Who’s in the Driver’s Seat?

America has hung its identity on freedom of the individual, and that is a wonderful and amazing thing. But what’s happened is that we have focused on freedom from rather than freedom for. Freedom has become its own end without an overarching sense of purpose or accountability, and that has left many of us really vulnerable: vulnerable to consumerism which twists our yearning for freedom and independence into the compulsion to go shopping; vulnerable to making the fulfillment of our desires the central meaning of our lives; vulnerable to being arrogant and self-centered; vulnerable to being intensely lonely. Americans are the loneliest people on the planet, having fewer close friends than any other nation on earth. It’s hard for us to cooperate, to trust. That has lead to a nation that lives as if danger is around every corner.

 This sermon was delivered at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel in Chesterfield MO on Sunday, August 3, 2014.

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Whenever I use scriptural stories in a Unitarian Universalist worship service, I try to be really clear about how I use scripture, because so many Unitarian Universalists have been wounded by earlier religious experiences, often involving the use of scripture.

I believe that scripture is true because truth has a diversity of forms. There’s objective truth, like, “My car is black.” Or “I am the oldest of four siblings.” It doesn’t have to be interpreted. It just is. But, there are other truths that need more explaining, like, “Being the oldest of four siblings means that I was always the babysitter.” Or “My car is black because it was the only car of the make and model I wanted at the price I could afford.” These are truths that you have to get to. They aren’t just waiting there for you.

Scripture is that kind of truth. There’s nothing objective about scripture. Who wrote it and why? What has it meant to the people who claim it as theirs? Who is reading it now and what questions and assumptions do they bring to what they’re reading? You can’t just open the Bible, pick a verse, and say, “It’s truth is obvious,” because it’s not. There is a diversity of truth in every single word of what we call Scripture.

I know that every time I use scripture, some people get scared that they’re going to get hurt again.   I can’t promise you that you won’t get hurt again, but I can promise you that it’s not the scripture that will hurt you. It never was. It was the people using it.

When a Unitarian Universalist uses Scripture, it will be through the lens of our values, through the guidance of our questions, and our hopes for what life should be. Part of being a Unitarian Universalist is to take risks on behalf of our individual and collective spiritual wellbeing, and part of healing is developing a new relationship with what hurt us.   Then, we’re the ones in the drivers seat, not our wounds.

That’s how I come at any scriptural verse. I’m in the driver’s seat and the scripture and the history that it carries with it, is a gift that I get to explore to find freedom and new life and true community. It helps me with that age-old universal question, “To whom do I belong? And who belongs to me?”

Today we are beginning a month-long focus on the meaning of covenant, what it means to live in covenant. Who do we belong to and who belongs to us? Our Unitarian Universalist understanding of religious community as centered in covenant rather than creed or doctrine has its roots in the myth of the Exodus that I shared with our children today, of a people who became enslaved, entered into a covenant with the God of their understanding who promised them freedom if they promised him faithfulness. He then ushered in their freedom, and then it was their turn.

That covenant is rooted in these two passages from the Torah, one in the book of Shemot (shmot) , the other in the book of Vayikrah. (va-i-krah) If your background is Christian you will know them as Exodus and Leviticus.   Shemot tells the story of the Exodus, of how the Israelites got out of Egypt and went into exile in the desert searching for the promised land. Vayikrah is the book is where God through Moses sets out the laws by which the Israelites will live into their newfound freedom.

Shemot 6: 5-8. “And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant. Wherefore say unto the children of Israel: I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgments; and I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you in unto the land which I lifted up My hand to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it to you for a heritage.”

This verse takes place at the time that God is starting to send all those nasty plagues to the Egyptians, trying to force them to set the Israelites free. While he was doing this, some of the Israelites begged him to stop because they were afraid of getting the Egyptians mad. What if God’s plagues didn’t work? What if that left them still slaves, but not owned by people who were really mad at them? In this verse, God is basically saying to them, “Heh, chill out! I have heard your suffering and I’ve been moved by it. I AM going to set you free. I AM going to get you out of this. And when I do, you know that you’re my people.”

