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Cultivating the Seed of the Divine

A Sermon by the Rev. Beth Miller, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula, Carmel, CA

How many of you have ever had 'running away from home' fantasies? You know what I'm talking about, the kind of fantasy where you leave everything behind, everything, except maybe the cat, and just go somewhere and start a new life.

Well, a couple of weeks ago on my day off, I had such a fantasy. I fantasized that I ran away from home to a small southern seaside town here on the East Coast and I got a job in a diner. I was like these two ladies in a local cafe near where I live in California—serving breakfast and lunch, knowing the regulars and greeting them by name, taking care of those that need a little extra help, giving directions or information or advice to the tourists.

In my fantasy, I was still doing ministry—just a different kind of ministry. I thought that maybe, with my almost ten years of experience in the professional ministry, I might be a pretty good cafe minister. I would take orders, serve eggs and pancakes, fill coffee cups, clean up tables, and just love people. Just love people.

I can't say just what prompted this fantasy. I had just come back from a five-day vacation the previous week. Maybe five days wasn't really enough to recharge my batteries.

Then on Friday during Alice Mann's presentation, I was struck by the complexity of the challenges we all face as congregations in transition to becoming mid-size, Program churches. And I was struck by the reality of the conflicting demands we ministers feel in the process of that transition. I realized that while our appropriate roles are quite different in Pastoral churches than they are in Program churches, we can't just drop the one and take up the other. We have to wean ourselves and our congregations, playing both roles, really, and often changing roles maybe even several times a day. Maybe that's why I'm having fantasies of a simpler life.

I'm not really going to run away from home, I love my congregation and I'm more often energized by the challenges because I have the great good fortune to serve a congregation that's committed to growth and change and that has the resources to make it happen.

But it was a pretty seductive fantasy at the time. I was still thinking about cafe ministry and shared it with my Spiritual Director a couple of days later, on Wednesday. Then, the most amazing thing. The very next day, on Thursday, I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the very person who I could adopt as my role model for this fantasy of cafe ministry. St. Frances of the Grill the headline read. The article goes on:

No one ever went away hungry or mad at Ann's cafe in Oakland.

There is no one in Oakland with as many friends as Frances Bienati.

She's made them one at a time, just like the 100 pancakes, 15 dozen eggs and 50 to 60 pounds of potatoes she's grilled up at Ann's cafe every day, five days a week for the last 42 years.

Every city has a place like this, a hole-in-the-wall breakfast spot that is heavy on atmosphere and legend, and the food is, well, it's filling.

The service and camaraderie are priceless. And that's what will be missed when Frances hangs up her spatula for the last time on Friday. She and her husband, Frank, are retiring and closing the doors to the Fruitvale Avenue cafe...

Three things are sure to happen anytime you pass through the door: You will be greeted and treated like a returning son or daughter. You'll be served so much food that you will not finish the meal, and if you're single, expect to be introduced or referred to someone Frances has chosen especially for you.

Everyone, regardless of ethnicity or social standing, has a place in the 19-seat cafe, which is standing- room-only most of the time in a space about the size of a mobile home. The cafe bears the name of Frances' mom, Anna Cucchiara, who opened it in February 1958.

Frances is a friend to cops and crooks, people down on their luck, and self-conscious over achievers. They come from the neighborhood and beyond. A retired Oakland cop drove all the way from Monterey just to say goodbye this week...

There is more, but you get the idea. Frances Bienati is doing cafe ministry.

I don't know if Frances would consider herself a religious person or not. Don't know if she ever goes to church. But she definitely offers a ministry in her little corner of the world.

She has spent forty-some years making that corner of the world a better, more loving, more cheerful place for thousands of people. And just think for a moment—if just ten percent of those people were sufficiently touched by this woman's ministry to pass it on, her influence for the good has been immeasurable.

