This sermon was delivered at the installation of the Rev. Jonathan Rogers at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta at 4pm, Oct. 30, 2016.
Story Before The Sermon
This was one of Jonathan’s favorite stories growing up, and comes originally from a Chinese folktale dating to the Ming dynasty, when the superhero genre originated in that part of the world. It appeared as a storybook by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese in 1938 and for today has been adapted to the setting of Jonathan’s home state of Maine, with the title “The Five Maine Brothers.”
Once upon a time there were Five Maine Brothers and they all looked exactly alike. They lived with their mother in a little house not far from the sea. The First Maine Brother could swallow the sea. The Second Maine Brother had an iron neck. The Third Maine Brother could stretch and stretch and stretch his legs. The Fourth Maine Brother could not be burned. And The Fifth Maine Brother could hold his breath indefinitely.
Every morning the First Maine Brother would go fishing, and whatever the weather, he would come back to the village with fish which he had caught and could sell at the market for a very good price. One day, as he was leaving the market place, a little boy stopped him and asked him if he could go fishing with him. The First Maine Brother told him it could not be done, but the little boy begged and begged and finally the First Maine Brother consented. His only condition was that the boy obey him promptly, and the boy agreed.
Early next morning, the First Maine Brother and the little boy went down to the beach. Then the First Maine Brother swallowed the sea. And all the fish were left high and dry at the bottom of the sea. The little boy was delighted. He ran here and there stuffing his pockets with extraordinary shells and fantastic algae.
Near the shore the First Maine Brother gathered some fish while he kept holding the sea in his mouth. Presently he grew tired. It is very hard to hold the sea. So he made a sign with his hand for the little boy to come back. The little boy saw him but paid no attention. The First Maine Brother made great movements with his arms and that meant “Come back!” But did the little boy care? Not a bit and he ran further away.
Then the First Maine Brother felt the sea swelling inside him and he made desperate gestures to call the little boy back. But the little boy made faces at him and fled as fast as he could. The First Maine Brother held the sea until he thought he was going to burst. All of a sudden the sea forced its way out of his mouth, went back to its bed . . . and the little boy disappeared.
When the First Maine Brother returned to the village, alone, he was arrested, put in prison, tried and condemned to have his head cut off. On the morning of the execution he said to the judge: “Your Honor, will you allow me to go and bid my mother good-bye?”
“It is only fair.”
So the First Maine Brother went home . . . and the Second Maine Brother came back in his place. All the people were assembled on the village square to witness the execution. The executioner took his sword and struck a mighty blow. But the Second Maine Brother got up and smiled. He was the one with the iron neck and they simply could not cut his head off. Everybody was angry and they decided that he should be drowned.
On the morning of the execution, the Second Maine Brother said to the judge: “Your Honor, will you allow me to go and bid my mother good-bye?”
“It is only fair”
So the Second Maine Brother went home . . . and the Third Maine Brother came back in his place. He was pushed on a boat which made for the open sea. But he began to stretch and stretch and stretch his legs, way down to the bottom of the sea, and all the time his smiling face was bobbing up and down on the crest of the waves. He simply could not be drowned.
Everybody was very angry, and they all decided that he should be burned. On the morning of the execution, the Third Maine Brother said to the judge: “Your Honor, will you allow me to go and bid my mother good-bye?”
“It is only fair”
So the Third Maine Brother went home . . . and the Fourth Maine Brother came back in his place. He was tied up to a stake. Fire was set to it and all the people stood around watching it. In the midst of the flames they heard him say: “This is quite pleasant. Bring some more wood!”
“Now it is quite comfortable,” said the Fourth Maine Brother, for he was the one who could not be burned. Everybody was getting more and more angry every minute and they all decided to smother him.
On the morning of the execution, the Fourth Maine Brother said to the judge: “Your Honor, will you allow me to go and bid my mother good-bye?”
