Monday, October 22, 2012
"Our Shared Ministry" - Sermon
Our Shared Ministry
The Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker, tells us that churches are in the business of doing four things. Equally important and interwoven, these four things constitute the mission of liberal religion. First, we come together to resist systems of oppression and exploitation that divide peoples and separate all of humanity from the earth. Second, we come together to embody the spirit of covenant, the power of people freely joining in a community to share their resources for the benefit of all. Third, we come together to engage in rituals that nurture our spiritual and psychological well-being. And finally, we come together to deepen and broaden our minds so we might better understand our world and our place in it.
You will be hearing much more about these four pieces of our mission in the future. But I bring them up to give a framework for what we are talking about today, “Our Shared Ministry.” Today we are celebrating the mutual work of building this amazing community, this Fellowship, this church. Let’s unpack that word ministry for a minute. I can start with myself. I am a minister. I preach and teach a few classes and do pastoral care. I attend lots of meetings. I am a minister. What I do is tend to the ministry of a religious community. This religious community. What I do is ministry, not by virtue of my title or position, but by virtue of being in community with you all. My ministry is bound up with yours.
You see, building a community, sharing ourselves with one another is one huge piece of what it means to be a church. Sharing ourselves and making a place, a home together, is ministry, and it is a ministry that we all share in together. As I described the second piece of our mission, we come together to embody the spirit of covenant, the power of people freely joining in a community to share their resources for the benefit of all. I am a minister, but I cannot share on my own. Sharing is something that we do together, it’s a piece of ministry that is by definition relational.
We share this ministry of building a community. It takes a good number of different things, kindness, money, food, a building, time. We all contribute to the effort.
In preparation for this sermon I did a survey of a handful of our members who I know contribute an extraordinary amount of time and energy to support the fellowship. I was especially interested in talking to these people because much of what they do is in an unofficial role and often goes unrecognized by our wider community. I want to share with you some of their tremendous activity that helps our Fellowship. But equally important, are their reflections on why they do what they do. They serve today both as inspiration, and as a guide to how we might encourage our shared ministry into the future.
Mark Dimond checks the candles and oil lamp in the chalice, maintains the window treatments that keep us from roasting on sunny days, organizes the ushers to collect the offering, creates and changes the sign and banner out front, and helps put away the tables and tents, and creates boxes and bookmarks that remind us of our values. EVERY WEEK. And once each month he helps with food preparation for the homeless and goes to the shelter to distribute the food.
His dear wife Riva, the other pea in this pod, is just as busy. Riva brings cookies, organizes and supports the greeters, helps set up and break down the welcome table, helps prepare and clean up salad Sundays, leads a covenant group and the monthly discussion group at Laguna Woods, organizes a monthly meal at the homeless shelter, and she occasionally calls our members that we haven’t seen in a while. All of that effort comes out of one household. And that doesn’t even touch on the tremendous contributions that Rachel, Riva’s daughter, and Brian, their son in law, make to the Fellowship. Thank you Mark and Riva
Jack and Jean Paris come early every Sunday to the Fellowship. They used to set up tables, but now they are preempted by Paul, who gets here even earlier. But they always stay to help take the tables down. Jean takes the boxes and Jack takes the tables. She says, and I have witnessed, “He is a workhorse. He can’t be stopped.” Jean always brings two or three items when there is a salad Sunday and helps set up food. And they sing every week in the choir. Jean helps edit the Sealight and has done so since 2005. And before the format changed, Jean played a major role in organizing the Circle Suppers every month. Perhaps the contribution they get the most thanks for though, is bringing their delightful granddaughter, Ava with them. Thank you Jack and Jean.
Jim Pemberton is probably the quietest do-gooder I know. I’m amazed he even let me have this conversation with him. He started his work on our building in 1974, when he, Kurt, and Jim Sweeney had to go down to the basement to relight the furnace on a regular basis. Since that time he has been a faithful steward of this beloved building. As a taste of what that means, last weekend, he came to change a toilet seat in the bathroom. Talk about a thankless job. Fortunately he went downstairs to check on another project. There he found that our basement was flooded with a couple of inches of water, and more was coming in from the neighbor’s sprinkler. He got the sprinkler shut off, and spent three hours squeegeeing and moping the floor, so that our kids would have a classroom the next morning. On top of regular maintenance our building requires, this is the sort of emergency he has been attending to since 1974. Thank you Jim.
Paul Bogdan is a relative newby to our efforts to maintain our building. But his efforts have been just as thorough and sincere. Paul comes to the church every Sunday morning at 8:45. He promptly begins setting up tables and tents for the greeters and social action committee. He brings out chairs for those folks to sit on, and he brings the nametags, our nametags, to hang on the front door so we can find them. But it’s not just Sundays. He also comes by twice each week to sweep up leaves and pick up trash. Since he lives very close by, he just keeps and eye on the building while the rest of us aren’t here to. Thank you Paul.
Amy Lemp offers a service for our congregation that many, I dare say most of you, don’t even know exists. For the past couple of years, Amy has organized our youth along with the youth of neighboring congregations to go on all sorts of fun adventures like laser tag, miniature golf, trampolining, bowling, and improv comedy. They have also had game nights. She also organized the programs that we all enjoyed at the church retreat two weeks ago. Years ago, I want to say 13 years ago, just after joining our Fellowship, which she found in the Yellow Pages. Amy thought we could benefit from an online presence. So she built and still manages our website. Thank you Amy.
