Friday, December 14, 2007

Sermon: "The Future of Covenant in Liberal Religion" (Delivered 12-9-07)

Movie Clip

Before the sermon I showed the final scene from the 1967 film “The Graduate.” In this scene, Ben disrupts the wedding of Elaine, with whom he is in love, in a most dramatic fashion. He fights off the father of the bride, tackles the groomsmen, grabs a crucifix (pictured below) to fend off the wedding guests, and then uses the crucifix to bar the doors of the church while he and Elaine run to catch a bus.


Before I became a minister I used to think that scene was very funny. Now, whenever I perform a wedding (and looking out at you I see many couples I have married) I always harbor this fear that Dustin Hoffman will come and disrupt the ceremony.

So we come to the final, concluding sermon in this series on “Covenant in Liberal Religion”, a series that I began in the heat of July when I broke out a whip and used a film clip from Indiana Jones & Raiders of the Lost Ark to introduce our thinking about covenant.

Over the last six months we’ve explored different facets of covenant: the difference between covenantal religion and creedal religion; the covenant of membership and what we promise to each other as committed members of a religious community; the covenant of the free pulpit and our obligations to encourage each other to grow spiritually. We’ve explored the covenant between churches, how churches are expected to relate to each other and we’ve inquired about larger social covenants: what we might owe to and expect from the society of which we are a part.

Today we come to the conclusion of this series. What I would like to talk about is the future of covenant. I want to prophesy – to name and claim and describe – the covenants that those of us in liberal religion may claim in the future. Throughout this series I have defined covenant this way: “A covenant is a set of promises a community enters into which expresses its highest ideals. These promises are not made lightly. They are held sacred and they are demanding. It is expected that these promises will be hard to live up to, that we will fall short, but that when we do we will not give up, but re-make those promises and go forth again trying our best to live by them.”

The other important thing to remember about covenants is that they are evolving. In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh and Abraham establish a covenant which, as we move through the book of Genesis, gets altered, expanded, broken, and re-established. In the Christian scriptures, Paul interprets Jesus’ death and resurrection as a signal to replace the established covenant with a newer one. Paul’s letters represent one side of an animated conversation about what this new covenant ought to look like. As Unitarian Universalists, we are a part of a living tradition. Revelation is not sealed. Our faith evolves. And so our covenants, expectations, promises must evolve as well.

Before I conclude this series with my own remarks about the future of covenant for us as Unitarian Universalists, I want to tell you a little bit about the movie clip I just showed you.

The Graduate is probably my all-time favorite movie. Released in 1967, three of its actors – Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katharine Ross – were nominated for Oscars and its director, Mike Nichols, won the Academy Award for achievement in directing. Plus, Simon & Garfunkel’s soundtrack brought us “The Sound of Silence”, “Scarborough Fair”, and, of course, the hit “Mrs. Robinson.” Their soundtrack knocked The Beatles’ White Album off the top spot in the Billboard charts. But, The Graduate is not a film that is often shown in churches. Seduction, adultery, stalking, and crucifix-swinging are not a recipe for moral instruction. In fact, the whole movie is spiritually and morally bankrupt.

As a work of art, it falls into a genre I like to call the “banality of American middle-class life” genre. The Graduate fits into a larger canon of work that includes novels like Peyton Place and the contemporary writings of authors like A.M. Homes. The canon also includes movies like American Beauty and TV programs like Desperate Housewives and songs like Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” and Green Day’s “Jesus of Suburbia.”

How many of you have seen The Graduate? I want to offer you an interpretation of it and then tie it back to the idea of covenant. The Graduate begins with 21-year old Ben returning to California from having graduated from an elite school in the Northeast. He moves back in with his parents. He is uninspired, stalled, and looking for meaning. At his graduation party, his neighbor pulls him aside and tells Ben, “I’ve got one word of advice for you: Plastics.”

Ben may not know what he is looking for, but he is seeking meaning in his life and doesn't find "plastics" to be satisfactory advice. As the film unfolds, the facades of middle-class life drop away and a banal, seedy under-belly asserts itself. Then we come to the climax of the film. Ben breaks up the wedding of Elaine to the frattish “make-out king” to whom she is engaged. He disrupts this perfect ideal image. In a stunning use of symbolism, he grabs a cross and puts this symbol to use: locking people within the confines of their conventional faith and normal life while he and Elaine make a run for it. Towards something else. And then the movie just ends – not happily ever after – but deeply, deeply uncertain. Just remember the look on their faces. “What have we done?” “Where do we go from here?”

I’m surprised they never made a sequel. What becomes of Ben and Elaine? We never find out. They are perpetually stuck on the bus, heading towards some future that they, and we, can barely imagine.

