All Are Called: Ministry as Spiritual Discipline
"I think continually of those who were truly great," says poet Stephen Spender: people "whose lovely ambition / was that their lips, still touched with fire, / should tell of the spirit, clothed from head to foot in song." This is what the poet says, and for me, it defines the essence of ministry. It is an ambition to tell, to sing, to celebrate, to heal, to build. An ambition to serve the cause of life, that can be fired in so many ways. Perhaps by the sheer outrage we might feel toward instances of prejudice and inequality. Or it can be the inspiring example of a mentor or hero. For some, it is the deep realization that all life is interconnected, and that each of us has a stake in everything and everyone else's well-being. of the other. For others, it has been an experience of being healed and loved so intensely and so graciously that they, in turn, would pass it on. There are so many ways by which our lips, as the poet says, might come to be touched by fire, and we are moved to speak, we are moved to sing, we are called. Called to ministry.
And it can happen to all of us. It's true that a word like "ministry" instantly brings to mind the professional ministry, the ordained ministry, the clergy; yet in its largest sense ministry is potentially the vocation of everyone, as we find ways to give expression to the deep longing within to give, and to increase beauty and truth in our world and nation, in our beloved community, in our relationships and families, and in ourselves. You just don't have to be a member of the ordained clergy to hear the call and want to respond. This morning, we'll use a classic story to go deeper into our exploration of ministry and how it is that all are called. Sometimes the call can be complicated-why? And what might it really mean for each and every one of us to have a ministry possibility before us? These are some of the questions we'll be taking a look at today.
So now the story: it's about a community of monks that's down on its luck, shrinking in terms of numbers, shrinking in terms of spirit. Led by one frustrated, burned-out Abbot. At times, this Abbot would bring his fellow monks to his mind's eye, one after another, to count their flaws and failures. They were all so shallow and lifeless. Because of them, the monastery was dying.
This was the burden on his mind and heart when, one day, he left the monastery to go over to the nearby Jewish temple, to visit with his good friend the Rabbi. The Abbot just couldn't carry the weight of these thoughts and feelings anymore, all by himself. He poured out his heart to his good friend the Rabbi, and then he started crying. At which point the Rabbi handed him a tissue, comforted him with a hand on the shoulder, and then found himself moved to say this: "Listen, there's something I've been meaning to tell you. In the community I lead, we have long known something about your monastery, and now it's time that you knew. It's this: that the Messiah is one of you." That's what the Rabbi said, and at first the Abbot thought it was a joke. Some time to make a joke! But there was no smirk on the Rabbi's face, there was no mischievousness in his eyes. Seeing this, the Abbot, wiping way his tears, started to laugh. "The Messiah is one of us? Listen, I know a thing or two about Jewish theology. The Messiah is supposed to be a hero who restores justice and peace to the world. And let me tell you, I know my fellow monks, and none are hero material. Besides, we're Christians, not Jews, and isn't the Messiah supposed to be Jewish?"
But despite all these objections, the Rabbi insisted that the Messiah was one of the people in the monastery. He also pointed out that there were, in truth, different ways of interpreting the Messiah idea, which he had learned in conversation with another friend of his, who just happened to be of the Unitarian Universalist persuasion…. The Rabbi was firm. He said to the Abbot, "The Messiah is one of you. I don't care how unlikely it seems. Believe it." And with that, the Abbot went back to his monastery, full of wonder and awe, feeling comforted and excited. He was amazed by how light and free his spirit felt, as well as with how the sights and sounds of the monastery had come alive with new possibility. Walking down the halls, walking through the courtyard, he would pass by a monk and wonder if he was the one, the Messiah who would restore justice and peace to the world. Sitting in chapel, praying, he would hear a voice and look intently at a face and wonder if he was the one. Soon enough, he was treating all his brothers with respect and kindness and awe and reverence. And it did not go unnoticed. Eventually, one of the brothers came to him and said, "Sir, what has happened to you? You are so different…." It took a bit of coaxing, but his fellow monk persuaded him to share his experience with the Rabbi, and the revelation was contagious. The monk caught "the Messiah is one of you" vision, and soon enough, he started wondering about every brother he saw. Could he be the one? Is he the one? The good news simply could not be contained. The Messiah is one of us. Soon enough, the entire community glowed with kindness and grace. The prayer life grew profound and deep; the worship services vibrated with an energy they had never known before. And like a magnet, it drew villagers from the surrounding town to the monastery. They felt the amazing spirit of the place, and they wanted to be a part of that. In fact, requests to actually join the monastery rose to a number the Abbot had never known before, and he rejoiced. Things had come full circle, from despair towards a community that felt like it was dying, to amazed joy at how it had turned right around and discovered abundant new life. All because it believed and lived a profound vision: that the Messiah is one of us. And that's our story. It gives us much to think about, starting with the Abbot before his conversation with the Rabbi. When he is burned out and bitter. It's a troubling image, and it complicates our understanding of the call to ministry. The ironic truth is that, very often, the causes which burn us out are the noble causes in life, the good causes, the high-minded and idealistic ones. The Abbot hears a call to the monastery-perhaps his ambition was fired in one or more of the ways I touched on earlier, such as by the inspiring example of a mentor or hero-and look at how things turn out! People in the helping professions deal with this all the time: people like clergy, or doctors, or teachers, or social workers: people who are passionate at first about healing hurts and inspiring minds and serving others but in the end are overwhelmed, exhausted, full of resentments, frustrated, going through the motions, functioning like robots.
