I invite you to come with me on a journey. We are together in the dessert. The shifting sands and dry winds find every piece of earth, every piece of our exposed skin. We can feel the sting of the whipping sand in our eyes. The beating sun heats our covered heads, and the unmistakable sour odor of sulfur tinges each breath we take. We walk over the rocky hills and mountains. And we can see the calm and mysterious Dead Sea before us.
But we did not come here to bathe in the ancient waters of this holy place. No, we have lost something, something we cannot find. We are seeking something, something that evades us at every turn. We search tirelessly for something, something that has simply gone from us. We are looking for…a goat.
We are Bedouin goat herders, and one of our goats has wandered off in the hills around the Dead Sea. While we’re searching for the goat, we walk into a cave and we are surprised to see what we find there. No goats to be found—only shelves and shelves of clay jars not quite like we’ve ever seen—very old jars. Curious about what we’ve stumbled upon, we open one of the jars. And in it we find a piece of paper. And on the paper there is very, very old writing.
Now, being goatherds, we don’t have a lot of use for these jars, but we suspect that someone else might be interested in them. And so it will be that in the course of the following years our discovery will send scores of scholars into the hills surrounding the Dead Sea to find more and more caves, with more and more of these pieces of paper. And in time, we will learn that this discovery of ours was the first discovery of what will be called the Dead Sea Scrolls. The accidental discovery by these goatherds would give life to scholarly inquiry for generations. And not only scholarly inquiry.
A lot of people all over the world will watch and wonder about what was found in those mysterious caves, unitl in1951, when we, the public, did not have to wait any longer. The very first scroll the goatherds discovered was released to the public to read…the very first one they laid their hands on. And the world wondered: “Would it contain answers to puzzles of the ancient world?” “Would it reveal a hidden piece of history, in the life of the human race?” Well, let’s read and find out.
“Whoever has guffawed foolishly shall do penance for thirty days.” Huh. Let’s keep reading. “Whoever has deliberately lied shall do penance for six months.” OK, that sounds a little more like something you’d find on an ancient scroll, right? “Whoever has lain down to sleep during an Assembly of the Congregation: thirty days penance.” Now that I can get behind.
In our reading, it would become clear to us that this first scroll, the important discovery we made together, was much, much more about rules and regulations than it was about anything else. In fact, scholars gave this very first scroll from those found around the Dead Sea the name Community Rule. It provides rules for a community of religious people. It tells them what they should do, how they should live in community together, like monks or nuns, in 200 BC. The rules guide how these people were to worship, pray, eat, dress, laugh, sleep, and otherwise get along. This first of the Dead Sea Scrolls was a collection of what this group should do together to be in a holy place together. And this document isn’t the only one of its kind.
Many, many of humankind’s most cherished sets of documents are sets of rules. In the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, two entire books of the Pentateuch, the first five, and most holy books of all the Hebrew Scriptures, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, are devoted to rules and regulations. In the Buddhist tradition, written rules form the basis of the sangha, which is a spiritual group of persons dedicated to sharing their lives with one another as part of a deeply held belief, one of the three sacred jewels of Buddhist life. One of the most famous examples of rules in the lives of Christian folks comes in the Rule of Saint Benedict, which formed the structure for the Benedictine order of monks. Benedictine monasteries and retreat centers still use the unchanged, unedited Rule of Saint Benedict to this day. And it’s not only religious groups that want to have their rules to follow.
Some of the largest, most hopeful, experiments in governing human beings were based on rules, including some that removed any official religion from their culture…as a rule. Humans really like making and writing down all of their rules. In truth, we love it!
Now, since we make all these rules, that means we go about obeying them, right? Don’t we all go through our lives constantly aware of every rule we are supposed to follow? No? Yeah, we all know that would be impossible, right? Take those two books of the Pentateuch. They are filled to the margins with rule, after rule, after rule. Who could keep track? Well, one person, in his hilarious and touching book, The Year of Living Biblically, did just that. A. J. Jacobs, the author of the book, cataloged all of the rules in the bible and did his best to keep every single one of those rules for a year. Following some of these rules really surprised him.
In one example, he explains that by taking a page out of Ecclesiastes and wearing all white for an entire year, he found his mood really lightened, as did plenty of the rooms wherever he went, I’m sure. But, he found that even some of the most central rules our society knows—The Ten Commandments—presented some problems. The Second Commandment, which really says not to make any images of anything on heaven or on earth, meant that he cut out TV and other ways of producing visual images for the year. This was a struggle. We live in such a visual world. Ways of creating images are all around us. But in the end, by following this rule he says that he fell in love with words and text more than he ever had before. But he struggled with some of the other Commandments.
He found that whole bearing false witness rule was more than reality could really permit…because he was also the father of a three year old at the time. He found himself breaking that particular commandment on almost a daily basis, but sometimes with good reason. See, sometimes explaining to a three-year-old why they can’t watch TV takes some creativity. And sometimes we don’t have any creativity left. So the answer to why a three-year-old can’t watch the TV has to be “Because it’s broken.”
The experience of living by this code, by doing all that these ancient texts said we should do, was uplifting at times. But many of the ways he had to live his life meant not doing what he hoped he could do. See, one way or another, even though we as humans love our rules…we also have a knack for breaking them!
Even if we reject many of these more orthodox rules of religious communities, even if we’re not fond of other rules that are, say, posted as numbers on the side or the road, or sitting in a dusty set of jars on a carved shelf in the middle of a desert somewhere, we as humans are bound on many sides by rules, rules that really are meant to keep us safe, keep us holy, and most of all, keep us together.
