Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Tale of Two Monicas

OK, this was just way too obvious to pass up. But honestly, which is the greater scandal -- consensual sexual activity on the job between a married man and an intern half his age (which is, admittedly, pretty scandalous), or systematically attempting to undermine the integrity of the Justice Department by hiring attorneys based principally on their ideological qualifications, and firing others because of their refusal to pursue politically-motivated proscecutions? Personally, I'm much more offended by the pink slips than I was the blue dress...but what really bothers me is my growing numbness to the feeling of outrage. Have I simply stopped paying attention? Or am I just TOO outraged to care anymore?

When I think about how much money was squandered investigating the Clintons -- and indeed, the whole "Clinton-hating" industry, that "vast Right Wing conspiracy" which seemed to live and breathe solely to slander a sitting President -- and then listen to the sanctimonious indignation expressed at Jimmy Carter's recent criticism of the smirking, scowling shortcomings of THIS administration...well, I do feel a little queasiness in the pit of my stomach. When I think about how the Rehnquist Court ruled that a sitting President could legally be deposed in a civil lawsuit because it dealt with activities outside the official scope of his office, while the current administration hides its malfeasance from Congress behind claims of "Executive Privilege," I can still feel a little outrage welling up in my throat. But when I stumble across images like this....

Well, it just makes me nostalgic for the good old days....

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"Nobody cares how much you know...

...until they know how much you care." Now there's a fantastic piece of advice for clergy everywhere. And maybe not just clergy either. Here are a few more words of wisdom about being a pastor, compliments of John Esau: "Ten Things I didn't learn in seminary"

When I was fresh out of seminary myself (Harvard, no less), I thought I knew an awful lot about "doing ministry," but I still had an awful lot to learn about "being" a minister. Now, after more than a quarter-century (and half a lifetime) in this line of work, it's hard for me to imagine not being a minister -- or even whether it is possible for me to stop being a minister, whether or not I am actively doing ministry at the moment. And the wisdom represented by these timeless little aphorisms seems so much more important than all the history and theology and even scripture I studied academically as a seminarian. Not that academic knowledge isn't important (and valuable) too. But without this other, it's an external knowing, rather than a knowing of the soul. Or to put it another way, no matter how much book learning we may possess (and trust me, I possess a lot), we all still learn our vocation "on the job" -- and it is only after this baptism by fire that the things we learn from books begin to make sense.

Yes, ministry is a political vocation...and like politics, all ministry is local. Our people want us to succeed, but we will never fully live up to their expectations...or even, quite frankly, our own. And so we need to learn how to get out of our own way, and let the spirit work through us. Because it's not ABOUT us. Ministry will demand everything we have to give it if we let it, and yet it will also fulfill us and renew us in ways that are hard to imagine without having experienced it firsthand. And at the end of the day, there's always tomorrow...and even when we close our own eyes to open them no more, someone will be there to "Salute the Arriving Moment." And that is part of what makes ministry both a privilege and a gift...a vocation to be embraced in humility and gratitude and devotion....

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What I Wrote to the Good People at First Parish

Woke up Monday morning in my hotel room at the Eastland, with the sunshine finally streaming through my window after days of gray, drizzly weather. Not that I’m complaining about the rain; after all, I grew up in Seattle, where we invented Starbucks precisely for rainy days just like the ones I experienced here. But even so, the bright morning sunlight really helped me appreciate that a new day was dawning, and that it was time to leap out of bed and enjoy it.

As I said on Sunday at the congregational meeting, I feel both deeply grateful and profoundly delighted about the overwhelming vote inviting me to settle here as your next Parish minister. And I also feel humbled by your confidence in my ministry, and as excited as all of you about the promises and the challenges of the days ahead. It is indeed customary for clergy to accept their call “with God’s help,” and no doubt I will often have occasion to appeal for Divine intervention during my tenure here. But it is really YOUR help that I’m counting on. I truly do love my job, and I like to think that over the years I’ve become reasonably proficient at it. But I couldn’t do it without all of you. Your presence and participation are what make this church possible. You ARE the congregation of the First Parish Church in Portland Maine.

