Ordinary/Extraordinary; an ordination sermon for J Sylvan


as preached February 26, 2023 at Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, Texas

There is much in the ordinary life of a religious professional that more secular people find extraordinary. A friend recently reminded of this over dinner.

A word about my friend, he is a well-known writer and war correspondent. Most of us would probably describe his life as extraordinary. He has reported from intense conflict zones, visited cities devastated by bombing campaigns coordinated by the US military and interviewed people labelled terrorists by the US government. His life experiences are broader than mine. He has witnessed horrors I prefer not to imagine.

We get together at academic conferences and have intense conversations about politics and philosophy–thoughts on the class bound nature of society, the utility of Leninist models of organizing, the particularities of radical Left social movements in Mexico and Syria, the continuing relevance of Aristotle to ethics, future directions for anti-racist organizing, that sort of thing.

My friend is not particularly religious. He does not regularly participate in a religious community. And he is not any kind of religious leader. I cannot speak for him, but my sense is that he generally identifies as secular.

I suspect many of you have friends like mine, folks with whom you share broad agreements but are neither Unitarian Universalist nor religious. The basic patterns of life within a religious community like ours are probably unfamiliar to them. And so, I suspect, that your friends, like mine, occasionally surprise you with their insights into what it means to be part of a congregation or serve as a minister or devoted lay leader.

Back to our dinner, we were about halfway through and had covered a range of topics. The meal was not ready to be cleared but we were moving towards its conclusion. It was at that point that my friend said something that startled me. “I have been thinking about something you told me last time we were together almost every week since then,” he stated.

Now, I thought he was going to share with me some reflections on my work as a scholar or community organizer. No, that was not it. Instead, he recalled a conversation we had had about pastoral care, a conversation that I had completely forgotten.

He had asked me what I say to dying people when I visit them in hospice or the hospital. I told him that I do not say anything, not really. There is nothing particular to say. Such moments of transition, when humans shift from being to non-being, transcend the limits of language. Sure, there are words that can be offered, prayers that can be spoken, but in those moments anything that can be uttered feels like a version of the opening passage of Ecclesiastes:

… vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does a person gain by all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?

Mostly what I do when I am by the bedside of the dying, I told him, is just sit there. I use my presence to offer an assurance to the dying person that they are not alone. I hold their hand or speak a little–read a poem or sacred text–so that they know that someone is with them. And that is it, I had said. There is not much else to do.

I am never sure if it is adequate or makes a difference. “[D]eath,” after all, is, as Hamlet said, “the undiscovered country from whose bourne / No traveler returns.” I have never truly had a report on the efficacy of my care.

I had forgotten that I had shared these reflections with my friend. To me, they were ordinary. In the course of my twenty years as a religious professional, I have visited dozens of people as they lay dying. I will not claim that I have grown numb or used to death. Anyone who does has lost some taste of the richness of life. But I admit that the presence of death has become familiar, something I recognize and can sit with without becoming lost in my own fear of the void.

To my friend, my reflections seemed extraordinary. They fell outside of his daily life. They spoke of the unfamiliar. To me they were just ordinary experiences.

Ordination sermons, James Luther Adams reminds us, should address “the vocation of the church and the minister.” In my friend’s reaction to my ordinary story, we can learn something about those vocations. They are infused with radical potential.

You may have noticed by now that within this ordination sermon I have repeatedly used the word ordinary. In a religious sense, the ordinary is connected with ordination. Historically, the word ordinary designated the order in which a Christian service took place–it specified the sequence of the liturgy. To be ordained was to become one was authorized to conduct services, execute religious rites, and oversee the ordinary.

We Unitarian Universalists no longer understand ordination in this sense. We have rejected the idea that only certain people can lead worship or perform rites. It is true that in the state of Texas, as in many other states, marriages must be conducted by either civic authorities or “a person who is an officer of a religious organization and who is authorized by the organization.” But our fellowships can, and do, give that authorization to lay people–Board Presidents and the like–when they have a need to do so.

There are no specific sacraments that belong to the minister and to the minister alone. There is no special practice on Sunday morning that has been uniquely given to a Unitarian Universalist clergy person–a congregation can invite anyone it chooses into its pulpit. No final rites exist which only a minister may offer.

