Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Sermon: "Sunday Morning Lights" (Delivered 8-5-07)

We are going to start the sermon this morning by showing a film-clip from the movie “Friday Night Lights”. The movie follows the season of a high school football team from Odessa, Texas as they reach the Texas State Football Championship game only to – having lost their star player to injury – face-off against a team from Dallas against whom they are under-matched in every possible way. In the first half, the team from Odessa is crushed by their superior opponents. We pick up the movie with the half-time speech by the coach, played by Billy Bob Thornton:
“You all have known me for a while... and for a long time now, you've been hearing me talk about being perfect. Well, I want you to understand somethin'. To me, being perfect... is not about that scoreboard out there. It's not about winning. It's about you and your relationship to yourself and your family and your friends. Bein' perfect...is about being able to look your friends in the eye... and know that you didn't let them down. Because you told 'em the truth. And that truth is, is that you did everything that you could. There wasn't one more thing that you could've done. Can you live in that moment...as best you can with clear eyes...and love in your heart? With joy in your heart? If you can do that, gentlemen, then you're perfect. I want you to take a moment...and I want you to look each other in the eyes. I want you to put each other in your hearts forever. Because forever's about to happen here in just a few minutes. I want you to close your eyes… and I want you to think about Boobie Miles, who is your brother. And he would die to be out there on that field with you tonight. And I want you to put that in your hearts. Boys, my heart is full. My heart's full.”

This second sermon in the “Covenant and Liberal Religion” series deals with the covenants we enter into that involve membership in this church. And, to tell you the truth, I struggled to find the right film clip to show you. I wanted to find the perfect “initiation scene” from a movie. And I was tempted – oh, was I tempted – to show you the hazing scene from Animal House. “Please sir, may I have another.” But, you just can’t show scenes from Animal House in church. So, I asked around. I was out on a date with someone who said she was a huge fan of movies. I shared that I was looking for a great initiation scene. She instantly replied, “Oh, there’s a wonderful hazing scene in Dazed & Confused. And there is another hazing scene in Old School too.” I also asked Jim Eller, the minister at All Souls, when he invited me to a Royals game two weeks ago. I also sent an inquiry to the Minister’s email chat-list and received responses that I should show a boot-camp scene from a movie like Jarhead or Full Metal Jacket. One colleague suggested I show the climax scene – I mean the climactic scene – from Steve Carell’s 40-Year-Old Virgin. I suppose that qualifies as an initiation of sorts.

But it was my colleague Brent Smith who suggested the Friday Night Lights clip. In support of his recommendation, he wrote, “the covenant of membership does not involve the relationship of one individual and another, but the relationship of an individual to a group… the team has an existence aside from the individual… and when an individual joins a group the identity of the group becomes added to the identity of the individual.” Paraphrasing Brent Smith’s email to me, he added, “Of course, some orthodox groups, the identity of the group supplants the identity of the individual. But joining a team or a group or a church need not be like that. The half-time speech in Friday Night Lights explains that the mission of the team is not what its members think it is. It points to a different identity when its members truly live out the mission of the team.”

[By the way, the next sermon in this series in September will be about what in Unitarian Universalism is called the “covenant of the free pulpit and the free pew.” If that sounds boring, you are right; it is. But that is just going to be an entry-way into a larger question about covenant. What is the covenant we share to help each other to grow spiritually? That’s the question I really want ask next month. And the movie clip we will show next month will have to do with people sharing a moment of spiritual growth together. And, unless I get a better suggestion from someone in the next month, I think the scene will feature Luke Skywalker and Yoda. If you think you can do better than that, I challenge you to send me your idea.]

Last month, in my introductory sermon in this series I defined covenant in this way. A covenant, I said, “is a set of commonly held promises… a set of commonly held promises that are enduring, but evolving… a set of commonly held promises that are taken seriously, taken so seriously that they are treated as sacred… but they are difficult promises to live up to, and so a covenant accepts that we will fail to live up to them, but that when we fail to live up to them we will not give up. We will re-enter into covenant, try our best again, but still may never fully live up to the promises we have made.” In my sermon last month, I explained that we are not a creedal church, held together by the beliefs we claim to share in common. We are a covenantal church, held together by the promises we make about how we will be together.

So, what are the promises we make about how we will be together as members of a church community? I want to give you two examples about how a couple of other UU churches approach membership. I will warn you, these examples are extreme. I mention them, not because I agree with them, but instead to provoke you.

First example: A colleague of mine talks about the expectations of members in the church that she serves. When a member inquires about joining they are told that their first pledge to the church will be no less than two-and-a-half percent of their income with the expectation that they will increase their pledge to no less than five percent of their income within three years. Further they are expected to attend church three Sundays out of four. And falling short of either of these expectations means a leader in the church visits them and asks, “Do you wish to continue to be a member here?” I repeat, this is a UU church.

