This sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship of Huntington, Long Island as part of my Candidating Week there for the position of Minister. It looks at how we choose to be together religiously – namely how we covenant with one another – and how that affects how we live our lives. Sci-Fiction fans will really grock it too.
I was sitting around a large banquet table up at the UUA Headquarters this past week- in Eliot and Pickett – our denomination’s Bed and Breakfast. A group of 11 of us were meeting together for a few days on a council that deals with staffing and finances. Think health insurance, retirement, and hiring practices for UU congregations. We’re going around the table introducing ourselves in the most boring way possible – Name, What Group We Represent, Where We Serve. After a few descriptions in, one member of the council jumps in and asks, “What’s your favorite movie?!” A blank look creeps on the person’s face as they are immediately thrown out of their dry rote, and it shifts into the warmth of the person inside. We’re out of our head, and re-living a moment of joy, or depth, or humor. Various answers – Lincoln, Chinatown, Arsenic and Old Lace – I finally went with -… The Empire Strikes Back.
There were a few more odd looks around the table as everyone’s faces went back to their memories of the movie. The cartoon thought bubbles popped over their heads, “Well that’s Sci-Fi.” “It’s not great theater – well not in the classic sense.” “!One of the lead roles is a muppet!” And then faces started to slowly nod. “The movie does stand the test of time.” “It does define a generation with its scope of wonder.” “Deep down we all want the Force to be with us.”
So something you should know about me right now, I’m a big Sci-Fi/Fantasy geek. Our lives are so serious. There are so many challenges and struggles in the world. I take it all to heart, and sometimes get very immersed with my work, my ministry…. Give me a muppet with a light-saber any day to balance that out.
Apparently, I’m not alone in the preference. The recently late, great, Roger Ebert agrees with me. He writes, “The Empire Strikes Back” is the best of three Star Wars films, and the most thought-provoking. After the space opera cheerfulness of the original film, this one plunges into darkness and even despair, and surrenders more completely to the underlying mystery of the story. It is because of the emotions stirred in “Empire” that the entire series takes on a mythic quality that resonates back to the first and ahead to the third. This is the heart.”
Listen to Ebert – we can encounter the range of human emotions from cheerfulness and joy to darkness and despair, until we eventually surrender to the mystery of the story. I have to wonder if he was just trying to write a critique of the film, or was he secretly throwing in a working definition of the role of religion in our lives. As Unitarian Universalists, we’re never going to agree on all things theological – especially if we try to think of theology in terms of beliefs to follow. That’s not going to work for us easily or well. Our faith is more focused on our shared commitments and convictions. At its best … at our best … religion helps us to appreciate the times of joy when they come; make sense of the despair that will find its way into our lives from time to time… while knowing we’re never truly left alone to deal with it.
And the beauty of our faith – throughout all our intellectualism, all our critique and challenge, part of it recognizes that there’s no one way to understand the world that’s absolutely correct. Our neat rows on Sunday morning are filled with folks who each hold a different view from the next. We seek to reflect the breadth of human experience without placing it in a box, catalogued and pinned. Follow Unitarian Universalism far enough down the road, and eventually it asks us (as Ebert described) to surrender more completely to the underlying mystery of the story – of our story. We point to a central awe at the heart of our lives – and we struggle to name it – as best and sometimes as worst as we can. Meditation or Mindfulness can bring us there. A dedication to God can bring us there. Compassion for the simple sake of compassion can bring us there. What we call it, or what discipline we use, matters much less than the openness to a sense of wonder in our lives.
Ebert’s review went onto say, “In the glory days of science fiction, critics wrote about the “sense of wonder.” That’s what “The Empire Strikes Back” creates in us. Like a lot of traditional science fiction, it isn’t psychologically complex… That’s because the characters are not themselves–they are us. We are looking out through their eyes, instead of into them, as we would in more serious drama. We are on a quest, on a journey, on a mythological expedition…. we’re in a receptive state like that of a child–our eyes and ears are open, we’re paying attention, and we are amazed.”
It’s this sense that I try to keep in mind when we talk about some of our principles. Take the fourth for example, where we covenant to affirm and promote the responsible search for truth and meaning. What does a responsible search even mean? Intellectually honest? Kindness in our speech – especially when we disagree? It also means we’re open-minded, we’re paying attention, that we allow ourselves to be amazed by life – a life that we did nothing of our own to be born into. When we move the center of our search, of our quest, …back to a place of wonder and respect,… it can feel a little humbling, right?
I really have to marvel at how all of this came out of a committee meeting round-table introduction…. It’s funny how the little insertion of humanity can turn the droll into something engaging. The questions of Who, What, Where – gave us all the facts and details we needed for basic intro’s, but left us dry. Bringing us instead to questions of passion, or preference, of joy – changed the nature of our meeting and it changed the quality of our interactions. People I have worked with time and time again – people who I thought were otherwise nice but I never made a real connection with them – finally clicked. By the end of the few days we started sharing more and more of our lives together after the work hours were done.