These next few months will be busy ones for me, as I complete my duties in Carlisle, attend the UUA General Assembly in Portland, OR (and visit briefly with my family afterwards), and then return to Massachusetts in order to pack for my move to Portland ME sometime around the 1st of August. In the meantime, I expect to be in fairly regular contact with the lay leadership team here at First Parish, as we prepare for the start of the new program year in September. This is indeed an exciting time. Let’s all enjoy the dawning of our new day!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Journey Home

OK, now it REALLY is official. Unanimous vote this morning to call me as the next settled minister of the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine -- only the 20th called and settled minister (I'm told) in the congregation's almost 350 year history. Of course, several of those guys (and yes, they were all guys) served more than a half-century, which has a tendency to skew the curve a little. In any event, I feel both thrilled and honored by the congregation's vote of confidence in my ministry, and also humbled by the tremendous responsibility it represents. It's always a privilege when people freely choose to CALL you their minister. It's a privilege ministers must continue to earn every single day, if we are to be worthy of the honor. Discipline, Integrity, and Fidelity. Essential qualities for a minister. Essential qualities for us all.

Here's the text of today's sermon. Reading was from T.S. Eliot's "Little Gidding."


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church of Portland, Maine
Sunday May 20th, 2007

Having struggled through the blizzard and arrived at the station only to discover that the train to Boston had been delayed by snow, three Unitarian Universalist ministers retired to the bar to wait. They waited for an hour, and still no train; then two hours; until finally, after nearly three hours had passed, one of the ministers looked up from their conversation and noticed, not only had the train arrived, but that it was already pulling out of the station! Grabbing up their baggage, the three ministers sprinted for the platform. One was just able to leap aboard; then the train picked up speed, and the other two were left behind.…

A porter had witnessed this entire episode, and as the two remaining ministers passed him on their way back to their table, he called out to them “tough break, missing your train like that.”

“Oh, we’ll be all right,” the oldest and the wisest of the ministers responded. “It’s young Jensen there I’m worried about. He was here to see us off!”

OK, I admit it. Maybe this story didn’t happen exactly the way I just told it. But there’s still more truth to it than you might expect. There’s something about Unitarian Universalists — and about Unitarian Universalist ministers in particular — that makes us loathe to miss the train, or the bus, or the boat, or whatever, even when we have no particularly compelling reason from moving on from where we are. It’s the flip-side of our reputation as a questioning faith — a religion of progress and growth. We also tend to be a trendy faith, restless in our search for the avant garde, a religion of perpetual motion.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, there was a brief affirmation, written by the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, which was very popular within our movement, and which sums up much of this questing spirit. It affirmed “The Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, the Leadership of Jesus, Salvation by Character, and the Progress of Mankind Onward and Upward forever.”

Today the gendered language makes this statement sound archaic and vaguely inappropriate to our more “progressive” ears. But the sentiment it expresses still remains strong. We are one people, accountable to the same ultimate reality, inspired by the great religious teachers of the past, yet at the end of the day personally responsible for our own ethical choices in the quest for spiritual transcendence and its associated “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”…and the journey itself is endless: “onward and upward forever.” We see ourselves as a Religion of Progress, where the Process is more important than the Product. And this is why the habit of running for the train sometimes takes over, even when we’d come along simply to say “farewell.”

The theme of religious quest or spiritual journey is one that appears in most of the world’s great religions. But this notion that life is in some way a “perpetual pilgrimage” is really quite unique. And from time to time one also hears murmuring that, while the trip is fine, it might also me nice to “arrive” every once in awhile — to have a place where we can rest and hang our hats, a place to call our “home.”

I see evidence of this spirit everywhere — from the widespread use of common symbols (such as this flaming chalice) in our worship, to the renewed emphasis on “mission” and “covenant,” and the periodic efforts to rework our “Principles and Purposes” statement, which seems to revive itself every few years.

Some of this, I suspect, is simply a response to Unitarian Universalism’s recent growth and revitalization — the search for something new to replace the sense of homogeneity that had resulted from that old, implicit Unitarian creed of “The Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Neighborhood of Boston.” But it is also, I think, a realization that the statement “Unitarian Universalists are people who believe that beliefs must change as circumstances change” makes us sound a little wishy-washy: as though belief itself counts for little, and change is what we truly worship.