Then there’s the next set of verses, which take place after the Israelites have been freed, and now they’re wandering in the desert until they find home. He’s responding to the fact that they keep complaining. Complaining about not having homes, about not having reliable water sources, about having to wander in the desert. Sometimes, even saying that they wish they could just stay in Egypt. At least then they knew what the deal was. Here, they didn’t know anything. And God says to them

Vayikah 26:11-13.

“And I will set My tabernacle among you, and My soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be My people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that ye shall not be their bondmen; and I have broken the bars of your yoke, and made you go upright.”

God is saying to them, “Look, I’ve freed you. And not only have I freed you, but I am living amongst you. And guess what! You are no longer bent over with the weight of your enslavement.   You are free. So who cares that you are wandering the desert, and having to haul wood and look for food and set up your tents every night. You are free!   And in covenant, we will claim the fullness of your freedom. You will have a land to call your own!”

What I see in these verses is that God needed them as much as they needed him. They both needed the covenant that he extended out to them. So when he said “I will be your God and you shall be my people,” he got to be more whole too. He was taking a risk on behalf of his own spiritual growth.

The purpose of this covenant was to protect the Israelites freedom. After centuries of enslavement, they had forgotten how to be free. Their whole identity as a people was wrapped up in their collective suffering. In fact, the first time he offered them this covenant, in the book of Shemot, they didn’t believe him and turned away. This is how deep in despair they had fallen. It took a whole series of miracles to win their trust, and even then, they would doubt him, over and over again. Once they had their freedom, they didn’t even know where to start. They had to learn how to be upright, not stooped over. So God started at the basics. Moses went up Mount Sinai and got those Ten Commandments, and said here, follow this. Then God called him back up again and again, and according to those who wrote the story down, this is what brought the Vayikrah, or Leviticus, into being, the book of laws. And what I see in those laws, are instructions for how to live into their covenant. The most important thing that God wanted to share with the Israelites was how to create a nation that did not put them back into slavery, because that would not be honoring him.

This was a people who were so damaged. And when you’ve been oppressed, you often internalize your oppression, deep down believing that it’s all you really deserve. To use a turn of phrase from Vayikah, “Our souls abhor us.” We often see this with people who have experienced some kind of abuse or oppression. In the gay community, we often say that each of us has our own internalized homophobia. We have internalized the message that we are less than. You often see people of color with internalized racism. Women have internalized sexism. And people who are victims of abuse, you’ll often see them making choices that keep them in the abuse.  Even when they have the chance for freedom, they will often make choices that put them right back into an abusive situation. When that happens, it’s their wounds that are in the drivers seat, not them. And I’m not saying to blame anyone, but to hold up a pattern of how we can undo ourselves.

The God in this story invited the Israelites into a covenant where they were in the drivers seat, a covenant that affirmed their self-value and offered them freedom. God knew that humans are really good at internalizing their wounds and building new hierarchies that damage the next generation, and he did not want that. They’d just escaped from one form of slavery, they didn’t need another one. The purpose of covenant is to put us in the drivers seat towards right relationship and right living with all that is.

So what does this have to do with us?   Here we are, a small Unitarian Universalist congregation in suburban St. Louis in the 21st century. Most of us are not Christian anymore, and those of us that are tend to focus on a God who presents as quite different from a traditional God. We are unified in our values but diverse in the ways we experience and talk about the divine or the sacred. We are humanists and atheists, agnostics, spiritual, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and more. Most of us aren’t fleeing for our lives. Most of us have homes, food in the fridge, a bed to lay in, transportation to get to a church that is not accessible by public transit. We don’t seem much like those ancient Israelites.

But still, there is so much here for us. For the last 40 years or so, many deep thinkers, religious leaders, some politicians, and even ordinary people, have been sounding an alarm, that we have our own wounds that are in the drivers seat. Many of us have forgotten how to be a people.

