Service of Living Tradition
General Assembly 2008 Event 2073
"It is my great pleasure to welcome you to this year's Service of the Living Tradition," said the Rev. Beth Miller, Director of Ministry and Professional Leadership at the Unitarian Universalist Association, as she welcomed over two thousand people to the Service of the Living Tradition. "This evening, we will remember those who have died in the past year. We will thank those who are retiring from active service and congratulate those receiving credentials."
The ministers and Director of Religious Education being honored in the Service of the Living Tradition processed into the main hall of the convention center, as the congregation sang the traditional processional hymn for this event, "Rank by Rank Again We Stand." Miller pointed out that although the Service of the Living Tradition honors individual Directors of Religious Education and ministers, "our focus in worship is on something beyond the individuals themselves." Miller then asked the congregation to applaud all those being honored, rather than cheering for each individual when named during the worship service. The congregation cheered wildly for over a minute. After the cheering died down, one last voice was heard calling out, "Well done!"
Miller formally opened the worship service with an invocation, saying in part, "Take from life its coals, not its ashes; fan the flames of love and justice." Miller said that these words had been written by the Rev. Laurel Sheridan, a minister who died in May.
The Rev. Ralph Mero, the retiring Director of Church Staff Finances at the Unitarian Universalist Association, and representing all ministers retiring this year, lit the flaming chalice.
"We begin with the traditional roll call of those who have died in the past year," said the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. "Some had long careers and long retirements and died peacefully at advanced ages. Others died too soon, still engaged in active and vital ministries. All will be remembered with appreciation and affection by those they loved and those they served." Sinkford read the names of the sixteen ministers, while photographs of them flashed on the large screens at the front of the hall.
"We are blessed by the legacy of courage, of creativity, of commitment they leave behind," said Sinkford in a prayer for these deceased ministers. "We pray to be worthy of it and promise to keep faith with it."
The Rev. John Weston, the Transitions Director at the Unitarian Universalist Association, came forward to recognize retiring ministers. Weston noted that the retiring ministers could be grouped into two "bunches": first, those ministers who were ordained between 1956 and 1976 and who were, with one exception, men; and second, those ministers who were ordained between 1981 and 2001 and who were, with two exceptions, women. Weston said that this reflected "the tremendous changes that have occurred in our ministry and in our national culture over the past three decades."
The Rev. Jory Agate, Ministerial Development Director at the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Rev. Beth Williams, Religious Education Credentialing Director, honored 41 ministers achieving final fellowship, and one religious educator achieving Credentialed Religious Educator Master's Level. Agate noted that the ministers had previously achieved preliminary fellowship, and then served for at least three years as a minister. Williams said that the religious educator had completed graduate education and been extensively evaluated.
"It is once again my privilege and pleasure to welcome into preliminary fellowship the 51 women and men who, during the past year, have met the requirements for service in the Unitarian Universalist ministry," said the Rev. David Pettee, Ministerial Credentialing Director at the Unitarian Universalist Association. "My new colleagues, please rise in body or in spirit to receive the congregation's welcome." The Rev. Robert Eller-Isaacs, president of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, added, "We will rejoice as we place the title 'Reverend' before your name."
The Singers of the Living Tradition sang "Would You Harbor Me?", a song composed by Unitarian Universalist singer-songwriter Ysaye Maria Barnwell. The choir was made up of ministers and religious leaders and their family members, and conducted by Ian Riddell, Director of Music Ministry of the James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Madison , Wisconsin . The song ended with the words, "Would you harbor a Haitian, Korean, or Czech,/ A lesbian or a gay?/ Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?"
"'Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?' What is this work [as professional religious leaders] we are called to?" said the Rev. Victoria Safford, minister of White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi , Minnesota . Safford, an award-winning preacher, was chosen to give the sermon at this year's Service of the Living Tradition. Her sermon, titled "Remind Us Again, Brave Friends," explored what it means to be a professional religious leader in today's world.
Quoting from the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Safford offered one answer of what it means to be a minister. Safford quoted a character in the novel, a retired minister, who said, "I don't wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out." According to Safford, the novel leads us to believe that professional religious leaders "are expected, we are called, to be about the work of blessing."
"This is lovely, hard work," Safford said, "and there are times when it is lonely hard work, when the blessings we are called to bestow won't come... however urgently they're needed." Acknowledging the imperfection of ministers and religious educators, Safford pointed out that sometimes the imperfect blessings, precisely because of their imperfection, "can be the most holy sacraments we make."
Safford turned to the fact that the 2008 General Assembly is meeting in a building inside a guarded, fenced perimeter, where attendees must show a government-issued photo identification. "Guards are posted at the gate," she said. "Someone has decided who belongs here and who doesn't," and her outrage at this state of affairs was evident in her tone of voice. "This is true no matter where we gather... Every day, at every turn, if you have any love of freedom and democracy you have got to be asking, at what point does our orderly, responsible compliance become complicity?"
"Would you harbor me? Will I harbor you? The question is not theoretical," she said. "The times call out for a blessing." Safford added that ministers and other professional leaders are much more likely to find themselves in a position of offering a blessing.
"The work of this Service [of the Living Tradition] every year seems so simple," said Safford. The central purpose of the service is to remember those who died, to welcome new colleagues, and to honor the good work of retiring ministers. Yet in today's complicated times, it may take more work to "muster the garden variety blessing." Safford mentioned the ministers and other religious leaders who decided not to attend General Assembly this year, the people "whose integrity has called them to bless this moment and this gathering with their absence, and the witness of their powerful, articulate silence."
In closing, Safford referred to the teaching of the Quaker philosopher Douglas Steere. Safford said that Steere teaches us "that the ancient question, 'Who am I?' inevitably leads to a deeper one, 'Whose am I?', because there is no [individual] identity outside of relationship." Thus to ask the question "Whose am I?" might be the most important theological question we can ask ourselves. "We are gathered here on this night, as we gather each year, to remind ourselves of the covenants which bind our lives."
The sermon concluded with a period of silent reflection, and after the silence the congregation remained seated while singing together the hymn "There Is More Love Somewhere."
An offering was taken for the Living Tradition Fund. This fund provides Unitarian Universalist seminarians and ministers with scholarships, debt reduction grants, and financial assistance in times of need.
"The service is ending, but this work, this blessing, this mysterious life we share carries on," said the Rev. Beth Miller in words of benediction. "Let us go forth committing ourselves to harbor one another."
Miller then offered one more opportunity to "express gratitude for these ministers, and for the musicians." The congregation cheered and applauded, most of them standing as they applauded.
Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.