There are several related questions at issue here, and I want to take just a moment to unravel them a little, so that we can look at them together in a logical sequence. The first question has to do with the nature of pluralistic religion, in which each individual is essentially free to believe whatever his or her experience inspires them to believe. The second has to do with the idea of “progress” itself: what does it mean to progress “onward and upward forever?” And then finally (at least for this morning) is this notion of religious quest or pilgrimage, and what it is we are actually hoping to find at the conclusion of our journey.

Because of what I do for a living, from time to time I am asked by folks unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism to explain our religion to them in twenty-five words or less: the so-called “Elevator Speech.” It’s a difficult challenge, as you might imagine, and as I’m sure many of you appreciate from your own experience. I’ve been at it for over a quarter-century now, literally more than half my lifetime; and I’m still not sure that I’m any better at it now than I was when I first started.

Outsiders sometimes simply have a tough time grasping the dynamic nature of it all. “Surely you must know that you believe,” they say. And I answer, “Yes. But what I believe and what others in my church believe are not necessarily one and the same. One of the principal tenets of our religion is that individuals must be free to seek the truth in their own way, without having the beliefs of others forced upon them.”

Usually that’s enough to get your typical Fundamentalists scratching their heads in amazed confusion. But every once in awhile I’ll run across folks who are, themselves, potential Unitarian Universalists. “But if you say that people are free to believe whatever they want,” these budding UUs will ask, “what about someone like Hitler, who sincerely believed that it was OK to murder millions of Jews?”

It’s a legitimate question, this challenging issue of Moral Relativism, one which in many ways represents the Achilles heel of our movement; and so I must explain that, no, Hitler was not a good UU — that the freedom to choose one’s own beliefs does not imply some sort of solipsistic world in which all beliefs are equally valid, and that one of the reasons that Unitarian Universalists meet in congregations such as this one is so that we can validate our beliefs (and the experiences that have informed them) by comparing them to the beliefs and experiences of other, trusted fellow seekers.

Some beliefs, quite frankly, are not as good as others; and the way that Unitarian Universalists have traditionally distinguished between the two is by looking at the results: “By their fruits shall ye know them.” In other words, Religious Pluralism is not the same as Moral Relativism; the freedom to choose one’s own beliefs is not a license to behave as one will.

Unitarian Universalists are not free to believe whatever we want or wish. We are compelled to believe what our reason and our experience tell us to be true. And since no human being is possibly omniscient (that, in the western world, at least, is a quality ordinarily reserved for God), there will naturally be a certain amount of diversity of belief within an undergirding consensus of methodology and value. The statement that human reason and human experience are the ultimate arbiters of religious truth carries with it an unspoken belief about the nature of reality, and of truth itself. And it is from this underlying sense of agreement that our freedom to disagree has its origin.

This brings us, quite naturally, to the question of Progress: how do we differentiate between a good belief and a better belief, or even between a good belief and a bad one? This is not nearly so easy a task as it might sound. Let’s take a relatively simple example.

If you are in business, and you have a gadget that will do a certain job in a certain time at a certain price, and someone brings you a gizmo that will do the same job in less time for half the price, that’s progress. (Unless, of course, you are a gadget manufacturer, in which case maybe its time to start thinking about starting a second career).

If the gizmo will do a better job, or maybe even a second job on top of the first job, but it costs a little more and takes a little longer, that may or may not be progress — it all depends on your particular needs.

And if it doesn’t do the job at all, at any price, then it’s obviously not progress, and if you go ahead and buy the gizmo anyway, you probably won’t be in business very long.

When dealing with issues of religion, however, this process becomes infinitely more complicated. Indeed, just deciding what the “job” is — what you want your religion to do for your life — is often a lifetime task. Most religions provide these answers for the believer — the “job” is to be saved, to gain eternal life. We UUs often speak of the “search for truth” as our great religious task — never specifying what it is we should do with this truth once we find it. Indeed, this is precisely the problem we’ve been looking at this morning — it’s fine to search, but what do we do if we should (God forbid!) actually find something? Are we merely looking for better ways to look? Is there no tangible core to our faith, a “job” that must be done?

It has sometimes been said that the one constant thing we can rely on in life is change. Yet it also often seems as if those who are actually closest to whatever is changing have the hardest time recognizing what is really going on. For example, we’ve all heard the phrase “A prophet is not without honor, except in their own country, and in their own house;” and I suspect most of us know the story behind it as well. At about the age of thirty, (still a relatively young man, even by the standards of his own day, although certainly no longer a kid), Jesus of Nazareth went to the Jordan River to see and hear the famous religious teacher, John the Baptist, who some thought might even be the Messiah, a prophet who would purge the nation of corrupting, foreign influences and create a kingdom in which God and God alone would rule.

