A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, Senior Minister at the First Unitarian Church, Providence, RI, for the Ordination of Catherine Senghas to the Unitarian Universalist Ministry, First Parish, Framingham, MA. May 31, 2009
Wrestling with God: A Sermon on Ministry
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." The man asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered. Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome." Jacob said, "Please tell me your name." But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared." The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.
This has been one heck of a week, particularly this last part. Thursday as I was driving to Portsmouth (the Rhode Island Portsmouth) for a wedding rehearsal I received a call. I was told it might be a good thing to swing by the hospital, a member of our congregation who has been there almost two weeks looked to be in serious decline. After walking through the wedding with an absolutely lovely young couple, basking in that optimism, which surrounded everything they were up to, I dashed off to the hospital. I was grateful for the call. It didn’t look good.
However, you never know. I went out Friday morning and he was doing very well, thank you. Not out of the woods, but this too left me with a sense of optimism. Later that day I officiated at the wedding. What a treat. Did I say how sweet these kids were, are? Between both events, so different, and yet so powerful, I felt really, really good. You never know, but that wedding sure looks like a great match to me. And as to that other matter, I went to bed feeling this person I’ve come to admire had moved well on the way toward healing.
Then yesterday morning I had the opportunity to bring the blessing to a Quinceanera ceremony for another family in the church, a traditional Hispanic coming of age event. Another treat. I did, however, feel some squeeze on my sermon writing time that usually takes much of Friday and a good hunk of Saturday. Then, long calendared, and paid for, otherwise, frankly, probably I wouldn’t have gone for sheer exhaustion, last evening Jan and I drove up to Boston to attend a Leonard Cohen concert. This may be his last tour, he is around seventy-five. I understand he’s only back at work because his savings were stolen by his financial planner while he was living in a Buddhist monastery. I’m glad we went. He is one of the true poets of spirit. And it was an experience of spirit, of breath, the breath of life. And I suspect a bit of advice buried in there for all of us. One doesn’t live by bread alone. Remember to gather the roses and cherish them. Then as we left the concert and I turned on my phone, I learned Stan had died. You really do never know.
Today, before the worship service a check in with Stan’s family, after the worship service, there was a congregational vote on the annual budget. This was followed by a mad dash up to Framingham for Catherine’s ordination. A couple of days ago I wrote briefly about the overwhelmingness, the amazing rush of all this at my Facebook page. Okay, I admit it, I was hoping for a bit of sympathy. It really has been busy, mind swimmingly busy. Should have found a dog. Instead of sympathy, my colleague Tom Schade wrote as a comment on my complaint about all these things going on, “Good thing you’re only the minister.”
That was what in some spiritual traditions is called “turning words.” It’s true; I’m busy, really busy. And in most of this I’ve in fact been mainly a companion, a witness for other people who were doing the actual work: the living, the dying, the marrying, the ordaining. There are some important things to notice here, and it all turns on noticing. This work of ministry, which is that something we are all called to out of our covenant of spiritual relationship, is first a ministry of noticing, of witnessing.
Today I want to explore some of the many lessons to be found in the word ministry. I suggest it contains not only the meaning of service, but also raises questions about whom we serve, and how we serve, how we must come as we are, as wounded beings, never fully worthy. In fact to understand this we need to touch upon grace. And we need to find how a fierce honesty lies within this, a call to name things as they are. All of this turns out to be a full on engagement, perhaps best named a struggle. But at the beginning it is all about a promise, a vow.
What we really are looking at in this shared process we call ministry is a vow. When Jacob stole his brother’s blessing, he had no idea what he was opening himself up for. He had without really understanding it taken the vow. We in our tradition find it in that first covenant when we actually sign the book and become members of a particular congregation. Like Jacob, we may not have noticed it, either. Whatever else may be explicit or implicit in our joining this community of faith, it is all about this promise, this vow. And the vow, the promise is that we, you and I will be present. We will show up. In fact I believe all ministry ultimately, is about presence. In fact presence reveals everything that matters.
Today the combined Framingham and Newton congregations join together to ordain Catherine Senghas into our precious Unitarian Universalist ministry. This is an important occasion. For Catherine and her family, of course. But, also, this is profoundly important for all of us who have joined together in the bonds of faith and have covenanted to be present to each other and to seek the great depth, which is the life divine.
