Monday, August 27, 2007

Homily: "Thirst" (Delivered 8-26-07)

The beginning of my homily this morning got all messed up because I mis-remembered a quote by Kurt Vonnegut, the famous novelist and avowed humanist and free-thinker. Earlier this week I was thinking about some of my favorite Psalms from the Hebrew tradition and I seemed to recall something about Vonnegut saying that Psalm 23 was the finest piece of writing ever written. I searched frantically for this quote, only to find that Vonnegut had expressed these sentiments about the Sermon on the Mount.

Some do consider the Twenty-third Psalm, with its imagery of walking through the valley of the shadow of death and of cups runneth-ing over, to be the greatest piece of writing ever. Just not Kurt Vonnegut.

Me, I’ve always been partial to Psalm 150. Psalm 150 is the final psalm and also the shortest. It is only six verses. In the third and fourth verses, the psalm lists how we are to praise. Praise with lute and harp, with trumpet and tambourine. And then the fifth verse arrives, and we are told to quote, “Praise the Lord with clanging cymbals; praise the Lord with loud, crashing cymbals.” I’ve always loved that particular verse. First of all, it is superfluous, unnecessarily repetitious for such a short little psalm. It is driving the point home. It is as if the psalmist is saying, “Praise with loud cymbals… no, I’m serious here, we’re talking crashing, clanging cymbals. Bring the noise. Bring the funk.” I like to think of myself as a clanging cymbals type of guy. I like to imagine Animal from the Muppet Show as the exemplar of this sort of piety.

But, there is a third Psalm that I think is just as good. It is the forty-second Psalm that begins with this great line, “As the deer thirsts for water, so my soul thirsts for you.” Depending on the translation, the word thirst comes across differently. The King James version uses the verb “to pant”: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so paneth my soul after thee, O Lord.”

In our service today, I am going to talk a little bit about thirsting and invite you to think about what you are thirsty for. For what do you thirst?

One of the books I have been reading this past month is called Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It has kind of been a hot best-seller this Summer. It falls into the genre of spiritual writing and it even has an enthusiastic blurb by Anne Lamott on the cover, which is good enough for me. In a nutshell, the book is the memoir of a successful writer in her mid-thirties from New York City who goes through a tough divorce and decides to set out around the world to heal and find herself. She gets a book deal to do this and spends four months in Italy, four months at an Ashram in India practicing meditation, and four months in Bali, Indonesia studying under a Balinese medicine-man.

I decided to read the book as an experiment. I know dozens of people who have read Eat, Pray, Love and have seen dozens more reading it on airplanes, but I don’t know a single man who has ever read it. It is distinctly possible that I am the first man to have ever read it. I wanted to know whether a man could enjoy it. So far, I have strongly disliked it, and with only fifty pages to go, the window of redemption is closing quickly. (And if you accuse me of not giving this book fair shakes, consider that several years ago I read Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, a diary of her first year as a single mother to her son. I was riveted, even when she goes on for twenty pages about dealing with her colicky son. I’m open-minded. But Eat, Pray, Love doesn’t do it for me.)

But, here is one of the few passages in Eat, Pray, Love, that I actually found redeeming and insightful. It deals with the subject of thirst we are considering today. Gilbert writes,
I found during the beginning of my stay here at the Ashram that I was often dull-witted during [my meditation practices.] Tired, confused, and bored my prayers sounded the same. I remember kneeling down one morning, touching my forehead to the floor, and muttering, “Oh, I dunno what I need… but you must have some ideas… so just do something about it, would you?” This is similar to how I often spoke to my hairdresser.

There’s a wonderful old Italian joke about a poor man who goes to church every day and prays before the statue of a great saint, begging, “Dear Saint, please, please, please… give me the grace to win the lottery.’ This lament went on for months. Finally the exasperated statue comes to life, looks down at the begging man and says in weary disgust, “My son – please, please, please… buy a lottery ticket for crying out loud!”

