked good preaching, but complained he did not often enough hear it. The preacher’s aim, he wrote, must be to “convert life into truth” and show us “that God is, not was, that he speaketh, not spake.” In other words, make the space safe for the Spirit and, through the use of poetry and music and ritual, somehow help It come to life—if only for a moment—in peoples’ hearts and consciences and imaginations. That’s a tall order, for sure. But it’s what we want to hear from our preachers. What we long to hear.

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Unlike St. Paul, no single experience drew me into ministry. It was more a series of ever-deeper wonderings whether this was to be the craft to which I would—and wanted to—devote my life energy… a series that continued long after I was ordained, and continues to this day. Nevertheless, one critical experience happened in February 1977. It involved my late friend, former teacher, and close colleague Paul Sawyer. I was, in 1977, pursuing a career teaching religion in academia. I also wanted to be ordained and in that effort I’d done fieldwork the year before as an intern at the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco, which I’d enjoyed. Then the following year (’76-’77) and mostly for fun, I’d been working with Paul and a few others trying to get a “Universalist Center” going in Berkeley—a kind of non-churchy church as we envisioned it, with a strong activist focus. We were tantalized when we heard that the Veatch Program—a well-heeled UU-connected foundation in Long Island—would, perhaps, match donations to just such a project. Then we heard about a wealthy Mendocino lawyer who was looking for ways to contribute. So we rented a storefront downtown and made plans for a special service.

All our members and friends—twenty-five to thirty people—attended. The potential benefactor and his beautiful wife arrived just in time. The service began with music. There were some announcements, a meditation, and soon the sermon. As it was February 22, Paul preached on George Washington, his revolutionary leadership and his vision of democracy. Suddenly, about four minutes into the sermon—one of our members, a physician named Jerry, interrupted. Washington was a slave-owner, he objected; he shouldn’t be praised, period. “Well, yes,” countered Paul. “He was a slaveholder, certainly, but he also set in motion the chain of events that eventually—86 years later—led to the slaves’ emancipation and, moreover, all of us would look reactionary by the moral standards of a later era….” Order was soon restored…and Paul was back into his sermon, as were all of us, listening. Until Jerry chimed in again, with real vehemence: Washington was a slaver. He was a trafficker in human bondage, blinded by privilege and racism. He went on for several sentences. “Yes, of course,” explained Paul, “he was all of these things, but this should not blind us to his manifold contributions to the cause of human freedom, his bravery, and his incredible vision….” Again—it took longer this time—the preacher steered the service back to its aims and purposes: hopes of our little band of Universalists that we could become more established and substantial…until…yes, once again we were sailing along, gaining momentum, finding our sense of equilibrium, community and shared purpose. It was then that Jerry interrupted for the third, and final, time, spinning the service completely out of control.

As this continued Paul reached for and put his arms around an increasingly irrational Jerry. I realized I was witnessing a full-scale emotional breakdown as the parishioners slowly got up, one by one, then in twos and threes, to leave. The attorney thanked a couple of folks, hoped into his BMW, and drove away. Wow.

Here, in a matter of less than ten minutes all that we had worked for over the preceding six months had been dashed, ruined: an utter fiasco. I, meanwhile, was completely blown away. It all seemed like a John Cage musical composition in which I heard the sound of silence for the first time, only in this case the tableau of Paul cradling Jerry in his arms caused me to understand parish ministry entirely anew. That it happened in a worship service only added to its poignancy. For here was the essence of ministry: binding wounds, comforting the afflicted, offering love and consolation in the midst of everything we cannot control.

Now I knew what Emerson must have meant, for God spaketh to me that day in the midst of debacle… and I could not get the echo out of my mind. “Could this be the work to which I am called to devote my life energy?” I remember asking myself as I walked home. “Could it be that ministry and not academia, is the career worthiest of my gifts and of my love?”

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Consider, for a moment, our Church Covenant that we just read; that we read every week:

Love is the doctrine of this church.

The quest of truth is its sacrament and service is our prayer.

To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom,

To serve humanity in fellowship, thus do we covenant.

