Stepping Out of the Boat

Prayer

Gracious and loving God,

From whom all things come and to whom all things return

We gather this hour as a people of faith

bound together by our common search for meaning and depth in life.

We pause in our journeys to breath in the nurturing power of our felt community.

Each of us gathered holds our own assortment of joys and sorrows, burdens and blessings

Each of us gathered carries great gifts to offer and deep hungers and pain.

We give thanks this hour for this day, cold and harsh though it may be,

we give thanks for it because it is life, vibrant life.

We give thanks for the multitude of blessings that fill our days

in the form of friends and work and health and love.

And we give thanks for unknown blessings yet to come.

In gratitude we also lift up to thee our needs,

Where there is struggle and hardship, may there be courage.

Where there is adversity, may there be strength of spirit

Where there is heartache and despair, may there be hope and companionship for the journey.

This we ask in the name of all that is holy,

May it be so.

Reading            “Vocation” by Frederick Buechner

It comes from the Latin Vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God.  It is the work that he is called to in this world, the thing he is summoned to spend his life doing.  We can speak of a man’s choosing his vocation, but perhaps it is at least as accurate to speak of a vocation’s choosing the man, of a call’s being given and a man’s hearing it, or not hearing it.

And maybe that is the place to start: the business of listening and hearing.  Listen to your life.  There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this.  The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done.  If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you and probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

 Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do.  The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Stepping Out of the Boat
January 23, 2005
Rev. Douglas Taylor

The point of my sermon today is to convince you all to get out of the boat.  But before I can explain that better, I must first tell you two stories.

A monk sat on the banks of the Ganges River with one of his students.  As they watched the water flow by, a large scorpion making its way along the steep banks fell into the water and began to struggle and drown.  Without hesitation, the monk reached in and pulled the scorpion from the water.  As he placed it on the bank it stung his hand.

Several minutes later this same scorpion fell again into the river and commenced to drown.  Again the monk reached in and again was stung as he set the scorpion on the bank.

A third time the scorpion fell and a third time it was retrieved by the monk with the same results.

The student could no longer restrain himself.  “Master,” he asked, “Why is it that you keep saving that beastly scorpion from drowning?  Can’t you see that it is just going to sting you?”

“Yes, I know it is going to sting me,” laughed the monk.  “It is the dharma of a scorpion to sting.  But it is my dharma to save.”  (Elisa Pearlmain, ed, Doorways to the Soul. p 1)

So I’ve been reading this first story for several years now.  At first I thought: Yes, yes!  Life is like that, my calling is like that.  This story is my story because it reminds me that the painful times in this journey have been useful and have deepened and furthered my calling.  Later, at other times when I would read this, I tried to change the ending of the story.  Why didn’t the monk fling the scorpion several feet away from himself and the water?  Or maybe the scorpion was trying to get to the water for some important, though obscure, reason; and this monk was preventing it from doing what it needed to do?  Or even, why not grab a stick and let the scorpion climb onto the stick, or use the stick to push the scorpion toward shore and safety?  I was looking for a way to take the sting out of the story.  But the sting is a part of the story, the sting is a part of life.

This story is about living the life you are called to live despite the external pressures to live otherwise.  This story is about having a calling, a vocation.  Parker Palmer, a Quaker educator and author wrote in his book, Let Your Life Speak, “from our first days in school, we are taught to listen to everything and everyone but ourselves, to take all our clues about living from the people and powers around us.  We listen for guidance everywhere except from within.”  (p 5)

This story about the monk and the scorpion asks, “What is your high vision for yourself as a positive force in the world?”  Or, “How is your life a reflection of God’s love?”  But it also holds the warning that life is not without its sting!  If you choose to live and work and love in a way that is consistent with your inner voice, you will undoubtedly suffer for it in some manner.

Childbirth is the archetypal image of the pain felt in the process of becoming.  Listen to the deep yearning within you, calling you to be in the world in a way you had not thought possible.  Maya Angelou, in speaking about the powerful forces at play in the process of becoming, said, “Nobody knows what it costs the bulb, a tulip bulb or an onion bulb, to split open so that green tendril of life can slip out.”  That sting is a part of life.

But I am leading us deeper into that sometimes hard edge of vocation, which is a valuable point to explore, but is not where I really want to spend my time.  I really want to look at the breadth of this topic and how it applies to you.  Vocations and ministries are not reserved for ministers.  Everyone can tap into that.  As Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

UU colleague, Roy Phillips recognized some of this and began leading workshops about ten or twenty years ago encouraging members of his church to discover their callings, to discover, as he put it, their ministries.  In his book, Transforming Liberal Congregations for the New Millennium, he writes about this:

Liberal congregations need – and I believe are on the brink of – a paradigm shift from membership to ministry.  We will see more and more of it as the new millennium approaches.  People now seen as members of an organization that delivers them spiritual care will come to view themselves as part of a community of lay ministers expressing their unique core gifts and values in personal and shared ministry – in their homes and congregations, among their friends and strangers, and in their workplaces.  (Roy Phillips, Transforming Liberal Congregations for the New Millennium. p 18.)

This concept of Share Ministry that so many people are talking about nowadays is rooted in an understanding of what we are all about as a congregation.  I’ve heard that the Quakers have been waiting for a grand change to take place in the culture of churches.  They await the remarkable transformation that would accompany the abolition of the laity.  Gee, if we get rid of all the laity, all we would have left is the ministry!  This is the very shift that Phillips was promoting about ten years ago with his little book, a shift from membership to ministry.