Looking at the etymology of the word “minister” reveals how it is a practice or discipline of service, which is in truth the heart of our shared lives. And it is an office, a task, a job. The first meaning is the ground of our lives. The second is a task taken on by some of us, although that task only happens within that first meaning, within the dance of relationship. That called and ordained ministry which we celebrate today arises out of many years of discernment, preparation and testing. The authority to ordain is reserved exclusively to our gathered congregations and it is not conferred lightly.
The work of an ordained minister is the healing of great hurt. Once ordained and called to an agency, chaplaincy, the academy or a parish, a minister will be paid a salary, usually not enough, will be given support, almost always not enough, and will be expected to work. What makes this sacred work is in fact that part of ministry that we all share, whether ordained or not. Service.
Service. In the book of Joshua, the prophet demands to know who is it you, who is it I will serve? The poet of my generation says much the same thing. He sings to us, “You gotta serve somebody.” And the twelfth century Chinese spiritual classic the Wumenguan presents a koan, one of those questions of the heart that if fully engaged penetrate to the center of the universe. “The master Wuzu asked, “The Buddha and the one to come both serve another. Tell me, who is that other?” Service is at the heart of our lives. All meaning and purpose is found there. The only choice we have is who we serve.
So, service is our calling, and reflecting on this is very important, for Catherine in her specific work, but truthfully, for all of us. Knowing whom to serve is itself a conundrum. Fortunately the answer of who to serve is found as we discover how we serve. To enter the way of service, of ministry, and to serve appropriately, usefully, we need to understand ourselves. This is no easy thing.
Leonard Cohen sings to us this ancient calling. “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” If we really want to be of service, if we hope to answer that call of being of use in this world, we need to know our own hurt and longing. This is no easy task. Sometimes the best way of entering this great matter of the human heart is through the wisdom stories of our ancestors.
It is within this context I find my mind turning to that strange biblical story from Genesis, which I’ve taken as today’s text. Jacob is a singularly unpleasant figure. He betrays his brother repeatedly, stealing both blessing and inheritance. One would be forgiven for assuming he would and certainly in a completely just universe, come to a bad end. But something else happens. And that’s grace.
And this story in Genesis describes how this happens. Jacob is visited in the night. Actually attacked. Not only is the gift not earned; sometimes it is forced upon us. In this dream story Jacob fights throughout the long dark with some mysterious being. A few clever folk have suggested it was his brother, more that it was an angel. The text, however, only say it was a man. In the match Jacob is grievously hurt. Still, he continues and then as the dawn breaks the being tries to leave. But Jacob holds on, demanding a blessing as the price for ending the struggle. And so the being blesses him by giving Jacob a new name, Israel, “one who struggles with God.” Or, also, I’ve heard it put “one with whom God struggles.”
As best I can tell, this way of presence has at least three facets: witnessing, naming and action. I am positive if God created us out of the dust in the divine image that means we are here to provide the eyes and the ears and, very much, the hands of the holy in this world. Even if there is no God, we have that very same obligation as the creatures of this earth who can see how truly we are all bound up together within the strands of a living web, who know we and the whole world are relations, are family. At the moment we notice that we are both precious individuals and completely bound up with each other, our actions take on meaning and purpose. And this leads to the wrestling match of our lives.
Our place in this world is first a place of witness. I believe this, with all my heart. Out of that presence we are, second, called to the work of naming. We need to name the hurt. We need to name the longing. We need to name the things of the world birthing and living and hurting and dying. We need, as well, to name the joy of it all, that peace beyond words at the heart of it all. This brings on the third aspect of presence. From witnessing and naming we can throw ourselves into the struggle, the struggle to become better people, better friends, lovers, actors in this world. Here that divine part takes shape as we find ourselves acting for something larger and more beautiful. Here we find who it is we serve. It becomes a struggle to make the world something better. It is a divine dream we find ourselves called to manifest.
We discover we are Jacob, we discover within service, within our shared ministry, we are Israel. We discover within this work of service, within this task of ministry, we are the sons and daughters of God. Nothing less.