I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Monday, January 10, 2005

This is My Servant Sermon!

My computer has been terribly ill as of late. This is because of my complete ignorance of things technical. Long ago, I learned to think of these sorts of things as "magic." If I didn't, I wouldn't be capable of blogging. Sadly, I am a very bad wizard...

Anyway, I have decided to post this sermon so that there would be something new. The text was Matthew 3:13-17. The Isaiah Quote is From Chapter 42. The theme of the service was "Servant Leadership." I have been think a great deal lately about leadership both in church and country. This was a way to present some thoughts on the matter...

I should also note how nice it was this week not to have anything going on other than our usual worship service and format. Christmas was fantastic, but many of us, I think, enjoyed the comfort of our usual routine.

Eliot Church, Natick, MA
January, 9, 2005
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot

Reggie White, as some of you know,
Died the day after Christmas
Reggie White was a football player
Called the “Minister of Defense”
He was also an ordained Baptist clergyman

Famous for his controversial statements
On race and gender, and for his one time declaration
That God had told him to quit the Philadelphia Eagles
And go play for the Green Bay Packers
White had, near the end of his life,
Started to reconsider all that he had done and said
While playing and proselytizing
In the NFL

He said, in a recent interview
That he had realized that many of those things
He said that God wanted him to do
Were really things that he, Reggie, wanted to do
And that God didn’t particularly care
If the Packers won or not
He concluded after his playing days
That God, in fact, does not need football

Here is my Servant says Isaiah Whom I uphold

The concept of service, and of the servant leader
In religion today is a problematic one
So much of what we say and do in this country
Has been saturated with words of Christian piety
Not always fully understood by those who use them
And used not just by those who feel called
To accept a lucrative multi-year contract
And a trip to the Super Bowl
This tendency toward claiming
To know God’s will exists everywhere

For example, White’s later comments
About God not needing football, after all
Echo those of another prominent figure
In another arena
Former US Senator George Mitchell
During the Iran Contra hearings
Famously told Oliver North
That God does not take sides in partisan politics

This may be an obvious assertion to many of us here today
But, we also know that that it is not obvious to everybody
Rev. Richard Land, for example, a prominent Southern Baptist minister
Looked back on the recent presidential elections and said
Whoever won, it would have been God’s will
He also went on to claim that if John Kerry had won
It would be proof that God was angry
And cursing the United States

Land’s statement, it should be noted
Makes many people
Republicans as well as Democrats uncomfortable
Uncomfortable because it is in direct opposition
To the basic political and religious assumptions
Held by those who developed the modern democracy
And when I say “modern” I am speaking
Of 1776 not 1976

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister
Of the largest Democracy on earth
Once described this modern (small “d”) democratic
View of religion and the state in this way:
I want nothing to do with any order, religious or otherwise, which does not teach people that they are capable of becoming happier and more civilized on this earth, capable of becoming a true man, master of his fate and captain of his soul.
(Obviously, this sentiment applies to women as well as men)

People like Nehru
Believe that the idea
Of the Divine Right of kings (or presidents)
Is contrary to the principles of a democratic nation
It also flies against the broad-church theology
Of faith communities such as ours

Still, Rev. Land is far from alone
Politics and football account for only two
Of the places
We see this belief in the active hand of God
Maneuvering us like pieces on a chess board

This determinism can be comforting
During moments of personal pain
Or of larger crises
It can be reassuring to think of it all as “God’s will”
That some great tragedy somehow makes sense
But, unfortunately, such a belief system
Also assumes a vengeful God
More interested in passing judgment than giving hope

And it can breed arrogance among the powerful
Who feel that they are being rewarded for divine service
For example, the French King Louis XIV
Once showed a certain lack of perspective
When in a moment of frustration he asked:
Has God forgotten all that I have done for him?

When we think in this way,
When we believe
That we have special and privileged insight
That we are, in fact “holier than thou”
We miss the point of the servant life
The ancient Persian poet Saadi
Said To worship God is nothing other than to serve the people

He tells us in his work that
We need to keep reminding ourselves
That our needs, as great as they are
Are only a part of the picture
And that the suffering of others
Is just as real

To be a servant, to engage in service
Requires much more than the occasional nod
To the larger world and the “little people”
Who made us who we are today
It requires a constant recognition
Of our interconnectedness
And the universality of the call
That is, it isn’t just the rich and famous
Who are answerable to the whole

No, we all are expected and required
To the best of our ability
To contribute
Saadi continues in our reading
To say All people are members of the same body, created from one essence. If fate brings suffering to one member, the others cannot stay at rest.

