The Call of Service

A sermon on the value of seriously contributing one’s time and energy for the betterment and uplift of others—and how that is central to Unitarian Universalism.


“The Call of Service”

September 2, 2018

I want to talk this morning about service; about the value of contributing one’s time and energy for the betterment and uplift of others; and about how that changes a person, makes them a better, more fulfilled human being. And a better, more faithful Unitarian Universalist.

In this morning’s First Reading, my colleague Don Southworth writes about serving others as becoming caretakers of the soul. I remember an ethics class in seminary with Dr. Karen Lebacqz. A medical ethicist, her classes were usually analytical, with lots of reading and discussion about how to weigh competing values and make ethical choices. One day, however, she just wrote the word “soul” on the chalkboard. “What is it?” she asked. And we spent the next hour and a half trying to figure it out. Indeed, in my case, the next forty+ years.

Soul is a word that some Unitarian Universalists struggle with; since the soul can’t be “located” somewhere in the body or “measured” in any way, they’re skeptical of its existence. But it’s an ancient word, used by poets, songwriters, and shamans from time immemorial. For the Unitarian Walt Whitman the body and the soul were “conjoined and inseparable,” two words for the same reality. I think of the soul as one’s life spirit, accessible—felt, experienced—whenever we break through our social roles and re-member our connections to the world all around us…and to others. There is an on-the-threshold aspect to experiencing one’s soul, and often an expanded sense of identity. Falling in love, narrowly escaping death, giving birth, caring for an infant, sitting by the water’s edge, lovemaking, all of these can be soulful experiences. But there are other ways to experience soul. Service is one.

I remember back in the 1990s, when I was serving a UU congregation in Pittsburgh. My closest colleague there was Art McDonald. A former Dominican priest, he’d left Catholicism after twenty years, married Melanie (a former nun), and together they’d discovered Unitarian Universalism. By the time I met them, they’d turned a dying inner city UU congregation around, helped it grow from less than a dozen to over a hundred fifty members, and reengaged them with the community. Anyway, one day Melanie and I were talking. I think it was about something at Head Start, where she worked, but it may well have been about church. She said something I’ve never forgotten: “Some people haven’t figured out yet that it’s all about service.”

Our tradition has been supportive of social action from the beginning. Initially our forebears were inspired by the words attributed to Jesus in Matthew 25: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Later they were inspired by the Transcendentalist vision of a world made more fair—more beautiful and more equitable both—by an unflinching commitment to democracy. Humanism preached on self-empowerment for everyone. So, it is that while Unitarian Universalist theology has changed a lot over the decades, one aspect has remained constant: the moral necessity to help others.

Helping others. Serving, as best we can, “the least of these my brethren.” Not just because it’s the right thing, the moral thing, to do. But because of its spiritual value; its capacity to help us grow our souls.

The Bible is written on many levels. All sacred texts are written on many levels. There’s a lot of material–all different kinds of material—in the world’s various scriptures, some of it completely out of date, much of it opaque, and even more of it obscure. But whatever else they are, sacred texts are, at their heart, guidebooks for growing one’s soul by learning how to serve. Jesus, for instance (who never said one word about wall building or about homosexuality), mentions reaching out to foreigners and to the poor dozens of times.

So, we see that reaching out to help others, while not being the only way to grow spiritually, has always been pretty central to Unitarian Universalist spirituality. Whether Pagan, Humanist, UU-Christian, or any other type: our tradition has been consistent when it comes to the importance of serving others on behalf of the common good.

There are many ways to do that. The most recent ESUC Annual Report reveals scores of outreach ministries of this congregation. Some are service to one another: working on committees, in the Sunday school, beautifying the building, and so on. Many others are about service to the community. All service can be—is—good for the soul.

Robert Coles was the author of this morning’s Second Reading. I don’t know his religion. I do know, however, the religion of his mentor, William Carlos Williams. Most of us know Williams as a poet, but he had a day job, too, as a medical doctor. He was also a life-long, committed Unitarian. Robert Coles credits Williams with setting him on his life path by teaching him the essence of healing: meeting people where they are, “on their own turf.” Touching—and thereby enlisting—their souls.

Dr. Coles has written more than fifty books on the intersection between service, spirituality, and mental health. Early in his career, in 1960, he met Tessie Provost and Ruby Bridges as part of a research project. Only after many months did he start understanding what made Tessie and the other children tick, what inspired their courage. Service, to Tessie Provost, meant allying herself with “the Lord Himself” (as she said, echoing her grandmother) on behalf of her tormentors—helping soften their hearts.

