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THE PARSON’S REFLECTIONS, ONE YEAR IN

A sermon delivered by the Rev. Brian Mason
at the First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, September 16, 2018

A year ago, last August I started my ministry here at the First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau. I had a general idea of a minister’s expectations. However, like most jobs, the real training happens when you actually do the work. This morning is a bit of a departure from a traditional sermon. Instead, I’ve chosen to reflect on my feelings and experiences thus far. But first, a story:

A couple weeks back I spent a few hours with a gentleman who’s been a member of this church for nearly 65 years.

We sat together on his back porch soaking up the afternoon sun, talking politics and history mostly. The man’s name is Jerry Viste, who I’m sure some of you know well. Hanging above us on the wall was a portrait of his beloved late wife, Barney, who is regarded by many who knew her as a saint.

At 90-something-years-old I know that the opportunity to hear Jerry’s stories won’t last forever. At this point in my life none of my grandparents are living, and among them only one lived into their 90s.

On that particular afternoon I got to hear a story about 20-year-old Jerry who left Harvard to train as a pilot, and later flew B-17 bombers over Germany and Poland in the Second World War. He can recall listening to Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats on the radio as a boy and seeing an occasional farm animal get loose and roam around Harvard yard where he returned after the war to finish undergraduate and graduate school.

Every year his children drive him to the Mighty Eighth Army Air Force’s annual memorial service to honor the World War II veterans who died the previous year. He said he goes to pay his respects, of course, but mostly to hear the stories; stories of bravery and fear, stories of sacrifice and duty.

Jerry joked with me, saying, now that he’s in his 90s he can’t remember whether some stories are his or someone else’s that’s blended into his mind like it was his own. In the end it doesn’t matter who tells the story, it matters that the story has been told, and that it was received by someone who will tend to it with care.

Our lives are stories. Robyn Fivush, professor of developmental psychology at Emory, says that the stories we tell about others and ourselves shape our lives. The risks we take, our many mistakes and the moments of service and grace all add up to make the story of our lives.

When I officiate weddings I always include my conviction that when we fall in love we commit not only our faithfulness and trust, we commit to loving someone else’s story, knowing what we know, accepting what we don’t, and, still yet, promising to love who and what they will become.

A wise old preacher once said a life is always becoming. The sum of someone’s life is never what is; a life is always what was and what will be.

If you’re lucky, people will talk about you long after you’re dead.

When my grandmother was dying of cancer she told me one morning during a visit that she not only hoped us grandkids kept talking about after she died, she flat out expected us to keep talking about her.

If I remember right, she said something like, “Brian, you and your cousins best talk about me when I’m dead. ‘Cause if you don’t, I’m gonna haunt your rear end.”

So, we’ve been talking about her ever since.

Our lives are a story.

People often ask me what a minister does. If you ask my daughter, she’d say I preach sermons and talk a lot; and she’s not far off.

A minister is likely one of the last generalist jobs left in the world. On any given day I’ll read some strange treatise on the efficacy of atonement, officiate a wedding or a funeral, unclog a toilet in the church, unload a dishwasher, and babysit a congregant’s kid while they run a quick errand. But I’ve come to think one of my greatest responsibilities is to listen to peoples’ stories.
I assume I’m not alone in of questioning what it is I’m doing, and whether it matters. I remember getting up here to Wausau last August, sitting down at my desk, and wondering to myself, “so, now what?”

The model of the Unitarian minister has been handed down for generations from our Scottish forbearers to our Calvinist ancestors to our Puritan brethren who chose to build their communities not around schools or commerce, but around the church.

In cities and villages throughout New England, where Unitarianism and Universalism grew out of, there’s almost always a single steeple Congregationalist meetinghouse standing at the center of town, surrounded by a small green space or cemetery or both. From Canton, New York, to Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, the church was literally and metaphorically regarded as the center of most peoples’ lives.

Historically, in many towns, ministers were often the only people for miles around who had obtained any formal education.

If you recall from your history lessons, when immigrants started coming here in search of religious freedom and prosperity, barbers were still doing dentistry and lawyers mostly just read a book or two on lawyering before practicing law. In fact, America’s greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, did just that.

Most ministers in the early decades of our nation served their churches while also serving as elected officials, business owners, and city commissioners.

The great Unitarian minister William Greenleaf Eliot would, over the course of his 37 years as minister to the Church of the Messiah, would found Washington University in St. Louis, a country day school, the public-school system, and serve as Commissioner to the Western Sanitation Commission.

Eliot it a minister-hero of mine, and lucky for me he kept a journal off and on for most of his life.