I’m not interested in wild wedding stories and runaway brides. But, I would suspect that some of you can empathize with the feeling of desperately running from the church you were in, just seconds before the doors were barred by some over-sized crucifix. And I imagine that some of you here this morning can identify with, after having fled from the church you fled, sort of feeling this blank stare, “well-what-next?” feeling at the pit of your stomach.

Well, what next? For those of us who are more established within Unitarian Universalism, what does the future hold for us? Where is our living tradition headed? What covenants will bind us in the time to come? Where is the bus going?

Last month I went to Louisville to participate in three days of conversations about growth in our congregations. I was one of twelve ministers of growing churches selected to gather together for these conversations and denominational leaders including Bill Sinkford, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, came to listen to what the twelve of us had to say. Personally, it was an honor to be asked to help shape the future of Unitarian Universalism in this way. But it was also a deeply enriching experience.

The first part of our program involved each of the invited ministers standing up and saying in a single sentence what the saving message of their church is: one by one the twelve of us stood.

Each and every one of us had no problem articulating the work of our churches using these terms. We each had a conviction that our churches – and our faith – had a life-changing and life-saving message. One minister stood and said, “Our church offers a life giving community in a life-destroying culture.” A second stood and said, “All souls are welcomed, including even and up to and especially you.” When I stood I shared our mission: through inviting all into a caring community, inspiring spiritual growth, and involving people in working for peace, fairness and freedom, our church transforms lives and those lives transform the world.

And so I wonder, I wonder what if we were to attach covenantal significance to the mission of our church? What if we were to frame our mission in the language of covenant, to say that our mission actually articulates sacred promises? Not eternal promises, because mission and covenant can change, but promises for right here and right now.

What kind of promises could we make around inviting? One part of that promise would be that every single person in this community has a responsibility, an expectation, that they will help to welcome people when they come through our doors, and help them to find a home here. Another part of that promise would be that every single person in this community has a responsibility to help people who are searching for the blessings of a liberal religious community such as ours to actually find out about us.

(Here is the way I figure it. The population of Johnson County alone is 600,000. Our church has 300 members. So, roughly one out of every 2,000 people – or one-half of one-tenth of one percent – in our county belongs to this church. Might our religion speak to one-tenth of one percent, two tenths of one percent? One percent? What promise can we make here? Can we transform lives?)

The second part of our mission talks about inspiration and spiritual growth. What would happen if we made that into a promise? Might we promise to engage in spiritual practice? Might we promise, whenever we feel burned-out, cynical, out of touch with our sense of awe and wonder, to engage in practices of spiritual renewal? Might we inquire of one another, “How is your spiritual life?” And if the answer is “blah” might we promise to use our own gifts to lift up others’ lives?

Finally, the third part of our mission describes the fruits of belonging to this community: a life transformed that responds to that transformation by working to transform the world. Do we, in our living, evidence the fruits of a transformed life?

Maybe, just maybe, Ben and Elaine’s bus drops them off in front of the Unitarian Universalist church in Santa Barbara. You have to use your imagination. Maybe the bus makes a wrong turn and winds up in Overland Park, KS where they are dropped off right in front of SMUUCh. Hey, it could happen. What would Ben and Elaine find here? Imagine it. Imagine them: they arrive looking rugged and desperate. They arrive confused, angry, describing a troubled relationship with their families. They arrive with some issues in their own relationship, certainly. And they’re kind of unsure about what they ought to do with their lives, although Ben knows he doesn’t want to have anything to do with plastics. None of us arrive here exactly like this. We all arrive here a bit like this, though.

What do Ben and Elaine find? It depends on the promises our church has made with itself and the covenants we’ve freely entered into with each other and the source and resource of their very being. In need of a caring community, do Ben and Elaine find a “Bridge over Troubled Water”? Hungry for a spiritual growth, do they find the “Sound of Silence”? And, would it be a stretch, would it be a stretch to imagine Ben and Elaine, someday, many years from now walking down a strange street, a street in the third world, where they don’t speak the language. Perhaps they have come to care for the scatterlings and orphanages and when they look up they see angels in the architecture. Maybe Ben and Elaine are now Betty and Al. (By the way, that is a reference to the Paul Simon song “You can Call Me Al.”)

When I first began this sermon series back in the heat of July, I described our covenants in passive language. The covenant had to do with promises of acceptance, tolerance, inclusion, freedom and choice. Recently, I encountered a quote that I found provocative. The quote said, “I don’t want more choices; I want better things.” Our new promises, new covenant, will be active. The new covenant will describe our promise to work for better things: Invited, Inspired, and Involved we promise to help you discover better living and a better spirit to the end of helping you make a difference in working for a better world.