© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
April 3, 2011
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I once read that only eighteen hours elapse before a group of chickens, previously complete strangers to each other, will form a tightly structured social organization which we call a flock. The article I read went on to inform me that "the social organization turns out to be a rigid hierarchy. At the top is one chief hen who by dint of pecking the other hens has established her prestige: she is able to peck any other hen, and none will dare to peck her back. Immediately beneath her in pecking rank will be three or four other hens who are second in command; they have established their power, and their 'right' to peck all the other hens in the yard except the number one. And then gradually the hierarchy broadens to the hoi polloi, the common hens, who may be pecked by any of the hens in the higher echelons but may not peck back. This hierarchy is, of course, called a pecking order."
Interestingly enough, the article that I read this information in was not in a science journal, or animal-related magazine at all. Rather, it comes from a famous essay about the Unitarian Church in the 20th century. Penned by the great Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, the "Five Smooth Stones of Liberalism" essay was an attempt to refocus the denomination back on what he believed was the true calling of liberal religion; that is, helping people liberate themselves from the destructive and imprisoning systems and structures that keep us in bondage and disrupt our very pursuit of our best selves. You know, nothing big. Yet he begins this high minded and important work with this bizarre anecdote about chickens and pecking order. This, like all of Adams work, is of course no mistake.
What Adams knew was that without an organizing principle, humans, like any other animal, will fall back to their most basic instincts and just start pecking. And so, if we want to achieve our lofty goals together as healthy functioning communities, we must not only be organized, but be organized well.
I am sure everyone here in this church today can relate to this. Who at some point has not attended a church, or worked in an office or even been a part of a clique that resorted to this kind of behavior. That is what I really want to talk about today. What, as Unitarian Universalists, do we have to draw upon to anchor our congregations? We are not like so many churches and religious groups that meet and form communities around binding theological agreements because we have no creed - no rigid set of beliefs that one must subscribe to in order to belong. Both our Universalist and Unitarian forbears resisted the idea of creeds because they wanted their circle of inclusion to be big enough for everyone.
As our beautiful hymn says: "Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving." Yes, our movement is big enough even for those on their way out! But every movement, every group, has to have some idea of who and what they are - a sense of purpose, if you will. As the famous theologian Martin Buber put it:
"The real essence of community is to be found in the fact - manifest or otherwise - that it has a center. The real beginning of a community is when its members have a common relation to the center overriding all other relations; the circle is described by the radii, not by the points along its circumference."
The term we now use to talk about this organizing principle is covenant. This term is far from being unique to us. It has historical roots that go as far back as the 4th century before the Common Era. Originally, a covenant was an arrangement between two communities, one the protector of the other, and it formally recognized the parameters of the relationship. The Hebrew people took this idea of covenant to the next level, creating a formal arrangement with their God:
"And God said, 'This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.'" - Genesis 9:12-15
As Judaism was forever changed by a radical from within, so changed covenant. With Christianity, covenant was no longer strictly about laws, but entered a new and more inclusive arena in which only God's grace was needed to welcome a stranger into the ever-growing circle of faith. All that was required of the individual was to accept the invitation. But of course politics just couldn't keep its meddling hands out of a good thing, and as Christianity got all tied up with the insatiable appetite and ever-expanding waistline of the Roman Empire, this free grace started to look a lot more like a high wall all over again, with priests acting as the gatekeeper and the Pope looking a lot like a King. Then along came the Protestant Reformation, and finally some people that we can claim as our ancestors started to rethink this idea of covenant once again.
As someone who grew up in Massachusetts, I know one version of the Mayflower story very well. I am guessing no matter where you grew up, if you have been in the U.S. for at least one Thanksgiving you have heard some version of the story yourself. But despite what you remember from all those horrible Thanksgiving stories of funny hats and shooting turkeys with muzzle-loaded rifles, in the hours before this band of religious separatists made land fall at Plymouth Rock, they has already accomplished the most essential part of their journey. And we hardly ever talk about it.
But before we get to that part of the story, I offer a few refresher points for those who might not remember all the details of this adventure beyond Plymouth Rock and turkey on the fourth Thursday of November.
