Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sermon: "Keeping the Faith / Encouraging Faith" (Delivered 9-9-07)

So, a Catholic Priest walks into a bar…

The film clip we’re about to watch comes from Keeping the Faith, a romantic comedy that came out in the year 2000. The plot involves best friends – a Rabbi (Ben Stiller) and a Priest (Ed Norton, Jr.) – who simultaneously fall in love with their long-lost childhood friend Anna (Jenna Elfman), who has, in the intervening years, blossomed into a gorgeous and successful businesswoman. In the scene we’re about to see, the Priest, after a clumsy and failed attempt to seduce Anna, has just been informed by her that she is in love his best friend the Rabbi instead of him. The scene commences with Norton’s encounter with an eccentric bartender as he tries to drink his sorrows away and concludes with a heart-to-heart discussion with another priest.


This is the third sermon in a series on Covenants in Liberal Religion. In July’s sermon I showed a film clip from Raiders of the Lost Ark and talked about the difference between faiths that gather around shared creeds and beliefs, and faiths (like ours) that gather around shared covenants. Last month, in August, I showed a film clip from the movie “Friday Night Lights” and talked about the covenant of membership in a Unitarian Universalist church. What do we promise to each other as members of this church?

This sermon is about the covenants we share about helping one another to grow spiritually. Just as the film clip I just showed had a couple of different parts, this sermon will also have a couple of different parts. In the first part, I will speak of the traditional covenant we share around spiritual growth. In the second part, I will speak about the ways we actually live that covenant in community.

Part 1
In traditional Unitarian Universalism, part of the covenantal relationship we share is called the “Covenant of the Free Pulpit.” It has a corresponding element that is called the “Covenant of the Free Pew.” Yes, this is boring. But it is also important. So, indulge me for a minute or so.

The Covenant of the Free Pulpit says this: I am called to speak the truth to you, as best I understand it and according to my conscious. And you are expected to expect me to do this. It is actually in my contract. The precise wording in my contract is this: “It is a basic premise of this Congregation that the pulpit is free and untrammeled. The minister is expected to express his values, views, and commitments without fear or favor.”

Let’s unpack that a little bit. Free and untrammeled… a trammel is what you put on horses. It is a fetter or a shackle designed to restrain movement. “Untrammeled” means you expect me to preach the truth howsoever I see it. And to preach it “without fear or favor” means two things. Preaching without favor means that there is nobody pulling puppet strings, nobody in my pocket instructing me in what to say or not say. Preaching without fear means that you agree to respect that what I say comes from my own convictions – my own life passed through the fire of thought – and that even if you disagree strongly with me, you will respect that my preaching comes from a place of conviction and conscience.

(By the way, this whole concept is going be to put to the test next Sunday. Each year at the church auction I put a sermon up for sale. The person who buys the sermon buys the right to assign me to preach on a topic that they find interesting. They buy the right to assign me research, or experiences that will expand my understanding. What they don’t buy however is my conscience. For example, if the person who buys the sermon wants me to preach about Alien Abduction, I don’t have to come out and say that Alien Abduction is a real phenomenon. I will preach to you what my own reason and conscience have to say about it. Last year, the winner of the sermon for sale was a distinguished engineer who works on coal-fired power plants and whose views on the environment differ from the views of others in this church on the environment. He wanted me to learn some of what he knows about coal energy and preach a sermon in light of it, which intend to do, but he didn’t buy my voice. My voice will be my own as I consider a topic that many of you have strong feelings about. It is not his sermon. It is my sermon on a theme that he bought the right to assign me.)

I want to share with you the extremely provocative saying of one of the most respected senior ministers in Unitarian Universalism. He once told his congregation, before preaching a controversial sermon, that if he offended them, if he angered them, if they thought that he was absolutely wrong, then their correct response should be to immediately and significantly increase their financial pledges to the church because his willingness to take an unpopular position proves that the pulpit is, in fact free, and that he was not trying to be political and dishonest to keep them satisfied, but that he was freely speaking the truth as he knew it – and not just telling them what he thought they wanted to hear.

The corollary to the covenant of the free pulpit is the covenant of the free pew. This covenant expects that you will come to listen to what is said from the free pulpit and pass what you hear through the fire of your own thought. As Suzanne Meyer puts it, “You’re not expected to take what I say on faith. You’re expected to engage it with your mind and with your heart.”

This covenant of free pulpit and free pew are interactive. We’re only living within this covenant when we actually engage in the weekly act of worship together. If you do not exercise your freedom of the pew, you deny the freedom of the pulpit. If I do not exercise my freedom of the pulpit, it isn’t worth your time to show up and sit and listen to me go through the motions.