If I want transformation, but can’t even be bothered to articulate what, exactly, I’m aiming for, how will it ever occur…. If you don’t have this, all your pleas and desires are boneless, floppy, inert; they swirl at your feet in a cold fog and never lift. So now I take the time… to search myself for specificity about what I am truly asking for. [pages 176-177]
Listen to these words again: “I want transformation, but I can’t be bothered to articulate what I’m aiming for… so now I take the time to search myself for specificity about what I am truly asking for.” For what do you thirst?

Over the summer our Board of Trustees and senior staff read the book Kicking Habits by Thomas Bandy, one of the leading thinkers about healthy church life. Bandy begins his book by pointing out that the vast, vast majority of people (especially those under the age of 50) who begin attending church do so because they are longing for some change to take place in their life. They are seeking to be transformed though they may not even be aware of what that change might look like or what the transformation entails. They have a vague sense of something missing or something that they want to be altered.

Not to drill the point home too hard, but Bandy says that they don’t come to find friends; they tend to already have plenty of friends. He says they don’t come seeking service opportunities; they already have more than enough places making demands on their time. No, they come for something they cannot get through going out with friends or serving on the PTA; there is some change they wish to make in their life. Now, the catch is that to make that change happen will involve creating intimacies and to make that change happen will involve doing something akin to service, but the intimacy and service follow from a longing, panting thirst for change.

I find myself now trying to integrate this into the way I approach ministry. I used to ask visitors to the church what they did for a living, hoping they would say they were a plumber (yay, a potential new member for the facilities committee) or a financial planner (Hooray – a future finance committee chair) or a teacher (send them down to the classrooms right away!)

Now, I try to ask people, “What transformation do you want for your life to undergo? What is missing? What do you want to change?” And only then do I ask them how can this church community be an agent of that transformation. How can we quench that desperate, panting thirst?

For what do YOU thirst?

Let’s do an exercise. In just a moment I am going to sound our little Buddhist meditation bowl and invite us to join in a few moments of quiet thought about this question. When I sound the bowl a second time, I invite you to be brave and turn to your neighbor and maybe ask them to tell you one thing in their life that they thirst for. If your neighbor is not brave, I invite them to share with you their prediction for what the Chiefs’ record will be this year. When I sound the bowl for the third time, I invite your attention to return up front.

First ring: quiet reflection on your thirst.
Second ring: sharing with your neighbor.
Third ring: come back.

If this exercise has been anything what I imagine it has been like, the conversations out there among you have been diverse. Some of you may not have been able to name any thirst; perhaps you have come to discover and discern. Some of you may have been able to name a thirst but have no idea how to make it happen; perhaps you have come to be empowered. Some of you may have been able to name a thirst and have a very developed plan about how to satisfy that thirst; perhaps you have come to be turned loose. Some of you may not have been able to name any thirst, but perhaps only a thirst you once had, a thirst that has been sated and satisfied; perhaps you have come out of a sense of abundant gratitude and fulfillment.

This morning as we start up a new church that never ended, as we come back to a place we never left, let us continue to ask each other what we thirst for. Let’s listen to each other’s longings. Let’s share and be receptive, understanding that just as we do not all share the same image of divinity (and that’s OK) neither do we all thirst for the same things (and that’s OK too.)

A. Powell Davies once said that life is a chance to grow a soul. It is that enterprise that we try to be about here in this religious community. There is so much before us.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Test your Religious Literacy...

The newest book by Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero (author of the fascinating book American Jesus) is called Religious Literacy: What every American needs to know - but doesn't.

On Sunday, September 2nd I will be preaching on this book and examining some of its bold suggestions, such as religion becoming the fourth "r" of American public education alongside reading, writing, and arithematic.

So, I bet you are wondering: How religiously literate are you? Prothero's book begins with a handy quiz. I've reprinted the quiz from this website. Take it and see how you do. I've hidden the answers on another section of the blog. Good luck and no cheating!