Marta is a helper of a different variety. I marvel at her dedication to recycling. She’s often picking through the trash cans that the rest of us can’t seem to figure out. But more than recycling, she is always there to do the odd job. Maybe it is making food, or help with a computer, or moving something. Marta likes doing a variety of different things and is always eager to do what she can. Thank you Marta.
And the final person I talked to about helping was Colleen Schulkee. Colleen cooks homemade food every month for our meal at the homeless center. She cooks the food and serves the food with her children. And I want to stress, the homemade part of the story. As a family, they peel and cook real mashed potatoes to serve 70 people. Thank you Colleen.
Like I said earlier, more than understanding exactly what all these wonderful people do, I wanted to better understand why they do them, and how we can be supportive. That’s what was remarkable about talking to Colleen. She said she has just always volunteered in some way. It started in college, helping with wrap groups on birth control at the free clinic in Laguna Beach. And she has helped hold pre-mature babies. She helped tutor kids with reading. She’s a great reminder that cultivating generosity is a lifestyle. It’s just something you do once or twice.
The other thing that Colleen and I talked about was doing this work with her children. She’s glad to teach them, not about the value of helping people, but to be accepting of everyone, even the folks that they have gotten to know at the homeless shelter. She’s glad for that opportunity to teach her kids and she’s proud of how well they engage people whose life is very different from anything they have ever known. When we volunteer we serve as a model for our children, and everyone else around us.
But we aren’t just teaching our kids when we volunteer, we can also teach ourselves something new. Yes, many of us volunteer because we have a particular skill. But volunteering can also be an opportunity to try something completely new. That’s part of why Marta enjoys the great variety of different things. And Amy Lemp built our website, not because she was a pro, but because she had just put one together for the twins club that she was a part of. Many, I dare say most of our volunteer efforts are the fruit of good-will and hard work, not professional expertise. Larger churches and the corporations that most of us are used to dealing with, have highly trained staff to execute every operation. Our volunteers do the best job they can. The final product may not always be perfect, but their volunteer efforts represent the best of what we are as a community.
Some volunteers are novices, while others offer a finely honed skill. Mark Dimond said that the thing that he feels proud about is being uniquely useful. “Being uniquely useful,” that certainly is something worth being proud about. You see his contributions of printed material are based on his professional experience working in the printing industry. Similarly, Jim Pemberton worked in the appliance repair field for forty years. You can bet that we have benefitted from some of his mechanical know-how. A lot of times people bring with them particular gifts and skills that no one else could provide. Though I didn’t talk with her about this Sunday’s topic, I can’t help but mention Helen Fredrick’s tremendous contribution as our congregational nurse. I can say that now that my arm has stopped hurting from last week’s flu shot.
In all of my conversations, I was delighted to hear how eager folks were to do all that they did. Nearly everyone I talked to spoke about connecting with other people through their volunteer work. Amy is thrilled when visitors talk about find the Fellowship through the website and colleen takes the kids to feed the homeless so they can connect with a different community. Marta talks about working with people with shared interest. And Paul said that he did what he did because it was an opportunity to serve others. I found this really striking. What he gets out of it, is an opportunity to serve. What a wonderful reminder of what we talk about every Sunday with the offertory. It is indeed a gift to be able to give. It is a point of connection, a sacred opportunity to express your love through action.
Another theme that came up was change. Many of these volunteers have been on the stage for a very, very long time. Jim talked about the changing technology of our AV system that he as worked with over the years. Apparently the first system was purchased at radio shack and was controlled from a box that sat up here next to the podium. After many different configurations, now, we have high quality sound and state of the art video that requires a computer to run. Jim said keeping up with this change was the most challenging thing he has done in his years as a volunteer. He also said it was the most rewarding. I think that’s very telling. There is a certain feeling of accomplishment that comes from seeing a project evolve, and knowing you are a part of it getting better and better. But that only comes in the long term. You have to stick with the evolution to reap the benefits of excellence.
But Jean Paris talked to me about another type of change. I mentioned that for a long time she had organized the Circle Suppers. She carefully planned who would bring what dish to every gathering and built a great relationships with newcomers based on food. This job that was important to Jean, looked pretty tedious and difficult to me and a few others. So we changed to organization of Circle Suppers, and did away with her job. We have talked about it and Jean is fine, but we could have gone about the change in a way that both honored her gifts and enhanced Circle Suppers. When we make change in the Fellowship, we have to remember that everyone is invested.
The final piece of feedback that I got is a very simple one. When I asked Riva why she did all of this work, her response was, “Why not?” I first read that and thought it wasn’t a very useful answer. But actually, it’s great. Why not? Why shouldn’t we assume that everyone will share part of themselves to help build our community. Why not spend a little extra time with people you care about? Why not share in the responsibility.
When we transform the question from “why give my time and energy to the people I care about,” to “Why wouldn’t I spend my time and energy sharing with the people I care about,” we begin a radical act, we begin to build the beloved community.
Part of church, a big part of church is about building a place that is different from the rest of the world. The community here is based on sharing what you can. That’s what the financial commitment of pledging is based on, giving what you can. And we ask the same thing in volunteer hours and skills, bring what you can to the table.
And from those plentiful resources, we share evenly among the community gathered. I want you to hear that this is a radical way of living in the world. It is not what happens every day. It’s not the way our capitalist economy operates. It’s not the picture of accumulating personal property and wealth that we see on television. Participating in our shared ministry is revolutionary. Not just because of the tremendous contributions that individuals make, the kind that we have heard of today. Building our shared ministry is revolutionary because it is different, it is lifesaving, and its living a life that we are called to live. And we need each other, we need this community to have an opportunity to do that.