I told you I would need to tell you two stories before I could explain the title of my sermon, “Stepping Out of the Boat.”  The second story is from the Bible and it is about Jesus walking on the water.  The story of Jesus walking on the water has a fascinating twist that most people don’t talk about.  The scene happens in three of the Gospels: Mark, Matthew, and John.  In all three, Jesus and the disciples had just finished feeding five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes, and Jesus sends everyone away and tells the disciples to get in the boat and go ahead of him across the Sea of Galilee.  He then goes off to be alone for a bit and pray.

Later that night, while the disciples are rowing hard through a storm, the waves are splashing into the boat and the wind is whipping around them, they look up and there is their master, their rabbi, walking toward them on the water.  So, what would you do if you were in that boat?  They were terrified, according to the report.  They thought they were seeing a ghost! They cried out in fear!   And Jesus says, “Don’t worry, it’s just me.”  And then we find the fascinating twist:  Two of the gospel narratives skip this next part and just say, “Then they all landed safely on the other side.”  But the Gospel of Matthew adds this part:  Jesus is walking toward the boat and says, “Fear not, it is I.”  And Peter answers him saying, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  And Jesus says, “Come!”  So Peter gets out of the boat and walks over toward Jesus.  Now we’ve got two guys out there walking on the water!

I must admit I was pretty surprised to find this in there.  Peter was walking on the water too!  I didn’t grow up Christian with these stories being told to me over and over again.  I think I actually read the Jefferson Bible before I read the regular full version; and Jefferson’s Bible does not have any of the miracles or healing stories, no virgin birth or resurrection.  What is missed when you cut out all the miracles and healings is the opportunity to look past these non-rational supernatural elements in the story and to read yourself into the text at the metaphorical level, to read even the healings and miracles as parables for better living.

So I read this story not as two men actually walking around on water, but as a metaphor about faith and power and the capacity of people like you and me to do things beyond what we thought ourselves capable of.  I read this as you and me walking around on the water, living deeply powerful lives.  I read this as all of us stepping out of the boat and walking around together sharing the task of living life at a level of depth and power.  I am calling to you to come, step out of the boat and join me.  You have to be careful when your minister starts comparing himself to Jesus, but it only looks like I’m putting myself in Jesus’ sandals because I’m the one saying “come.”  At another time, someone or something called me out of the boat, I’m just calling now for you to get out of the boat too.  Later on, perhaps it will be you calling another to come and join us out on the water.

What does it mean to step out of the boat?  It means, you are not stuck in the position of a consumer who has shown up this morning looking to get your needs met.  Instead, you can see yourself in the position of a co-creator with everyone else in the room, with Vicky at the piano or Gail at the organ and me up here in the pulpit.  We’ve all shown up here to create this event together, to co-create this worship moment.  Get out of the boat!  And throughout your week and indeed throughout your life you are a co-creator with even God, however you conceive God to be.  Get out of the boat!

We have as our first principle in Unitarian Universalism the statement that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every individual.  We couple that a few principles down with a commitment to the democratic process and it turns out that every one of you here has a calling to which you can respond.  Get out of the boat!  Ministers are trained to be soloists first.  What’s needed is a choir, what’s needed is a whole host of singers to let the harmonies and rhythms role across the waters.

One evangelical minister lamented how his congregation seemed stuck, and he used the analogy of a passenger train’s brake system to describe his church.  It seemed to him that every one had access to the brake cord and could pull it at any time forcing the entire locomotive to screech to a halt.  All of these wonderful powerful people were situated on committees and boards and positions of power, but all they could do was pull the brake cord.  Like the train, there was only one accelerator, located in the front of the train.  Access to the accelerator was limited to the ordained clergy.  “So in most cases a multitude of boards and committees serve mainly to prevent new vision from taking the church beyond the status quo.” (Carl George, Preparing Your Church for the Future. p 37)   OK, so I’m passing out accelerators toady.  This is about shared ministry, this is about power.  Get out of the boat!

“We are seeing a paradigm shift from membership to ministry,” Phillips wrote.  Each of us shares in the ministry.  You may think you are just singing in the choir, but you are unique and precious and powerful and your voice is a part of your ministry in this community.  You may think you are just organizing the ushers or the coffee servers, you may think you are just teaching a Sunday school class, but you are unique and precious and powerful and you are providing others with opportunities to grow and to serve and to unleash their own ministries.  You may think you are just contributing your share of the work that needs to be done, but you are unique and you are precious and you are powerful and what you offer may well be your ministry, may well be your calling to serve.  Come, get out of the boat!

A colleague told of a member of her congregation who lived on the curve of a street that in winter became icy and treacherous, and the site of many car accidents.  The woman came to see helping people at this corner as a ministry.  She tried to get the county to re-grade the road or to put in better lighting, or at least put up sings.  She also had a shelf in her kitchen where she kept tea, cocoa and cookies alongside a list of phone numbers for towing companies.  She just knew that a couple of times each winter, she would need to go out and see how bad the accident was, occasionally call the ambulance, but likely just invite people into her house, sit them down with a mug of tea and a few cookies, and help them begin to deal with the car accident.

I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “What I am doing here is something I just need to do.”  Time and again, people find in this community a path to serve, a path to meet not only the needs of the community, but also the deeply personal needs that arise from within.  Time and again, people shake off the notion that they owe this community something for all they have received, and glimpse the shining truth that here is a place where they can offer their ministry.

Come, step out of the boat, here is a place where you can answer your call, a path for your becoming, a community where you can offer your ministry.

In a world without end,

may it be so.