A covenant 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.

Part 2
I don’t want to spend the whole sermon talking about promises we make between the pulpit and the pew. I want to make it about something broader. In our Unitarian Universalist seven principles, there is in the third principle this very interesting phrase: “Encouragement to spiritual growth.” The seven principles, by the way, articulate the basic covenants we share as a religious community.

So, what does it mean “to encourage one another to spiritual growth?” “Growth” can be kind of buzz word when we talk about churches. We can talk about growth in numerical terms: How many members do we have? How many seats are full on Sunday? We can talk in terms of a growing budget, a growing number of programs, even a growing number of social service opportunities. All these are measurable. But, how do we actually measure “spiritual growth”?

Well, one way is we conflate these, to assume that one is a sign of the other. We think – well, if we have more people, more full seats, more programs, more social service opportunities – then we must be growing spiritually! Maybe. Or maybe it is a false correlation. Does a growth in membership mean that we have grown in the spiritual practice of hospitality? Does growth in budget mean that we have grown in the spiritual practice of generosity? Do more social action opportunities mean we are growing in the spiritual practice of prophetic outreach and service? Maybe. Maybe not.

But this brings us back to the question. What does the phrase “encouragement to spiritual growth” mean? And how do we encourage each other to spiritual growth? Do we offer the encouragement with abrupt frankness, “Hey you. Grow spiritually!” Do we encourage with more subtlety? “Hey, have you ever considered spiritual growth?”

But seriously, what does this encouragement to spiritual growth look like, besides my earlier encouragement for you to practice the freedom of the pew in partnership with my practice of freedom of the pulpit. How do we encourage each other to grow spiritually?

As I stand here, my first temptation is to resort to a list of programs that this church offers. Adult religious classes; volunteering in meaningful ways; getting involved in social action initiatives or starting your own; those types of things. But I want to resist that temptation because I think those kinds of answers take all of us, as individuals, off the hook. It says you grow spiritually through a class or a committee or a group or Sunday morning (and we do grow that way) but what about that sense of personal encouragement? I don’t want to take us, as individuals, off the hook that easily.

In our UU tradition, I think back to the intense, up and down friendship shared by the older Ralph Waldo Emerson and the young upstart Henry David Thoreau. You can imagine them taking their long philosophical walks through the woods of Concord. They challenged each other intellectually, provoking each others’ genius. It was also in each other’s presence that Emerson had many of his earliest transcendently spiritual experiences. According to Emerson biographer Robert Richardson, Henry David Thoreau had taken Emerson on a canoe trip, about which Emerson remarked, “We went to the boat and left all time, all science, all history behind us, and entered into nature with one stroke of the paddle.” He goes on in his journal to describe this canoe trip in ecstatic terms.

So, I have an inclination not just to tell you to sign up for classes or programs and come to worship, but to actually do that Emerson / Thoreau thing with each other. How would that work?

I have an outstanding colleague with whom I serve on a national-level UU committee. The first time I met him, he asked me within three minutes of meeting me, “How is your spiritual practice?” I was without a good answer. I got defensive and think I might have barked something back like, “How is YOUR spiritual practice.” And then the second time he met me, he asked, “Thom, how is your spiritual practice?” And then the third, and then the fourth, this same question. By the fourth time, I knew I was going to have to answer him. Yes, this was annoying. It was relentless. I was being encouraged to spiritual growth.

How often do these questions turn up in the relationships we share with each other in this congregation? How often do we ask each other questions like:
“How is your prayer life?”
“How is your meditation going?”
“How are you dealing with that (choose one of the following) anger, insecurity, fear, disappointment, loneliness, grief, guilt, frustration, emptiness, depression, etc.?
How often do we ask one another:
“Where is the holy in your life right now?”
“For what do you thirst?”
“What are you talking about with God these days?”
“How is your spiritual practice?”
I want to end today by suggesting to you that part of our covenant is, in the words of our third principle, to “encourage one another to spiritual growth.” How to do this without sounding condescending may be a challenge. But, what if this is a part of the promise we are expected to make to each other?

In the film clip I showed you at the beginning of the sermon we find the Priest played by Ed Norton, Jr. dousing his woes with spirits. In the next scene he has sobered up. It is this that scene I find touching: a young priest going to an older priest for advice, and the older priest encouraging him to spiritual growth. The Catholic tradition may or may not make a whole lot of sense to us, but I find in that exchange to be sweet and caring and meaningful.

May every Ed Norton find their confidant. (But not an eccentric bartender.)

May every Emerson find their Thoreau.

May we all become confident enough in ourselves to encourage each other to spiritual growth and may we all become secure enough to receive the encouragement of one another.