UU congregations, at their best, are loving people joined in such a covenant to find and live out together, insofar as we can, the ways of love. The essence of ministry, as I try to practice it, is to encourage, support, and nurture such communities. This is not a mindless process. God help us if ever we suppose these ways of love easy to identify, or to live out, in so complex a world as ours.  God help us if we are ever embarrassed to confess that finding them and living in accord with them requires that we think rationally about them together in our churches, hard and well: learning how to feel, deeply and lovingly, and learning how to think. LEARNING HOW to create and uphold welcoming and diverse communities rooted in love, trust and freedom. Liberal ministry in a congregation like ours requires serving heart and mind. Always.

For the congregation to thrive, however, it seems to me that its members need to be re-minded again and again of how central LOVE is to the heart of what we’re all about. Helping members experience, contemplate, and re-cognize what is truly loveable and love-ly, I am convinced, is the a priori of good preaching. Why? As Alice Blair Wesley points out repeatedly in her Lecture, this is not because love is more important than thinking, but because it is the experience of wholesome, worthy love that points us to those issues we need to think rightly about.

It’s easy to cite glaringly obvious examples. Consider, for instance, all the correct thinking about the “hows” of the project that it took to build and run the gas chambers in Hitler’s Third Reich, or the system of apartheid in South Africa.  The people who carried out those projects loved the wrong things.  Had they loved rightly, they would never have used their minds on such “hows.”

Despite such atrocities, there are in us all, Emerson believed—and I believe, too—deep springs of affection that readily flow and overflow. Ministry—from the 7th century BCE to the 1830s to today—identifies those worthy things to which good people naturally respond with love. Good preaching (something I aspire to more than I manage to practice) touches the heart and the imagination in such a way that it engenders the experience of love—right then and there in the pew, in the gathered congregation. As happened to me on Washington’s Birthday, 1977.

The consistently effective preacher, then, is first a wooer, an enticer, speaking words that evoke love of what is worthy of love.   Having elicited love, the best sermons will go on to provoke thought. In other words, first hold up that which is truly worthy of our love, but don’t stop there; it’s not enough to satisfy the heart’s longing alone. Good preaching demands an additional step: acquainting listeners with the facts and stimulating them to think about what love asks of us. Poor understanding and irrational thinking thwarts even the best of intentions. The best sermons address longings of the heart for sure; longings that lead directly to queries of the mind—which we can only consider properly when engaging one another rationally. Feeling love, when we ought to be thinking, is sentimentality.  Ever so much rational thought without love, is—certainly in liberal congregations—not very fruitful, to put it mildly. 

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Despite being abruptly cut off, Paul’s message about General Washington’s steadfast courage in the face of dubious odds, his dream of democracy, and his stick-to-it-ivness all stayed with me. As did Paul’s abiding concern for one of his congregants in crisis. Still, success in the ministry requires more than love alone—despite what John Lennon and Paul McCartney may have sung. It requires serious thinking about budgets, schedules, events, meetings, personnel matters, and much more. In the words of one ancient formula, we must be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.

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The final element of ministry, then, and of preaching, is vision: the ability to see clearly that which is worthy of our love. And to hold it up in such a way that others—whatever their theology, whatever their circumstances—can see it too. Perhaps there was a time—twenty-seven hundred years ago and before—when people were so atomized that no one had a vision large enough to inspire Universal Ministry as expressed—longed for—by the prophet Isaiah. Centuries later, however, Isaiah’s vision became the mission of American Universalism, inspiring a here-and-now understanding that we’re “saved” not by adherence to any doctrine, but through the quality of our everyday relationships with the people around us here and now. Churches don’t have all that much to do with it, except as places where we can continually re-mind ourselves and encourage one another regarding the value and sacredness of practicing how to love.

In conclusion: the good preacher shares a little of themselves, reminds us of something that elicits feelings of love, helps us consider, thoughtfully, whether it’s really worthy of our best energy, and then—if it is—helps us find ways to bring that love to fruition through service. And all in twenty minutes.        So May It Be.        Amen.