1) Name the four Gospels. List as many as you can.
2) Name a sacred text of Hinduism.
3) What is the name of the holy book of Islam?
4) Where according to the Bible was Jesus born?
5) President George W. Bush spoke in his first inaugural address of the Jericho road. What Bible story was he invoking?
6) What are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Old Testament?
7) What is the Golden Rule?
8) "God helps those who help themselves": Is this in the Bible? If so, where?
9) "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God": Does this appear in the Bible? If so, where?
10) Name the Ten Commandments. List as many as you can.
11) Name the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
12) What are the seven sacraments of Catholicism? List as many as you can.
13) The First Amendment says two things about religion, each in its own "clause." What are the two religious clauses of the First Amendment?
14) What is Ramadan? In what religion is it celebrated?
15) Match the Bible characters with the stories in which they appear. Draw a line from the one to the other. (Hint: Some characters may be matched with more than one story or vice versa)
Biblical Characters:
Adam and Eve
Paul
Moses
Noah
Jesus
Abraham
Serpent

Biblical Stories:
Exodus
Binding of Isaac
Olive Branch
Garden of Eden
Parting of the Red Sea
Road to Damascus
Garden of Gethsemane

Want to see how you did? Click here!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sermon: "Things I Shouldn't Have Learned By Now" (Delivered 8-12-07)

[A couple things to know about this sermon. First, I delivered it while wearing a Faux-Hawk. Second, the reading before the sermon came from p. 190-192 of Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird. On these pages she tells the story of friends of hers whose child suffers an extreme brain injury during delivery. Expected to only “live” for a few days, the family brings the baby home to be around family and friends. Anne and her five-year old son Sam visit frequently and read Dr. Seuss books to the baby. When the baby dies, Lamott describes her son’s reaction to seeing his first dead person.]

Sermon – Part 1
I want to follow up on the very emotional reading sharing another reading by Anne Lamott, this one coming from her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. This reading deals with a sad reality of life at its other end. Just as I know (and it is a sad but sacred privilege to know) that some of you can relate to the things described in the first reading, I know (in the same sacred and privileged and sad way) that many, many of you will relate to what Lamott describes in the second reading. She writes:
What are you supposed to do, when what is happening can’t be, and the old rules no longer apply? I remember this feeling when my mother was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, when my brothers and I needed so much more information to go on than we had – explanations, plans, a tour guide, and hope that it really wasn’t going to be that bad. But then it was that bad, and then some, and all we could do was talk, and stick together. We managed to laugh at ourselves and at her, and at the utter hopelessness of it all, and we sought wise counsel – medical, financial, spiritual. I prayed for my mother to die in her sleep. I prayed that I would never have to take the cat out of her arms and put her in a home. A nurse summoned from the Alzheimer’s Association entered into the mess with us. We said, “We don’t know if we should put her in a home, and if so, when. We don’t know what’s true anymore. We don’t know what we’re doing.” The nurse asked gently. “How could you know?”
How could you know? How could you know? When I read this Lamott piece for the first time I was halted, moved. What a brilliant response from the Alzheimer’s Association nurse; how could you know? I found those words extremely comforting. Comforting to the Lamott family, but also comforting to me, who regularly operates under the delusion that I am expected to know, well, everything.

Each mid-August, as I return from vacation and study and denominational travel I like to preach a sermon that is both an anniversary sermon and a birthday sermon. This coming week is my birthday. It is also the anniversary of my first Sunday in the pulpit as your called minister. I try to make it reflective without being self-absorbed, contemplative without being self-centered.

