Finding Common Ground

This sermon, preached at First Church, Unitarian, in Athol, Mass., exists in manuscript form only. It was an extensively rewritten version of a sermon titled “The Uncomfortable Question” (which also exists in manuscript form only) from August, 2001. Someday I might get around to converting this sermon into electronic form.

Love and Doctrine, Children and Church

This sermon was preached by Dan Harper at First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2001 Daniel Harper.

SERMON — “Love and Doctrine, Children and Church”

A couple of weeks ago, I went out to visit my older sister in Indiana. While I was out there, I think Jean and I drove her husband a little crazy; we have too many of the same annoying habits. Like this one: we criticize everything, injustices large and small, denouncing them with great sarcasm. We’d be sitting eating dinner and something (often the educational system) would set the two of us off: “Can you believe that?” “How can we allow things like that to happen?” “That’s appalling!” Jean’s husband an easygoing guy and would just roll his eyes; although once he did say, “You can’t solve all the world’s problems over dinner.”

Jean is also a teacher; she’s a professor of writing at Ball State University in Indiana. I went and sat in on a couple of her classes, and I have to tell you, I wish I were half as good a teacher as she is. It was obvious that her students like her, trust her, respect her; and that she demands, and gets, from them the best work they are capable of doing. We had lunch together after I visited her class, comparing how we teach, and Jean said, “You know, sometimes I think of what I do as a kind of ministry.”

Which got me thinking about my teaching and my ministry. Most of you already know that I am halfway through a two-year ministerial internship here at First Parish, part of my preparation to become a minister of religious education. But what does it mean to engage in ministry of religious education? What is this ministry of religious education, and how is it different from what parish ministers like Helen and Ellen do?

Well, to begin with, I do the things you would expect a minister to do in a congregation, things like preaching and leading worship, officiating at weddings, providing pastoral care and counseling, supporting congregational committees, and so on. I get out into the community as a minister, serving as a volunteer chaplain at Mass General Hospital a couple of times a month. Yes, I teach Sunday school and serve as one of the youth advisors — of course, both Helen and Ellen get downstairs to the Sunday school when they can, and Helen served as a youth advisor for two years not so long ago. So what’s the difference between what I do and what Helen and Ellen do?

I find part of the answer to that question in that venerable document known as the Cambridge Platform. The Cambridge Platform is a document composed in 1646 by representatives from nearly all the congregations then in existence in New England. These representatives came together to set forth the principles of how the New England congregations would govern themselves, not under creeds but with covenants, not under a church hierarchy but with congregational self-governance.

We might not agree with all the wording, nor some underlying principles, but as a whole the Cambridge Platform continues to inform the structure of Unitarian Universalist congregations. Which brings us to an interesting point. The Cambridge Platform calls for an office of “Teacher” to be co-equal with the office of “Pastor”; as we heard in the first reading. This was a recommendation that seems to have been much modified early on. For example, First Parish of Watertown had to remove their Teacher, one Richard Brown, from his office in about 1640 because he was “a man of very violent spirit”; thereupon the congregation ordained one Mr. Knolles, “a godly man and a prime scholar, [as] pastor, and so they had now two pastors and no teacher, differing from the practice of the other churches….”

By the time our own First Parish in Lexington was founded, in 1691, it appears that most churches called only a single pastor. Yet I think we retain an impulse to have both a pastor charged with exhortation and the administration of wisdom as well as a teacher who is to attend to doctrine and the administration of knowledge. Except that we Unitarian Universalists today have no doctrine, right? Aren’t we are a non-creedal religious community? You can become a member of this congregation and no one can tell you what to believe; so how can we have doctrine?

Yet we do have a doctrine. Indeed each week we say the words together here in common worship: “Love is the doctrine of this church.” A peculiar sort of doctrine, it might seem at first, since it is a doctrine that really has nothing to do with words. But let’s make a distinction between a creed and a doctrine, a distinction that perhaps is not made strongly enough in contemporary popular religious discourse. Doctrine is nothing more nor less than teaching or instruction; it comes from the Latin word doctrina meaning teaching or learning. Doctrine can also mean a body or system of principles.

Creeds, on the other hand, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are “A form of words setting forth authoritatively and concisely the general belief of the Christian church” or “an accepted and professed system of religious belief…as expressed…in a definite formula.” We are a post-Christian, non-creedal congregation; we no longer have use for creeds; but we do have a creed.

Our doctrine of love grows (in part) out of the words and deeds of an itinerant rabbi who lived some two thousand years ago in the Near East, a fellow named Jesus of Nazareth. There are many stories about Jesus I could draw upon, but this morning I want to focus on one story in particular. Here’s the story:

To start off with, picture the scene: it’s dusty, maybe it’s hot, there are crowds of people trying to get a glimpse of this rabbi and miracle-worker named Jesus. The Pharisees are there, and they have just tried to trip Jesus up in debate, so the disciples are feeling tense and protective. Somewhere in the crowd, someone has brought children along to see this man Jesus. We aren’t told exactly why they brought their children, but we can guess: around sixty percent of all children died before they reached the age of sixteen, and we can guess that these were parents hoping for a blessing on their children from a healer and miracle-worker. Not that they can get their children anywhere close to Jesus — everyone else is pushing and shoving trying to get close. Besides, the disciples are keeping them away, because the disciples, like many adults of those days, didn’t recognize the full personhood of children.

