Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sermon: "The Promise Making, Promise Breaking, Promise Renewing Animal" (Delivered 3-6-11)

[This sermon was originally delivered on March 6, 2011]

Each week at the beginning of the service we repeat these words:
Love is the doctrine of this church,
The quest for truth is its sacrament,
And service is our prayer.
To dwell together in peace;
To seek knowledge in freedom;
To serve humanity in fellowship,
To the ends that all souls shall grow
into harmony with the divine.
Thus do we covenant with one another.
Love is the doctrine of this church. That is a true statement. Ours is a non-creedal church, meaning what binds us together, what connects us, is not a statement of belief. Rather, what connects us is a way of being together with one another in community. And, love, it strikes me, is a pretty fine way to endeavor to be together. “We need not think alike to love alike,” said Francis David, the Transylvanian Unitarian. It is more important to love alike than to think alike. So, rather than trying to agree on a doctrinal statement of belief, we try to cultivate a loving community. Love is the doctrine of this church.

The quest for truth is our sacrament. This, I suppose, is sort of true. In Christianity, a sacrament is a special ceremony or rite that defines stages of faith maturity. Protestantism observes two sacraments: baptism and communion. Catholicism adds five additional ones: confession, confirmation, holy orders, matrimony, and the anointing of the sick. Is the quest for truth really our sacrament? Even though they have their own meaning in our tradition, we do child dedications, coming of age ceremonies, services of union and weddings, as well as our flower communion in the spring and our Waters of the World ceremony in the late summer. We all, to some degree or another, engage in a quest for truth, and I suppose that some of us experience that quest as having a sacramental quality to it, whatever that means. But, we also do other things, like the child dedication ceremony we’re going to do next Sunday, that feel, well, sacramental.

And service is our prayer. This is only very partially true. In fact, it is somewhat misleading. We should add an asterisk and add an explanation in small print. Yes, many of us love performing community service, doing social action, and volunteering in many ways. A few of us even feel spiritually awakened when performing service. But, knowing you, I also know that meditation is your prayer, that communing with nature is your prayer, that reflecting on poetry is your prayer, that yoga is your prayer, that journaling is your prayer, that gardening is your prayer, and, yes, even prayer is your prayer.

Maybe we should say, “Love is the doctrine of this church; the quest for truth might be our sacrament (we’re not really sure); and, service, while a great thing, is not our prayer.” But, I have to tell you, that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

“Wait a second, Thom,” some of you may want to protest, “You’re taking these words on the front cover of the order of service literally. They are not meant to be taken literally. They are a creative rephrasing of what most people think it means to be religious. Being religious, at least the way we are religious, does not have to do with doctrines and statements of belief or rituals or the recitation of a holy text. It has to do with love and with searching for truth and, especially, with the way we are in the world.”

Those words on the front of the service that we read each week are attributed to a man named L. Griswold Williams, a Universalist minister, who put them to paper in the 1930s. We don’t believe that they were originally his words. We think he combined several affirmations and covenants that were popular at the time.

In the first three lines, the Williams affirmation mentions love grounded in community, the search for truth, and service to one another. In the next three lines, he reprises each of these elements: To dwell together in peace. To seek knowledge in freedom. To serve humanity in fellowship. And then the affirmation concludes with seven words, “Thus do we covenant with one another.”

This morning I want to revisit the idea of the covenant, a central core concept within our tradition. We say that we are a non-doctrinal church, a non-creedal church. We say that what binds us together is not a statement or profession of faith that we all share in common. The words on the front of our order of service are not a statement about what we believe. The Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism are not a creed. We say that we are not a creedal religion, but instead a covenantal one. And, so I want to talk a little bit about what covenants are.
Three years ago I preached a six part sermon series on Covenants.

Thinking that covenant might be a topic that was boring to some people, I decided to dress up as Indiana Jones, wield a whip in the pulpit, and announce that what we were really doing, figuratively speaking, was searching for the lost ark of the covenant. Or, at least the ark of our own covenant. That sermon wound up getting published in a denominational publication. And, then I wound up getting quoted on the subject of covenant in dozens and dozens of sermons all over the country and even the world. That sermon was mentioned in British Columbia, California, Arizona, Vermont, and dozens of other places, including London, England. My definition of covenant was probably the most quoted part of the sermon. “A covenant is a set of enduring but evolving deeply held promises made between people. And while the covenant is taken seriously, the promises are often so intense that it is impossible to always live up to them. We will never exactly live up to the covenants into which we enter. So, we will always admit a falling short – and respond by re-covenanting, recommitting to those promises.” Or, in other words, a covenant is a promise that is made super-seriously and that proves difficult to keep.

