Sunday, December 04, 2011


MAGNIFICAT: Our response to our Call
Rev. Kit Ketcham, Dec. 4, 2011

Lest those of you who are recovering Catholics seize up in response to the Latin word which is the title of this sermon, let me reassure you that I have a different slant on the phrase “Magnificat anima mea Dominum”, which means, in translation, “my soul magnifies the Lord”.

I respond, not literally but metaphorically, to this phrase in a different way than perhaps a devout traditionalist would. It’s one of my favorite things about Unitarian Universalism, the heretical idea that there is more than one way to interpret the Bible, more than one way to find meaning in it, more than one way to make that meaning significant in our lives.

The story in the gospel of Luke, where the song of Mary uses this language, comes out of the legends surrounding the birth of Jesus. Mary, the mother of Jesus, as you may recall, has been visited by an angel who has told her that she will conceive and bear a special child, the son of God.

This is a pretty big deal, obviously, but Mary has a couple of questions: why me, for starters? and she’s not married yet, so how does the angel propose to solve that problem?

The angel tells her that she has found favor with God and has been chosen to be the mother of his child, that God will come to her and will make it possible for her, a virgin, to bear a child. For proof, the angel reminds her that her cousin Elizabeth, who is past childbearing age and was thought to be barren, has now conceived and will also bear a son in a few months.

Because of this more or less convincing evidence, Mary says yes, okay, here am I, let it be with me as you have explained it, she says. And in her song, she expresses her gratitude and her acceptance of this new direction for her life.

In Christian legend, Mary has been “called” by God to bear the Son of God, to bring the Messiah into the world. She is apparently expected to receive this call with grace, without fear, and to bend her will to the will of God, despite the obvious challenges and even outrage that her unmarried pregnancy will inspire. And she responds with a hymn of joy that she has been chosen for this unimaginable responsibility.

Mary’s not the only human being to feel called to an immense responsibility, a life of challenge and perhaps difficulty. Many of us may have felt this same call, though we may not have responded to it with Mary’s grace and acceptance.

What is a “Call”? Recently, I met with my fellow ministers from Bainbridge and Vashon Islands and Port Townsend. It was my job during this quarterly meeting to bring the program, an hour of conversation or some theological challenge that would give us new fodder for our ministries, catch us up on each others’ lives, and send us home again refreshed and energized.

I’ve been thinking a lot about being called to the ministry and what that means now that I have decided to retire in a few months. My original call to the ministry was clear and unambiguous; parish ministry was what I felt God was calling me to do. But now I’m going to retire! How will my call change, once I am no longer the minister of a congregation? Am I excused from it, once and for all? Have I done all I was supposed to do?

So I asked my colleagues----Barbara and Jaco Ten Hove from Bainbridge, Liz Stephens from Vashon, and Bruce Bode and Debra Thorne from Pt. Townsend, plus retired colleague Barry Andrews----to share their sense of call with our group.

I asked these questions: what does it mean to be called to a particular life work? What has been your experience of being called? Who were the people who were part of your call process? Were there encouragers? Discouragers? How has your sense of call changed over the years? How do you think it might change?

We sat in silence for a few moments and then shared our stories. I could sense the significance of each person’s experience; we shared tears, laughter, frustration, all in an effort to express what it meant to us to be called to the ministry.

We defined “the Call” as an inner urging, shaped by our discoveries about ourselves. One person saw himself as specifically called to teach, to offer religious education rather than to preach. Another had experienced a growing understanding of himself as a generalist, capable in many areas of ministry but always with a need to be out in the community inspiring others to work together to solve common problems. 

One person had spent all her adult life in the ministry and had changed her style and her expectations of herself over the years, as her life experiences expanded. Another had been stymied by life in pursuing her call and was only now able to complete the training she had longed for, in order to fulfill her sense of call.

Yet another had been badly hurt by her first experience and had almost called it quits completely but was now back in school to complete a Doctor of Ministry degree and was in search for a new ministry. I found these stories revealing and poignant; I shared many of their experiences.