America has hung its identity on freedom of the individual, and that is a wonderful and amazing thing. But what’s happened is that we have focused on freedom from rather than freedom for. Freedom has become its own end without an overarching sense of purpose or accountability, and that has left many of us really vulnerable: vulnerable to consumerism which twists our yearning for freedom and independence into the compulsion to go shopping; vulnerable to making the fulfillment of our desires the central meaning of our lives; vulnerable to being arrogant and self-centered; vulnerable to being intensely lonely. Americans are the loneliest people on the planet, having fewer close friends than any other nation on earth. It’s hard for us to cooperate, to trust. That has lead to a nation that lives as if danger is around every corner.

People who are disconnected from each other tend to overreact, to demonize others, to presume bad intentions, to throw out ultimatums, and ultimately, to close off. Why does this happen? We’ve bought into the illusion of our separateness, and yet at every turn the ways of the world show us we are not, we are radically interconnected. To someone who has bought into the illusion, those reality checks feel like assaults and we either lash out or close off to protect ourselves from the blow we imagine is coming. When that happens, our woundedness is in the drivers seat.

Covenant for 21st century America, in my opinion, is about providing a roadmap away from the kind of rabid individualism that we are stuck in, to the kind of individualism that supports each person living into their fullness, so that as a people we are stronger. I really think this is the challenge of our time. We can’t afford to live like we’re the only ones on the planet anymore. Ecologically and socially, politically and spiritually, the wounds of this illusion are in the drivers seat and they are doing so much damage.

Now whether for good or bad, we don’t have a God or a Moses who can meet at the top of a mountain and come up with a set of laws that show us how to get there. We have to be God and Moses for each other.

 A few years ago, the Board of Trustees of this good congregation and the Committee on Ministry, along with myself, realized that this congregation had nothing to guide it when relationships got difficult, which happens in a church. It happens everywhere. The Committee on Ministry is responsible for monitoring and evaluating the ministries of the church. They aren’t a working group so much as an evaluating group. These are the people I often use as a sounding board. They are the people who conduct my performance reviews as well as the performance of the congregation as a whole in living its ministries.   They were charged by the Board with developing a process for how to address conflict. The first thing they did was ask, “Well, what’s our covenant with each other? Who are we to each other?” Over the next year, they developed the document that many of you hold in your hands this morning, our Behavioral Covenant.

Here’s the opening statement:

We build our church on a foundation of love and covenant with one another,

To freely explore our values and honor our diversity as a source of communal strength,

To accept responsibility for our individual acts and promote justice and peace,

To celebrate the joys of discovery, embracing the fullest measure of our humanity,

To communicate with kindness and support,

To serve with compassion and commitment,

To openly share our laughter and tears and,

To show reverence for the divine in all that is.

Can you see how these words draw us into resistance against the kind of individualism that is tearing apart the fabric of our society? The individualism that separates and isolates us, that pits us against each other?

I love the whole thing, but my favorite is “to freely explore our values and honor our diversity as a source of communal strength.” In Unitarian Universalism we don’t create unity by stifling diversity, we honor it, believing that it is in our diversity, and the embodiment of our freedom, that we become one people. That’s what we believe we are heading towards. And just like the Ancient Israelites, what we’re struggling against is the power of wounds that can easily get in the drivers seat. Our wound is the relentless pull towards a kind of individualism that takes us all down. It’s doing too much damage, and our responsibility is to model a different path to a truer freedom, one that heals and validates and unifies.

This is an ageless process, the process of becoming a people, of holding up our radical interconnectedness. We are on a trajectory that started before the Ancient Israelites grasped at their freedom and will continue long after us, and maybe someday our experience will become a story that is told to children when they ask who they are and who they belong to.

Amen and blessed be.

These sermons are made available with a request: that the reader appreciate that, ideally, a sermon is an oral/aural experience that takes place in the context of worship – supported and reinforced by readings, contemplative music, rousing hymns, silence, and prayer – and that it is but one part of an extended conversation that occurs over time between a minister and a covenanted congregation. This sermon may be freely shared and reproduced, provided that credit is given to the author.  

 

 

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About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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