Sunday, September 30, 2007


a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jenen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday September 30th, 2007

READING: “A Bounty of People” by Rev. Max Coots, minister emeritus of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Canton, New York

Let us give thanks for a bounty of people.

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are.

Let us give thanks;

For generous friends...with hearts...and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends, as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we've had them;

For crotchety friends, sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the others, as plain as potatoes and so good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes;

And serious friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, but who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter.

For all these we give thanks.


I was visiting the other day with Jill Saxby, who I’m sure many of you remember from the days when she was the assistant minister here a decade ago, and who is now the Executive Director of the Maine Council of Churches (so I guess she’s done alright for herself); and she was telling me about this amazing garden she’d planted at her home on Cape Elizabeth, just about the same time she started working at First Parish. That garden, she told me, “is always good for a sermon.” When she first planted it she preached about faith and seeds, and what it is like to bury something in the ground without really being sure of what (if anything) is going to come up, but trusting that something good would eventually grow from her efforts. And then later she said that she would preach about how important it is to water and cultivate a garden in order to keep it healthy and thriving, and then still later about how much harder the work became, once the garden had become a little overgrown from neglect, to go back and do all the weeding and pruning and transplanting of some plants from one part of the garden to another in order to make it all thrive again.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting there listening to this, and remembering back to all of the back-breaking labor I did as a kid in my grandmother’s garden, and I’m thinking “This is really a pretty amazing garden, that grows sermons in all seasons.” Here, I’ve been following Fred Lipp’s advice, and wandering all up and down the peninsula looking for sermons lying around out in the street, or sometimes even pulling an old one out of the big barrel of them I brought with me (and sniffing it to see whether it’s still fresh)...while Jill’s got ‘em growing (as perennials no less) right in her own back yard!

And of course, this whole metaphor of “ministry as gardening” naturally reminded me of the piece by Max Coots that I read a little earlier. We call our newsletter here at First Parish “Stone Soup” not only because we all bring what we can in order to create this shared culinary delight we think of as “church,” but also because we all bring something a little different, which is what makes it truly interesting and delightful.

My conversation with Jill also reminded me of another, similar metaphor I stumbled across while researching my doctoral dissertation, which I discovered in Harvard Divinity School professor Henry Ware Jr’s best-selling 19th century Unitarian devotional manual On the Formation of the Christian Character. Ware was addressing a concern someone had shared with him that “everything they hear from the pulpit slips from their minds, even if it have highly motivated and delighted them” at the time. “To such,” Ware responded, “it may be well to recommend the reply of John Newton to one who came to him sorrowing with the same complaint. You forget, said he, what was preached to you. So, too, you forget upon what food you dined a week or a month ago; yet you are none the less sure that your received nourishment from it: and no doubt, also, that your spiritual food nourished you, though you have forgotten in what it consisted. So long as you received it with pleasure and a healthy digestion, and it has kept you a living and growing soul, it can be of no consequence whether you can particularly remember it or not.”

This notion of worship as a form of nourishment, by which we grow and cultivate our own souls, has over the years become a very important part of my understanding of everything we are trying to do here. It harkens back to an earlier understanding of Worship as Sacrifice -- not in the narrow sense of giving something up, but rather in that broader sense I spoke of last week of “making sacred.” In the appropriate season, either in connection with a local cultural festival, or perhaps for some sort of private ceremonial devotion, the people would gather at the temple or some other sacred place, slaughter an animal -- and then, in either gratitude or atonement, offer up a token portion to the relevant God or gods. And afterwards the worshippers themselves would all hang around and partake of the rest of the feast...which (as you may have already figured out) is where the word “festival” comes from in the first place.