It is at this point that Jesus turns around, turns away from the Pharisees, turns away from the powerful adults, and turns towards the powerless children, asking them to come to him. Notice that he doesn’t ask the adults to bring the children to him, but he asks the children to come themselves — which I read as a statement of empowering those who are most vulnerable. Then he does indeed gather them up in his arms, an affectionate gesture, and lays his hand on each of them, perhaps in a gesture of healing.

And Jesus says something that yet again points up his teaching of radical egalitarianism: he says that the Kingdom of God is composed of such as the children; that is, the Kingdom of God is all of us, including those who are powerless like children, including those who may not have been seen as full persons. Jesus adds that if you cannot be as a child, you cannot be a part of the Kingdom of God.

In my reading of this passage, the Kingdom of God is not some abstract afterlife for a time to come. The Kingdom of God is here and now. It is here and now, and it is accessible to all, and it changes our way of being in the world. It is a teaching, a doctrine, of radical equality of, and radical love for, all persons.

This story represents one of the roots out of which grows the doctrine of love as we teach it here today. Our teachings of love are based in love and a radical religious egalitarianism that are meant for the here and now. We’re not going to wait for some mythical afterlife to make things better (I, for one, remain unconvinced in the existence of any afterlife). We call upon each other to teach our doctrine of love right now, and right here.

But how are we to teach? Shall we set up weekly classes in the doctrine of love, calling in great lecturers, academics, and scholars to speak to us on this topic? — Mmmm — probably not the best way to teach love, I think.

Instead, recall how Jesus taught his doctrine of love and radical equality of all persons. He used words to teach, yes, but most important are his actions. He doesn’t just say, “Treat children well”; he invites children to come to him. He brings them right up close, so he can be fully present with them. He teaches by example, through his actions, and through his presence.

We see this kind of teaching in the great sages and prophets all down through the ages. Buddha, for example, does not simply offer lectures on how to meditate; he sits and meditates with his followers. Socrates does not just engage in dialogue with other Athenians; he participates fully in the government of Athens, serving as a soldier and a teacher and citizen, and eventually dying to further his belief in right government. Gandhi did more than merely suggest the concept of non-violence; he lived his life in a non-violent manner. The sages and the prophets have always taught through the examples of their lives even more than they teach with their words.

Similarly, one of the best ways we teach and learn the doctrine of love here at First Parish is the way we practice it with children. When we do intergenerational activities here at First Parish, we are all teaching the doctrine of love; as many of us will do in a few minutes when we go down to the intergenerational potluck luncheon after this worship service. When adults go to Social Hour with children, we learn and teach (with love) how not to run, and how to talk with someone who is not your age, and how to share cookies, and how to enjoy the company of someone younger and smaller than ourselves; again we are trying out our skills relating to our doctrine of love.

As for me, as a minister of religious education, I am charged with doctrine and with administering knowledge. As a minister of religious education, I think of the whole congregation as a curriculum that can nurture the doctrine of love across all ages. Thus, while administering the Sunday school and the youth groups is an important part of my ministry, for me what’s most important are the ways I have tried to nurture a sense of intergenerational community; not through creating programs but — at least this is what I try to do — more simply through my presence, through the way I interact with children, youth, and adults. In the ministry of religious education, what I say matters less than who I am, who I am in relationship with children, youth, families, the congregation.

Hmmm. But does this sound all that different from what Helen and Ellen do as parish ministers? Perhaps not; perhaps you could argue that there isn’t any real qualitative difference between parish ministry and the ministry of religious education. And if you argued that, you would fit right in with recent changes within Unitarian Universalism. A separate ministry of religious education was officially recognized in 1980, at a time when our congregations were losing our children at an alarming rate: Sunday school enrollments were dropping, youth groups were dwindling, and when UU kids grew up the vast majority of them left Unitarian Universalism and never come back. Now, 20 years later, Sunday school enrollments are rising, and youth groups are growing at an amazing rate, and young adults are sticking with Unitarian Universalism; and perhaps the need for a ministry of religious education doesn’t seem so pressing.

In fact, there is no longer much denominational support for the ministry of religious education. When I began theological school in 1997, pursuing my ministry of religious education that was focused on children and youth, what I was doing was a firm part of the institutional landscape. This is no longer true. As of six months ago, a separate ministry of religious education is no longer officially recognized, except by individual congregations. For me that has led to a certain amount of personal confusion: is the ministry I want to do still valued? — is it still a viable way to earn a living and contribute my skills and talents?

I believe so. I believe that a crisis facing Unitarian Universalism today as a faith movement, as an institution, is the difficulty we have in claiming our authority to teach young people our great doctrine of love. I feel that the ministry I am devoted to, a ministry to children and youth and young adults, a ministry of doctrine and knowledge, a ministry both of program administration and of personal presence, is still needed as a separate and distinct ministry. I believe that though there are only about 80 Unitarian Universalist ministers of religious education, we have a great influence, just by our simple presence, as ministers devoted recognizing the special needs of passing on doctrine and knowledge, as ministers who devote much of our energy in a ministry with children and youth and young adults.

This I believe. But I’m still learning what it means to be a minister of religious education. I’m not entirely sure of the shape of my ministry — it’s evolving as I do my internship with you, as I learn from you, and share my ministry with you. It’s an open conversation — and I hope to hear from each of you over the remainder of my internship here. How do you envision a ministry of religious education? How can we best pass on our doctrine of radical egalitarianism and love? How do we best minister to children and youth?