Service of the Living Tradition

I attended the annual Service of the Living Tradition yesterday, and was struck by both the sermon, and the new way that religious professionals were recognized during the service. You can find a video recording and a script of the service are online here, and my post on the blog here.

Here on my own blog, I’m going to take the time to reflect at greater length on this service:

The Rev. Sarah Lammert, Director of Ministries for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) welcomed the congregation to the large hall at the Phoenix Convention Center in which the service was held. “Ministers are called forth from the lay people they serve,” said Lammert, and the purpose of the Service of the Living Tradition is to honor professional ministry. She added that as those being honored went up onto the stage, the congregation was invited to “raise a glad noise.”

This represented a change from recent Services of the Living Tradition, when the ministers and other religious professionals being honored did not go up onto the stage, but merely stood up where they were sitting. Also in recent years, worship leaders discouraged the congregation from cheering those being honored.

Another change was that the ministers and other religious professionals did not process in to the service together while the congregation sang the familiar hymn “Rank by Rank Again We Stand.” Instead, they were seated throughout the congregation, with their family and supporters. Each group — ministers achieving preliminary fellowship, ministers in final fellowship, credentialed religious educators, credentialed musicians, etc. — was introduced with the words, “I call forth from among you these persons….” The symbolism was clear: religious professionals gain their power and authority from the people they serve.

Another innovation was that all these religious professionals were recognized before the invocation, i.e., before the formal start of the service. Even though the recognition ceremony lasted a good many minutes, it was technically not part of the worship service.

The actual service began with the invocation, followed by the usual first hymn for this service, “Rank by Rank Again We Stand.” After chalice lighting words in Spanish and English, the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the UUA, led a ceremony to remember those ministers who had died in the past year.

The sermon at this year’s Service of the Living Tradition was delivered by the Rev. Karen Tse, an international human rights attorney and ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. Because justice is the theme of this General Assembly, Tse chose to emphasize the ministry of justice.

She told some of her own story as a minister and human rights activist. In 1994, she walked into a prison in Cambodia and met a 12 year old boy who had been tortured. She looked into his eyes, and realized that if she had never met him face to face, she would never have advocated for him, because he was not a political prisoner; his crime was to have stolen a bicycle. That face to face encounter led her to establish an organization that advocates to end torture as an investigative tool.

She said that as a lawyer, she is pragmatic and practical, and she acts like a “warrior” who “takes no prisoners.” But she is also a minister, and that side of her works through compassion and recognizing how we are all interconnected. Before becoming a minister, spirituality was not a part of her work, but now it is the basis of what she does. She now believes in the power of transforming love.

Tse said that when we do social justice work, we do it not just to transform the world. We do social justice work to transform our selves. “Ultimately the transformation of others is our transformation,” she said. She told a story about a man she met in Vietnam who ahd been a herion addict. But he and some of his friends saw street children who needed a place of safety, and they created a “safe house” for these children. He thought he was just going to transform those children, but in the process he transformed himself. Tse put it this way: “‘You see,’ he said, ‘I’m no longer a heroin addict.'”

We can feel overwhelmed by the need to do so much to transform the world, Tse said, but sometimes our mere presence is enough. She said she brought her nine year old son on a recent trip to Cambodia. He went with her on a visit to the Minister of Justice, and before long the minister began talking with her son. Soon the minister leaned over and said to her son, “I think we should get all the kids out of prison, what do you think?”

The congregation applauded to hear the impact her nine year old son had had on this powerful Minister of Justice. “While he hadn’t done anything specific,” Tse said, “my son’s presence mattered.”

“So yes, your presence matters” she said. “And we must also take action.”

She closed her sermon with the story of a four year old boy who lived in a prison, because he had been born in the prison. Everyone loved this boy, even the guards loved him. This boy liked to visit all the prisoners, and the prisoners said he was their greatest joy.

“He was born in prison without much power,” she said, “but like all of us, he was born into his heroic journey.” This reminded Tse of the famous words of Unitarian minister the Rev. Edward Everett Hale: “I am one, I cannot do everything. But I can do something. I’ll do the one thing I can do.”

“So please,” Tse said, “do the one thing you can do.”

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