And of course, you can’t really appreciate a good feast without an occasional fast as well -- a period of time when the worshippers would refrain from eating, and devote themselves instead to less celebratory acts of devotion like prayer and lamentation, or perhaps even study and mediation. But congregational worship as we know it today was really pretty much a Jewish invention, which grew out of the historical importance in that faith tradition of studying the Torah. The roots of this style of worship (whose offshoots are easily recognizable right here in our worship service today) consisted of various prayers and the singing of hymns or psalms, along with a public reading from Scripture, followed by a sermon in which a “scholar” (who, since all the adult males were expected to study the Scripture daily, could basically be anyone who had done their homework...) interpreted and explained the meaning and practical applications of the sacred text. These sermons intended for everyone... women and children as well as men, and the word Rabbi so familiar to us today was originally merely an honorific title: “Teacher,” meaning somebody who was worth listening to.

Most Christian worship, beginning with the Catholic Mass, is basically just a variation on this same theme: this familiar “liturgy of the word” combined with a ritualistic meal, the Eucharist (which became for our reform-minded Puritan forebearers simply “the Lord’s Supper.”) Young Ralph Waldo Emerson (one of Henry Ware Jr’s protégés, as well as his hand-picked assistant and eventual successor at the Second Church in Boston) left the ministry ostensibly because he objected to celebrating the Lord’s Supper, although he certainly had no objection to preaching, and (like his mentor) compared the sermon to a form of sustenance. “The true preacher can be known by this,” Emerson told Harvard’s graduating class of Divinity Students in 1838 -- “that he deals out to the people his passed through the fire of thought.” Not life raw and half-baked, but rather life well-done...or at the very least medium rare....

Nowadays people basically come to church for as many different reasons as there are people themselves, and there are certainly plenty of different options out there from which to chose. But in a more general sense, we all still come for the same reason: to be nourished and nurtured, to cultivate the seeds we have planted in our own lives, to tend them and water them and watch them grow (and perhaps eventually even see them bloom), and to know that our lives make a difference, and that through our living we are helping to make the world a better place.

Which brings us to a very obvious question (although perhaps not the question you immediately thought of). We already know WHY we are here (or at least here in this church); now the question that really matters is HOW. How can we make certain that OUR church lives up to everything that it promises? Or at the very least, how can you make certain that this church meets your expectations, so that you receive from your participation here at First Parish everything that you hoped to when you first walked through those red doors.

The Good News is that the answer to this question isn’t nearly as complicated as you might fear, although it does come in several parts. And the first part is “Just Show Up.” As with everything else in life, most people get out of their experience of church just about exactly what they are willing to put into it, and about 80% of that is just showing up. Because when you stop to think about it, “going to church” isn’t so much an activity as it is a relationship. And like any relationship it pretty much requires that both parties be present and involved if it’s really going to work out. We’re here every Sunday whether you are or not. But it’s only when you are here that you are able to participate fully in what we are trying to do together.

Which brings me to the second thing, and that is the importance of learning to Think of this church as your spiritual home, and think of yourself as part of the “we.” It’s just a small, psychological thing, I know, but it makes a huge difference. I was first taught this trick by a mentor of mine, who understood that by nature I am pretty much a shy, introspective bookworm, and wanted to help me overcome that sense of awkward intimidation I often (still) feel in large, unstructured social situations (like the coffee hour). “Just pretend like it’s your house and that you’re the host of the party,” he told me. “And that way you’ll never have to worry about someone tapping you on the shoulder and telling you that you don’t fit in, and that you really ought to go back home where you belong.”

And you know, it really works. I’m still not exactly a party animal. And I still feel a little awkward going to parties in homes I know I would never be able to afford in a million years (although, I must admit, once I’m there I generally have a pretty good time). But before I meander too far off the topic, I simply want to reassure each and every one of you here today that this really is your church, if you want it to be. You DO belong here. So make yourself at home.

The third thing is so obvious that it scarcely bears mentioning, and since we are going to be talking an awful lot about it anyway in the next few weeks, I’m not going to say too much now. But once you’ve decided that this really is your church, you also need to Support its Mission and its Ministry generously, in a manner appropriate to your own personal circumstances and financial means. There are lots more things we could be doing as a faith community if only we could figure out a way to pay for them. And it really does take the generous contributions of each and every one of us to make those dreams a reality.