A statement which many of us today
Would change to all things
Instead of merely all people

Now, when we think of ourselves
As constant servants
A life of service shouldn’t seem
Quite nearly as hard
For we are not necessarily talking about
Becoming like Mother Theresa
Or even of all the things we do
To make the world a better place
(As admirable and worthy as those things are)
Like volunteering and pledging to the Church
Or the service committee
Or choosing a career in one of the service professions
Like teaching, social work, or medicine

What we are focusing on today is an issue of proper attitude
Instead we are talking about an accessible way of life
We can serve God by thinking
And by engaging in the work
Of developing and maintaining the health of our society
All of us need to be public intellectuals
We need to not only know what we believe
But to find out why
And speak out about what we find

Professor Stanley Fish at the University of Illinois at Chicago
Said "I think the definition of a public intellectual shouldn't be fancy at all — someone who travels easily in the world of ideas…and is able to convey the importance and complexity of those ideas in an accessible language."
This, I believe, is something that we all can do

Every one of us is capable of examining an issue
Searching for various opinions and coming to our own conclusion
It is part of what the Unitarian Universalists call
The free and responsible search for truth and meaning
It is a part of our responsibility and freedom as servants
As people who worship God by serving society
It isn’t all about giving money
Or claiming high office
Nor are we waiting for God
To tell us what to do
We are expected to explore
And to find a direction for ourselves
That is what free will is all about

For centuries, free-thinkers have been
Passing their faith through the fires of their experience
(To very roughly paraphrase Emerson)
They have sought out opportunities to be challenged
They have put a high value on self-improvement
And have seen education not merely in terms of institutions
But as a crucial part of the life journey
And a companion to the journey of faith
Benjamin Franklin once said that A Bible and a newspaper in every house and a good school in every district are the principle support of virtue, morality, and civil liberty.
The Public intellectual is not expected
To be an expert on everything
But a student of anything
We can share a passion for food, for history, science and art
We can keep abreast of daily developments
In this country and in the world
This is a service to God

Of course, it can be difficult, at times
To have opinions and to share them
Particularly while remaining open to change
And there are some
Bright sensitive leaders of their communities
Who for whatever reason, do not inform themselves
As well as they should
This is (in a way) understandable, people with convictions, after all
Do sometimes fight and argue
And make those who disagree with them less than happy
Still, if we are willing to engage and to listen
Then we are the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts

Our work to discover the right way ennobles us
Many of our leaders both great and not so great
In politics and elsewhere often, themselves
Are public intellectuals, they learn and they share
Sometimes they find that those achievements
That have the greatest impact on them
Are the ones that are small and personal

They look back on what they have done
And do not see a field filled with victories
They do not see themselves as figures
In an epic struggle between good and evil
Instead they see a life lived
With the average number of mistakes
With failures and with lessons learned the hard way

When they look back
Like Reggie White, they see
That they are much more like the rest of us
The other servants
The others who moved in society
With whom God is also pleased
And they find satisfaction in what they did achieve

In the prologue to
Sometimes controversial President
Bill Clinton’s 957-page autobiography
He writes:
Whether I am a good man is, of course, for God to judge.
I know that I am not as good as my strongest supporters believe…nor as bad as my harshest critics assert.
He goes on to say
My life in politics was a joy. I loved campaigns and I loved governing. I always tried to keep things moving in the right direction, to give more people a chance to live their dreams, and to bring them together. That is the way I kept score.

To be a servant of humanity and of the Divine
Both in the town square and in our own living rooms
Truly is a Joy

It does not tax us so much
As fill us with the energy and the desire
To discover new and exciting things
Until we find
That nothing we encounter
Nothing we do
Can be called mundane
No matter how small or seemingly insignificant

May we all, in our lives a servants
Learn to keep score in the way Clinton describes
By seeking the small successes
And the small discoveries
And by helping others to come together
And to live their dreams