The poet William Safford was a well-known pacifist, deeply committed to the principles and practice of non-violence. One of his most famous poems is the difficult and intuitive, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” It is a poem that is frequently read at peace-making trainings. I think his poem implies something about covenant. The line that stands out to me: “A pattern that others made may prevail in the world.” “If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are, a pattern that others made may prevail in the world.”

This line certainly implies something about relationship and about the promises that are necessary for us to be in relationship with each other. The concern is that we not fall into thoughtless patterns of being together. The concern is that we be attentive to the promises we’ve made concerning how we will be together. We shouldn’t fall into default patterns of interaction. We shouldn’t follow the wrong God home.

Besides my oft-quoted definition of what a covenant is, the other thing about that sermon from several years ago that caught on was the story I told at the outset of the sermon. The context for the story was that the Missouri government was considering some piece of public policy around what may be taught in public schools about human sexuality. The regulations they sought to impose would have made it impossible for teachers to teach things that were true, that were scientifically and medically accurate. So, as one who takes seriously the sacrament of the quest for what is true, as one who seeks knowledge in freedom, I attended a public rally organized by Planned Parenthood. There, at that rally in front of the JC Nichols fountain on the Plaza, there were a couple of college students who were also conservative Christians who were also there to spy on what was going on. Word got around that a minister who supported sex education was in the crowd and the two students made a bee-line to find out the story of the minister who would stand up for medically-accurate human sexuality education.

They barraged me with questions, questions that clearly established that a pattern that others had made was prevailing in the world. They had never heard of Unitarian Universalism, so they began to try to ascertain whether I ascribed to the same creeds and doctrines to which they assented. “Do Unitarian Universalists believe in the Bible?”

But, you can’t know us by defining our doctrines. You can’t know us by pinning us down on a statement of belief. We’re covenantal, not creedal. You know us by knowing how we promise to try to be together. What is your doctrine? “Love is our doctrine.” What are your sacraments? “The quest for truth is our sacrament.” What words of incantation do you use when you pray? “We serve humanity in fellowship.”

In the assumptions that these ladies brought into the conversation, a pattern that others had made prevailed in the world. That pattern said that religion is about correct doctrine, established forms, orthopraxy. Talk about following the wrong God home and missing your star. It was agonizing to try to explain to them that we do not see religion as a matter of doctrines but a matter of relationships, not a matter of creeds but a matter of how we promise to be together.

The Jewish theologian Martin Buber famously said that our humanity is inextricably bound to our promises. He called us the “promise-making, promise-breaking, promise-renewing animal.” Riffing on Buber, UU minister John Buehrens said, “I believe that we humans are not so much homo sapiens (we are neither that wise nor that self-aware), but rather we are [the animal that makes promises.] We ourselves are created in the context of relationships, promises, commitments. We then either break them, make new ones, modify them, or renew them. To use a word deeply rooted in our culture, we are ‘covenantal’ by nature.” [See, John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker, A House for Hope.]

In the Jewish tradition, the religious tradition from which we get the concept of covenant, a major part of the high Holy Day of Yom Kippur involves the deep contemplation of our promises. The central prayer of Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidre, actually does something startling. It abolishes, for a moment, out of time, all promises. Rabbi Irwin Kula says, “It’s very frightening to imagine that we have no obligations, because it is our obligations, our promises that define who we are.”

Martin Buber turned modern Western history into a kind of parable. [Note: this parable is lifted and just lightly paraphrased from a chapter in A House for Hope by John Buehrens and Rebecca Parker.] Buber said that at the time of the American revolution and French revolution, three ideals united together. Those ideals were liberty, equality, and community. But, in the confusion of a changing world, the three lost track of each other in the melee of the crowd. Liberty traveled west and came to America. All by itself, its character changed. It turned into a kind of freedom without responsibility, freedom to exploit and mistreat others and our planet, freedom from the responsibilities of community and from obligation to the common good. While Liberty went west, Equality went east to the gulags of the Soviet Union. In the name of equality, freedoms of worship, conscience, speech, and association were abolished. The third ideal – community, relationship, kinship – went into hiding. It went underground, only to surface at those times when people joined together to oppose the distortion of freedom or the perversion of equality. Community arose during the civil rights movement. Community arose during the Solidarity movement in Poland. Community arises whenever we break from patterns that others have made so as to be able to claim a way of being together in covenant, in promises we make to one another about how we will strive to be together.

What Martin Buber says rings so immensely true to me. All of us, at any given time, in the context of the great web of our relationships, have to navigate the course of making and breaking and renewing promises. We live amidst these promises – promises we’ve made to our partners, to our children, to our work and our vocation, to our voluntary associations where we practice religious and civic engagement, to our wider society, and to ourselves. Living within these promises entails the difficult task of trying to balance and reconcile liberty, equality, and community. It is a sacred struggle. There is a sacred depth in the promises you make and keep.