And Jesus experienced something there at the River Jordan that profoundly changed his life, and the subsequent history of the world as well. In fact, he found the experience so disturbing that he actually went out into the desert for forty days (or so the tradition tells us) just to think it over. And when he came back and started to tell people about his vision, they listened in great numbers.

What did he say?

You don’t have to wait until everything is perfect in order to start doing what is right. God’s kingdom is all around us: open your eyes and see it. This is good news if you are poor; it means freedom to those who are captive and oppressed. Because this is what God wants us to do — to heal the broken-hearted, and to set at liberty those who have been bruised. This is the year acceptable to the Lord.

But when Jesus got back to Nazareth, his own hometown, the people there were a little more skeptical. “We know this guy,” they said. “Who is he to be telling us all these things? He grew up right here; we’ve all known him since he was a little baby. He’s nothing special. His father didn’t even own his own house, and had to support the family by working for wages as a manual laborer. Show us something more, carpenter’s son, if you truly expect us to believe all these crazy things you’re saying. Solve your own family’s problems before you start telling us how to solve ours.” The message was the same for everyone who heard it. But some folks were just too set in their ways to listen. They were too familiar with this newly-minted prophet; they were unable appreciate how much he himself had changed.

Now admittedly, Change is not always Progress in and of itself. Things can change for the better, and things can change for the worse. Thus, whatever changes we embrace over time regarding what we do or do not believe as the result of our religious quest should, in some way, help us to live better lives. They should help us to understand and deal with our limitations, and with the fact of our own mortality; they should help us to improve our relationships with other human beings, and with the natural world in which we live. Insight, inspiration, understanding are important. But mere knowledge alone is not enough. We also need to be able to live these changes, to put into practice the things that we have learned, in order to transform both ourselves, and the world around us.

For some, this may be as profoundly simple as learning to accept ourselves and the world around us for what we are: the knowledge that we are all going die before achieving even a fraction of our potential, and that the world will somehow survive without us. For others, it may lead to a series of crusades for civil liberties and social reform: a quest for peace and justice. I myself have always felt inspired by the sentiments of the so-called “Serenity” prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, which I have seen now in so many forms: the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

This tension exists at the core of all great religious questions: a tension between accepting the limits imposed upon us by nature, and the indomitable struggle to transcend them. And progress, at least in my current view, is coming to see more precisely just where the line between them lies, and then living one’s life as close to that line as possible.

Wither, then, do we journey? And for what do we search? We search for Wholeness: for that elusive harmony of being that lingers in the boundary between mortality and transcendence. And the end of all our exploring, as the Poet tells us, will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. Not a place in the sense of somewhere or something we might touch or taste or own; not even a spark or a soul or a supernatural force; but a Spirit: a breeze, a breath, a thing felt but not seen. A whole which is greater than the sum of all its parts, but which cannot be explained in analogy to any one of them.

And the real mystery is that while we cannot fully comprehend this reality, we do share of it — we participate in it. We are a part of the whole, and yet we are whole within ourselves, and in this sense, truly, we have been created in the image of God, and can know God best through a deep knowledge of ourselves.

Perhaps, as Unitarian-Universalists, we are forever destined to be chasing after trains. But it’s nice to think that every once in awhile we are free to sit in the lounge for a few hours longer, to savor a warming apĂ©ritif and listen to the blizzard rage around us, to enjoy the company of friends, to wait for the next train, and be a few hours late to Boston. The Journey Home does not always require perpetual motion. At times it’s important just to sit, and wait, and listen....

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mother's Day

And I'm afraid this Mother's Day turned out to be a truly bittersweet occasion for me. The morning started wonderfully, with my first Sunday Service as the candidate for the Pulpit at the First Parish in Portland Maine. Worship was very inspiring -- over two hundred adults in attendance, lots of fantastic energy and excitement, laughter and love. And then in the afternoon, when I got back to my hotel, a phone call from my Dad, telling me that my Mom had been back in the hospital since Wednesday, with an apparent recurrence of her breast cancer. But she didn't want me to be worried or distracted when I went into the pulpit Sunday, so she made him promise not to tell me until after I got back from church. That's my mother. Who would also be mortified if she knew I was writing this here.

