Monday, August 23, 2010

May I Have this Dance?

May I Have this Dance with You?
(In the first in a series of sermons based on phrases from Ric Masten’s classic song, “Let it Be a Dance,” Rev. Jane Page encourages SHARED MINISTRY!)

When I was in the 6th and 7th grad – back in the early 60’s, I was in a club for girls at the Statesboro Recreation Department called the “Happy Go Lucky Club” – or HGLs. We met every Monday night during the school year – and although we played other games and had refreshments, the big activity of the evening was DANCING. Mrs. Russell would put on the music and the older girls – who had learned the previous year – would teach the younger girls how to jitterbug and slow dance too. Mrs. Russell had ways to make sure we all had partners and we would swap often. There were also dance contests – and the best dancers would always partner up so they could win. But that was okay, because for the most part we all had a great time together. Now I was trying to remember the grade levels for this Club and posted a question about it to my FACEBOOK women friends who grew up in Statesboro and perhaps attended. Several responded and many of them also shared their memories of this club. Interestingly enough, most of these memories were of the big dress up dance held at the end of the year in which we invited BOYS. And some had good memories of this – with special dates and full dance cards. And others remember sitting on the side lines and learning the meaning of the word “wall flower.” Because you see, we’d been taught that on the night the boys came, the proper thing was for us to sit nicely along the wall and wait for a boy to ask us to dance. And the boys had been taught that they should bravely risk rejection and should walk up to a girl, extend their hand and say, “May I have this dance?” Of course many were very shy about doing this – so the dance floor didn’t fill up till the “Girl’s Choice” dances – which were rare.

Now as you might imagine --- I don’t LIKE to sit by a wall. I like to DANCE. So the words, “May I have this dance?” used to be somewhat problematic to me because of these memories.

But all that has changed now. Anyone can ask anyone else to dance. And you can dance with a guy OR a gal and with one person or a group. And you can just dance by yourself! How great is that!

Although I have no problem dancing by myself, as you may have noted last week at our ingathering service, I do enjoy dancing with a partner. So the words, “May I have this dance?” are becoming happier words to me in this world of more dancing opportunities.

Ric Masten, songwriter and UU troubadour, included these words in the 2nd Line to his song, “Let it be a dance.” Ric was, of course, talking about LIFE itself. Let it be a dance! But he included this invitation --- “May I have this dance with you?” -- because he understood the need to invite others into that Dance of Life with you! Similarly, we are here in a faith community together – knowing that we need one another for some of the dance steps we take in life. And we need to INVITE others to participate.

Therefore, I am extending my hand to you this morning – and asking you to dance WITH me in this Ministry!

As I do that, let me be clear – I do believe that professional ministry is important. And I think it’s a very good idea for a congregation this size to have a professionally trained minister. Believe me – I would not have spent years in preparation – taking seminary courses, writing a boatload of papers, doing practicum and intern experiences, working in a hospital as a chaplain, and jumping through all those hoops that the ministerial fellowship committee put before me – if I did not believe in the value of professional ministry. But this is one dance folks—this dance of the ministry of this congregation – that I do not want to do alone, nor should I – nor could I.

For one thing, I’m supposedly serving this congregation “half-time.” Even so, our needs and the needs of this community are great. And I don’t know how to work half-time, though I keep reminding myself that this is what you called me to do. But sharing ministry is not about freeing up my time! It’s about growing through love together and reaching out to others together. So, again, my question to you today is: “May I have this dance with you?”

The term “Shared Ministry” began to grow in use during the 1990’s among many different religious groups, including the Unitarian Universalists. In 1993, the Unitarian Universalist Association Women and Religion Committee undertook a substantial study of “shared ministry” in Unitarian Universalist congregations. The Committee wrote to the president of every North American Unitarian Universalist congregation and asked them to define” ministry,” “shared ministry” and other related terms. So the surveys were sent to over 1000 congregations. But thy only got about 60 back. Nevertheless, they wrote their report to share what some of these congregations were doing in hopes that others would be able to gain some insight and momentum to move in this direction. And the result is this book, “The Shared Ministry Sourcebook: Resources for Laity Ministering Together in Unitarian Universalist Congregations.” They provide some good models and I offer this source for our board and others to consider.

Before I go any further though, I should clarify what I mean by ministry. (Silence) I wish I could. Ministry is one of those things like pornography. You know it when you see it and experience it – but it’s somewhat difficult to define. Rev. Mark Morrison Reed, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Toronto, Canada agrees with the difficulty in defining ministry but makes a pretty good stab at it, I think. He says: “It is a quality of presence we bring that is grounded in our liberal religious faith. Singing and preaching, teaching and leading, caring and justice work are all ministries. It is what we do together when we gather in community.” And Rev. Karen Fraser Gitlitz provides this helpful explanation: “In ancient Rome a minister was a servant. The term was used to describe a servant, an attendant, an assistant, such as to a priest or other civic official. This sense of being in service to a greater good is present in ministry wherever it is found. Its source lies in the individual internal ‘yes’ that is our response to goodness and beauty. It is found in congregations when they come together to renew their mission, to start social action projects, and to hold worship services.”

