Monday, January 28, 2013

"An Open Invitation" - Sermon

“An Open Invitation”
         I mentioned last week that covenant is a core component of who we are as a religious traditions. But I didn’t talk much about what that means. Today I want to talk about the idea of covenant and what it means for our relationship to this church. And perhaps more importantly, the way our Fellowship can offer an open invitation to join us on the journey.
         We know a covenant is an agreement between people. The easiest point of comparison for today’s world is a contract. But a covenant isn’t so cut and dry. A covenant is more about an expression of good intentions and ongoing relationship rather than specific requirements. A covenant says that I will do my best, with the understanding that you will do your best. And though we might occasionally let one another down, we are committed to building this relationship and the institution around it.
         Hopefully that reminds you of our Fellowship today. We gather together and bring what we can to share and grow. But that arrangement didn’t just come out of the lovely group of Unitarians who came together here in Laguna Beach 65 years ago. It grew out of a uniquely American religious experience long, long before.
If you can, imagine North America in the mid 1600s with un-united colonial governments and small religious groups popping up all over the place. There were some orderly Anglican churches, but also a slough of small Puritan and Congregational churches. Each one had their own slightly different theology and way of governing themselves.  In 1648 the government of Massachusetts called for some sense of order amongst these churches. Remember at this time the government was still relating to the church as an organization. The government needed some framework for understanding how the churches were organizing themselves. As a response to that need, the Cambridge Platform was written.[1]
         Here is a picture of it. This document, the Cambridge Platform became the blue print for congregational polity that we still largely follow today. It included the right of each parish to call its own minister, to control its own property and funds, and to determine criteria for church membership.[2] It’s pretty radical if you compare those rights to the Church of England.
         All of those are huge pieces of church autonomy. But the piece we are focusing on today is about membership, who is invited in and who is kept out. Outside of the strictures of top-down religious institutions, these new American religious communities used covenants as the basis of understanding who was a part of their community. Covenants were written and signed by all the members of each congregation and they reflected the promises that members made to one another and to God. What I want to point out here is that the covenant was understood consistently as a promise involving God. Members of the Puritan churches committed themselves to one another, but God was the foundation of that commitment.
         It is precarious to talk much about Unitarian Universalist history because the theology seems so removed from who we are as a tradition today. Some of us are comfortable with invoking God in our promises to one another. But just as many of us have no understanding or interest in recognizing God, much less grounding our commitments in God. Our beliefs today are just too varied to be summed up with the “G word”, and that’s okay.
         The rest of Unitarian Universalist history, the portion most obviously produced the congregations we know today, is, a continually widening search for truth and meaning. We have accepted broader and broader sources of truth and wisdom. Today we maintain different beliefs and share one religious community. It’s quite an odd project if you think about it. What we end up with is Unitarian Universalism. We are a covenantal, rather than a creedal religious tradition. At the foundation, we rely on an agreement of supporting one another, rather than a creed that we all subscibe to. We are covenental rather than creedal.
         But as we heard in the historical context, covenant is not simply a promise between people. Historically a covenant is a promise that is based on a faith, a relationship with God. I’m concerned that in a wonderful expansion of theological diversity, we have forgotten to deal with the “God” component of covenant.
Of course it doesn’t have to be the big GOD that we bring into our covenant. But it has to be something. Think for a moment about the really committed relationships in your life. They may be with your family, you children, or a career. What is the great loving compulsion that keeps you in these relationships. It is likely to be different for different people, but we each have something that drives our deepest commitment. You may not even be able to describe it; maybe you can feel it. But I want you to identify that thought or feeling that grounds your most profound relationships.
Now imagine with me what it might look like to infuse your relationship with this congregation with that same loving compulsion. What would it look like to reaffirm the role of God, or your highest ideals in your covenant with this faith-community. I am thoroughly convinced that it is time for us to make that infusion, and to make it quickly.

         I told a few people this week that I was excited about writing today’s sermon. It’s not so much the details of covenant that I am excited about. I already knew most of that. What I was excited about, what I am excited about is a very new way of understanding hospitality. I realized we have been going about this conversation all wrong.
         Unitarians across the country and we here in this congregation have talked about growth and radical hospitality. We have talked about how to welcome visitors and make sure that guests feel welcomed into our churches. It’s a really well intended idea of reaching out and being kind. That was the initial idea of this sermon. But this week I finally realized something. That whole conversation of hospitality depends on one very big, and very wrong assumption, the assumption that this is our church.