We have come, instead, to practice what Adams called “the priesthood of all believers,” the mutual obligation to have the courage to care for each other and for all of those “in need of fellowship.” And we have arrived at “the prophethood of all believers,” the responsibility of each member of the congregation to protest the evils of the hour.

The priesthood of all believers, the prophethood of all believers, it is reasonable then to consider the question of what, precisely, does ordination mean for us. And here I turn to two ancient documents that have long influenced our tradition: “The Cambridge Platform” and the “Articles of Faith and Plan of Church Government” drafted by the Philadelphia Convention of Universalists.

In the first text we encounter the stipulation that ministers are to be “chosen by the church” and “be ordained by imposition of hands and prayer.” We are told ordination is not “the essence and substance of the outward calling.” Instead, it consists of the “voluntary and free election by the church” coupled with the acceptance “of that election.”

Free election, the primary point of “The Cambridge Platform” is that it is the congregation, and the congregation alone, that is vested with the power to ordain ministers. The congregation’s power in designating who shall serve as a minister in our tradition is greater than that of denominational officials or state institutions. It appears to even outweigh that of an individual’s sense of “outward calling.” No matter how strongly someone feels called to the ministry they become a minister only if recognized by the members of a Unitarian Universalist religious community.

In the second text we find some clarity on the nature of an “outward calling.” People entering into the ministry are to “possess … qualifications and gifts” that they have demonstrated through “trial.” It is only after such a demonstration, having proved themselves, as the historical document records, “to be under the influence of the spirit of the Gospel,” that they are to be ordained.

Qualifications and gifts, the spirit of the Gospel, we contemporary Unitarian Universalists are somewhat more restrained on the later two points than our Universalists ancestors. Here we might recall Hosea Ballou’s dramatic ordination.

It is told that before he became a minister, Ballou attended a Universalist convention. He was a highly charismatic individual and made an impression. During the final worship service of the event the preacher was so impressed with Ballou’s gifts that at the conclusion of his sermon, without warning, he turned to Ballou and held a Bible to his chest. He cried out, “Brother Ballou, I press to your heart the written Jehovah!” And ordered Ballou to be charged to the ministry right then and there.

J, I assure you that we will be doing nothing quite so dramatic this morning. But, I have the pleasure of serving as your mentor. And I can speak to something of your gifts and the spirit that flows through you. I can testify that we Unitarian Universalists are lucky to number you amongst the ranks of our clergy. Someone who the Boston Globe once called “a risqué queer icon,” a poetic performer whose art undermines the myth that the Bible is a straight man’s text, a capable colleague, a compassionate soul, perhaps we should press to your heart the written Jehovah, after all!

As your mentor, I can also testify to a few of the trials that have tested your gifts and spirit. There have been, of course, the various ordeals that anyone who wants to become a Unitarian Universalist minister has to endure. Your crucible has included a Masters of Divinity from Harvard, an internship with the First Parish in Concord, a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education, a successful interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, all accomplished in the context of a pandemic.

I suspect that it has not been easy to face your final set of tribulations while serving your first congregation here in Texas. This is a state governed by the politics of cruelty. It is a place where the evil of the ruling political class –for it is evil to enact policies that inflict suffering on others–is so often targeted at queer and gender fluid persons like yourself. It is a region where what seem like basic decencies in Cambridge–gender neutral bathrooms, access to abortion, and gender affirming care–are anathemas to people who pretend to speak words inspired by the spirit of God.

In such a state, your gifts and spirit have been tested. In such a state, your congregation has judged you as one they wish to elect into the ministry. In such a state, and at such an event, I bring words from the prophetic transgender Unitarian Universalist minister, Theresa Soto:

To what have we promised ourselves? To this
moment in time and place. To this community and even,
tenderly interconnected, this planet.
We promise ourselves to the idea that we
are each and all human beings. We promise that there
is something moving between us that we cannot tame
and cannot measure.

Something between us that we cannot tame and cannot measure, in choosing to ordain you, the Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church has decided to make you a representative of the spirit of whose power cannot be spoken, the gifts that cannot be understood, and the love that overcomes all. We Unitarian Universalists practice the priesthood and prophethood of all believers. Everyone here is charged to care for the members of our fellowship, and indeed for all being. Each of us present has taken on the obligation to confront evil whenever we encounter it. This is how our tradition understands the vocation of the congregation.