It’s in this sense that I hope we can root our shared ministry together in the years to come. A wise teacher once told me that it’s best to “Start as you mean to continue.” That practice has saved me heartache time and time again in the work world and in my personal life. Whatever negative practices we begin now will stay with us for the long haul.
Well, I’d like us to flip that. Let’s start a good habit together. Let us be open to a sense of curiosity for our differing views. Let us craft spaces for people to feel at home here whether they believe in God, or they do not believe in God, or they aren’t particularly moved one way or the other. Despite all our knowledge – mystery is at the very core of life – we don’t really know. But the journey, and how we handle ourselves on the road, matters very deeply. Silencing one perspective is just as bad as silencing the other. We are stronger together for our diversity.
The cover of our order of service has a quote from UU Folk Singer, Pete Seeger, “There’s a river of my people and its flow is swift and strong.” He’s an American icon – an American tradition all on his own. And his music is so often about building a world of justice and equity. It matches well Huntington’s own philanthropic commitments to peace, liberty and justice. Our strength as a people rests in the onward movement of our work together. That river is leading us to a world where the “Beloved Community”, so often spoken of by prophets like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – is a reality – even if we never see it in our lifetimes. Even so, it matters that we keep moving toward it. The strength of the river doesn’t rely on where the individual rivulets break away, the strength of the river relies on where all those rivulets come together. Building a world founded in compassion requires all of us working together with a shared purpose centered in love and respect. That very practice is a spiritual discipline – one that is much easier to say than to do. If you don’t think it’s that hard, try to remember the last time you were running late and stuck on a very long line at the grocery store, and someone was paying with a check in front of you. (It’s usually enough to kill my Zen.)
I’d like to take a lesson here from our Religious Education classes. Most of them have a practice that’s incredibly helpful that our adults could benefit from following. They begin every year by building a covenant together. They come up with promises they make to one another – not rules to follow, but practices to honor. They figure out as a group how to start in a way that they mean to continue. When one of us falls out of covenant, the class, the community, can kindly bring them back into right relationship. It’s something that’s a lot easier to do when the promises are hanging from the wall in magic marker. Everyone knows what’s expected. People aren’t surprised by cultural secrets, or in-house cliques.
It can seem like a small thing, but it’s probably our most universal spiritual practice. Something that our children and youth tend to excel at better than the rest of us – and it’s something we can learn from. This practice is at our heart, it’s our core. We are not a creedal faith. There’s no litmus test to define the right responses for factual questions of belief – rote or otherwise. In this religious home there is room for searching. Rather, we are a covenantal faith. We are defined by our relationships, by our commitments, by the promises we make with one another. Our principles themselves are all relational.
Here’s an example: our third principle calls us to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. Now I can’t think of a more dangerous principle to live by. If I tried to apply this back home with my parents – forget about it. Encouragement to spiritual growth… I love my my Italian Catholic Mom…but if she tried to encourage me in her way…we might not be talking for a month. But that’s the very discipline our religion tries to nurture and develop. We just need to center the practice in ground-rules – in promises kept – in covenant – so that when we go too far, or stall on the road, we have each other to hold us back or lift us up. And we’re not surprised by the outreach.
Your ministerial search committee gave me a beautiful glimpse into your congregation. Over and over again I heard, warm, caring, supportive. (And I will hold you all to it.) I also heard that the Fellowship has a strong commitment to the practice of shared ministry. In some ways it means how the ordained clergy shares leadership with our lay members. It definitely means that. It also means this practice of covenant. The ways in which we care and work together as a community is how we best share our ministry with one another.
I know Huntington’s Board is reflecting on the meaning of covenant now, and I’m grateful they already had that on their plate. I imagine we’ll have opportunities in the months ahead to reflect on this, but I encourage committees to begin their years by creating a working covenant for each group if they haven’t already. We can hold our meetings and do our work focusing just on the What and Where – something so common when we are busy studying for school, or immersed in our careers, or raising our kids alone. Or we can leave room to learn what our favorite movies are. We can craft space for our humanity to shine in between our tasks and projects. The work we do here is always secondary to the people we are building deeper connections with. All the details will pass; all the facts will someday be forgotten; it will be the laughs and the tears that linger in our hearts. Always make room for them. Always make room for them.
Our religion is about the laughter and the tears. It’s about the heart at our center. It’s about how we are in the world, and how we strive to be. It seeks to ground us in the mystery that is our life. It teaches that there is a path worth living and walking; there is ever a potential for hope in the unfolding of the human spirit; we are loved and maintain the possibility to love; perfections and products are pale compensations for the forgetting of our connectedness in this awe-inspiring living world.
I look forward to getting to know all of you in the weeks and hopefully years to come. “There’s a river of my people and its flow is swift and strong.”