Earlier that morning I had been thinking about just how fortunate I am at my age to still have two living parents, and was especially thinking about my mom...given the holiday and all. I well know from my work in ministry how many people my age have already lost one or both of their parents...and I've sometimes wondered how I was going to react to this sort of news...whether my pastoral experience having traveled this path with others will be a help to me personally, or if rather (as they often say) it's just not the same. And I suppose it's actually still too soon to tell. My mom is only 72 (with a birthday next month), and both her parents lived well into their eighties. We still have no idea how serious this recurrence may be, or what kind of treatment options are available. But still, this is a tough transition...from being cancer-free to living with cancer. And (the truth be told), no doubt eventually dying of cancer.

But back to church for a moment. For the children's story I did a little shtick I've often done in times past, where I show the kids the different parts of my clerical attire -- the robe, the hood, the stole, etc -- and talk a little about where they come from and why ministers dress the way they do. The robe is black, for example, so you never have to wash it and can wear it over anything; the hood is both headgear and a bookbag (and I always put it on my head to demonstrate the former); the stole was originally a towel for washing (and drying) people's feet, an important gesture of hospitality. It's fun because I like to do it question and answer style, and I also show them things like my cowboy boots from West Texas (which I always wear on my first Sunday somewhere, just so if the sermon doesn't go well I can say I "died with my boots on"), and talk about the three stripes on the sleeves of my robe in terms of being both a "sergeant" as well as a "doctor" -- i.e. a learned "professional" qualified to be a "professor" of "doctrine."

But because it's Q & A, you can never really be certain what the kids will come up with, which is always part of the excitement. So when I asked the children why they thought I was wearing Cowboy Boots under my robe, one little girl piped up "Because they're Lucky?" -- which was, of course, EXACTLY why I wear them. But even more to the point, when I asked whether the children knew what doctors do (in order to help distinguish between a doctor and a physician), that same little girl replied "They help people." That's right, Doctors help people. Maybe I don't have to make a distinction after all.

In any event, here is the text of the sermon I preached yesterday, since I don't really have plans to post it anywhere else. And your prayers and good wishes, both for my mother and for my ministry, are always gratefully appreciated.


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish in Portland, Maine
Mother’s Day, Sunday May 13th, 2007

I thought I’d start out this morning simply by saying out loud just how excited, honored, and humble I feel to be standing up here in front of all of you this morning. I honestly can’t imagine anywhere else in the world I would rather be right now (and believe me, I have a VERY vivid imagination), then here in this magnificent house of worship, located right in the heart of this vibrant city, with its distinguished history, and heritage of ministry to the citizens of this community, and likewise what I believe is an important destiny of continued service and witness here in Portland to the values of our progressive and liberal faith tradition. So I’m thrilled to have been invited here to this high pulpit as the candidate to become your next settled minister, and with your approval, assistance and support, to serving the members of this congregation to the best of my ability as your pastor, and teacher, and spiritual leader.

This week also represents the culmination of a lot of hard work by a relatively small group of very devoted individuals who you entrusted with the responsibility of searching for your next settled minister. And it’s natural to want to celebrate that achievement... and I certainly hope that next Sunday we will all have plenty of celebrating to do, and that you will all be back here again to help get that part of the job done properly. But I also want to remind folks that this week also represents the beginning of something new, and that as eager and as curious as I’m sure you are to find out all about me, I also need you to help me get to know about all of you...and especially to understand your personal hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future of this congregation. Because I’m not coming here will a standard blueprint and a big bag of magic tricks for turning this church into the “perfect” church (whatever that might be) overnight. All I really have is a good heart and a relatively keen mind -- two commodities which I suspect this congregation already possesses in great abundance. And I also have faith that when we put our hearts and minds together, there is almost no limit to the things we can accomplish here. And this is what truly excites me about the privilege of having been selected as your Candidate.

