Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sermon: "Do we Still Have a Social Covenant?" (Delivered 11-18-07)

Call to Worship

With Thanksgiving coming later this week, let us begin the service this week by thinking back to the Pilgrims. In 1620, the Mayflower anchored off the shore of Cape Cod. Aboard the ship, the passengers agreed upon a set of laws that would govern them and they called this “The Mayflower Compact.” The Compact was written in the tradition of covenant, which, the Puritans believed, existed not only between God and humankind, but also between human beings. Part of the Mayflower Compact read as such:
“[We] solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance… and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices… as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”
It may be appropriate to say that our nation began with an idea of covenant, and, more than that, with an idea that we each have a sacred responsibility to the civil body politic, to the general welfare of all. This morning we will wonder whether this can truly be said of our nation today. Do we have a social covenant anymore? Let us discern and discover together. Let us worship together.

Movie Clip
Before the sermon, I showed a film clip from “Sicko”, Michael Moore’s powerful documentary about the dark side of the American health care system. The clip I chose to show was of a hospital in California that practiced “patient-dumping.” Patient-dumping involves putting patients who are not profitable or unable to pay in a taxi and sending them to be dropped off near a homeless shelter. Following the footage, Moore’s voice breaks in and asks, “Who are we?... It has been said that you can tell the character of a nation by how it treats its most needy.”


Who are we? Who are we?

I have my own “Michael Moore” story. In the summer of 2001 I worked for Parkland Hospital in Dallas, a large county hospital that served the indigent of that city. Think of Truman Hospital here in Kansas City and you’ll get the idea. To this day, I consider the emergency waiting room of Parkland Hospital to be the scariest place I have ever visited on Earth. On account of its air-conditioning and free drinking fountain, it was actually a favored place for many of Dallas’ homeless. Imagine being so bad off that you would choose to spend the day in a hospital emergency waiting room. I have no idea if Parkland practiced “patient-dumping.” In fact, I met many of the head administrators of the hospital and found them honorable and decent human beings. But, anyone who spent any time around Parkland Hospital knew that many patients left walking, or limping on crutches, or sometimes in wheelchairs – and sometimes in hospital gowns – to cross a six-lane street and wander a few blocks down Harry Hines Blvd. to the homeless shelters of Dallas. So, even if you think of Michael Moore as being someone with a flair for the sensational, in this case I have with my own two eyes seen something comparable to what he shows happen on a daily basis.

This sermon is the fifth in a six-sermon series on “Covenant in Liberal Religion.” In July we explored the difference between a creed and a covenant, between creedal religion and covenantal religion. In August we examined the covenant of membership, of what we promise to one another as members of this church. In September, we talked about the covenant of the free pulpit and the free pew as essential elements of free religion and we also explored what covenants we shared to encourage one another to grow spiritually. In October, I preached on the covenant that exists between churches. But this morning, I want to expand our idea about covenant; I want to talk about covenants that are larger than those that we share with the people of this church or this faith.

The ancient Greek word for city is “polis.” “Pi – Omicron – Lambda – Iota – Sigma. From which we derive the word, “politics.” A politician, then, is one who helps to govern the city. The word political means “having to do with the city.”

So, if we were to ask the question, “should a church be political?” we would really be asking, should a church have anything to do with the city? And, let me expand this a little bit. In Ancient Greece, if I remember my humanities classes correctly, there was not really a concept of nation. Greece was a consortium of city-states. The city, the polis, was the largest grouping of human beings. In the Trojan War, Athens goes to war with Troy. That may seem like Atlanta going to war with Tallahassee – but cities were considered to be their own sovereign states.

If we say that the church should not be political, we are saying that it should have nothing to do with the city around it, or the nation around it. Which is an idea I completely, and absolutely, and resoundingly reject. Emphatically reject. Being political has very little to do with endorsing candidates. It has to do with claiming a voice in the city in which we live, the state, and the nation. It has to do with answering the question, “Who are we?” This is a religious question if ever there was one.

The aspect of covenant we are talking about this morning is “social covenant.” A covenant, I remind you, is a set of serious and abiding promises into which we enter with the whole of our beings. These promises are so serious and so demanding that it is accepted that we will never fully live up to those promises – we will fail them – but that when we do we will re-enter into the covenant, do our best to live up to it knowing we can never perfectly live it out.

The idea of social covenant, or contract, or compact, has two roots. One root is the Enlightenment. Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau, to name just a few, articulated ideas about social covenant. For Hobbes, our lives were nasty, brutish, and short and so there was a great need for social covenant to keep us from being our natural nasty and brutish selves. French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote a book called Social Contract, in which he asserted the idea that a kind of democratic socialism was the best way to protect individual freedom.

But, the other root of social covenant is Biblical. When the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower composed and signed the Mayflower Compact, they understood themselves as acting within the tradition of Biblical covenant. When they wrote of covenanting to combine themselves into a “general body politic” for their own better ordering and general good, they imagined themselves fulfilling a religious commandment. Of course, it should be noted that it was the 41 men aboard the Mayflower and none of the women who signed their names to the covenant. And, the covenant included only them, and not the Native Americans whose land they were about to set foot upon.