We each have a ministry to perform. We are each called to serve in some way. Any one of us, at any time, may be used as "God's hand" offering a hand to one who is wounded and in need of a little lift. The Rev. Gordon McKeeman says that ministry is speaking and living the highest we know... and that, wherever there is a meeting that summons us to our better selves, wherever lostness is found, ...fragments are reunited, ...wounds begin healing, ...spines straighten, and ...muscles grow strong for the talk, there is ministry.

The purpose of the church is not to be the beginning and the end of ministry. The purpose of the church is transformation.

We each gather with others in our own churches on Sunday mornings for worship or to teach our children. We gather in smaller groupings on weekday evenings for Board meetings, committee meetings, covenant groups, adult programs, choir practice. We come together on the weekends for social times together, for workshops, or to help with a fund-raising activity. Some of us come during the week to compile the newsletter or help out in the office.

Why? With the many demands of our lives and the many opportunities for activity of all kinds in our communities, why do we offer some our gifts and spend a portion our time at church?

We come together to be part of a transformational ministry. We come to help create that ministry in a myriad of large and small ways. And we come to receive the healing power of that ministry; to be strengthened and empowered by it so that we might take our own ministries out into our own little corners of the world.

Our churches are and ought to be many things to many people. A place for friendship and community—fine. A place for intellectual stimulation—okay. A substitute family for those who have none—terrific! A place to seek truth and meaning—most definitely. Our churches are all of these things and more. But if we stop short of transformation, it isn't enough. If a significant portion of us are not empowered and supported in our own ministries—both in the church and in the world-—then despite all the wonderful things we are doing to be a church, we are missing the mark.

The Reverend Bernice King talked to us about transformation. For her, transformation comes through the power and the spirit of Jesus, just as it may for some of us. But for Unitarian Universalists, the context is broader. Revelation is not limited to one path. Remember the sources in our statement of purposes and principles. "Judeo-Christian teachings" is only one of several sources we might consider transformative. We are also open to the transforming power of the rest of the world's religions. We are open to the transforming power of humanist teachings and secular wisdom. We are open to the transforming power of earth-centered spiritual traditions, and so on.

What is transformative for each of us is that which calls us out of our complacency and into our very best selves, our divine selves, that part of us that deeply wants to offer itself in service to something higher than our immediate wants or needs. How does the church go about being transformational, eliciting this best part of ourselves, and motivating us to put ourselves into service?

I'm going to paraphrase my colleague and teacher, Roy Phillips, with whom I've had the privilege of being in workshops three times. I've also read his books, and I've been trying to apply his concepts in my ministry setting for several years. I'm not sure just which words are actually Roy's and which are my interpretation of his words, but I give him credit and thank him for my current understanding of what is required for a transformational church.

In Roy's model, the church has to focus clearly on three things:

  • a vision of how the world ought to be,
  • a sense of mission that grows out of that vision,
  • and specific, concrete goals that empower people to claim the vision as their own and to live out of the mission in their lives.

As Unitarian Universalists, I believe we really do have a clear vision of how the world ought to be. It is riddled through-out the history of both our Unitarian and our Universalist forebearers. And our vision evident in our seven principles. When you look at our history and boil down our principles, our saving vision is the very basic Judeo-Christian values of love and justice. Love God and love your neighbor, and do justice.

We have our own ways of understanding love of God and neighbor and doing justice. Our principles give us some specific examples of how the world ought to be as a place of love and justice. It ought to be a place of acceptance, justice, equity, compassion, freedom, human rights for all people. It ought to be a democracy in which all can participate, a place of peace and liberty for all people. The world ought to be a place where truth can be openly sought and spiritual life can be freely developed. And our world ought to be a place where the interdependent web of existence is recognized and taken care of.

The job of a transformational church, is to teach and clarify and elaborate upon this vision of the world as a place of love and justice.