Rules are meant to build and to foster community. Even our own community here has a mission that we seek to fulfill. We have a vision statement. We have a covenant of right relations. We have a set of bylaws. We have a set of governing policies about how to follow those bylaws. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Finally, a sermon about bylaws and governing policies!” But rules in communities aren’t all about making sure you don’t fall asleep in church—after all, that’s thirty days of penance.
We have rules for a reason. Rules help us feel safe, they help us feel valued, they even help us feel holy. And by doing all of this, rules help us feel.
See, one of the most common things we hear as Unitarian Universalists is some variation of this conversation. Someone might ask us, “What did you do today?” We answer, “I went to church, got some brunch, went for a hike…”.
“Oh, you went to church? Where do you go to church?”
“I go to First Unitarian over there on the Pali.”
“Isn’t that the church were you can kind of believe anything you want?”
Now, I personally believe that together we could create a moving and beautiful collection of writings with our responses to that particular question. I have spoken with enough of you in my time here to vouch for the beauty and variety of ways that we came to be part of this community. But a lot of what I hear over and over are stories about the rules that other systems of belief or communities of faith have, which often led people to come here. And the difference that appears over and over between what people experience in many other faiths and what they find here is not that our community doesn’t have rules. It’s that the rules our community has, both the unwritten and the written rules, are rules that do their best to allow, they are rules that strive to welcome, they are rules that seek to invite others to be with us. And to be themselves with us.
How we make space for belonging is one of the finest gifts we offer the world. For it is in the promise of belonging to a community that we can receive one of the greatest most illusive gifts of human life: intimacy. Each one of us yearns, we ache at times, to be known, to be seen completely. That yearning calls many of us to seek out relationships. And this looks different for all of us. Maybe we’re scrolling through social networking sites. Or maybe we’re turning to one of the many ways technology brings neighborhoods, friends, meet-up groups, or even romantic rendezvous into our lives. Make no mistake about it. Ways of seeking intimacy drive some of the most popular and profitable technological products in our culture. But no matter how fast we scroll through status updates or how many swipes we take on our phone, we so often find that the connection we hope for has human beings is not there.
And that is why holy places matter. That is why community matters.
As Unitarian Universalists, we take individuality very seriously. Our rejoicing in individuality is part of what called so many of us here. The very first of our Six Sources of our Living Tradition is direct experience with the universe we encounter. Our individual experience is holy to us. Because when as individuals we grow and stretch and change, when we experience the sacred, the holy, in this way, and when we as individuals bring all of ourselves back into our community, it expands our community so that we as individuals and all that we have seen and known can fit into it. And that is intimacy.
Bringing our whole limping, laughing, hurting, playing, aching, singing, praying, just-getting-by selves to church together. Whether we are a rule maker, a rule breaker, no matter what we have done in our lives, we come together here to experience the intimacy we so humanly crave.
We are not the first holy assembly to know this truth. Ancient rituals that keep the community together, even when members of the community break the rules, especially, when members break the rules, are as old as communities themselves. One of the most mysterious rituals for this purpose is described in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The community religious leader gathers the community once a year. And together, in the sight of the rest of the community, each member lays down their burdens, they name what they have done to break the community rules over the past year. This ritual itself does not cleanse the community members of what they have done. But it is by the admission of what they have done that they begin the process of taking actions to amend their behavior. As each act is spoken, the ceremony requires that the religious leader symbolically lay each transgression upon an animal. Then that animal, the one that bears all of the guilt, all of the shame, all of what we have done to hurt each other and our selves—that animal is set free. It is allowed to escape.
And the animal in this ancient ritual is always…a goat. And it is from this ritual that we have the term scapegoat.
Imagine that scene. Each family, each member of the community, coming to the ceremony, knows exactly what is expected by the rules. In front of everyone, each speaks what we have done to fall short that year. They begin together the process of atoning, of cleansing these wrongs not out of some shared sudden impulse, but because it’s just what we do as a community.
I have to confess that today, that this week, I am struggling with this beautiful scene of atonement. I am struggling to understand how community leaders, sometimes called politicians, and specifically the Congress of the United States, can tell us what on earth they can point to and say “This is what we have done to end the senseless killing of our children in their schools.” This is what we have done.
It’s more likely that they are asking themselves, “What have we done?” And I hope they’re each asking themselves that…a lot. For I cannot imagine a more holy, more sanctified set of rules than one that would prevent these tragedies from continuing to ravage our communities.
Of course, asking these kind of deep questions about what we’ve done is one of the supremely uniting human experiences. Because at the root of many of our anxieties, our worries, lay three deeply human fears:
That we will not be loved,
That we will be alone,
And that we will not be enough.
Things we have done in our lives, rules we might have broken, often cause one of these fears to take hold of us consciously or unconsciously. The rules in so many of our past faiths carry with them the subtle suggestion that one of these core fears might come true if we break a holy rule. But it is in this community, it is in our community where rules are not what are holy, our communities are. Where creeds are not what are holy, the believers are. Where laws are not what are holy, the people they should serve to protect are. For the true measure of intimacy is not perfection, but acceptance of imperfection.
As we leave that darkened cave, holding that jar in our hands, that jar that contains those ancient writings about how a community should behave, we wonder what ever did become of what we were seeking, of what led us here.
We look around us—at the mountains and the craggy rocks. And just over the farthest peak, we can almost see it.
It looks like a pair of them, a set of perfect twin goats. And we wonder. We wonder about the rules of old that led us here to this place, the rules that help us be together, and the ways we can encourage each other to grow.
And we also wonder about the pain and the fear and wrongs that we’ve endured ourselves and that maybe we’ve even committed and how long, how far too long, we’ve been holding on to them.
And then we watch together, as they reach the top of the mountain, and they both disappear. And in the silence, we hold each other. And our hearts rest gently together in this holy place, where we are bound together by what we have done and what we are willing to let go.
 A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007).
 See Lev 16 (NRSV).