Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Conspiracy with the Future — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on July 28th, 2013


Sermon     “Conspiracy with the Future”        Rev. David Pyle

One of the dangers of being a preacher

is that you tend to preach.

More than a few of you

have been subjected to “mini-sermons” from me,

either in counseling, or in meetings,

or perhaps just passing in the hallway.

I have preached a few mini-sermons

to the City Council and the Social Services Task Force

since I have been here in Ventura as well.

A few of you will probably recognize the experience…

where I become passionate about something,

and launch into a 2-4 minute sermon before I catch myself,

and stop talking by thanking you

for listening to my mini-sermon for the day.

I try to limit myself to one per day.


The danger of being a preacher is that you tend to preach…


I realized, however, that I have never really

stepped into this pulpit to preach a sermon “to” this congregation.

Oh, I have preached from this pulpit, well lectern anyway,

many times during my two years with this congregation,

but I have never stepped into this pulpit

to do what I think of as “Preaching to” a congregation.


Until today, that is.

Because today I plan to preach to you,

the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura.


To me, “preaching to” a congregation

is when I intentionally step into the pulpit

to preach a sermon where I focus on something

I think we are not doing well,

or a place where we are missing the mark as a congregation,

and call us to do better… call us to a new path.


Unlike the pastoral sermon I preached last week,

I am not hoping to speak to you as individuals,

but rather to speak to the collective soul

that we call the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura.

To speak to who we are together,

rather than who we are apart.


For the year that I was the minister in Midland, Michigan,

that congregation had quite a few sermons preached to them.

Perhaps it was that I was there as an Interim minister,

or perhaps it was because I was their only minister,

but I have been reflecting on how during that year

I stepped into that pulpit

intending to be challenging of the congregation

no less than ten times,

and yet I have never stepped into the pulpit here

with that intention.  Until today that is.


It was in thinking of this difference

between my ministry here and my ministry in Midland

that I realized that I have been

outside my expectations of covenant with you…

as in you, the UU Church of Ventura.


Now, before anyone gets concerned,

I am not talking about our behavioral covenant,

the right relations document

that we have as a congregation

about how we will listen with open hearts

and not forward anonymous criticism and the like.

We call that a covenant,

but that is not the kind of covenant I mean today.

I am talking about the spiritual covenant

that rests at the heart of this faith we call Unitarian Universalism.


It is one of the harder words to define

in our liberal religious tradition… covenant.

I will say here, at the start of my sermon,

that not even Unitarian Universalist Ministers agree

on a single understanding

of the meaning and purpose of covenant in our faith…

and on more than one occasion

I have made a comment in minister’s gatherings

based in my particular understanding of covenant

and had my dear colleagues stare at me

like I was an alien from outer space.

But if I am going to tell you why I feel

I have been outside the spiritual covenant of our faith

in my relationship with you,

then I need to at least explain to you

what covenant means to me.


Let us then go back to where the concept of covenant began

for us as Unitarian Universalists…

the stories of the ancient Hebraic peoples

that have come to us from the Hebrew Scriptures.


In the days of and before Abraham and Moses,

a covenant was often an agreement between nations,

often warring or opposing nations.

It was what we would call a treaty today, with one exception.

You see, what made a covenant a covenant and not a treaty

was that it was more than an agreement between people.

A covenant was an agreement between these warring nations

that would be enforced by each nation’s particular deity…

by each nation’s particular God.


You see, what made a treaty or a contract

different than a covenant is that treaties and contracts

were expected to be enforced by people…

but if you broke a covenant,

you were breaking a promise you made to God,

whoever the God of your people happened to be.

And you could expect your God

to respond with vengeance if you did break that covenant.


The Hebraic peoples added a new development

to the concept of covenant however.

Now, we do not know if this was unique to them,

but because of their sacred scriptures

we know of this change in the concept of covenant through them,

so I think it is safe to ascribe it to them.

