Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Sermon: "Raiding the Lost Ark" (Delivered 7-15-2007)

This sermon is the first in a six part series on “Covenant and Liberal Religion.” For the next six months, I will preach one sermon per month on an aspect of covenant.

[Before the sermon, we showed a scene from the film Indiana Jones & The Raiders of the Lost Ark. The scene began with Professor Jones lecturing to a thoroughly bored (and, for a University in 1936, surprisingly co-educational) class. Summoned from the classroom, Prof. Jones meets with some government officials who are concerned about a Nazi archeological dig in Egypt. Jones deduces that they are trying to find the Ark of the Covenant!]

Let me begin this sermon by saying, “Happy Birthday” to Harrison Ford who turned sixty-five on July 13th, 2007.

So, where is all this going? Well, probably the best way to begin to explain the whole idea behind this sermon and this sermon series is to tell you about an experience that happened to me last Thursday. Last Thursday, I was participating in a protest down by the Nichols Fountain on the Plaza. Missouri Governor Matt Blunt recently signed legislation that called for abstinence-only sex education in all Missouri schools and also restricted outside instructors in health classes to those with no connection at all to any health care system that offers abortion as option. Meaning, of course, that someone who is trained and has expertise in teen health counseling but who works for, say, Planned Parenthood would be barred from speaking to a health class at a public high school.

So, I went down to the Plaza to hold signs and talk with passersby and advocate for an approach to health education for young people that says that information and education is better health policy than ignorance.

But that is not really the point. You see, down at the protest these two young women were hanging around. They approached the protesters, and lied that they were writing for a student newspaper. In reality, they were amateurish reporters for a fundamentalist Christian magazine. Soon, word got out that a minister was at the protest – and that minister happened to be me – and so these two amateurish fundamentalist infiltrators made a bee-line to me to interview this minister (can it be believed?) who actually supports sex education. I introduced myself as a Unitarian Universalist minister and they asked me to explain what UU’s believe. I explained that we are a covenantal faith, not a creedal faith. We share a covenant of how we try to be together, not a creed of what we all must believe together.

Then the questions began: “Well, does your church believe in the Bible?”

I responded: That is a creedal question. We are a covenantal church. We share a covenant of how we try to be together, not a creed that says what we are expected to believe together.

“Does you church believe in God?” they ask.

“That is a creedal question,” I respond. “We are a covenantal church. We share a covenant of how we try to be together, not a creed telling us what we are expected to believe together.”

This went on for a while. It took them a while to get this. They were being challenged to think in a new way.

I think that sometimes in our churches we tend to stress the fact that we are NOT a creedal church a lot more than we stress that we ARE a covenantal church. We emphasize the creeds we are not asked to recite more than the covenants we are asked to share. We over-emphasize the fact that we are not required to believe in God necessarily or believe a certain doctrine about the Bible or the afterlife. We under-emphasize the covenantal dimensions of our shared faith and we stress the non-creedal aspects.

This morning is the first in what I plan to be a six month sermon series on the dimensions of covenantal faith, one sermon per month. As a covenantal church, we should spend some time taking seriously what those covenants are about. Next month, I want to talk about membership… about the covenant of belonging to community. In September, I will talk about the free pulpit and the free pew, but really that sermon will be about the covenant we share about growing spiritually. In October, I will talk about the covenant we share with our larger movement. What is our responsibility to other churches? In November, fitting in perfectly with the celebration of Thanksgiving, we’ll be going back to the idea of the Mayflower Compact and asking questions about whether we share an American covenant and what that ought to be. (And, I will tell you: if you’ve gone to see the Michael Moore movie “Sicko” this question is so in need of asking. What is our covenant? What do we owe to one another?) And finally, in December we’ll be tying it all together and coming to some sense of a new and renewed covenant.

I plan to have a lot of fun with each of these sermons. We’ll use some more movies and maybe some costumes and drama. Surprises are in store. So, don’t miss out on this.

As you can tell, I’m really passionate about this and I think this strikes at the core not only of our identities as Unitarian Universalists, but I really believe that covenant can shapes our lives and our living – can be a central motive force in our lives.