In the journal’s pages what emerges is a man who took his calling as a pastor very seriously. In between entries about founding a university and asking congregants to give more money to the church and scaring off slave traders are entries about his almost daily visits with the members of his congregation.
Eliot described the ministry as an exercise in many distractions. It was just as much a generalist job back then as it is now, maybe even more so.

In the nine years I spent in St. Louis preparing for the ministry I’d occasionally stop by the historic Bellefontaine Cemetery where William and his beloved wife, Abby, are buried.

Buried within the cemetery gates are the likes of William Clark, William S. Burroughs, Thomas Hart Benton, the Anheuser’s and Busch’s, and many more luminaries from America’s history.

Most of the mausoleums and headstones in Bellefontaine a fabulous piece of artistry, complete with gargoyles and statues and grand rod-iron gates. However, William Greenleaf and Abby Eliot’s headstones are magnificently simple.

Both headstones very simply give the dates of their lives; and at the bottom of William’s it reads, “Looking Unto Jesus.”

Eliot was a conservative Unitarian, even by the standards of his era.

His friends at Harvard Divinity School would become the leaders of the Transcendentalists, while others would author infamous pieces of scholarship that challenged the doctrine of the Trinity and the Divinity of Jesus Christ.

Eliot chose instead to dedicate his life to the church and the city that called him as minister. In his journal he writes on the very first day of his landing on the muddy banks of the Mississippi River that it was his intention to spend the rest of his life in St. Louis; he goes so far as to promise in that same journal entry that he will one day be buried there.

Rather than seek fame or acclaim, Eliot chose instead to model his life after that poor refugee child from Nazareth. He chose to model his life after a carpenter’s son. Eliot modeled his life after Jesus, a guy who spent his entire adult life traveling around with twelve knucklehead friends, his mom, and a retired prostitute; a man who broke bread with tax collectors and outcasts; a man who comforted the sick and dying and mourning, and washed the feet of slaves; a man who taught that a life is best lived in service to others, and therefore commands sacrifice.

In the passage from Mark we heard this morning we hear the famous line that warns anyone who thinks a living a life of service to others ask that you, in essence, pick up a cross and bear it.
In other words, a life of sacrifice means you give up comfort and security in exchange for justice and grace.

This was Jesus’ charge to his disciples and to all who dare to live like he did.

All ministers, from the Pope to Billy Graham to your neighborhood pastor, have responded to this original calling found in Mark. Unitarian Universalist ministers, Catholic priests, and holy rollin’ Southern Baptist brothers and sisters all believe they are answering a higher calling to serve the world.

And every pastor ever has failed to live up to the demands of the ministry.

Since becoming UU Wausau’s minister there’s never been a week in which someone hasn’t come to me in need of money or food or comfort or medicine.

When I have the money, I give it. When I have the time, I offer it. But most of the time the other thing I have to offer is a listening ear, and the stories I hear are ones of struggle and pain. And then I rush off to a nursing home or someone’s living room to talk about love and love lost, and dreams and failures only to return to my office in time to start thinking of my work for the next day. There’s always something else that needs to be done; there’s always more I could have done.

For me, being UU Wausau’s minister has been a daily reminder of all that I lack: my lack of time and money and resources.

There are days when I am overwhelmed, and all I can think to do is pray – pray for the people who come here for help, and the friends and members of this church.

And just when my heart starts to slip into selfish despair someone tells me the story of a life well lived; someone tells me they’re two weeks sober, that they talked to their father for the first time in two years or that they’ve resolved themselves to live out the final days of their life folding into the loving embrace of their husband or wife. And it restores my hope in the resiliency of the human spirit.

It reminds me that people in cities and towns everywhere have dedicated their lives to something larger than themselves, to serving others, to welcoming the stranger.
What I’ve learned in my years as a hospital chaplain and minister in city streets and congregations is that all hope for full and meaningful lives rests in relationship with others.

Whether in marriage or friendship, being religious asks that we sacrifice a portion of our lives for the benefit of others. This is what bearing a cross means: selflessness in service to justice and goodness and grace.

Do great works, the hillbilly boy from Nazareth often said.

The story of your life is still being written.

In my first year as minister here I am frequently reminded of the goodness that rests in the hearts of so many people. But it has also kept my awareness that many people in this city and state and world lack even the most basic necessities. Some of this lack is the fault of racism and selfishness.

Though humankind has progressed in ways thought unimaginable to our ancestors, there is no denying there is much work to be done.

But giving in to despair, in the words of the poet Jack Gilbert, is to praise the devil. It is my prayer that this church and the people who make it so continue to sow seeds of goodness in this community we’re lucky to call home.

It is our duty as Unitarian Universalists to do so. We inherited this great faith and its command to sow goodness and justice in the world. This is our highest calling. This is the story we are destined to write. How it will be written is up to you.