This year, mid-August represents both the beginning of my fifth year as your minister and my turning 30 this Wednesday. I originally planned to preach about what I had learned in these past four years, and several weeks ago I sat down and actually composed a list of everything I thought I had learned in the past four years. I composed the list in a column on the left hand side of several sheets of loose-leaf paper. But then, on the right side of the paper I began a different list, a list of all the things I didn’t manage to learn in the last four years. This exercise was sobering so I decided to preach instead on this odd grammatical construction that I’ve titled my sermon – “Things I shouldn’t have learned by now.” A grammatical construction that doesn’t really convey what it is supposed to convey, because I messed up the title and it came out wrong. The title of the sermon sounds smug in its present form. It seems to indicate that I am going to talk about things I do know even though I’m not really expected to know them yet. Look at me, all preternaturally precocious. But, it is not meant that way, it just turned out like that - conveying the impression that I will talk of things I know that I shouldn’t be expected to know. And that just sounds plain arrogant.

But that is not what I intended. The awkward grammatical expression – “Things I shouldn’t know by now” – is meant to refer to something entirely different. It is meant to encompass those things of which Anne Lamott speaks when she quotes the Alzheimer’s Association Nurse, “How could you know?” What do you say to your five year-old son after you’ve taken him to visit a dead baby? When do you take the cat out of your mother’s arms and put her in a home? You do what you do, without really knowing for sure. Because how could you know?

Part 2
Go back about ten years in my life. I either just turned twenty or am about to. It was my junior year in college and I realized that over Spring Break in April I would be visiting seminaries as a prospective student. This was serious stuff. So I decided I needed to do something to mark this transition. I dyed my hair a brilliant shade of turquoise-blue and cut it into a Mohawk. It felt sacramental. [Random fact: What do you use to get a Mohawk to stand up? Actually, you use a paste composed of fifty percent Elmers glue and fifty percent raw egg whites.] And then I got rid of the Mohawk, grew out my hair all decent looking, did prospective visits to seminaries, and the rest was history: admission to Harvard, four years of classes, internships, chaplaincies, student ministries, and more.

And then, four years ago, you courageously invited a quite presentable, nicely-coiffed, 25 year-old young man to be your minister. Of the several choices I had of churches at which to serve, you Shawnee Mission stood above the others head and shoulders for the way you described your dreams for a future minister. You said, and here I literally quote what you said, “Our church is poised to grow significantly in the coming years – in spiritual depth, in commitment to the community, and in membership… the worst mistake that our new minister could make would be to not show enthusiasm and energy. We are eager for energy and enthusiasm.”

Here I am! Sign me up! We seemed to be a good fit for one another. So, four years ago you turned over the spiritual leadership of this church to a young man with a very presentable hair-do, not yet twenty-six, but with enthusiasm and energy. And you knew I would make lots of mistakes, and I did. But you agreed to forgive and forebear as long as the mistakes were not the worst mistake I could make: to fail to show enthusiasm and energy.

So, my faux-hawk this morning? It is not the melodrama of existential angst and despair at turning thirty. OK… maybe a little. It is sacramental too, I think. It commemorates the decade sinced I got rid of the bright turquoise Mohawk at age 20, a full decade of serious dedication – a decade that coincided exactly with my twenties. Thanks for letting me celebrate this in your presence.

Part 3
More than enough about me, though. Because this morning is not about what I have learned or what I have not yet learned. It is about some other kind of third thing. Not exactly things I shouldn’t know by now, but the things that more or less transcend our pure knowing. What were the words of that Alzheimer’s Association nurse? “How could you know?” This wasn’t a condescending “How could YOU know?” It was a hands-up-in-the-air surrender to the reality that there will be some things we just can’t know the answer to for sure. What is the right thing to do after you’ve taken your five year-old to visit a deceased baby? How could you know?

For some of us, these non-answers can be challenging. As Unitarian Universalists we may be very comfortable believing that there is not one single, orthodox, right, correct answer to the question of whether God exists. As Unitarian Universalists we may be very comfortable believing that there is not one single, orthodox, right, correct answer to the question of what happens to us after we die. As Unitarian Universalists we may be very comfortable believing that there are not certain, final answers to some religious questions.

