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.