It's essential that we grasp this irony. How our chosen vehicles for ministry-the various jobs and roles and volunteer activities we sincerely believe will bring more light to the world-can also possess a shadow. Sometimes the shadow is about us, as when we bring to the work unresolved ego issues like an anxious need to be important and in charge of everything and in control, or a need to please people and bolster a low self-esteem. Other times, the shadow is about relationships, as when we go to the work with the right motivations and yet we continually encounter situations in which people seem to recognize no healthy relationship boundaries; pettiness and gossip and other difficult behaviors abound, and it just turns us off. Still other times, the shadow has to do with an excessive and creativity-stifling bureaucracy. About this, the story is told about God and Satan walking down the street. The Lord bends down, picks something up, and gazes at it glowing radiantly in his hand. Curious, Satan asks what it is. "This," answers the Lord, "is truth." "Let me have that," says Satan. "I'll organize it for you." "The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling," says writer James Baldwin, "is an immediate knowledge of its ugly side." It means that we must be wise when we talk about such things as calls to ministry. We must not be naïve. Our Unitarian Universalist history teaches us that spiritual conversion is never a one-time-and-you're-done sort of affair, but that it is, rather, a lifetime journey in which our souls grow by fits and starts-a growth spurt here, a dry spell there. So too with the call. It is a winding road that must continually be discerned, explored, understood. There can be wrinkles, complexities, false bottoms, adversity, as well as hidden joys that can be known only after one has walked through the valley of the shadow of death. This is exactly what the Abbot is learning in the story, and we are learning it alongside him.
The call to ministry is winding road. To live into it deeply, as we face its complexities and challenges, requires discipline, and persistence, and courage. In this regard, one of my personal heroes is Moses-not because he would eventually become the greatest hero of Jewish religious and political history, but because of what he had to face to get there. Moses stuttered. This is what tradition says about him. Public speaking petrified him, paralyzed him, because of his fear of looking foolish. But he moved through the fear. He found the courage to stutter out what needed to be said, no matter how imperfect the vehicle of his vision. The fire was upon his lips. How could he not speak? Moses heard the call of the Spirit in his life, and for the rest of his days, he could not help but respond passionately. He lived that journey, through all his ups and downs. This is ministry.
And all are called to it. This is the next thing for us to consider. What it means for each and every one of us to have a ministry possibility before us. At the very least, what it means for the ministry here at UUCA to be an "every member, every friend" ministry.
"The Messiah is one of us." That's how the story puts it. And notice, first of all, what this does NOT mean. This does NOT mean that "the Messiah is someone else." The two phrases sound somewhat alike, but they are worlds apart in terms of practical consequences. Affirm that "the Messiah is someone else," and what you have is an impenetrable obstacle to seeing and receiving the abundance that is yours and ours, here and now. I mean, if the Messiah is truly someone else, then nothing is going to get better until we get something that we don't already have-more members, different members, different friends, different spouses, different children, different lives. Something other than what we have right now. Anything other than what we have right now. And immediately we find ourselves in stuck in scarcity mode, trying to solve our problems with resources that are not already in hand. "The Messiah is someone else" is a small vision that leads to small lives. It's the kind of vision that will make us weep.