Although the phrase “Shared Ministry” is relatively new – or at least has received more attention in the last couple of decades, the concept of sharing ministry in not new at all. As exemplified by my readings before this sermon, religious folks have been encouraging their lay folks to minister to others from the very beginning. But we Unitarian Universalists have a particular history that lifts up this possibility even more. And because having a good history lesson prepares us for the present and future, I’m going to share a little of that with you here today. After all, we are Unitarian Universalists, and most of us are fans of history.

Almost 50 years ago, the Unitarians and the Universalists merged – but the history I’m going to share today is more from our Unitarian side of the family – because that’s where a lot of the emphasis on sharing ministry can be found. The Unitarians, along with the Anabaptists and others, were the RADICAL Protestants. And the Protestant reformation is what really re-opened the door to this concept of shared ministry. Rev. Jan Carlsson-Bull puts it this way: “Shared ministry emerges from a notion called ‘the priesthood of all believers.’ It’s grounded in the early Christian understanding that experience of the divine was mediated solely through the figure of Jesus, whom devout Christians understand to be God in the flesh, the son of God, if you will. The early Christian church had no priests. It was informal and egalitarian, with each believer expected to use her or his individual gifts to build up the Christian community, which was pretty wobbly in those days of the Roman Empire. This understanding receives especially strong emphasis in the First Letter of Peter. Believers are implored to “Come to him, to that living stone….and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.”

Of course it only took a couple of centuries for the church to become a hierarchical empire of sorts. And one could only be a bishop or priest if he (and that HE is intentional of course) was in apostolic succession. In other words, the apostles had been ordained by Christ, then in turn they ordained others – who ordained others – all the way up to today! The Anglican and Episcopal churches also consider themselves to be in that Apostolic order because the bishops in the Church of England (when it split from the Roman Catholic Church) were ordained in that line. Down the road from my house, the Trinity Episcopal Church recently ordained a young man to the priesthood. And they make a big deal of that apostolic succession. The bishop and priests came from all around to lay their hands on this young man and to designate him as one to both bring God’s message and to serve others. But there was once another young priest who disagreed with this – and his name, of course, was Martin Luther.

Now Luther, you may remember, was a German priest and theologian who was very upset about the selling of indulgences – and the church’s practice of taking advantage of folks by having them, in effect, buy their way into heaven. So he nailed his 95 theses to a church door in 1517 to protest. And as far as the Church was concerned – all hell broke loose. When he refused to recant, the Church excommunicated him – and thus the Protestant revolt began. Luther’s theology challenged the authority of the pope and taught that all baptized Christians were part of a holy priesthood – thus, the priesthood of all believers. Well, when he opened up the possibility of folks reading and thinking for themselves – folks like US took him seriously. And that part of the reformation – the part that included the Unitarians – became known as the radical reformation.

Our history is a little complicated – though. And the Unitarian churches in the U.S. did not descend directly from those Unitarians in Europe. Instead we “evolved” from the Puritans. But even our Puritan ancestry gives us a foundation for shared ministry. You see the Puritans were separating themselves from the hierarchical Church of England. And they declared their independence in something called the Cambridge Platform. This independence was not needed because of differing beliefs. They still maintained a similar doctrine. The Cambridge Platform was basically a document that shared with the Church of England that “You are not the boss of me” – and we will walk together over here with one another as independent congregations – but in association with one another. The big word for this is “Congregational Polity.” And congregational polity also lends itself to shared ministry – sharing with each other within the congregation, and sharing in association with our fellow Unitarian Universalist churches.

Now just as our early Unitarian churches evolved from the Puritans, we continued to evolve – and as our Unitarian ancestry was evolving – so was our Universalist ancestry (who also, by the way, had congregational polity) – till they both reached a point in 1961 that they felt they could do better sharing their ministries together rather than separately. And so, the Unitarians and the Universalists got married and covenanted together to affirm and promote our shared principles and sources.

Today the “Priesthood of the Believer” has evolved in Unitarian Universalist congregations to be the “Ministry of each person in the congregation.” Yes, you are all ministers! This was affirmed by one of UUA’s Commission on Appraisal Reports in 1997. In this report is the following finding: “One key aspect of Unitarian Universalism is our belief that ministry of the congregation does not belong exclusively to ordained clergy, but to everyone.”

One of my Unitarian Universalist heroes and a giant 20th century theologian, James Luther Adams, took this idea of “Priesthood of all Believers” a giant step further. He stretched that notion to the “Prophethood of all Believers.” Now when he talked of prophesy – he was not referring to fortune telling. Jan Carlson-Bull shares this explanation: “Prophets, we might remember, were those annoying flower children of the Old Testament – Jonah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos. Troublemakers all, they called the populace of their day to take seriously stuff like loving your neighbor as yourself and honoring the divine by so doing.” Here is what Adams had to say about all of this:
“The prophetic liberal church,” he claimed, “is not a church in which the prophetic function is assigned merely to a few…. The prophetic liberal church is the church in which persons think and work together to interpret the signs of the times in the light of their faith, to make explicit through discussion the epochal thinking that the times demand. The Prophetic liberal church is the church in which all members share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional) with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it…. Only through the prophetism of all believers can we together forsee doom and mend our common ways.”