I realized that I had first felt that inner urging way back in my early school days, when one of the songs we often sang in youth group or even in school music groups was the old song “Follow the Gleam”. Does anyone remember that old song? Let me sing the words of the first verse to you and join in if you remember it:

“To the knights in the days of old, keeping watch on the mountain height,
Came a vision of Holy Grail and a voice through the waiting night:
Follow, follow, follow the gleam, banners unfurled o’er all the world;
Follow, follow, follow the gleam of the chalice that is the Grail.”

The words of the second verse are pretty old-fashioned and I have to translate pretty hard to turn them into metaphors that work for me, but the message is clear:

“And we would serve the King and loyally him obey,
In the consecrate silence know that the challenge still holds today.
Follow, follow, follow the gleam, standards of worth o’er all the earth;
Follow, follow, follow the gleam of the Light that shall bring the dawn.”

At the time, I had no idea how I would follow any gleam. I had no desire to be a foreign missionary and contend with snakes or bugs or be far from home in a hot, jungly environment. But following the gleam seemed like a good idea, so I cherished it and thought about it. A lot.

As a preacher’s kid, I had a strong identification with my dad; I was proud of him, wanted to please him, and looked for opportunities to make him proud. School was doing the trick at the time; I was a good student.

But in the months after college graduation, I was at a loss. Casting about for a job, I briefly entertained the idea of entering seminary, but all the Baptists were training women to do was to be directors of Christian Education and that didn’t appeal to me. It never occurred to me I could actually be a minister.

My first real career was as a welfare worker for Washington State. This was eye-opening work, as I dealt with people in extreme poverty. Living with my parents was a temporary necessity but it wasn’t easy, as my worldview had shifted drastically, with a college education and now the desperate circumstances of the clients I worked with.

After awhile, I landed a job in Denver as an American Baptist Home Missionary (whew, no snakes or hot jungles for me!), making my parents very proud and giving me further experience in providing service to the desperately poor of the inner city, at the Denver Christian Center.

Marriage meant that eventually I left the Denver Christian Center and went back to school for teaching credentials. I taught Spanish for a few years but was about one page ahead of the kids in the book and soon realized that I was better at listening compassionately to troubled students than at teaching them to conjugate verbs. So more education, this time a Master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling which prepared me for a long career as a junior high school counselor in a large Denver area school district.

Marriage to a UU man also meant that I discovered a good religious fit in UUism and became active in a UU congregation. My experiences as a teacher and counselor felt good; I was living a life of service helping kids. And my family was pleased with me, at least about the education part, if not about the change in my religious perspective.

But it always felt like there might be something more out there. After 25 years of public education, I was getting bored, frustrated with the low morale of my fellow teachers, and alarmed by the huge problems kids had, problems that I could not resolve for them and had to watch as life inflicted its pain on my students.

But what about you? I’m guessing that many of you have felt a distinct call to a life’s work. Some of you may have gradually felt a clarity about what you wanted to do with your life. And I’ll bet some of you are still looking. Maybe you felt an urge to pursue a sense of call but were unable to satisfy that urge because of life’s circumstances; maybe you are waiting for the right moment----retirement, children raised, house finished, whatever it might be.

I’d be interested in knowing: have you felt a call to some life’s work? (raise hands) It doesn’t have to be a paying career; it could be something more basic than a job. Our life’s work doesn’t have to have a paycheck attached.

As Joann and I talked about this service, she mentioned that when she became a school librarian, even though she had resisted it initially, she found she took to it like a fish to water. It was a natural fit; she had not known it would be so. It was that “duh” moment, a serendipity of timing, being in the right place at the right time. And though she is now retired from active librarianship, we see Joann continuing to follow the call of books---telling stories to the children here, helping with the congregation’s library, and offering her skills wherever they are needed.

The rewards of finding our life’s work are many----the satisfaction of getting started in it, rising to the challenge, the stimulation of a new path that becomes more exciting as one progresses along that path.

In 1992, we had a new minister at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Colorado and I angled to be on the Committee on Ministry, mostly so I could get to work with this new guy who was charismatic and full of new ideas for our sluggish congregation.

