Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Call to Service

Rev. Kit Ketcham
Pacific UU Fellowship, Oct. 20, 2013

         When I moved to the North Coast a little over a year ago, I was tired.  Retirement was the right answer for me in June of 2012.  I’d loved my Whidbey Island congregation, but now I just wanted to go to church on Sunday, maybe bring refreshments occasionally, greet people as they came in the door, pay my pledge, the same kinds of things that any good church member does to support the faith community and increase the sense of belonging.

         I considered checking out some of the other congregations on the coast, but a little experimentation and looking at websites helped me see that I really am a Unitarian Universalist at heart.  Even a nice liberal bunch of Methodists or Episcopalians or Congregationalists probably wasn’t going to cut it for me.

         So I never visited anywhere else.  I was happy to sit in these pews on Sunday morning, listen to whoever was the speaker, take part in interactive services, and generally just be a member.  Joining immediately was the right thing for me to do, as I’ve always belonged to whatever congregation I was serving or attending.  To just visit didn’t feel right; until I joined, I didn’t feel connected.  Guess I’ve been sort of a Church Lady all my life.

         But as I observed to Kathy Matthews, the UCC pastor, over coffee downstairs one day after I’d agreed to provide you all with some pastoral services, ……“a call to serve just doesn’t go away”.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a minister or a teacher or an engineer or an artist or a parent or a musician or any other field to which we feel drawn by our own passion and talents.  Most of us need to be useful all our lives, it seems.

         I’m betting that many people in this room this morning have felt a call to service, a call that was hard to ignore.  It could be a call to be the best parent you can be or an organic gardener, or a spouse or a choir director or a painter or photographer.  We can experience a call to a great number of life-changing activities, whether vocationally or as a hobby. 

         I’d like to tell you about my experience of being called to the ministry and then ask you about your sense of call, as individuals and as a community.  (pause)

         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 Homecoming 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 me 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 even  more challenging work, the work of ministry.

         And here I am, unable to say “no” to that call, even after retirement.

         What is a “Call”? what does it mean to be called to a particular life work, something larger than yourself, paid or unpaid? What has been your experience of being called? Who were the people who helped you discover it? Were there encouragers? Discouragers? How has your sense of being called changed over the years? Have you been changed by that call to service?

         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 I talked with Erin (worship leader) this past week about our service theme, we were surprised and delighted to find that we had significant similarities in our paths.        
       We had both enjoyed learning Spanish in high school and both of us majored in Spanish in college, but whereas I learned my Spanish in the classroom of old school translating and writing, rather than conversation, she had the opportunity to spend time in speaking Spanish with others. 

         This led her into work as a teacher, particularly with students for whom English was a second language.  Over the years, her opportunities to grow in this field have increased and she finds herself more deeply drawn into this way of improving others’ lives, as well as being true to her deep yearnings to provide a good life for Diego.

         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.

         Is there anyone here who would be willing to say more about their  own experience of feeling called to a life’s work?  Was your experience a sudden revelation, like mine was, or is it on-going, as Erin’s has been?  (cong resp)

         Thank you for your sharing.  I think that a sense of call to some work that changes the world around us for the better---or changes ourselves for the better---that sense of call is a deeply human, and, I think, a very spiritual, motivation.  It may have nothing at all to do with religious thought and everything to do with a need to (as Jim Henson, founder of the Muppets, once said) a need to leave the world a better place that he found it.

         It took me many years to get ready to answer the call that had grown in me since childhood, as a young person drawn to volunteering in my Dad’s church, as a welfare worker in Washington state, as a Baptist missionary in Denver, then as a teacher and counselor to junior high students.  When I finally did recognize that call, my whole life made sense.

          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 or being a good spouse, 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 an awful experience.

         A sense of call among members of a group like ours, the Pacific UU Fellowship, also contributes to the strength of our Beloved Community, both as members live out their own individual call and as they offer their passion and desire to serve through the congregation’s programs and the projects they support.

            Mary Oliver, the poet, offers this beautiful work entitled “The Summer Day” to ask an important question.
Who made the world? 
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

         What are we doing with our one wild and precious life?  How are we serving the world?  How are we using the minutes and the hours and the days that we have been granted by life?  Have we said no to a call because it wasn’t convenient?  Have we delayed answering a call because we were afraid?  Or have we stepped joyously, though perhaps with fear and trembling, through the door that will open more of life’s possibilities to us?

         And to expand that idea into the Call impelling a Unitarian Universalist congregation, even a small one like PUUF, I’d like to ask “what is the driving force that impels the Pacific UU Fellowship?  What are we doing with our one wild and precious life as a congregation?  What is our mission on this coastline?

         Is it just to serve our own needs?  Provide a place to go on Sunday morning?  A place to spend time with friends?  Or is there more we should be doing?

         I’d like to challenge us this morning to think about what we are doing here.  As Unitarian Universalists, we have a strong commitment to social action of many sorts.  As individuals, most of us are supporting various local social action causes.  But is there something we could do as a congregation, even as farflung as we are? 

         I’ll be asking this question over and over again during this year and I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts.  I’d like to see us sponsor some effort to make the world a better place, to make our coastline a more just and compassionate place.  I know there are others among us who would like the same thing.  Let’s see what we can come up with!

         In closing, I’d like to share one more thing about my own sense of call.

         The morning after I felt that second two-by-four of the call to ministry, while attending the Spokane General Assembly in 1995, I woke up with an old Sunday School song in my mind, a song which I have adopted as the theme song of my ministry.

         I’ve printed the words to this song in the order of service and I imagine that some of you sang it yourselves in another time and place.  I’d like to sing it to you and invite you to join in if you remember it.  And I want you to think of it as the promises I make as a minister---to you as a congregation and to those I encounter in my everyday life.

         Its words are kind of old-fashioned, but they are not particularly religious; I would call them words describing a life of integrity, the life of integrity that a Call to Service requires.

         Sing with me, if you will.  We’ll do this a cappella, I think.

I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care;
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer;
I would be brave for there is much to dare (2x).

I would be friend of all, the foe, the friendless,
I would be giving, and forget the gift.
I would be humble for I know my weakness,
I would look up and laugh and love and lift (2x).

         These words have stuck with me for many decades, not just during my years of ministry but as guideposts for living a life of integrity.  I haven’t always been true or pure or strong or brave.  I haven’t always lived up to my duties as a loving, giving, humble friend.  But I’ve always tried to look up and laugh and love and lift.

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

         Our closing hymn is #298, Wake Now My Senses.


         Robert Latham, who called me into ministry those many years ago, also imparted this wisdom at one point with a stanza from Robert Frost’s epic poem “Two Tramps in Mudtime”, describing a woodchopper’s reluctance to give over his work with the woodpile to two strangers.
“But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future´s sakes."

         Let us go in peace, remembering that we all may be called to do the hard work of making the world a better place.  May we do it with love and joy and integrity.  Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

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