The fourth thing you really need to do in order to get the most out of your relationship with this church is to Find yourself a “Fellowship Circle.” And this can actually be kind of tricky, because although they are everywhere around here, they aren’t really very well labeled. But to my way of thinking, the best example of a fellowship circle is the choir. As far as I can tell, nobody has more fun in a church than the choir. For starters, they all have a shared love of music, and they get together twice a week for just that reason: once to rehearse, and once to perform. They all get to know one another on a first name basis, and over time they get to know a quite a bit about one another’s lives as well. They take care of one another when one of them is having a rough time, and they also celebrate together when good things happen. The choir is an almost perfect fellowship circle. The only drawback is that in order to be a member of the choir, you really do need to know how to sing. And it is a pretty big commitment too, because the rest of the choir really is depending on you to show up pretty much every week.

But fortunately for the rest of us, the choir is only one of many potential fellowship circles in a church like First Parish. There are plenty of other opportunities where a person can find a half-dozen or so good friends who know you by name, and who you see regularly, and with whom you can talk openly and honestly about “matters of ultimate concern.”

If you’re relatively new to the church, you might try participating in one of our Small Group Ministries -- either by joining a Covenant Group, or else finding (or even starting) some sort of Affinity group based on an interest you share with others in the congregation. Or you might sign up for one (or more) of our Life Long Learning classes, or simply start attending more church pot-lucks, or signing up for the Circle Suppers. If you have children in our Religious Education program, you might want to get to know the other parents whose children also attend our Sunday School; or if you have an interest in Social Justice, maybe Faith in Action is where you belong.

And, of course, if you can carry a tune, you can always try out for the choir. You may never be able to rival Luciano Pavarotti -- but I promise you this, after a few months of rehearsing with this bunch you’ll be a much better singer than you were when you started.

This brings me to the fifth thing, which in some ways is closely related to the fourth. Because in addition to finding your “fellowship circle” here at First Parish, you also need to think about how to Find and Define your own “Ministry” here. This is something I learned from Rebecca Parker, who before she became the President of the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley, was a Methodist minister serving a medium-sized church in Seattle, and also just so happened to be the girlfriend of the choir director at University Unitarian (where I was the intern minister).

But one day it occurred to Rebecca that rather than constantly trying to find enough people to do all of the various volunteer jobs there are to do around a church of any size, she would turn that paradigm on its head, and try instead to find a meaningful job for every person in the church. And I can remember her saying how excited she was when one year the chair of the Nominating Committee came to her and said “I’m afraid we may not be able to come up with enough jobs this year for all the people who want one.”

Meaningful participation in a faith community is ultimately about Shared Ministry: about discovering your own particular calling for service to others, and cultivating it until it grows into something that feeds you spiritually on a daily basis. When I was in Denmark, one of the things I noticed was that in many of the churches there, especially out in the countryside, I would often see hanging in the center of the nave (just about where our cannonball is here) a small model of a square-rigged sailing ship. And when I asked about this, I was told that these model ships are basically a metaphor for the church itself: and that while we are all essentially in the same boat, some of us are merely passengers, while others are members of the crew.

Being a passenger is great when it’s all just smooth sailing. But when the weather gets rough, it’s nice to know that we can count on one another to help sail the ship, or at the very least to not cause more problems by falling overboard ourselves. When I was learning how to sail, one of the first rules I was taught is “one hand for the boat, one hand for yourself.” And of course, the more experience I gained as a sailor, the more comfortable I felt taking on additional responsibilities.

But if you just look around the room here, you’ll notice that there are all sorts of people doing all kinds of tasks that make it possible for us to hold these services every week. There are greeters and ushers and a lay worship leader, the coffee hour hosts and the people who set up the flowers, the people who run the microphones; and of course our Sunday School teachers and Sunday School assistants. And the Choir....