Today is also Mothers Day, and I feel like I would somehow be shirking my responsibilities if I didn’t at least make mention of the occasion. Those of you who have looked into the matter already know that the second Sunday in May was designated as “Mother’s Day” by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914, after about seven years worth of lobbying by a Philadelphia Schoolteacher named Anna Jarvis. But the idea of a “Mother’s Day for Peace” actually goes back to the 1870’s, and was pioneered by the Unitarian social activist Julia Ward Howe. And of course nowadays it is mostly a sentimental holiday featuring cards and flowers, long distance phone calls and kids cooking breakfast (or, better yet, taking Mom out for brunch). And yes, it’s important to celebrate motherhood...but I also hope we can hold in our hearts the original sentiments of this holiday, especially when the sons and daughters of so many mothers now find themselves in harm’s way.

My own mother probably deserves some sort of medal for having reared three very rambunctious boys safely to adulthood; but she certainly wasn’t perfect (I doubt that any mother is), and yet she also did the best she could (as I suspect every mother does). And since my brothers and I all pretty much turned out OK, she certainly deserves most of the credit for that. But there are at least two things my mother tried to teach me when I was young that I wish I’d had the wisdom then to ignore, and since I suspect that many of your own mothers also tried to teach you these same lessons, let me tell you what they are.

The first lesson that I wish I’d had the wisdom to ignore was to Always Clean Your Plate. This may have been a perfectly good rule when I was still a skinny little kid who ran around at top speed all day long (no doubt in those days fueled by lots of sugar coated breakfast cereal), but who was also kind of a picky eater who refused to eat anything green. But nowadays I often tend to have a lot on my plate (both figuratively as well as literally), and it would be nice to know deep down in my heart that I don’t always have to try to wolf down everything at one sitting, and then ask for seconds so that the cook knows I liked it. Generally it’s a lot better idea simply to take things one bite at a time until you feel like you’ve had enough (at least for now), and then to set your fork down until you’re ready to eat again.

And then the second lesson I wish I’d known enough to ignore is to Never Talk to Strangers. Again, I can see the wisdom of this rule for young children who are perhaps TOO trusting and vulnerable, and therefore need to be protected a little from their own good nature and gregarious instincts. But talking to strangers is what the church, and particularly its ministry, are ultimately all about. Because ultimately what authentic spirituality teaches us is that there ARE no strangers; instead we are all brothers and sisters to one another, children of the same (metaphorical) Mother. Yet until we learn how to talk honestly and openly with one another, no matter how strange the “other” may seem, we will never have true peace in this world.

Which brings me to the topic that I really want to talk about this morning. It’s customary in our tradition for ministerial candidates to share their views, on their first Sunday in the pulpit, regarding the Nature and the Mission of the Church and its Ministry. Of course, since the basic mission of the church (and perhaps I should add, of religious communities in general) hasn’t really changed all that much in thousands of years, these sermons can start to sound a little repetitive after awhile, especially when you’ve had occasion to read dozens and dozens of them written over a period of several centuries.

However, our understanding of that mission, along with our ability to adapt that understanding in fresh ways to meet the demands of different contexts and circumstances, changes almost constantly. When I first graduated from Divinity School, for example, I had an understanding of the mission of the church that was based on the writings of the 19th century German Sociologist of Religion Ernest Troeslsch, as subsequently interpreted by Harvard Professor and Unitarian Social Ethicist James Luther Adams. I believed that the church was a human scale voluntary association, in which we intentionally attempt to create a “beloved community” and a sanctuary from the pressures of day-to-day living, so that individuals might come together and connect with one another in a more profound way, centering ourselves both emotionally and psychologically as we devote our attention to exploring more deeply our own spiritual lives, and pursuing that “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” we hear so much about; and then return to our daily lives possessing both the wisdom and the inspiration to transform the world around us for the better.

I still tend to see the mission of the church this way, but over the years I’ve also become a lot more pragmatic about it. As some of you may have noticed who have glanced at my packet (or perhaps even visited the website of the congregation I’m currently serving), for some years now I’ve been suggesting that the mission of the church can basically be boiled down to five core tasks: Worship, Education, Fellowship, Community Outreach, and Pastoral Care -- purposes which I just recently realized I probably “borrowed” at some point long ago in my career from ideas contained in the now-famous bestselling author and mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s earlier (and more obscure) book The Purpose-Driven Church, and then adapted to better fit an explicitly Unitarian Universalist context. And having realized this, I have also now decided that there are actually SEVEN core purposes: which is to say that two of these tasks are complicated enough that they might easily be subdivided.