Wow – that’s a lot for us all to live up to – to be priests and prophets. But it’s sure a lot easier if we all do it together. So I’m asking you to join me in this dance of ministry!

Some of the folks in this congregation have been on the dance floor for a long time, and we are encouraging and inviting everyone to join us in the ministry of this church. So what specifically does that mean for you? Do I want you to come up here and preach next week? Well, actually – Beth Butterfield has already danced her way into that spot. But there are many wonderful ways you can share the ministry of this congregation.

On September 26, we will kick off our annual canvass for time, talents, and treasures and we will survey you more formally about this. As you complete that form, ask yourself three questions: 1. What am I good at?; 2. What do I like to do?; (and those are not always the same thing); and 3. What needs to be done? But you don’t have to wait till September. The music is already playing. We need for folks to come to the dance floor now. Our children need folks to read stories to them in the younger class and teach the older class. Can you sign up and help out with this? We have much we need to do in the upkeep and maintenance of our buildings and grounds? Is there a ministry for you here? We are attempting to be a voice standing on the side of love in this community. Are there ways you can be that prophetic voice? I realize that there are some in our congregation who have a lot of difficult “stuff” going on in their lives right now; and may not be able to dance every dance. But there are things we all can do – whether it’s sending cards to those in need; or clearing those big branches that often fall on our roof.

What is your ministry? Carlson-Bull preached a sermon at her church with that title – “What is Your Ministry?” And in that sermon she asked her congregants a question that I think is appropriate for me to lift up today.

“What are you doing right now that speaks to the faith and works of this congregation, that feeds the hungry, that teaches our children, that hollers to the powers that be in our own time to change course, that keeps the kitchen clean and the facilities painted, that helps the flowers grow, that helps us all grow?”

The little doves in our story for all ages couldn’t lift that net with just a few flapping their wings. To lift our wonderful free faith to higher heights, we need to share this ministry.

May I have this dance with you?

Sing: “Let it be a dance we do! May I have this dance with you? In the good times and the bad times too, let it be a dance?”


The Doves' Escape

A Panchatantra Story
Retold by Jane Page

This story is from the Panchatantra, a collection of stories from India written over 2000 years ago. It’s been changed some through the years, of course, and changed some by me too. In this story there is a hunter, and he is trying to catch some birds. So he sets out a net under a banyan tree where he knows the doves like to come. Then he spreads seeds all out within it, for he knows that when the birds come to get the seeds, their feet will get all tangled up in the net and they will be caught.

Sure enough, along comes a group of peaceful doves looking for food. And one of them, called Bright Wing, has been selected as their leader because they think she has good vision. And indeed, she does see the seeds, because that is what she is looking for. But she fails to see the net.

So Bright Wing says – “Come and go with me and let us feast upon the seeds.” And they all go to feast and they enjoy being fed. And none of them see the trouble of the net, although it’s right under their noses, because they are enjoying the feast and not paying attention. Then some realize that the little ones are having some trouble, and go to help them, but they can’t move because their feet are all tangled in the net.

“Oh now – what are we to do?” they ask Bright Wing.

And she replies, “Oh, I just provided the vision. Our dove board will need to discuss this to come up with a remedy to free us.”

So the board members meet and decide it is their responsibility to get them out of this mess. They decide that the board members will all flap their wings and see if they can lift the whole group. And Bright Wing flaps hers too. But they cannot lift the flock.

Then little Benny bird says, “I’ll flap my wings too.”

But they reply, “Oh no- you are too young and inexperienced!”

One board member asks: “What about Betsy Bird. She looks like she as strong wings!”

But another says: “Oh no – she just joined our flock and we should not put her to work so early.”

So another asks: “What about our elder birds who have led us before?”

But one of the elder birds, Miss Dora Dove, heard them and chirped: “Oh no, we have already worked hard enough and we are tired of flapping our wings, it’s your turn now.”

And so it goes till one of them hears the hunter coming and shouts: “We are one dove community, and we must all work together or perish together.”

Well, that got their attention and they decided that they should all flap together, and they did, every one of those doves from little Benny Bird to Old Miss Dora Dove. And they lifted that net high into the sky and away from the hunter.

Now that could be the end of the story, but their feet were still tangled in the net and they were discouraged. Then Bright Wing said, “Fear not – for that’s why we are friends with other animals and are in association with them. Let us fly to the rat’s nest and ask them for help.” And so they fly over and ask their rat friends to gnaw the net so they can be free. And of course, rats love to gnaw nets – so they all join in to free the doves. And all of the animals learned some valuable lessons that day! And perhaps we can learn from them too!