In the act of ordination we are saying, this one, yes this one, this one here, has the gifts and the spirit, has proven themselves through trials, to be our representative. They are one we want to remind us of our vocation, to inspire us each to be priests and prophets. They are one we ask to encourage us as we live amongst and confront the catastrophic evils of the day: resurgent white supremacy, the climate crisis, the global assault on democracy, and unending attacks on women and the LGBTQ community. They are one who we have charged to nurture our spirits. They are one who we have told to remind us of the beauty all around–caught in the sparkle of light, the cast of shadow, the sound of traffic–beauty recalled in the words of our poet when he encourages us to honor “the marvel of life” found in “[s]tardust and sunlight, mingling through time and through space.” They are one we ordain to recognize the deepness within, “sing that we live.”

It is an impossible charge. No congregation can fully live into its vocation. No minister can do all that must be done. This does not matter.

Here is what matters: a Unitarian Universalist congregation has elected you to represent our faith, that something between us that we cannot tame and cannot measure.

A dying man taught me a lesson. He was a member of the congregation who I did not know. Confined to home hospice, I went to visit him with a trepidatious heart. I wondered what exactly to say to this unknown person as he suffered through his declining hours. In I walked into the house, I stepped over to his bed, and then, “Hallelujah, the Senior Minister!”

Hallelujah, the minister, that we had never met before was unimportant. I was there to represent his community–the network of care to which he devoted much life–and assure him that the priesthood of all believers was with him in the fading of the light. I had no sacrament to give, no last rites to offer. I had only my ordinary presence, the presence of one elected to encourage Unitarian Universalists to remember that our ordinary, the work of our religious community, is something we are each tasked to do. A longtime member, he had done his ordinary work for many years. And now I was there to do mine.

“We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest … of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul,” is how the nineteenth-century Unitarian and abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper paraphrased the priesthood and prophethood of all believers. A foundational figure in African American literature, which is to say the literature of the United States, her speech from 1866 inspired Sofía Betancourt, candidate for President of our Association, to challenge how we understand our tradition.

While the most enduring our of religious institutions are centuries old, we did not start ordaining women until the middle of the nineteenth-century. Even though the English Unitarians had a man of African descent serving as a minister amongst them in the 1820s, his name was Robert Wedderburn, it was only at the close of the nineteenth-century that Universalists ordained Black people and not until the opening decades of the twentieth that the Unitarians did. Openly gay ministers were first called to congregations in the late 1970s. It was not until beginning of this century that an openly transgender person was installed as a settled minister.

We are all bound up together, Betancourt has called us to consider the damage that patterns of “white supremacy and heteropatriarchal capitalism” have done to our theological inheritance. She urges us to recognize the radical potential inherent in our faith when we call every willing soul to be part of the priesthood and prophethood of all believers. She has called us to remember that being part of “this great experiment in communal salvation” means naming not only the evil that exists out there but confronting the evil that exists in here, recognizing the structures and habits amongst us that have left “the fabric of our collective future” incomplete.

The fabric of our collective future, we Unitarian Universalists proclaim that salvation is something that occurs here, in this world, and that it is something we can only experience together. It is found in the ordinary work of the priesthood of all believers when we live out our commitment to take care of all. It is found in the ordinary work of the prophethood of all believers when we speak against the powers and principalities of the hour. Its spirit–something between us that we cannot tame and cannot measure–becomes ever more palpable amongst us when we recall, as Betancourt urged us, that all believers means each of us and all of us–no matter marker of human division.

And it is to this work—filled with its radical and transformation potential—that we ordain one amongst us today. We do not ordain J to do this work alone or uniquely. Instead, we say you, J, are one we trust, whose gifts we feel, whose spirit brings love, to be elected to represent us, to encourage us, to be tender with us when we need comfort, and, yes, even be fierce with us when we fail to live into our responsibilities as priests and prophets.

It is the ordinary work of a Unitarian Universalist religious community to which J is called. But in a world beset by the evils of the state, a world in which it seems that so many basic decencies, so many human rights, are continually forgotten, where far too many have been denied the simple gift of company when they lay ill or dying, it is, as my friend gently reminded me, extraordinary work.

J, we bless you with an ordinary ministry. And we bless you with an extraordinary ministry. I am so glad that you have been called and elected from amongst us.

May the congregation bless J now by saying Amen.

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