Conducting Public Worship is clearly one very obvious and visible mission of the church. There are lots of different theologies of worship, but in my theology Worship is a time when we recreate through ritual the fundamental, life-transforming experience of the church as a whole. We come together at a designated hour in a sacred space -- a space we MAKE sacred by our presence in it -- in order to be together with one another in community, to celebrate the gift of life itself and to express our gratitude for it, and to devote ourselves to a period of learning, introspection, and self-discovery, so that we might return to the world wiser and inspired to make it a better place.

The mission of Education is equally obvious. Church is a place where we learn how to become authentic people of faith, along with many of the other things we need to know in order to live good and decent lives. I hope this doesn’t come as a revelation to anyone, but not all education takes place in a classroom. Someone once even told me that the only difference between life and school is that life gives us the test first, and then teaches the lesson afterwards. Traditional religious language, including that of our Unitarian and Universalist forbearers, once told us that all human beings are created in the image of God, and born with immortal souls which seek to become “at one” again with their creator. Church is the place where we come to figure out what in the world that may mean, and how we might develop our full potential as both spiritual beings and people of faith.

And Pastoral Care is perhaps the mission we intuitively think of first when we ask ourselves the question “what do churches do?” What do Churches Do? They care for people in times of grief, and illness, and spiritual crisis. The metaphor of the Pastor as a Shepherd tending and herding a flock of sheep or goats or (in our day) cats is one of our most venerable images of the work of ministry, and remains a powerful one, even for those of us whose practical knowledge of sheep-herding comes only from books or maybe a movie or two, and the childhood reminiscences of our grandparents.

But it’s the tasks of Fellowship and Outreach that are intimately more complicated than first meets the eye. The term “fellowship” is often understood as a synonym for community itself, that experience of what the Greek New Testament calls koinania or “life in common,” the experience of truly being members of the family of God, and thus brothers and sisters to one another. In it’s most extreme form, it’s the experience described in Acts 4:32, where “All the believers were one in heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of their possessions were their own, but they shared everything they had.” In short, a form of faith-based socialism.

But there is another aspect of fellowship which I have come to think of as the Ministry of Hospitality, the mission of actively welcoming strangers into our community as our guests. Without an active mission of Hospitality, the experience of Fellowship quickly becomes closed and insular, more like a club than a real church. This is why the Scripture also cautions us “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13: 2) The same “brotherly love” which we would naturally express to members of our own family should in turn be extended to all God’s children, since we can never be certain what important message these sojourners may be bringing to us. Pilgrims require hospitality in order to safely complete their pilgrimages. And likewise, those who offer hospitality to pilgrims receive the gift of their wisdom, and inspiration.

And the same is also true of the Mission of Outreach. Like a lot of religious liberals, I tend to think of Outreach principally in terms of Social Action -- that ultimate expression of our spirituality by which we attempt to change the world and make it better. But this is only half the story. We also have a mission to proclaim our “Good News,” to participate in a little old-fashioned Evangelism as we share our message of “salvation” with others. In other words, we witness our faith not only through our good works, but also through our willingness to actively invite others into partnership with us. And by partnership I mean FULL partnership -- not just some sort of “associate” status where we still make all the important decisions, while expecting someone else to take over all the hard work itself.

So, Worship, Education, Community, Hospitality, Social Action, Evangelism, and Pastoral Care. This is the mission of the church as I see and understand it now. But if it all still sounds like an awful lot to swallow at one sitting, I can also sum it up in a single sentence -- or perhaps I should say, someone here at First Parish has already summed it up for us. The Mission of the Church is to create, or to provide, or perhaps simply just to be, “A Warm and Welcoming Place in the Heart of the City.”

I always smile a little when I hear that phrase “a warm welcome,” because I know that in the 19th century those exact same words were sometimes used ironically to describe the experience of being greeted by gunfire. But obviously that’s not what I have in mind today. Rather, it seems to me that this image of “a warm, welcoming place in the heart of the city” eloquently describes everything else we’ve been talking about today. A sanctuary where we congregate together to discover how to truly BE in a better place than we often find outside these doors. A place where it doesn’t matter what you look like, or how much money you have, or where your parents came from, or who you love, or whether or not you actually believe all the things the people on TV say you need to believe. And when we can do this single thing well, we BECOME the heart (or perhaps I should say the Soul) of the city around us. And the city itself becomes a better place for everyone, because of our presence here....