(38) As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, (39) and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! (40) They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation. (Mark 12:38-40).
Many of you may know that this weekend, I will be ordained as a Unitarian Universalist Minister by the Unitarian Church of Evanston, IL. The church has worked hard to make this a wonderful event. My family is flying/driving in from the southern states, friends are coming in from across the country. Chaplain Lt. the Rev. Cynthia Kane, our liberal faith movement’s senior military chaplain is coming in from Maine to preach the ordination sermon. Some of the ministers that have meant so much to me in this journey into ordained UU ministry are participating in the service: Rev. Barbara Pescan, Rev. John Tolley, Rev’s. Jim and Nan Hobart, Rev. Lisa Presley, Rev. Ian Evison, Rev. Connie Grant and many others. Many of my clergy colleagues from many different religious traditions will be present to witness my formal entry into ordained ministry.
It has been a long journey since that day in 2004 in Galveston that I first thought of becoming a UU minister. I am a very different person now than I was then, and now realize how different I am each day because of the experiences of life and ministry. Yet through all of this preparation and anticipation, the above verse from the Gospel of Mark has stayed with me. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes…”
Now, I rarely wear my robe, and then only for as long as I have to. Those who have been with me in a worship service know I preach in a suit, and that’s not ever likely to change. But there is a greater message in this particular scripture that has been resonating with me, and it is not about the robe, but about the title that goes with it… what does it mean to be a “Reverend”? Why does our liberal faith movement, with our stated emphasis on the worth and dignity of every person, still grant such an honorific to someone as a way to “set them apart?”
As I have reflected on the purpose of the title Reverend, and all the long-robed trappings that go with it, I have come to the conclusion that the audience for that title is not the world at large, but the minister themselves. We do not call someone “Rev. so and so” to tell the rest of the world how important we think they are, or how pious or moral or just. Spend enough time among ministers and you will learn that ministers are just as human as everyone else… often moreso. The first time I had to get in-between two ministers on a soccer field as they looked like they were getting ready to throw punches at one another, it was underscored for me that, though we often do a good job at appearing more wise or peaceful or just, under it all we are still just human beings… perhaps just a little more self-aware than others. Not always… but sometimes.
No, I’ve realized that the purpose of my being called “Reverend” next Sunday is not to tell the world how wonderful/sacred/wise/ divine I am. It is to remind me, each and every time someone uses that title, of how much faith, trust, and responsibility I have accepted in becoming a minister. I am reminded that with the pastoral authority I have been granted comes a great responsibility.
We ministers are invited into people’s lives in some of the most intimate ways. We are trusted with what people hold sacred, with their deepest beliefs and their deepest pains. We are looked up to as models in a world that lacks them. We are invited to be with families in their most difficult decisions. We are trusted to help them find meaning in the most important events of their lives. We are witness to the best that is within people, and to the worst. We are there when they celebrate their births, their joining, and their deaths. We are who they turn to with that most sacred of questions… why?
We need to be reminded of the responsibility we carry, at every chance we can get. We need someone to say to us, “I have trusted you enough to place my heart in your hands, be careful what you do with it.” We need to be reminded that we are not social workers, we are not therapists, we are not doctors. As ministers, we invite people into relationship where they lower their boundaries and guards, trusting that we will not hurt them. We need to be reminded of that responsibility every time we put on the mantel of ministry… and I have decided that, for me, that is the meaning of the title “Reverend”. At it’s best, Reverend means “I have placed faith, hope, and love in my relationship with you, and I have trusted you. Respect that trust.”
I will, to the best of my ability… and I am humbled.
Yours in faith,