“It is only fair”
So the Fourth Maine Brother went home . . . and the Fifth Maine Brother came back in his place. A large brick oven had been built on the village square and it had been all stuffed with whipped cream. The fifth Maine Brother was shoveled into the oven, right in the middle of the cream, the door was shut tight, and everybody sat around and waited. They were not going to be tricked again! So they stayed there all night and even a little after dawn, just to make sure. Then they opened the door and pulled him out. And he shook himself and said, “My! That was a good sleep!”
Everybody stared open-mouthed and round-eyed. But the judge stepped forward and said, “We have tried to get rid of you in every possible way and somehow it cannot be done. It must be that you are innocent!” So they let him go and he went home. And the Five Maine Brothers and their mother all lived together happily for many years.
The Sermon: Three P’s of Ministry
Bad things happen and the world is unfair. Adam and Eve didn’t know that they didn’t know, until the Fall.
And that’s when the spiritual journey, personal and collective both, truly starts. Suffering is the eye-opener.
But in response, what do we do? Do we capitulate? Or do we persist, believing things can get better or, at least, meaning can be made?
What presence do we bring to the scene of the crime?
What passion gives us a vision of the possible and fires us up to go there?
What partnership enables us to become Beloved Community, and live together like that?
Beloved, installations and ordinations are natural times for unabashed meta-analysis of what that thing is we call professional ministry. And today, I want to explore its three P’s:
Let me also say, this is not just any service of installation. This is the installation of the Rev. Jonathan Rogers, my wonderful colleague. Therefore it must be stamped by his personality, his history. The message is for us all, but it is inspired by him.
So our gospel text upon which this sermon is built shall be the story he loved growing up, “The Five Maine Brothers.” Its winding way shall be the path into my message.
We start at the beginning. In the beginning, the little house not far from the sea doesn’t really have a reason to reach out and to yearn for “salvation”—and by that ancient word I mean a broken body made whole, the arc of the universe completing its bent towards justice, everyone at the welcome table not just some. But then a little boy comes to that little house not far from the sea and he wants to go out fishing, and the sea-swallowing Maine Brother says no but the boy is persistent, and so they go out, but for only so long can the sea-swallower hold the sea, and he’s waving frantically at the little boy to come back but the little boy doesn’t listen, he doesn’t fulfill his explicit promise that he would obey promptly, he runs even farther off, and in the end the little boy loses his life.
But when the sea-swallowing Maine Brother returns to the village, he gets arrested, he’s put in prison, tried and condemned to have his head cut off.
How often these days do you pop on the TV or some news source—Internet or newspaper or radio—and it’s the same thing? People who don’t deserve punishment getting punished? For example, just this past Thursday, did you hear about law enforcement officers in North Dakota, dressed in riot gear and firing bean bag rounds at the hundreds of Standing Rock Sioux tribal members and their supporters who have held a months-long campaign to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline, which they feel would damage their water supply and endanger their sacred sites? This happened the very same day that folks who had committed an armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon this past January and occupied it for 41 days were acquitted. It’s just that the similarities between the two situations are striking, and he differences so very troubling. Native Americans standing up for lands that are theirs in non-violent, prayerful fashion and being violently opposed, vs. Whites who experienced no violent opposition even though their action was an armed takeover!
Outrageous! People who don’t deserve punishment getting punished! People who do deserve punishment get away with it!
But even of people who do deserve punishment and need to be held accountable, we must still ask, What were the pressures they grew up under? What are the pressures now (internal and external), which have resulted in such destructive behaviors? What is it like to walk in their shoes? What are the parts of their story that no one knows and if people knew, people would be kinder?
Unmerited punishment is unfair. Merited punishment delivered mercilessly, which forgets the inherent worth and dignity of every person, is unfair.
Things happening that just happen to feel punishing can also be unfair. Who really deserves cancer, for example? Alzheimer’s? Or being born poor?
Unfair unfair unfair.
I could go on all day. Some of us go on in this vein their entire lives, because they are lost to pessimism and cynicism and bitterness.
But not ministers living into the truth of their call.
In Jonathan’s beloved story, it’s the Mother who shows the way. On the morning of the execution the sea-swallowing brother says to the judge, “Your Honor, will you allow me to go and bid my mother good-bye?” and the judge allows it, and then the story reads: “So the First Maine Brother went home . . . and the Second Maine Brother came back in his place.”