For the Hebraic peoples going back

into some of their earliest stories,

we began to see a new kind of covenant.

A covenant not between two groups of humans

that would be enforced by their particular deities,

but rather a covenant directly between one people and their God.


One of the earliest covenants in the Hebrew Scriptures

was a covenant that the God Jehovah made with Noah,

and all of Noah’s descendants,

and all of the animals, and the trees, and the plants.

The covenant was a simple one,

that God would never send a flood

to destroy all of the earth again.

Jehovah asked in return that Noah and his descendants

be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.

Jehovah said that, from that day on,

whenever there was a rainbow in the sky,

it would be a reminder of this sacred promise

that Jehovah made to all life on earth,

and that Noah and his descendants made to the God Jehovah.

The one not to destroy by water…

and the other to be fruitful and multiply.


Now, I’m not asking you to believe this story

as if it were true, which I do not even believe myself.

I am simply asking that you see

the Hebrew concept of Covenant within this story.

It is a sacred promise made between a people

and their understanding of Divinity.

It is a different concept of covenant

than existed among many of the other peoples

of the ancient world,

which were treaties between different peoples

that were to be enforced by each people’s God.


No, for the Hebrew Nation,

from whom we gained the concept of covenant,

such a covenant was between the Hebrew Peoples

and their God.


We see this concept many times in Hebrew Scriptures…

and we also see something else.

It is not the people who seek to create the covenant…

it is Jehovah.

The Hebrew people do not come up with an idea

for a sacred promise and then go to God

to see if they can talk him into it.

No, it is the other way around.

It is Jehovah who says to the Hebrew People

“This is my promise to you, and this is what I expect from you.”


We see this in the Covenant that Jehovah made

between himself and a nomad named Abram,

whose name he changed to Abraham.

Jehovah promised Abraham that

he would make a great nation from him and his descendants.

What Abraham was expected to do was to remain faithful,

to trust in Jehovah.

How well Abraham kept his end of the covenant is another story,

but we see again the pattern of the Hebraic Covenant…

that it was a promise made between a people

and their understanding of divinity.

Once again, I’m not asking you to believe the story,

or even in Abraham’s understanding of Divinity…

I only ask you see this about the concept of Covenant.


Can anyone guess medicament imitrex where in Hebrew Scriptures I am going next?

What we now know as the Ten Commandments

that Jehovah gave to Moses on Mount Sinai

was one half of this same kind of Covenant,

a promise between a people and their understanding of divinity.

I have often reflected that, for churches like ours

that have focused on having a “Right Relations Covenant”

or the kind of covenant that focuses

on how we behave toward one another,

this is the story in Hebrew Scriptures

to which we can most relate.

Jehovah made the promise to the Hebrew peoples,

now known as the Israelites,

that they would be a special, chosen people,

and the people made the promise to Jehovah

that they would accept certain limitations upon their behavior…

limitations that would allow them to live together in peace

through the long journey that was ahead of them

through a harsh desert.

A Right Relations Covenant indeed.


Do you see the trend in the development

of covenant among the Hebrew peoples?

As I said, I’m not interested in whether you believe

in any of these stories or not,

only that we see the development of Covenant,

because we place such importance upon it today

as people of Liberal Faith.

And yet, I have one more place in Scriptures to go

before I can bring us to my understanding of covenant,

and how I think I have been outside of that covenant with you.


And to do that, I must leave Hebraic Scriptures,

and bring us to the teachings

of a young Galilean Rabbi named Yeshua, or Jesus.


I have been reading a book these last few weeks,

by a Christian scholar named Reza Aslan,

called “Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”.

It is a profound look at what we can know historically

about who Jesus was as a man…

and about how so much of the amazing life he lived

has been lost in the myth of his divinity.

In the myth of him being God.

The book has had me refocusing my understanding

in a few ways, one of the most profound of which

is that the young Rabbi Jesus

was presenting the people with a Covenant…

but this time it was different.