Covenant is one of those religious lingo words – like creed, or catechism, or charism, or co-substantial. It is a word that tends to come across as jargon-y and overly-intellectual. I might as well be writing neo-lithic on the chalkboard like Professor Jones did in his classroom, only to receive bored stares.

And here is where Indiana Jones comes in. On one level Indiana Jones lives sort of a double life. Part of the time he is a stuffy archeologist, giving lectures to bored students who do not share in his passion for ancient Sumerian gravesites. But, the other half of the time he is this rough and tumble adventurer, traveling the globe, risking death, saving ancient antiquities, and saving the world from the Nazi’s.

Conventional church often has this double-life motif. In a conventional church you show up on Sunday to hear a 2,000 sermon about a 2,000 year-old story, and you learn what this word meant in Greek or that word meant in Aramaic or Hebrew. And then you go off: to lunch, to your real life, and your real life is just about as far removed from the idea of the Hebrews carrying an ark through the desert as can be.

But, what is interesting about Indiana Jones is that his is not really a double-life. He is the archeologist in the classroom and the archeologist when he is racing to excavate ancient cities. This is different than other super-heroes. Peter Parker is a bumbling pizza-delivery boy and a frustrated photographer – he is the confused college kid trying to pick a major – but he also gets to be Spider Man and do heroic good deeds in his second life. But, the one life has nothing to do with the other. Bruce Wayne is a business tycoon haunted by his past, who despite his riches feels empty, unfulfilled, and lonely. But then, at night, he gets to transform into Batman and be an avenger of the weak and the defenseless. The one life has nothing to do with the other.

These are split lives. Heroic and purposeful in one moment, but pointless and empty in the next. And with Batman and Spiderman there is always this constant frustration and friction. One life is unsatisfying; the other life is unsustainable. Saint Paul expressed this better than anyone: “For I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want, but I do the very things I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

But, my point is that Indiana Jones is not like this at all. Passion and purpose and calling infuse his life at every moment. His is not a double life – part heroic and part counting the hours until he gets to be passionate again – he is living his passion constantly. He is living his calling. And maybe he is way more excited about archeology than anyone of us ever could be, but that is OK. He is not trying to force us to be passionate about archeology. He is living his calling and using his passion to do something meaningful.

[It was at this point in the sermon that I donned an Indiana Jones style hat and brandished a whip – for theatrical effect. I felt very cool doing this!]

So, I want to bring this back to covenant – that jargon-y word – because we are going to be diving deep into aspects of covenant. So, what does it mean to say that we are a covenantal faith anyways?

A covenant is a set of enduring but evolving deeply held promises made between people. And while the covenant is taken seriously, the promises are often so intense that it is impossible to always live up to them. We will never exactly live up to the covenants into which we enter. So, we will always admit a falling short – and respond by re-covenanting, recommitting to those promises.

The model for this is Biblical. It has to do with Abraham promising devotion and sacrifice to the God Yahweh, and Yahweh in turn promising family health and wealth and chosen status. A few chapters later, the covenant is renewed and Abraham’s whole family is included in the covenant. From them is expected even more devotion and sacrifice and obedience and, in turn, Yahweh promises all of them greater wealth, not to mention military protection. I admit this really isn’t all that interesting. Later, in the New Testament, the leaders of the early church speak of a new covenant. The new covenant has to do with who else is included and what the expectations for remaining in covenant are. Again, the particulars are not that interesting unless you are into Biblical scholarship. Like Professor Jones, you are not expected to share that passion, either.

But the point I want to make about all this covenant stuff is that, inevitably, neither side keeps their end of the bargain. The Hebrews begin not to hold up their end of the bargain more or less right off the bat. And God, Yahweh, doesn’t always live up to the divine end of the bargain either. All throughout the religious tradition there is a need for prophets and others who point out ways the covenant is broken and call for repentance and renewal. The same thing can be said about the new covenant imagined by the early Christians.