         Last week I talked some about our mission, about why does this institution exist. Today I want to raise an equally important question. Whose church is this? To whom does UUFLB belong?
         We have a Board of trustees that is ultimately accountable for the financial and legal wellbeing of the Fellowship. They are trustees, entrusted with the responsibility to carry out the mission. But they are not owners. In a similar way, I am generally responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of our community. But ministers come and go, and while I serve this Fellowship now, it is not mine with ultimate authority either.
         There are a few other possible options. One is that it belongs to the founders, those who have put in the money and time building it. Though we don’t have any of the original signers of the charter with us left today. Perhaps we could say that it belongs to all of us. But today I want to pose an alternative answer. I have come to believe that our church, if it is truly to be a church, belongs to no one. It is in fact a vehicle to manifest the inherent truths that we hold dear.
         This is not my church. This is not your church. We are not called to be hospitable to the outsiders, because we in fact are all guests here. We are all guests at the welcome table. The idea of hospitality is based on the assumption that some people are hosts and other people are guests. But we are all guests of this embodiment of love. We come here to celebrate, to witness, to mourn. And we help others to experience what we have found here. But no one owns the spirit of the church.
         Talking about the type of community that Unitarian Universalists build, Rev. John Burens writes “It is about having the faith that we can together feed the many who are hungry – because, just like Jesus is said to have fed five thousand with two fishes and a few loaves of bread, with plenty left over, we need to operate out of an awareness of abundance, not a model of scarcity.”
         We are not the most Biblically literate bunch around here, but this is a story that I think most of us are familiar with. Having only two fish and a few loaves of bread, Jesus is said to have fed five thousand people in one of his most celebrated miracles. But this miracle doesn’t rest in Jesus’ hands alone. It rests in the miracle of a community sharing together. It is a testament that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is about a church being more than the people within it.
         In many ways, our Fellowship is the story of the loaves and the fishes. Like you, I have seen people’s lives changed here. I have seen miraculous relationships occur. It is a miraculous table overflowing with abundance. And the truth is, we are all guests, not miracle workers.
         We are all guests to this miraculous party. And what’s more, none of us did anything special to earn the invitation to participate. The door was open and we found our way in, not because of some great talent or skill, not because we paid the price for admission. We were offered a seat just for walking through the door. The handful of us who were raised UU didn’t even have to do that. We were literally carried in.

         And that my friends, is grace. Being offered a place in a community of love, a community that affirms that every soul is sacred and worthy, a community that welcomes you as you are. Being offered a place in that community is grace, a gift, an unearned and un-earnable gift. And it is a reason to celebrate.
         I want to revisit the reading that we did earlier. It’s from the famous Universalist John Murray. He said “Go out into the highways and by-ways. Give the people something of your new vision. You may posses a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”
          John Murray was a great evangelical. But I want you to remember where his zeal came from. It wasn’t from a mission to grow the church. In fact most of the young ministers he inspired were circuit riders. They preached their new message traveling from town to town, collecting what money they could, but never having a real church to call their home. He didn’t spread the message of the universal love of God because he wanted to build an institution. He preached it because he felt blessed, he felt like he had to respond to the tremendous grace that exposed him to the comfort of a religious message of hope and love, rather than sin and punishment.
         The thing I love most about this John Murray quote, is that though it was uttered some two hundred years ago it is just as meaningful today. “Give the people something of your vision. Use your truth to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage.” Outside these walls the need for hope and courage persists today.
         This is not your church. It is not my church nor does it belong to any other person. This church is here to be the embodiment of our shared ideals, an embodiment of hope and love. So don’t grasp too tightly. In the past couple of months I have been throwing around the phrase, “loving each other to death.” One of the really powerful things about this community is the love that we have for one another. But it’s my deep fear that you are loving each other to death. We are holding on so tightly to the people that are here already, we you forget that an entire town and wider community could be really changed by our message.
         I’ll say it one more time. This is not your church. And it’s not anyone else’s church either. The power of this community goes far beyond the individual people. We have had the grace to be welcomed into this community of love. It’s time for us all to respond to that grace, by offering what we have found here to others in need.

[1]David E. Bumbaugh, Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History, (Meadevill Lombard Press: 2000, Chicago), 98.
[2]Mark W. Harris, Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism, (The Scarecrow Press, inc.: Maryland, 2004), 86.

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