Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sermon: "Six Degrees of Covenant (and Kevin Bacon)" (Delivered 10-21-07)

The reading this morning comes from a text that dates back almost 360 years, called “The Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline.” What the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are to the United States, the Cambridge Platform is to American Congregationalist churches, many of which later became Unitarian churches. Yes, the reading is boring and tedious. So, let me give you just a flavor of the 15th chapter, which deals with the “Communion of Churches One With Another.”
“Although churches be distinct, and therefore may not be confounded one with another, and equal, and therefore have not dominion one over another; yet all the churches ought to preserve church communion one with another, because they are all united unto Christ, not only as a mystical, but as a political head; whence is derived a communion suitable thereunto.

“The communion of churches is exercised sundry ways.

“[First] By way of mutual care in taking thought for one another’s welfare.

“[Second] By way of consultation one with another, when we have occasion to require the judgment and counsel of other churches, touching any person or cause, wherewith they may be better acquainted than ourselves. […] In which case, when any church wants light or peace among themselves it is a way of communion of the churches, according to the Word, to meet together by their elders and other messengers in a Synod to consider and argue the points in doubt or difference; and, having found out the way of truth and peace, to commend the same by their letters and messengers to the churches whom the same may concern. But if a church be rent with divisions among themselves, or lie under any open scandal, and yet refuse to consult with other churches for healing or removing of the same, it is matter of just offense, both to the Lord Jesus and to other churches, as betraying too much want of mercy and faithfulness, not to seek to bind up the breaches and wounds of the church and brethren; and therefore the state of such a church calls aloud upon other churches to exercise a fuller act of brotherly communion, to wit, by way of admonition.

“A third way, then, of communion of churches, is by way of admonition; to wit, in case any public offense be found in a church, which they either discern not, or are slow in proceeding to use the means for the removing and healing of. […] In which case, if the church that lies under offense, does not hearken to the church which does admonish her, the church is to acquaint other neighbor churches with that offense, which the offending church still lies under, together with their neglect of the brotherly admonition given unto them. Whereupon those other churches are to join in seconding the admonition formerly given; and if still the offending church continue in obstinacy and impenitency, they may forbear communion with them, and are to proceed to make use of the help of a Synod or counsel of neighbor churches, walking orderly (if a greater cannot conveniently be had) for their conviction.

“A fourth way of communion with churches, is by way of participation; the members of one church occasionally coming unto another, we willingly admit them […].

“A fifth way of church communion is by way of recommendation, when a member of one church has occasion to reside in another church; if but for a season, we commend him to their watchful fellowship by letters of recommendation. […]

“A sixth way of church communion, is in case of need to minister relief and succor one unto another, either of able members to furnish them with officers, or of outward support to the necessities of poorer churches, as did the churches of the Gentiles contribute liberally to the poor saints at Jerusalem.”
[You can find the full text of the 15th chapter and the rest of the Platform here.]

Movie Clip
For each sermon in the series on “Covenant in Liberal Religion” I begin by showing a clip from a popular film. For this sermon, I chose to show a clip from Footloose. In this film, a young rebel played by Kevin Bacon arrives in a ultra-strict Midwestern town that has outlawed dancing and popular music. The scene I showed begins in a locker room. Bacon tells one of his classmates that if he is going to be brave and go before the town council, his friend is going to have to learn to dance. What follows is a scene set to the song “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” by Deniece Williams in which Bacon instructs his rhythm-challenged friend in the finest of 80’s-style dance moves.

Give me a break! It isn’t easy to find a movie clip that exemplifies the principles of the Cambridge Platform of 1648.

As hard to believe as it may be, this is the fourth sermon in my series on Covenant in Liberal Religion. The series began in July with a definition of covenant. A covenant was defined as a series of important and enduring promises made amongst a group of people. Within a covenant these promises are taken seriously and they are hard promises to keep. Covenant expects that inevitably we will all fail from time to time to live up to the high and commanding promises we make, but that we will re-enter into those promises when they are broken.

In the second and third sermons in this series I spoke about the covenants we make as individual members of a church and also about the covenant within community to encourage each other to spiritual growth.

Now, as we begin the second half of this sermon series, the focus changes from the covenants we participate in as individuals to the covenants that exist between groups of people. Next month, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I am going to preach on the idea of social compact or social covenant, an idea first articulated by the Pilgrims when they wrote the Mayflower Compact. But today, I’m going to speak about the relationships that exist between churches, and the covenant between churches as described by the Cambridge Platform.

So, what are we to do with this old document that tells our church community that we are supposed to be in covenant in six ways with other Unitarian Universalist churches? Those six ways are: care, consultation, admonition, participation, recommendation, and ministerial relief.

My colleague in Massachusetts, Hank Peirce, points out that often the help the churches gave to each other was less than exemplary. Old history books of colonial New England include accounts of “church raisings” where towns would band together to help construct a meetinghouse. One account reads: “When the Medford people built their second meeting-house, they provided for the workmen and bystanders, five barrels of rum, one barrel of good brown sugar, a box of fine lemons, and two loaves of [bread.] As a natural consequence, two thirds of the frame fell, and many were injured. In Northampton, in 1738, ten gallons of rum were bought for £8 ‘to raise the meeting-house’ – and the village doctor got ‘£3 for setting the bone of Jonathan Strong, and £3 10s. for setting Ebenezer Burt's thy’ which had somehow, through the rum or the raising, both gotten broken.”