So, what happens when the covenant is broken? A covenant is different than a contract. One party breaks a contract and it can be voided. Both sides are released from obligations and sometimes the offending party is penalized. But covenants are different. They go on. It is almost expected that they will not be fulfilled, but still they are re-entered with hope, re-entered with the intention of living up to them.

So, instead of being a creedal church where we’re united by the beliefs that we are expected to hold in common… and instead of being a creedless church where we don’t have any beliefs we are expected to share… instead, as a covenantal faith, what is this covenant we share together? I am just going to begin to explore the substance of that covenant this morning – and we will be exploring it in depth one Sunday per month over the next five months. I hope that you will be co-explorers, co-adventurers with me.

A few simple, elementary things I might say about the covenants of this covenantal faith: covenants are promises about ways of being together. Here in this church, it is obvious that one of the promises we make in covenant is to be together in ways that respect each other’s worth and dignity, ways that are safe. Being non-creedal we can’t expect to all believe the same things, but in covenant we can respect each other even and especially when we don’t agree with them.

Our covenant includes inclusion – we are all equally chosen people – and so part of our covenant helps to make all feel welcome regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, or physical ability.

And our covenant – I would submit – is not insular, is not the property of those of us inside these walls. I would submit that it reaches outward, into the community. As those undercover reporters asked me in a way, “Do you believe the way I believe? Because that is necessary for us to relate to you.” They were posing a creedal question and giving me a creedal test. Covenant is larger than creed. What promises do we, should we, must we make to each other – knowing that we will break our vows – but then find it worth it to promise again, because we must. But, I’ve only just scratched the surface this morning.

You know, thinking about Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, I am struck. In the scene we saw, it was suggested that the ark had these super-powers. Indiana Jones even say, whoever holds the ark holds the power of God. The movie imagines this as the power to shoot lightning bolts and melt people’s faces (you remember how the movie ends, right?) but that is just Hollywood dramatics. But what is the ark of the covenant? It is a physical reminder – a heavy and weighty reminder – of deeply made promises. In that way, covenants are things of great power indeed. Our covenants in this church – made with one another and with the spirit and source of life itself – are powerful. And so I find it very poignant that what was carried through the desert is a reminder of promises we are committed to live by.

I look forward to unlocking some of the mysteries and discovering some of these powers in the months to come. Promises that change lives, that call us to live up to our best selves, that summon forth our true, authentic, vulnerable, and passionate selves. The covenants that call us to become who we are called to be amidst others called to be become who they are truly called to be as well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

July 8: SMUUCh Members Reflect on General Assembly

[Our Worship Service on July 8th featured reflections by three members of the congregation as well as me. Each of us shared our experiences and reflections from attending the UUA General Assembly in Portland Oregon.]

Reflection by Jim Crist

“If you ever have the chance to attend a UUA General Assembly,” people told me, “do it. You won’t be sorry. It will be a life-changing experience.”

Schedules being what they are, I’ve never had the opportunity to go to GA, until this year. This year, however, the scheduling gods smiled upon me, so I seized the moment and registered.

The theme of the 2007 General Assembly was “Choices that Matter,” and the first choices that mattered to me were which of the over 300 workshops, meetings, and events I should try to attend. I downloaded the convention program and spent the better part of a week laying out my schedule for each day from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. This detailed schedule eventually ended up in the wastebasket—a common experience for first time GA attendees, I’m told.

I did attend plenty of meetings and workshops and events. I took lots of notes, and maybe one day I’ll be able to decipher them.

The meetings and the workshops and the events were outstanding, but what I’d like to share with you is how the GA experience actually did change me. Even though the convention organizers chose “Choices that Matter,” as the theme, for me, a different theme emerged: “Making the Connection.” As a result of attending GA, I feel a deep connection now with UU brothers and sisters across the country. I feel a new connection with the larger UU denomination. I also feel a stronger connection with my own church.

Here in our church, at the edge of the prairie, it sometimes feels as if our collective voice is small, that we are sometimes shouting into the wind, that we sometimes go unheard. But after spending time in the presence of more than 5,000 other Unitarians, singing with them, cheering with them, worshiping with them, I know that we have a larger voice than I ever imagined, and that our voice is heard. We are not alone. We are not even isolated. We are everywhere. The progressive voice for freedom, equality, peace, and justice is everywhere, and it will be heard.