Second example: another UU church understands membership to be nothing less than a life-long commitment. You join the church and you are a member for life. That is the expectation. Nobody is ever dropped from their rolls. But, you may ask, what if you move to another city in another state? You are made a “member emeritus.” What if, you ask, you decide you are no longer a UU and go join a Presbyterian church? You are made a “member emeritus.” Members emeritus continue to receive church publications and are approached for donations. You are a member for life. What provokes this church to have such an understanding of membership? Well, the church believes that as a result of participating in the church that your life will be forever changed. You will be different as a result of belonging to the church, and since you will be different, you continue to have a relationship with the church even after that relationship is not immediate. Because you are changed, the church continues to impact your life, even at a distance, and so there is an expectation of reciprocation. Membership is for life.

Like I said, I offer you these two examples not because I necessarily agree with them, but because I find them provocative.

At our church we name our expectations a bit differently. In fact, at our Exploring Membership Class (formerly known as the Seekers class) we actually distribute a hand-out that is called the expectations of membership. This hand-out lists those three expectations:

First, show up. You won’t feel like a part of the church community if you don’t come regularly to worship and church events.

Second, help out. Find a group to participate in and place to contribute your talents to the mission of the church.

And, third, give financially. We expect members to make a generous pledge of financial support to the church.

These three expectations are often abbreviated as time, talent, and treasure.

The chairperson of the membership committee is fond of saying something that goes like this: deciding to become a member does not confer unto you all sorts of special benefits, unless you count having the right to vote at congregational meetings and being eligible to serve on the board of trustees. Membership, she says, is a willingness to put your name where your heart is. It is a willingness to stand up and be counted as a part of the faith you’ve freely chosen and the community you’ve freely chosen. You put your name where your heart is. You claim what you belong to.

But, this is not a sermon about the expectations of membership, as important as it is to remind ourselves of those expectations from time to time. It is a sermon about membership as a covenant. What are the promises we make as members of the church? What do we promise to one another? Let’s hold that question before us for just a minute or two. What do we promise to one another?

You know, it is a funny thing that when I think about movies with memorable initiation scenes, with memorable scenes of an individual adding a group to their own identity, so many of those scenes are just so horrible and painful.

My first thought, after all, was a hazing scene from Animal House. What is that all about? The way to enter into a group is through abuse and humiliation. Really? As Indiana Jones, last month I brought the whip, but this month I didn’t go looking for the fraternity paddle – that is not a liturgical instrument in a UU church. Membership in this type of church does not involve hazing, unless of course you consider being invited to make coffee cruel and unusual.

And, the second thought was to turn to boot camp scenes from films like Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, or Jarhead, or Stripes. And, what is this all about? Is this a way of saying that membership requires tests of strength and intimidating challenges.

Or then, I thought about a movie like Star Trek that features the Borg… that great collective of cyborgs, stripped of identity. “You will be assimilated.” And these are all such scary and screwed up depictions of what it means to become a member. You’re either humiliated, or you’re put through a grueling obstacle course to prove yourself, or you’re assimilated – stripped of your personality, your ideas, your individuality, your self-hood to become part of a larger collective.

And the covenant of membership here has absolutely nothing to do with any of these things. I should certainly hope! So, what are the promises we make to one another?

Did anyone catch the biblical reference in the speech by the coach in Friday Night Lights? It was subtle, but did anyone catch it? I guarantee you, no West Texas high school football coach is going to give a half-time speech that doesn’t have something to do with the Bible. If you didn’t catch it, the biblical reference was from the Sermon on the Mount. The coach’s speech was really a sermon on Matthew 5:48 and Jesus’ injunction to “be perfect.” This is good stuff here. We Unitarian Universalists are OK with Sermon on the Mount.

Let’s pick it up five verses earlier so we get the full context. So, starting we Matthew 5:43 we get this: “You have heard it said Love you neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say love your enemies and pray for your persecutors – only in this way can you be the children of God, a God who causes the sun to shine on good and bad alike and causes the rain to fall on the innocent as well as the wicked. If you only love those who love you, what good can you expect? Even the wicked do that. If you greet only your brothers and sisters, tell me how is that extraordinary? Even the hateful do likewise. But I am calling you to be perfect, just as God in heaven in perfect.”

Let’s look at what the coach says: Being perfect is not about the scoreboard… it is about our relationship with each other… being perfect is living in the moment and putting each other in our hearts forever. Then he ends by saying, his heart is full – enemy and friend, teammate and opponent alike. The whole team, from the star to the scrub. His heart is full.

This morning, I’m not asking you to be football fans, or Billy Bob Thornton fans, or mushy macho movie fans – I’m such a sucker for that scene, though. I’m not asking you to be Jesus fans or Sermon on the Mount fans, or fans of picking up on subtle biblical references, really I’m not. I don’t care if you read the Sermon on the Mount or not.

But, what if the covenant of membership was simply this: I am called to love not only my friends, not only my peers, not only those of my demography, not only the ones that I am easily inclined to like. But to be perfect, my covenant is to love everybody. Every person who comes through our doors. Every person who might ever come through our doors. Every person who our doors are held wide for but it is doubtful that they will even darken the doorstep.

And what if the covenant of membership was simply to look into each others eyes, put each other in our hearts forever, and then say, “Teammate of mine. Church member of mine. I will be a good teammate of yours. As best I can even though I’m going to fail to keep my promises sometimes.”

What do we promise to each other? I hope that in the making and in the keeping of these covenantal promises our hearts will be filled to the brim, and over-flow, and over-flow some more.