Sunday, May 13, 2007


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 this moment (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....