So, what exactly are we to do with this? We are all busy people doing the best we can, on our own spiritual journeys, coming to religious community – this religious community – seeking some co-travelers and some inspiration for the journey. But, at the same time, it is good to find out a little bit more about where we’ve come from, why we are, and some of the old forgotten ways that we don’t really think about much any more.

So, I want to tell you about some of the ways we do (and some of the ways we don’t) embody these principles set forward in the Cambridge Platform. Our Music Director, Dave Simmons, has been a key-organizer of the I-70 choir, where the respective choirs of Lawrence, Manhattan, and SMUUCh will merge to perform concerts this Fall. They are playing here at SMUUCh this coming Saturday evening and in Lawrence in mid-November. This counts as participation, and not only that – it is participation done the best way, in a way that is mutual, and mutually supportive.

The following weekend, we will be visited by a brand new minister from Maine who serves a congregation of a little less than 200 members. She looked around the country and identified us as a model congregation for the growth and change she hopes to facilitate in her church in the coming years. This is consultation.

The weekend after that, I will be visiting the 700-member Eno River Fellowship in Durham, North Carolina as their guest minister for an entire weekend.. They’ve asked me to consult with to help them think about ways to attract and involve young adults to their congregation.

And, from college students moving away to those members who’ve moved, I have sent emails, made phone calls, and helped our departing members to find welcome in other UU congregations across the United States. Most recently, I’ve helped a family to get connected with the UU community in Pennsylvania where they are in the process of moving. This is an example of recommendation.

But, we do less well at others of the six ways. Fortunately, we have not recently had much need to offer or receive minister relief, but I have a great example of this. When the Virginia Tech shootings happened in Blacksburg, Virginia, the minister of the Blacksburg UU congregation was on sabbatical and out of the country. Upon hearing about the shootings, UU ministers from distances up to four hours away headed there to offer care and crisis counseling to UUs in Blacksburg, many of whom work for the University.

But one of the six on the list is puzzling: Admonition. I’ve never attended a board meeting where there was discussion on the agenda about whether or not to admonish another UU church for something it was doing or not doing. I think we should do this just to practice being covenantal. Our Board President will be taking suggestions for churches we can admonish. (Just kidding.)

So, those are the six degrees of communion between churches as enumerated within the Cambridge Platform. This ties in to my movie clip in kind of a forced and unnatural way. (We’ve all heard of six degrees of separation. Well, a couple of years ago someone pointed out that if we are all separated by no more than six links, we are all six degrees from the actor Kevin Bacon.)

In the movie Footloose, young and rebellious Kevin Bacon arrives in an isolated, fundamentalist Midwestern town, which he turns upside down by introducing them to pop music and teaching them to dance. It’s hardly what the writers of the Cambridge Platform had in mind, but throughout the movie we find multiple examples of care, participation, admonition, and – especially in the cheesy scene we watched – consultation. Let’s hear it for the boy!

This is very much a stretch but perhaps on some greater level Footloose warns us against the dangers of isolation, parochialism, and sectarianism. In covenant, in community, in connection with those outside ourselves we learn to dance (and maybe better than they danced in the 80’s.)

If I’ve accomplished what I set out to accomplish in the first part of this sermon, you will have your minds tuned in to a few ideas: That in our tradition we have this document called the Cambridge Platform. That one part of it calls us to be in covenant with other churches. That the covenant includes fairly gentle ways of relating like caring, supporting, and participating as well as more intense and difficult ways like consulting and even admonishing.

But, let’s get away from the history lesson (and away from Kevin Bacon, thankfully.)

What I want to do is abruptly switch tracks and take the message in a bit of a different direction. I want to reference a man named Clifford Geertz, one of the most influential anthropologists of the twentieth century. Geertz wrote about complex, academic topics in exciting, gripping ways.

One story Geertz told was of a tribal village in Java where inside one of the villager’s huts there appeared one day a large, oddly shaped toadstool that grew immensely in the span of just a few days. Not much happens in Javanese villages and soon the giant toadstool was the talk of the village and all of the neighboring villages, with people coming to gawk at it and to try to explain this unusual occurrence.

When a lot of people discover a church like ours – a church that dares to put on heart-wrenching exhibits about the cost of war, like we are showing this morning in the barn chapel; a church that shows cutting edge documentary films on current issues; a church that publicly and gladly affirms it is welcoming to Gay and Lesbian and Bisexual and Transgender people; a church where its members conceive of God in many different and creative ways and includes members who do not possess a belief in God – when a lot of people a church like ours they are amazed, thinking we must be like some kind of unusual toadstool that just rose up one day out of the ground on 87th Street.

We did not just rise up out of the ground like an unusually large and peculiar toadstool. We are a product (directly) of Unitarians in Kansas City, Missouri who had a vision of extending liberal religion into Johnson County. But we are here historically because of a tradition stretching back to the earliest days of our country. And I suppose, if there is a lesson to be taken from this morning, it should be this:

We are a part of a religious movement that came long, long before us – and more than that – has told us that we become our best when we are in covenantal relationship with other churches, when we practice care, consultation, admonishment, participation, recommendation, and relief. Our religious homes are not supposed to be like unusual, isolated toadstools, but are connected in covenant. May it be so.