In the Biblical tradition, it is the Hebrew prophets who most passionately speak to an enlarged sense of social covenant. Some of the most well-known prophets call for justice in the community. Amos speaks against the practice of making the measure of wheat great and the shekel small, dealing in dishonest measures. He declares, “You shall not buy the needy for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals.”

Micah famously claims that the Lord is not impressed with ostentatious demonstrations of wealth, or fancy sacrifices, or showy piety. Rather, according to Micah, the Lord commands simply that we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

The prophets did not just speak about how to treat one another within a given community. They also called for justice between nations. Isaiah calls for “swords to be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war anymore.” And, I cannot recall who said it, but I think to a more contemporary elaboration on Isaiah’s words that after we have beaten our swords into ploughshares, we shall beat our ploughshares into kettles so that if we ever have need of swords we will first have to beat our kettles back into ploughshares before we beat them into swords.

Whether we derive the idea of social covenant and compact from Enlightenment philosophy or Biblical roots, I want to say a few words about what social covenant might exist for us today. Numerous social and political commentators have talked about the decline, even the death of social covenant. Looking at employment, they point to the decline of job security, pensions, health care benefits, benefits like maternity leave or child care, as well as the lack of a general sense of loyalty between employee and employer. In the governmental sector, they point to the weakening of the safety net, the abolishing of state and national programs to help the neediest and most vulnerable in society. In education, they point to the disappearance of music and arts in many schools and the declining investment in teachers. How many of you have had to do private fundraising to keep a music program or club alive?

I am thankful to have grown up in a phenomenal public school system, the result of living in an economically bifurcated town in which half the town had tremendous wealth and the other half was a mix of working class and lower-paid professionals who together had the voting power to keep taxes high. The town had some of the highest taxes in the whole state. But my second grade teacher had a Ph. D in education. My high school English teacher had a Ph.D. in English literature from Stanford. My high school biology teacher had a Ph.D. in biology. My American history teacher had published articles about Native American history in scholarly journals. Six-figure salaries for public school teachers were not unheard of. When I think of social covenant that works, I think of my public school education. Which was not perfect. I remember that we were a school system that was part of the larger Boston area’s bussing program, which brought underprivileged students from the inner city to school systems such as the one I went to. I remember one year they decided to cut the late bus, which meant students from the inner city would not be able to participate in after-school sports, clubs, and other activities. In response to the threat of this cut, a large team of teachers collected pledges and ran the New York City marathon in order to keep the bus available to all students.

This story is inspiring, and at the same time, a bit troubling. Who are we? Are we a society that turns to bake sales to buy textbooks? That turns to garage sales to pay medical bills? That sends the sick away in taxis to be dropped off somewhere else? Who are we?

Last week, my colleague Peter Luton from Bellevue, Washington shared with me a wonderful story that illustrates the idea of social covenant.
The story involves a milk man in a small town who earns his living by going door to door each morning with a large jug of milk. For lunch, he stops in a sunny clearing and sets his jug on a rock while he unpacks his humble lunch of bread and hard cheese.

One day, the goat herder came by as the milk man was having his lunch. The milk man hollered a greeting which spooked one of the goats which sprang upon the rock and knocked the jug over, shattering it and spilling its contents. Not only would the milk man lose the rest of his day’s wages, but it might take up to a month to fashion another jug. How would he live without a month’s income? The milk man demanded the goat herder sell his goats to pay for the milk man’s losses. The goat herder responded that to do so would bankrupt him.

The two men went to the village judge. After hearing both of them plead their cases, the judge declared that is was neither the fault of the goat herder nor the fault of the milk man. To truly find out whose fault it was, he would hold a trial between the goat and rock. The judge sent his bailiffs to bring forward the goat and the rock. The goat came fairly easily. It took twenty bailiffs to carry the rock.

Soon, word of the trial spread throughout the village. The trial was to be held in the town center, and by the next day all of the townspeople had come to witness the spectacle of such a ridiculous trial. The judge ordered his bailiffs to seal all of the gates to the town center, trapping everyone inside. Then the judge spoke. “You have come to see a trial between a rock and a goat, which is a foolish thing. Thus, you have come to see me make a fool out of myself. The only fair judgment is to fine each of you a few coins for ‘improper thoughts.’” The money was given to the milk man who was able to purchase a new jug and continue his work.
We are entering an election cycle. We are a little more than 11 months away from a Presidential election, along with a whole slate of national, state, and local candidates. I would encourage you all, at minimum, to explore your religious convictions. How does the idea of social covenant speak to you? I would encourage you to pay attention to which candidates express a vision of a social covenant. How do they answer the question, “Who are we?” Better yet, I call on you to demand of them an answer to this question: Who are we? and Who ought we to become?

Then, perhaps, may it be said again that, “[We] solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance… and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices… as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of all.” Amen.