It was an honor for me to carry the SMUUCh banner in the opening ceremony banner parade. I carried the banner and Michele Gaston walked beside me. Prior to the parade, while waiting in the banner staging area along with hundreds of other banner bearers, we had a chance to talk to people from all over the country.

Our banner has two sides. One side shows a panel celebrating our 40th anniversary. The other shows a dinosaur, and this side raised some eyebrows.

“Shawnee Mission, Kansas,” one man said. I replied, “Yep, Kansas.”

After the obligatory “What’s the Matter with Kansas” comment, his face took on a somewhat puzzled look and he said, “Kansas…hmm…I get the sunflowers, but I don’t get the dinosaur. Are there dinosaurs in Kansas?”

“Well,” I said, “we had a few on the state board of education last year, but they’re extinct, or at least in hibernation for the time being.” Then I bragged about how our church sponsored public classes on the science of evolution last year. He has a new understanding of Kansas.

Carrying the banner through the convention hall, and later singing hymns with 5,000 other UUs really gave me a spiritual lift and made me feel connected to a great whole.

The following day, during the Service of the Living Tradition, I was witness to the final fellowship ceremony for new ministers. Among the new ministers participating in the ceremony were our own Thom Belote and Paige Getty. Paige was serving as interim minister here at SMUUCh when I started coming, so to see her receive final fellowship the same night Thom did, well, there’s a certain symmetry there.

As an official delegate for our congregation, I was entitled to vote during the business sessions. I actually attended most of the business sessions, and I can tell you that the Unitarian Universalist Association takes this democracy stuff seriously. Everything seemed open for discussion. Provision was made for both sides of any issue to have a voice in the proceedings. To keep a meeting with several thousand participants organized, on track, on time, and productive is a Herculean task. After participating in the business sessions, I have a whole new respect as well as a sense of pride for our denomination.

A highlight of my GA experience was singing in the 170-member choir. I’m not a great singer, but I can blend pretty well, so when I found out after the 2nd rehearsal that many of the choir members around me were music directors from their church, I felt somewhat intimidated. No, I felt very intimidated. I stuck it out, however, went to all the rehearsals, and boy, am I glad I did. If you have ever sung in a group, you know what an uplifting, almost transcendent experience it can be to make a joyful, harmonizing sound with other people. Multiply that by 2 and you have my GA choir experience.

I can’t say that going to General Assembly exceeded my expectations. Never having gone, I had no expectations. I was pretty much ready for anything. I went, not knowing what to expect. I came back a much richer person. Richer in spirit, richer in experience, richer in knowledge, richer in friendship, and with enough new books and reading material to keep me busy for the next 2 years.

So, I guess what it boils down to is this: If you ever have the chance to attend a UUA General Assembly, do it. You won’t be sorry. It will be a life-changing experience.

Reflection by Connie Strand

Although this was my very first General Assembly, I feel like I have attended the past 10 years or so vicariously through my husband Don (who attends every year as part of his job and who will share his thoughts with you in a few minutes). Every June he would come back with one story or another that piqued my interest, and I always thought: “Next year in Long Beach!” or “Next year in Cleveland!” But one thing or another always got in the way.

I must confess that “This year in PORTLAND” was simply too good to pass up, so I found myself packing my bags alongside Don and heading west.

Although Don has different things to say about GA each year, there are two things he never fails to mention:
1) “If you ever go, you simply can’t miss the Opening Banner Ceremony” and
2) “It’s so fun to play ‘Spot the UUs in the Airport’ coming and going.”

Thanks to United Airlines, we made it to the Opening Ceremony with only 10 minutes to spare, despite an original flight schedule that had us landing 8 hours earlier. They also chose to route us through the Dallas airport, where it was certainly much easier to spot a UU than in the granola-friendly Portland terminal. Who knew that you could find big, gaudy, shiny chalice earrings to match your big hair?