What? Wait a minute….
How’d we go from Brother #1 to Brother #2?
Just imagine the scene at the little house not far from the sea. Sea-swallower comes home and informs his family about what’s happening. Feelings of horror, upon hearing the horrible news. But then, what next? People giving up, people defeated? Despair that’s paralyzing? Seriousness that’s paralyzing?
That’s the fork they did not take. They took the other, which has the Mother sending out the Second Maine Brother, and then the Third and the Fourth and the Fifth, all sequenced ingeniously. And this demonstrates the three ministry Ps: Presence, Passion, and Partnership.
Presence fundamentally means holding the space. Horrible news explodes like a bomb, but someone who holds the space prevents all the emotional oxygen from being sucked out and leaving deadly anxiety behind, leaving deadly seriousness. When horror happens, you want to still keep breathing. You want to still be able to think clearly, act calmly. You don’t want that horror to gobble you up. You don’t want to be a digestible in its belly.
The Mother must have had presence to hold the space, to hear the horrible news and yet produce a solution that was genius. And ministers need to do this as well. To hold the space, keep things fluid and flowing until a truly creative solution emerges.
There’s a reason that Jonathan likes to lead the staff, at its twice-per-year retreats, in chicken-tossing contests. Imagine the elements: rubber chicken. One half of the staff to the left, in a semi-circle, bed sheet spread out among them. Same thing with the other half of the staff, to the right. How many times can we loft the rubber chicken from one group to the other? One-two-three-TOSS! The chicken goes flying, the many legs of one half of the staff combined together like a single awkward lurching creature go scrambling, and we are all laughing, and we need to laugh because church work is intense. We love it, but it can get really intense and sometimes the news is bad or complicated and the temptation is for the space to collapse so there’s nothing to push back against the onrush of intensity and you feel you can’t breathe any more….
But Jonathan knows, as all good ministers know, that one of the best ways of holding the space is through a sense of humor, well-timed. It drains anxiety. It drains the deadly dull seriousness. It helps us return to our humanity.
Which leads to the second P: Passion. Here again, the Mother in our gospel story shows the way. Sea-swallower comes home with his horrible news and by virtue of her Presence she is able to hold the space. But it is her Passion—her vision of what is good and right, felt enthusiastically—that guides her in what she does next.
You know that one of the things she could have done was accept the judge’s verdict, say goodbye to sea-swallower, and send him right on back to face his doom. She could have done that!
But she has Passion. Her vision of what is good and right, which she no doubt felt enthusiastically, was that injustice should not multiply. It was wrong to condemn her son, and it would be doubly wrong to go on with the execution. Just because the law says something doesn’t make it true justice.
Ministers must have the same courage of their convictions. They must have some vision of their unique contribution to the salvation story of a broken body made whole, the arc of the universe completing its bent towards justice, everyone at the welcome table not just some. They must have some vision around this, and it better get them excited! They must
Play like [they] know the clouds have left too many people cold and broken
and [they’re our] last chance for sun
Play like there’s no time for hoping brighter days will come
Play like the apocalypse is only 4…3…2
but [they] have a drum in [their] chest that could save us
[They] have a song like a breath that could raise us
like the sunrise into a dark sky that cries to be blue
Play like [they] know we won’t survive if [they] don’t
but we will if [they] do. [from “Say Yes” by Andrea Gibson]
Let me tell you, Jonathan is passionate about a lot of things and he is passionate about Religious Exploration. That’s a big drum beating in his chest, the song in his breath that wants to raise us!