But, what about when the questions aren’t metaphysical? What about when the question is right there in your face and hits you personally, when it comes to medical treatment for an aging parent, or what to say to grieving parents? Or, even what about when it is choosing a major in college or deciding to leave that position and go a different direction that carries a lot of risk? What about those times when there are wrong answers, to be certain, but there may not be one exact right one?

God’s eternal truth is that sometimes we can’t know for sure. Earlier we sang, “Light of ages and of nations, every race and every time has received thine inspirations, glimpses of the truth sublime.” But, the sublime truth is that sometimes we just can’t know.

Too often we think of life this way: Imagine a young girl 5 or 6 years old who is running around the pool. The child trips and skins her knee raw. The first time this happens, we might say something like, “Now you’ve learned why it is dangerous to run around the pool.” It is the lesson of experience, right? “Now you know.” “Well, this is a learning experience.” “Life has just taught you a lesson.” This is kind of childhood development type stuff. We turn even the painful into a learning experience.

But, the next time the young girl slips running around the pool, we might say something less educative. “Haven’t you learned this by now?” “Didn’t you learn your lesson the first time?” “Didn’t last time teach you anything?” “You should know by now…”

And we can break it all down into these two categories, this dualistic epistemology, where everything can be neatly divided into something you don’t already know and will someday learn or something you should know by now.

To use a different, funny example, that came to me, we either tell the child: “Well, I guess you learned a lesson that it is not nice to pull the cat’s tail,” or “you should know better than to pull the cat’s tail. Remember what happened last time you did that?”

This is not only for children, though. We can tend to chalk up our own failures and disappointments, our own gains and losses as either learning experiences or as a failure to have learned that lesson the first time, or the second, or the third, or…

But, if we are true and honest to ourselves, we might also imagine things we shouldn’t have learned by now. How could you know? How COULD you know?

When faced with religious questions, when faced with spiritual questions, we are not expected to respond with correct answers, with the right answers, but with honest and authentic answers.
Similarly, when faced with life’s hardest questions, when faced with life and death itself, we are not expected to respond correctly, only honestly, and authentically.

These thoughts I’ve shared with you this morning come, if anything, not out of any celebratory angst I am feeling about a certain birthday. If anything, it is coming out of the reality that the past two weeks have been a bit remarkable for the pastoral care demands at this particular time, including, among other pastoral care needs, visiting with families who have lost loved ones.

All of which, all of which has caused me to pause, to grow introspective, to search my own heart for the answers to this life, and to respond this way:

Not to proudly and precociously and triumphantly boast of what I do know.

Not to chastise myself for that which I have not yet learned.

But to return, in peace, to a place where I am able to admit what I should not know. Because how could you know? How could you know?

Benediction
Go forth not with abundant pride for all the things you know.
But, also, do not go forth beating yourself up over the things you have not yet learned.
Go forth honestly and authentically, with the knowledge that sharing your honest and true self with others will be enough and more than enough.



My Faux-Hawk, in honor of turning 30!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Covenant Series

In July 20007 I began a six-month sermon series (one sermon per month) on "Covenant in Liberal Religion." Each sermon in the series will explore an aspect of covenant. Moreover, each sermon will be preceded by a clip from a movie that helps to illuminate the aspect of covenant being considered that morning.

My July sermon, Raiding the Lost Ark, introduced the concept of covenant and explained the difference between a covenantal and a creedal faith.

My August sermon, Sunday Morning Lights, explored the covenant of membership in liberal churches.

My September sermon, Keeping the Faith / Encouraging Faith dealt with what is known as the "Covenant of the Free Pulpit." But it really asked a more important question: "What covenant do we share to help each other grow spiritually?"

In the October sermon, Six Degrees of Covenant (and Kevin Bacon) I considered the historical idea of covenant between churches.

In November, apropos of Thanksgiving, we examined the idea of the social compact, or social covenant, and how we might restore this idea.

In December I concluded the sermon series by asking, "What brave new covenant is needed right here, and right now?"

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.