Fortunately we did make it to the Banner Ceremony on time, and Don was right – it is an amazing experience. Absolutely Amazing. There really is nothing quite like singing “Spirit of Life” with 5,000 or so of your closest friends. It is downright joyous to watch the banner-carriers parade their colors throughout the auditorium -- especially Jim and Michele Gaston with our 40th anniversary sunflower banner!

For me, the Opening Ceremony was probably the peak “feel-good” moment of GA. But I was fortunate to have many other such moments, including:
* Hearing Daniel Ellsberg, on the 35th anniversary of the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, earnestly pleading for somebody in government today to take whatever risk necessary to keep us out of going to war in Iran – a risk he said he wishes he would have taken two years earlier than he did in the Vietnam era.
* Taking communion with several hundred other UUs at a UU Christian Fellowship service.
* Listening to the marvelous GA choir (including our board president on tenor)
* Just walking around and seeing the smiling faces of people who share my faith. It is good to be with your own in such number from time to time.

But GA is about more than Feel-Good moments, which come and go quickly. What will stick with me over the long haul is the series of workshops I attended based on a book by David Korten called “The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community.”

I cannot do justice to what I took from those workshops in the few short minutes I have this morning. Boiled down, The Great Turning gives us a framework in which to put the future of our world. Will we continue with the Empire-building we have seen for thousands of years, or can we turn to an Earth Community that will sustain us in the future? How do we move from relationships based on domination to relationships based on partnership? Can we stop our suicidal competition for the earth’s remaining resources and learn how to cooperatively share them, instead?

The Great Turning brings together many ideas that resonate with us as UUs under one umbrella, whether it is living in a way that ensures a healthy environment, or working in a way that ensures a healthy community. And it does it in a way that gives me hope that we can actually make this work.

My next step from these workshops will be to offer an Adult RE class on the book, using a discussion guide and other methods we explored in one of the workshops I attended. If you’d like to learn more about The Great Turning, please consider signing up for the class later this year.

On a final note, I want to thank everybody in this congregation for the role you played in my GA experience. Just like any other convention, GA attendees wear plastic name badges festooned with various ribbons and gee-gaws. My badge sported three ribbons, and they were all based on the work of this congregation – First there is the ribbon on top that identifies me as being a member of a Welcoming Congregation; then there is this green ribbon, which signifies that we are committed to fair compensation for our professional staff; and finally, this purple ribbon that says we are an “honor” congregation in our support of the UUA. Clearly these are as much your ribbons as they are mine -- Thank you for all you have done here that allowed me to proudly wear this badge!

Reflection by Don Skinner

It’s true. I have attended the past ten General Assemblies. I have the good fortune to work for our Association of Congregations from right here in Johnson County. I write a newsletter for lay leaders about ways to do church better. And I write for the denominational magazine, UU World, which many of you receive. After 20-some years of working for newspapers, this is the best journalism job I’ve ever had. And I’m grateful to this congregation for its support of the UUA and for making my job possible. My yellow ribbon indicates that I am a UUA staff member.

General Assembly speaks to me about the rich possibilities of congregational life. GA is first and foremost a gathering place for congregational leaders and a place where congregations can show how they have turned their dreams into reality. It’s a place that inspires through words and deeds, through workshops and worship services. It is about our best selves—what can happen if we put conflict and self-interest behind us and focus on our UU principles. It is truly inspirational to listen to how congregations have overcome obstacles to achieve great results in church growth, social justice, worship, and other areas.

And there’s the other side of it. Listening at GA to the problems that some other congregations have, sometimes I have to be simply grateful that my congregation has moved past many of those problems. And so let us not forget the value of General Assembly as a source of gratitude. It teaches me to be grateful for what we have here at Shawnee Mission and the way we are with each other.

A large part of General Assembly is about social justice, about growing beyond our local congregations to help create a better world. It’s about anti-racism, about working for climate change and other environmental initiatives. And, it’s about economic justice, helping us find ways to use our privilege to lift up people who have no voice.