Though Jehovah was a part of what was divine in the covenant,

He was not all of it…

Perhaps not even the most important part.


What Jesus was asking of the people,

for their part of the covenant was that they Honor God,

and that they love each other.

That they treat each other as they might like to be treated.

More, that they treat each other as Jesus himself treated them.


“Love each other as I have loved you”

he is supposed to have said.

In a world where people took whatever advantage they could

of one another as an accepted part of society,

it was a profound message.


Love each other.  Turn the other cheek.

Give what you have to those less fortunate.


And, from this… and this is the important part for me…

from this Jesus said would come a kingdom of Peace…

the Realm of God.


Jesus believed in the future.

The covenant he offered,

that he named on behalf of the divinity he knew and felt,

was that if people would love one another,

then there would someday be a realm of peace.

Covenant was not just about the relationship

between a people and their God,

it was about how we can create the future,

by how we behave and treat one another in the present.


This is my understanding of covenant.

This is the covenant that I believe is at the heart of,

at the center of Unitarian Universalism.

The development in covenant

that I see at the heart of our liberal faith

is that Covenant is no longer about

a particular people’s relationship to their understanding of divinity,

it is no longer tied to any particular representation of God.

Our Covenant is with each other in relationship to a vision…

a vision of a world made whole.

Our Covenant is a promise that we make not only to each other,

but to the future.

To all of the people who are to come.


Our Covenant is a promise we make that the world that will come

will be, must be better than the one we received…

and that it is our task on this earth to create that better world.

We create that world by loving one another.

We create that world by treating each other better

than we even want to be treated ourselves.

We create that world by doing in community

what we cannot do alone.

We create that world by holding each other accountable

for who we say we are, and for who we need to be

to build the just, peaceful world that we dream,

that we vision for the future.

And yet, since coming to be your Assistant Minister

I have lost my way when it comes to that vision.

I think because I am not your called minister,

I took my eye off that vision of the future,

that vision of a world made whole

that is at the center of our faith tradition,

and instead have focused my attention

upon the structure and the relationships

that are within our community.

More than once I have told Rev. Jan

that I did not feel it was my place

to articulate a vision for the future of this,

the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura…

and I stand by that.


It is not my place as the Assistant Minister to lead you,

this particular church, in visioning your future as a church.


But it is my place, it is all of our places,

to vision together a future for this world we live in,

for a world made whole.


My responsibility for leading in visioning what this world could be,

should be, must be rests not in my position

here at this congregation…

but in my ordination and vocation

as a Unitarian Universalist Minister.

In truth, it rests even deeper than that,

it rests in that I believe that the Covenant,

the Sacred Promise of Unitarian Universalism

is not a promise of a people to a God…

but rather a promise of a people, our people, my people…

a promise of a People with the future.


In the last two years, I have allowed my vision to narrow,

to move away from this conspiracy with the future,

this mission and vision of a world made whole,

I have allowed my vision to narrow down

to the needs and the future of this one church.

In doing so, I think I have lost my way a bit…

I lost the reason why I am a minister.

I am not a minister to help create a bigger, more efficient church.

I am a minister to create the world made whole,

to build the beloved community, and to change the world.


I do not yet know what this means for me

or for my relationship with you.

Perhaps it is just a change

not in what I am doing as your Assistant Minister,

but why I am doing it.


But I ask you this question,

because it is the question I am facing…

what would it mean for you, if everything you do in life

were seen through a vision of how to build beloved community?


What if all of our lives were built around a conspiracy

to create a better, more just, more peaceful world?

What if the guiding question for every decision

became how does serve the vision of a society

where the priority is honoring what is divine

and loving one another?


What if this was the question we asked

before making any decision within the life of this congregation?


How would that change your life?

How would that change the life of this Church?

That is the question that is before my ministry today…

and I should ask it of myself everyday…


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.


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