I want to quote him. “Someone asked me this year,” he says, “as I was getting ready to step into my new role as Minister of Lifelong Learning and Growth: Why is UU RE important to you? My answer is very simple: I would not be who I am without having grown up as a participant in a UU RE program. A serious commitment to systemically improving the lives of others and a sense of playful levity are both essential to who I am. I cannot live without both ‘saving and savoring the world.’” He goes on to say, “Those are really hard truths to persistently, simultaneously hang onto. Our UU congregations are the only places I have found in my life to consistently honor both of those aspects of who I am, while continuing to meet new folks and share this journey with them. Without having the experience of children’s and youth RE in a UU congregation from 1992 to 2003, I don’t know where I would have developed these two crucial strands of my identity. So, when I contemplate the opportunity to create Religious Exploration programs for our children and youth where they can become who they are, that is a profound and meaningful responsibility for me. Knowing what UU RE meant to me growing up makes me want to do everything that I can to pass along to the next generation the gifts that I received, and to help our congregation to do everything we possibly can together to pass along those gifts. Even when that means risk, change, hard work and the emotional discomfort that accompanies major change.”
That’s Passion. He has it. All good ministers do.
And, it’s not enough. Presence and Passion go only so far.
Go back to the story. That family living in the little house not far from the sea has met bad news about sea-swallower with both non-anxious composure and conviction that a real wrong is taking shape. But now, what is to be done?
Well, what resources are available to do things with?
We are already very familiar with the Maine Brother who swallows the sea. But there’s also a Brother who has an iron neck, a Brother who can stretch and stretch and stretch his legs, a Brother who cannot be burned, and a Brother who can hold his breath indefinitely.
Frankly, it’s a little like a MacGyver episode. “With skills that are only limited by his creativity, Mac saves the day using paperclips instead of pistols, birthday candles instead of bombs, and gum instead of guns.” It’s a new series on CBS that’s actually a remake of an old one from the late 1980s. And I’m not surprised it’s been resurrected because it speaks to the truth that often the only resources at hand are ones that, at first glance, promise not much. Defeating an international espionage ring using paperclips, birthday cakes, and gum?
What the Mother of the story must do is along the same lines. All the Mother has at hand to preserve sea-swallower’s life and reverse the judge’s guilty verdict is: the other four brothers, each with an odd power that’s extremely specialized, radically limited in itself.
I could totally see her giving up then and there. I could totally see her taking that fork in the road.
But she doesn’t. She’s got that MacGyver sense that even the most unlikely things, when combined intelligently, can accomplish remarkable feats and win back justice.
Ministers need this MacGyver sense also. Two thousand years ago it was Paul, in 1 Corinthians Chapter 12 saying, “For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?”
A body does not consist of one member but many, and all the members count. All have their unique contribution. Paul says “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” He says that because that’s exactly what people say to each other in congregations and elsewhere all the time. “You have an iron neck? How is that going to help us with our stewardship campaign?” “You can stretch and stretch and stretch your legs? But we need more RE volunteers!” “You can’t be burned? What does that have to do with choir?” “You can hold your breath indefinitely? Is that your way of coping with long sermons?”
But the third P of ministry says, “If you’re not sure how people or things might go together, don’t discount. Trust that there’s power there. Wait, and let it be revealed. Never doubt in the Partnership you can draw out, through your facilitation powers.” Just like the Mother in the story.
And we can extrapolate on the Mother’s sense of hopefulness endlessly, far beyond congregational life. What would she say, for example, about the hole in the ozone? I like to think she’d say what Carl Sagan once said: “The hole in the ozone layer is a kind of skywriting. At first it seemed to spell out our continuing complacency before a witch’s brew of deadly perils. But perhaps it really tells of a newfound talent to work together to protect the global environment.” In other words, it calls forth collaborations that we have never seen before, to meet a challenge that is unprecedented. Come on, sea-swallower, come on iron-neck, come on leg-stretcher, burn-beater, breath-holder! Time to step up!
The Partnership of all is crucial!
To fall into a sense of doom and stay lying there is to miss the point of living. It is said, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” And neither are human beings.
Ministers, we must be dealers in hope. Ministers, we must step forward with Presence, step forward with Passion, step into the Partnership of all, facilitate that, make it happen, and, if we do, we will end up writing a story that is just as amazing as Jonathan’s “The Five Maine Brothers.”
Play like the apocalypse is only 4…3…2
but you have a drum in your chest that could save us
You have a song like a breath that could raise us
like the sunrise into a dark sky that cries to be blue
Play like you know we won’t survive if you don’t
but we will if you do