Not all Unitarians would use Tessie’s language. Most of us would talk, instead, about the “Spirit of Reconciliation” or the “Web of Interrelationship.” To me, these are just different ways of pointing to the same inescapable network of mutuality that calls us out of self-absorption and into relationship.

Coles points out the difference between youthful and mature idealism. Both involve putting one’s life where their faith is. But the youthful variety is less nuanced. Ideals, after all, come in many forms. Freedom Riders and Nazi Youth were both idealists.

Mature idealism is balanced by reflection. Reflection on one’s own motivation—What am I getting out of this? How does it serve me? —and on one’s limitations. William Carlos Williams described to Coles how he matured as a physician—and as a person—by coming to see his own “blindness”; Dorothy Day shared with the young Dr. Coles how her “arrogance” confounded her best efforts until she looked within and came to terms with it. Only then, Williams and Day both explained to a young Robert Coles, were they able to get in touch with their souls and with the souls of others whom they sought to serve. This is the design and intension of the Beloved Conversations we have been engaged in here in our collective effort to understand—and thereby begin to dismantle—racism and white supremacy.

Putting one’s life where their faith is—walking what we talk—is risky and demanding. It’s also inspiring. Consider the Amish of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Twelve years ago, next month a crazed and tormented man walked into a grade school and shot ten girls before killing himself. Despite their overwhelming grief, the Amish reached out to the perpetrator’s family, shared donated contributions with them, and forgave. A year later they published a statement that read, in part,

Many from Nickel Mines have pointed out that forgiveness is a journey, that you need help from your community of faith and from God, and sometimes even from counselors, to make and hold onto a decision to not become a hostage to hostility. It is understood that hostility destroys community. It is understood that hostility destroys community.

That’s walking the talk. It’s also mature idealism, in that it recognizes the need to work through one’s feelings in all their complexity—and that one can’t do that alone. You need trusted friends in your church. Maybe even professionals.

Those people who became the Amish and those who became Unitarian Universalists both emerged from the left wing of the Protestant Reformation. And both came to North America, so they could more faithfully walk the talk they had come to espouse. The Amish have talked—and walked—about non-violence, about forgiveness, and about simplicity. We’ve talked—and sometimes walked—about social uplift. Individually, Bellevue UUs are involved in all kinds of progressive non-profit groups. Over the decades, you’ve been less engaged collectively, as a faith community — but that began to change in the 1980s when you became a Sanctuary Church for refugees fleeing violence in Central America and, in the ‘90s under the leadership of your most recently settled ministers Peter Luton and Joan Montagnes, and became a Welcoming Congregation.

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The Unitarian Universalist Association recognizes six kinds of social action: direct service, education, advocacy, witness, community organizing, and transformation. The most successful social justice programs provide opportunities for people to engage in all six. We’re not there yet, but the Earth and Social Justice Council clearly has that as a goal. We currently have about a half dozen programs or task forces: Second Sunday/Share the Plate (education and advocacy); Women Helping Women (direct service and witness); Beloved Racial Justice; (education and advocacy); Climate Action Ministry (education, advocacy, and community organizing); ANSWER Nepal, and our Partner Church relationships with Unitarian Universalist congregations in India and Transylvania  (direct service and education). ESUC is also involved in direct services and advocacy in its on-gong support of Congregations for the Homeless, Crossroads Meals, and the Food Bank providing meals and comfort to both the hungry and the homeless. The church has also been active in a host of local interfaith and denominational witness and advocacy efforts.

Robert Coles, for all his celebrity, continues to volunteer as a tutor. He has written and spoken repeatedly on how deeply he’s been transformed by the many students he’s tutored, and how much he’s learned from them. The same is available to us, whenever we see a need and make the choice to fill it. “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer” wrote Frederick Douglass, “until I prayed with my legs.” Finding a way to serve and thereby live your faith, gives prayers legs.

I encourage those of you who pray for better social conditions and for better opportunities for Bellevue, or our youth, to give your prayers legs by considering how you can serve this congregation, the larger community, and—perhaps—touch the soul. If your prayers are in other areas than those currently addressed by the Earth and Social Justice Coordinating Council (stopping pollution, eliminating capital punishment, or some other effort to make this area—and the world—a better place) think about how you can give your prayers legs, and then start moving. Get together with some other like-minded friends, petition the Earth and Social Justice Council to let you form a task force, and make a difference. It will connect you with others, give your prayers legs, open your eyes and hearts, and–in our tradition–help grow your soul.

So, May It Be.           And so, may it be Here.         Shalom.      Namaste.           Amen.