GA is also a place of inclusion. It is, for example, one of the too few places in this world where gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people can feel free to be who they are without having to hide parts of their identity. It is a place where they feel supported and where they know that others understand and accept them. A place just like their own church homes. GA reminds me of the value of our own congregations in being open to GLBT people. We never know when someone will come to our door seeking respite from a hurtful world and needing our unconditional welcome. We never know when we will make a difference in someone’s life.

There are several hundred workshops each year at GA. Running from one to the other can wear a person out. As a break from that -- and everyone needs a break from that -- I attend some of the 30 or so worship events at each GA. They are all different, they are all inspirational, and they all create possibilities as to what we might incorporate “back home.” I suspect that some people attend GA primarily for the worship experiences. Some of these services are led by youth and young adults, some are participatory, and some are contemplative. These services add the crowning touch for me and they are a big part of the reason why GA does not get old for me. It just gets better.

Reflection by Thom Belote

This morning I bring not only my own reflections about the General Assembly. I also bring thoughts by way of Michele Gaston – the fifth member of our church’s delegation to Portland. Michele couldn’t be here this morning because she is on vacation.

There are people in the world who find the idea of spending a week in constant interaction with some six-thousand strangers the closest thing to heaven. And then there are people who consider it a cause for panic. Michele is wouldn’t describer herself as a big “crowd” person, but she writes that she has come to find the people at General Assembly inspirational – inspirational in their diversity of spiritualities, backgrounds, colors, genders, and passions.

This year was my ninth general assembly. (Don, you got me beat by one!) But instead of a four-and-a half-day assembly, I’m expected to arrive an extra four days early for meetings, trainings, and continuing education events designed specifically for ministers. This gives me a different perspective: instead of attending the opening ceremony, I am participating in an orientation for new members of the Ministers Association Executive Committee. Instead of attending a workshop session, I am meeting with members of the UUA board as they negotiate with the minister’s association to seek our input on an issue such as a change in the funding for our seminaries. This is not to boast of conversations in swanky suites – only to say that my experience there is almost a parallel universe. It is so much off the map.

When asked, the thing I always say I most look forward to what is often my once a year chance to see that classmate of mine from seminary – the one who now lives in San Diego, or perhaps the one in New Jersey, or my mentor from Texas or friend from Colorado. This touches me deeply and helps to renew me.

But there are always other things that stir my passion. Three days before General Assembly started, I spent a day at a training for ministers who hope to become internship supervisors. Our is hopeful that we will be able to have an Intern Minister (a student preparing for ministry who spends a year in hands on learning with us) in Fall 2008. I think our church is particularly well-suited to care for and prepare and cultivate and develop and imprint a person training for the ministry. Done well, it is transformational to the intern, to the mentor (myself), and to the congregation who shares in the joy of helping to shape the future of the movement.

So, that is one thing I come away passionate about. The other thing I come away passionate about is actually a whole lot less concrete. One thing I picked up on – at workshops, in conversations, on blogs dissecting the General Assembly weeks later, in worship, everywhere – was such a hunger and a thirst for our faith to be a source of profound transformation in the lives of people in the world. It was in the air. It was exciting.

And so, like church, what I get from General Assembly is not merely confirmation, reassurance, reminders of my own (our own) rightness and righteousness. It get challenged to become, awaken, and be transformed in my own life and to be an aid, a balm, a coaxing and supporting force in the world’s transformation.

I want to close with a quote that Michele sent to me. (Honestly, I know not to whom to attribute it.) It sums up what Jim said about connecting, what Connie said about belonging, what Don said about inclusion, and what I have said just said about transformation. The quote goes like this:

“As I come to know you, I come to know myself better. And together through our intention and connection, we can bring the influence of compassion, diversity, and purpose to a world in need of healing.”

Friday, July 13, 2007

Raiding the Lost Ark - THIS SUNDAY!

Yes, the rumors are true! Indiana Jones will be making an appearance in church this Sunday, July 15th. I'll be starting a sermon series on "covenant" and what better way to make that topic exciting than by recalling that cinematic adventure in which the forces of good and the forces of evil race to recapture the actual Ark of the Covenant?

Together we'll make the idea of covenant relevant, meaningful, and inspirational today!