In September, at our kickoff service of the new church year, I was asked to give a short homily about our theme, which was “Dreams dreamed; Dreams come true”. I guess they thought all my experience as a teacher and lunchroom supervisor gave me special expertise in speaking to a bunch of churchgoers.

So I got up in the pulpit that Sunday morning long ago, spoke to the group about the dreams we had dreamed as a congregation, the sorrows we’d endured, the changes we’d made, and the ways we had grown. I got some laughs, even saw a tear or two, and sat down much relieved and feeling like I’d gotten through my assigned role adequately.

As I took my seat in the front row of the choir section, our minister, the Rev. Robert Latham, got up in the pulpit, turned to where I was sitting, and said to me, in front of everyone there, “Kit, you missed your calling. You ought to be a minister.”

I swear to you it was like the proverbial two by four between the ears of the balky mule; I was stunned. For the whole rest of the service, I couldn’t think of anything else. Of course I ought to be a minister! I had been practicing for that role all my life without realizing it----working with people who needed compassion, learning about the injustices and oppression so many people in our world experience, becoming an enthusiastic, if limited, musician, honing my public speaking and my counseling skills. I could do it! I could be a minister!

It took awhile to get there. It wasn’t until 1995 and a powerful reminder of my call while I was attending General Assembly in Spokane, having recently retired from my counseling job and having become free to go back to school to follow the inner urge to serve in this new and more challenging work, the work of ministry.

It had taken me a long time to get ready to answer the call that had grown in me since childhood, even though I didn’t recognize it until I was 50 years old. When I did, my whole life fell into place. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Here’s the thing about a call to a life’s work, whether that’s music or art or teaching or law or ministry or raising happy children, whether we spend our whole lives at it or come to it later in life----answering the call to a higher purpose gives our lives significance in the face of the insignificance conferred by the universe.

A call is bound up with a sense of needing our lives to have meaning, significance. It may come to us very early in life, perhaps through the example of a parent or a teacher or coach or other leader.

It can be sidetracked, permanently or temporarily, by abuse or loss, but it can also be an opportunity for the “called” person to respond to that abuse or loss by doing something to find meaning in the awful experience.

Remember Mary and her Magnificat, at the beginning of this sermon? You might think that this is the case of a woman taken advantage of, forced into an uncomfortable situation by an unwanted pregnancy or superstition which made her interpret a mere dream as a vision of call.

My colleague the Rev. Hank Peirce has a different take on Mary’s song of praise to God. Here’s what he thinks, in an essay called “Occupy Advent”. First he quotes the Magnificat, the song of Mary:

And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.…. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away…

Hank continues: “In order to merge (the Occupy movement) and Advent I introduce to you, Mary. Yes that Mary, mother of Jesus, pregnant teenager married to a dude way older than (she), the virgin, you know who I mean. … But look at what she says in the passage known as either the Song of Mary or as the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55.) “My soul magnifies the Lord.” That's not a shy statement, is it? and keep reading, this lowly knocked up teenager is speaking revolution!

"God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts." "God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." "God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

“ It is not the kind of thing we find printed on a Hallmark greeting card; she has connected God with revolution, a Judaean coup d'etat. No wonder people get tattoos of her; this is radical, powerful stuff. In fact its message is so subversive that for a period during the 1980's the government of Guatemala banned the reading of the Magnificat in public. Who knew?

“Today, I hope you take some time to think about how radical your beliefs are… and ask yourself. Are you living what you believe?”

And I would ask, are we living what we believe? Are we living what we are called to do with what Mary Oliver has called our “one wild and precious life”?

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we as religious folk are called to make meaning with our lives, not to spend them wastefully or superficially. May we continue to seek out the best ways to live our lives, in right relationship with others, in work which makes the world a better place, and in love for those who are our neighbors and for ourselves. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Joel said...

I started to cringe at the phrase "recovering Catholic," but on reading the rest of this I was wrong to. This is excellent stuff.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Joel. That's a huge compliment.