Secondly, our congregational sense of mission needs to be about what we can do to bring this vision to reality. Our sense of mission needs to be about helping people to live their whole lives in the context of love and justice. Our sense of mission needs to be about so much more than our life together at church. A transformational church helps people develop a personal sense of mission around this vision of the world as we believe it ought to be in all places and for all people. It empowers them and supports them to live lives grounded in this vision—even when it's very hard to do. And a transformational church does not loose faith in people, even when they break their vows—a thousand times, to echo Barbara Wells' sermon yesterday. It says, come, yet again, come.

And third, in a transformational church, leadership takes as goals specific things to do and concrete ways to be with one another to give actual help to people as they claim the vision and live out of the sense of mission in their individual lives. What can we do together, how can we be together, to make this world we share begin to align a little more with our vision of how the world ought to be, starting with our own congregational life? And what can we do to empower ourselves and one another to live and to share the vision of love and justice in the separate day to day worlds we each inhabit?

A transformational church is about empowering and supporting people for ministry in the world. Why? Why must the purpose of our church be transformation instead of just intellectual stimulation, or a warm and accepting community, or any of the other fine things a church might be? Two reasons:

  • because we are essentially and deeply made for transformation
  • and because the world so needs to be transformed.

Roy Phillips referred to William Ellery Channing and claimed him as America's theologian in his address on Thursday evening. Channing said, "the divine dimension is a seed in each person. The purpose of religion is to help cultivate that seed."

We are essentially made for transformation. It is who we really are. For some the seed of the divine is dormant when we first find a spiritual home. For others it has sprouted and already has a few leaves. For some it has grown to be a full, bushy plant already. In all of us, however, the seed of the divine is always growing. It never stops growing, as long as we live. For those of us involved with religion, for we who make church a serious part of our lives, whether clergy or laity, our presence and our participation have two spiritual aspirations:

On the one hand, we are there to cultivate the seed of the divine within ourselves. We want to become and be and live out of our very best selves. And on the other hand, our participation contributes to cultivating the seed of the divine in others with whom we share the church. For, there is no church lest the people gather to make it so. We are the church. We provide and we receive transformation.

Channing's notion of the seed of the divine in us brings to mind part of a Galway Kinnell poem:

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers from within,
of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to re-teach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on the brow
of the flower,
and re-tell it in words and in touch,
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within,
of self-blessing.

The bud, like the seed, is within each of us. The church doesn't put it there. Religion doesn't create it. It is just there, and something in us knows it and loves it and blesses it. It flowers of self-blessing. But, oh, we break our vows again and again and again.

We so need the support of others, the invitation and the reminder and the permission for the seed to sprout, for the flower to blossom. Sometimes we need to be re-taught, to have a hand on our brow, to re-hear in words and in touch, that we are lovely, and beloved. The purpose of the church is transformation, to help us flower again—and again and again—of self-blessing.

A few moments ago when I rhetorically asked why the purpose of the church is transformation, I said there were two reasons. Yes, because we are essentially and deeply made that way; but also, because the world so needs to be transformed.

Reverend Bernice King told us about this. She told us that at the core of the social problems we face are deep spiritual problems. She talked about Humpty Dumpty and how all the experts applied their problem-solving expertise to try to put Humpty together again. But they all failed.

That image had great power for me. The problem, Reverend King told us, is spiritual and you can't fight spiritual problems with the mind alone or by just throwing money at it. Non-spiritual tools won't work without a spiritual foundation. The problem, Rev. King told us, is that we have rejected the word of God.

Now I know that many of you got stuck—right there. Bernice King spoke in only one religious dialect—she used only one faith language and imagery, a language that we are commonly uncomfortable with. We're not used to this and it's jarring. If your congregation embodies the kind of theological diversity we say we value, your preacher is religiously multi-lingual. And because of the predominance of our members' conversion experiences from more conservative or orthodox religions to this liberal faith, your minister probably uses the language of Rev. King very sparingly,—if at all. So it's understandable that many of us were blocked. We were stunned by her language and unable to hear behind that language the profound truth of her words.

The problem, she said, is that we have rejected the word of God. Our social problems are fundamentally spiritual problems. They are the spirit of arrogance and elitism, the spirit of materialism and greed, the spirit of selfishness and fear. In Bernice King's native tongue, these spiritual problems are in opposition to the word of God.