The Pilgrims, as we now call them, began as a small movement of churches in England against the Anglican Church, which was felt to still harbor far too much of the vertical hierarchy that the Protestant Reformation was meant to finish. For this move towards a more pure form of church government, they were dubbed Puritans, and their activities were considered to be not only threatening to the church, but to the crown.
After a comedy of errors that included several betrayals, arrests, escapes and dangerously leaking boats, just under 50 members of the Puritans managed to escape the punishment of the King of England by making it onto a boat called the Mayflower. All these years later, when we think of the Mayflower we assume that everyone on the ship was a Puritan, but in reality they made up just under half of the 102 passengers on that famous ship, and this fact is important to our little story. The rest of the manifest, ominously listed as "the strangers" by the Puritans, were just the rowdy bunch of people you might expect to find on a dodgy ship secretly sneaking away from Europe towards points unknown.
It was a difficult two-month journey across the Atlantic. The ship was overcrowded with the supplies these erstwhile settlers would need when they made land, and the journey was plagued by rough storms. When the weary crew finally sighted land it was not the mouth of the Hudson River as they had planned, but rather a rocky outcropping over 200 miles to the north now known as Cape Cod. The crew at first attempted to maneuver the failing vessel south, but after the long time at sea they were weak and sick and once again met a storm system that seemed almost divine in its fury and refusal to allow them any progress. When the ship almost met its untimely end against a particularly rocky section of sea, the captain made the decision to point the ship back towards Cape Cod.
This triggered a terrific uprising among the Puritans, for their legal charter was for an area of land in Virginia. And things got even worse when "the strangers" announced that when they made land on Cape Cod there would be no further legal obligation, thank you very much, to captain or settlement - they would be on their own. The entire journey and future of this community appeared to be in jeopardy.
But luckily for us and for history (but possibly not for turkeys), calmer and more rational heads prevailed. The leaders among both parties knew that they needed each other to survive and the Puritans reached back into their history for the solution.
Over the next day, as their ship bobbed tantalizingly just off shore from Plymouth Rock, from the new world, and from destiny, they crafted a covenant that we now know as the Mayflower Compact. I love to picture that boat in that exact moment. There it was: beaten, exhausted, laden with the hopes and dreams of 102 radically free human beings, as much in the middle of the ocean as it was in the middle of history, and dangerously close to missing its date with destiny due to their inability to continue working together. In this time of uncertainty, when the entire outcome of their struggle was in doubt, when they needed something to hold them together against whatever was to come, they made a covenant. A set of words - just words - that, once spoken freely, bind the community to each other. It's as close to a magic spell as we have. And just like the best kinds of magic, it works. Finding our communal purpose, writing it down, and then creating rituals to remind us of what it is, simply helps us live our purpose in our daily lives together.
Like a rainbow, we need to have something to look towards to remind us where we are headed, because that direction is rarely as easy to find as north or south. In the end, a UU church is not a building, or a Minister, or a group of people in a horizontal, vertical or any other pecking order. A UU church is a covenant.
Here at Mission Peak we have had a group of our own working on some very important words that will help lead us into the future. They are not quite exactly the same thing as a covenant, but they are every bit as important. A big part of our movement's grounding is in the idea that each church not only chooses its own vision and direction, but also its own manner of operating. We call these guidelines by-laws. Almost every organization has them and they are generally regarded as a necessary evil.
I invite you to think of them in a different way. We may not be bobbing out there in the ocean, desperately needing each other for survival. But it is true that for Mission Peak to blossom in all the ways that we hope and dream, we are going to need to be a community of individuals that operates deliberately, with purpose, and with organization, rather than a bunch of chickens just pecking. My sincere hope is that when our new proposed set of by-laws is released, and before we vote on them, that you actually take a look at them, and think about whether they line up with how you think we should be moving into our future. Because without them we will continue to not make the best use of our energy and commitment.
But with a solid set of by-laws, with a simple few magic words, a building becomes a church, a people become a movement, and the impossible becomes possible. May it be so here at Mission Peak, and throughout our communities everywhere.
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