And I suspect that it is exactly the kind of mindset that the Abbot and his monks were struggling with initially. And maybe this other mindset, as well: the vision that "only one of us-or only the few-get to be the Messiah." Oh yes. The vision that only one person gets to step up, only one of us gets to be brilliant, only one of us gets to do genuine ministry, only one of us can deepen our lives through service. With a distorted vision like this, you better believe that in the end, everybody's weeping. For one thing, the people who aren't able to step up to ministry never get their chance to develop their Messiah-like potentials and step up into Messiah-like action. Never get the chance. They just follow, they just sit-and-soak, they just accept, they just complain and wait for the problem to be solved, they just wait to be served, they just wallow in an overinflated sense of personal entitlement. No wonder the monks in the monastery were all shallow and lifeless! No wonder the villagers wouldn't touch the monastery with a ten-foot pole! Who'd want to be a part of that? And as for the person who is pegged as the official one and only Messiah: he or she is weeping because they are expected to do it all and be all for everyone else. They have to have all the wisdom. They are the designated change agent and must bear the full burden of that, they are IT, they get burned out to a crisp. Above all, they don't have the right to be human, they don't have the right to make mistakes, they don't have permission to take off the Superman cape sometimes. They don't have that right. Ever felt like you been stuck in the Messiah role, like this? The answer woman or man, the one who must always be strong, the one who gives and gives and gives and without receiving? A Mr. or Ms. Perfection? How could someone not be weeping if this is all the life they can imagine for themselves? It is said that without an expansive vision, the people perish. And I believe it. Ultimately, to peg one person as the official one-and-only one Messiah-or to say that the Messiah is someone else but never me-is to hand ourselves over to a vision of scarcity in our lives, and we will shrink to fit. We will become scarcity. We'll scatter into separate groups that compete and quarrel. Turn selfish. Be quick to anger and criticize. Quick to despair and to blame. We could be surrounded by every good thing in life, but we won't be able to see it and receive it. We'll starve in a full pantry because we can't imagine anything higher than the floor
So much depends upon the kind of vision we give ourselves to. And the expansive vision that all are called, the hopeful vision that "the Messiah is one of you"-now THAT is worthy of our loyalty. Its brilliance is the fact that the identity of the Messiah is forever deferred-we never know exactly who it might be-therefore the door is opened to everyone being able to live out the Messiah-like potentials within them. It means that each one of us loves this place and finds a way to give into it with their presence, their time, their money, their talent. It means that no one person is so valuable that without him or her we are lost. It means that all the resources we need are always already here within reach. It means that we are the leaders we have been waiting for!
"The Messiah is one of us": It is the recipe for abundance-in our families, in our congregation, in our nation. For the Abbot in the story, it represents a good news imagination that allows him to see things through the lens of a more positive kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. As the story says, "He would pass by a monk and wonder if he was the one, the Messiah who would restore justice and peace to the world. Sitting in chapel, praying, he would hear a voice and look intently at a face and wonder if he was the one." Inspired imagination is a matter of wondering, weaving and connecting the pieces of our lives together in a way that reveals new meaning and purpose. So different from burn out imagination, which renders everything trivial and unimportant because it can't see a larger pattern that holds the pieces together; it instinctively presumes the worst about other people and situations; it sees people only stacking brick upon brick ridiculously when what's happening in fact is people building a cathedral. "The Messiah is one of us": sometimes maybe you, sometimes maybe me, but always the maybe. That we are only human is true, and each of us brings limitations to our relationships and jobs and volunteer roles-but what if we refused to allow our vision of ourselves and each other to be defined by this? What if we were to presume the best instead and wonder: Is he the Messiah? Is she the Messiah? Could I sometimes be the Messiah? What happens then? If someone thinks I might be the Messiah and possesses potentials to bring beauty and justice to this world in some way; and if they treat me as if this were true, with all the reverence and respect this requires; then I will step up to that! I can be that! Recognize me like this, respect me like this, and I will respond. Recognize the teenagers among us like this, and they will respond. Recognize the children among us like this, people of every age, every person who comes through our door, whatever they look like, whatever their gifts or flaws, and they will respond. The vision will happen. The Messiah will come.
Our lives are only as big as the dreams we dream. If they are large, we expand; small, and we shrink to fit. So what shall our ministry dream be, as individuals and as a congregation? Let's make it big, let's make it bold. All our precious lives: only as big as the dreams we dream….
"I think continually of those who were truly great," says the poet Stephen Spender: people "whose lovely ambition / was that their lips, still touched with fire, / should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song." May you find the lovely ambition that is truly and distinctively yours. Talk about it, even if you must do so through your stuttering. Sing it out. All are called!