And that’s just Sunday morning. We also need Small Group Ministry facilitators, and Pastoral Care Associates, Faith in Action volunteers, Life Long Learning instructors, and of course volunteers to serve as part of our Leadership Team or as members of the various Program Councils. If you’re good with your hands, I’m sure the Buildings and Grounds people can find a place for you. If you’re good with words, maybe you can help with the newsletter or the website.

The point is, to find something that you like, that you are potentially really good at, and that will allow you to make a meaningful difference in other people’s lives. Frankly, that’s how I ended up way up here, simply by having the foresight to ask myself those three little questions when I was nineteen years old. But we all need to ask ourselves those same questions on a regular basis, so that our particular ministry to others might continue to change and grow as we ourselves change and grow. Because shared ministry, broadly defined, is what makes us members of the crew rather than merely passengers and bystanders, as well as one of the basic activities that gives our lives meaning and value and purpose as active participants in a community of faith.

And I want to make it clear that these don’t necessarily need to require huge commitments of time and effort in order to make a real difference. Most folks, I suspect, should be thinking about something that they can reasonably expect to accomplish in as few as three to five hours per month. Some of you, I know, work considerably more than that...perhaps even more than 3-5 hours/week. You are the people I probably already know by name. And there are even a handful of people whose ministry here at First Parish essentially amounts to an unpaid part-time job.

But I want to make it clear to everyone that ALL of your ministries, large and small, are important to the health and vitality of this congregation. And I also want to warn you that the days when congregations could pretty much rely on the commitment of a handful of “professional volunteers” to staff their programs and perform other essential work around the church are rapidly coming to an end in this era of two-career couples and single-member households.

When my mother was born, my grandmother (who had been working as a public schoolteacher), quit her job in order to stay home as a full-time mom. And then in her "spare" time, she became the volunteer Sunday School Superintendent at the Methodist Church which she attended there in the neighborhood. When she left that post to retire to Camano Island, the church had to hire...not one, not two, but three new staff members to take over the responsibilities my grandmother had handled as a volunteer.

And that was over fifty years ago now. It was a different time, and a different generation. Nowadays, especially if we hope to minister effectively to the needs of working families, it is going to take all of us doing what we can, and working together in an efficient and collaborative way. And if there are some jobs that we just can’t seem to find anyone willing to do, it generally means one of two things. Either the job has gotten too big to be done by a volunteer, and we need to either break it into smaller ones or hire additional staff to do it for us; or perhaps it’s merely a job that doesn’t NEED to be done anymore, and we should allow it to wither gracefully on the vine.

And this brings me to the final and most important thing I want to say this morning, which is that in everything we endeavor to do together here at First Parish, it is essential that we Have Fun. In my opinion, having fun is the sine qua non of our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition, a wonderful Latin phrase which means, literally, “without this, nothing.” I know that for some it might seem a little irreverent, given the gravity of our mission (especially in its justice-making aspects), that I should characterize “having fun” as the one essential element that gives our work meaning. But the truth of the matter is that without a little levity, without the ability to take ourselves lightly as well as seriously, we will never be able to get the heavy stuff off the ground. Having fun together is one of the essential ways that we feed ourselves in order to be capable of undertaking the more burdensome tasks we see all around us. And when we are able to bring that sense of joy and camaraderie to those tasks, somehow the burden becomes much easier than we first had feared.

So there you have it, an easy recipe for getting the most out of your participation in this “Community of Memory and Hope,” all spelled out in six easy steps. Show up as often as you can, and make yourself at home. Contribute as generously as you feel you can afford to supporting the work, the wonder, and the witness of this church and its ministry as a whole. Find and cultivate a circle of friends with whom you can talk openly and honestly about the things that matter most (it won’t be hard; they’re sitting all around you), and then find a job or role or task that you can do well, that you enjoy doing, and that makes a difference in the lives of other people. And above all, have fun while you do it. And if you do these six simple things, you will leave this place every Sunday feeling like you have indeed been well-nourished, and knowing that you got your money’s worth....