In the pit of my stomach and in my heart of heart, I do so believe that she is right. Her words were a revelation for me, and they transformed my understanding of what is required for us to be agents of love and justice in the world. The difference for me is that I understand the word of God more broadly. For Rev. King, God's word is spoken only through Jesus Christ. She would say that we are wrong, that we live in ignorance or denial of the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the way and the truth and the light; that in seeking other paths, we are lost, and that puts us on the side of evil.

In this regard, I disagree with Rev. King, and I put my faith in her being wrong. Because I believe God speaks in many languages and appears in many guises. Revelation, for Unitarian Universalists, is not exclusively available in the life of Jesus, nor is it sealed at the end of the New Testament. We are not limited to just this one path. Jesus is one of many sources of inspiration and wisdom that might be transformative for us.

So, I invite you—no—I implore you, to do your best to hear behind and beneath the idiom Rev. King used to sort out and understand—in our own faith context—the deeper, penetrating truth of her proclamation. Just because her exclusivity speaks for us an untruth that does not mean there is no truth in her witness. Truth does not always come in nice, neat, tidy packages that we can fully embrace, wrappings and all.

I'm reminded of my good friend, Clare, a highly intelligent, rational lawyer in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I served for 5-1/2 years. Clare found her life ungrounded some years back, and so she went off in search of a spiritual path. She spent one summer studying and experiencing the path of Creation Spirituality with Matthew Fox and others. And another summer, she went to France and spent time living in a community called Larche, a community for the mentally disabled founded by a Catholic brother, Jean Vanier. There are a number of Larche homes, and they invite people to come live in community with them and take Spiritual Direction with the resident priest in exchange for helping with the chores.

In spiritual direction one day, Clare was struggling to understand some important insight, and the priest said to her: "Clare, just for a moment, close your lawyer's mind and open your child's heart. God is trying to talk to you."

For Clare, this moment was transformative. It changed her life and allowed her to discover the path she could follow, a path that includes her keen and insightful mind and her warm, loving, open heart.

"Close your lawyer's mind and open your child's heart. God is trying to talk to you."

We must listen behind and beneath Bernice King's context with our open hearts in order to hear the deeper truth of her witness. And why?—because—the world so needs the transforming power of our faith to address the spiritual nature of the social problems we face.

And just what is the essence of that transforming power? What is our 'saving word', to quote Bill Sinkford? What is our clear vision of how the world ought to be, to repeat Roy Phillips' paradigm? Again, it is the basic Judeo-Christian values embodied in our history and in our Principles: love and justice.

Denny Davidoff asked us last night, reading from a letter from the Fulfilling the Promise committee. She asked: "Who are we?" At our best, living out of our vision and putting our mission into action, we are agents of love and justice in the world. That's who we are. That's who we are called to be.

And we are all called. We each have gifts to offer and a ministry to perform in this broken world. Your gifts are your unique combination of personal qualities, physical, emotional and spiritual make-up, talents, interests, and skills or potential skills. Your gifts are to be used in the service of your values. Your highest values can be found in those things that touch, move, call, or deeply disturb you. Your gifts are to be used in response to a sense of call. If you are careful in discerning your gifts, if you use them to serve your highest values, and if the arena in which you offer your gifts fits for you, you are answering a call.

It may be as obvious and as outstanding as the burning bush was for Moses. Maybe you will hear your call on the wind. Perhaps, like Elizabeth Tarbox, you will imagine the voice of the Creator speaking to you. You may not hear anything at all. It could be that there will just be moments when you know—deep in your heart and in the pit of your stomach—that what is in your mind to pursue is right and true for you; when you know that it matters not that you are less mighty than you think you ought to be; when you find courage despite your insecurity and fear; and when you just know that you have found your ministry.

At such moments, it is good to take off your shoes, for you are standing on Holy Ground.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Friday, February 24, 2012.

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