Keeping Covenant


PREFACE
Love is our doctrine,
The quest for truth our sacrament,
And service our prayer.

To dwell together in peace,

To seek knowledge in freedom,
To serve humanity in harmony with the earth,
Thus do we covenant together.

Those words, or variously modified versions of those words, are printed in Sunday bulletins and recited by congregations in many, many Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country. 

“Thus do we covenant together.” Ours is a covenantal faith tradition.  That means that our ways of being together – in our relationships  and in the way we govern ourselves, are grounded in mutual responsibility, care, accountability and trust. 

We usually use the word covenant, in this congregation, to describe agreements about how we will treat one another.  Our religious education classes and Youth Group develop covenants at the beginning of each new year. 

First grade covenants tend to include expectations like “we will take turns,” and “we’ll keep our hands and legs and other body parts to ourselves.”  Our Council and Board covenants talk about taking turns – in slightly different language – they call it listening to one another with respect, and being open to different points of view.  They talk about allowing each other to make mistakes and forgiving each other when we do so.  They  remind those present about serving the mission of the congregation as a whole.

Today I want to explore covenant in a deeper sense – the why and how of that grounding in mutual responsibility, care, accountability and trust.

I want to explore the why and how of our commitment to being in relationship, to holding one another in the spirit of mutuality.  It is a commitment that is grounded in each of our understandings of what is foundational. 

READING
     Words of Wisdom from Wendell Berry

A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives.  It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves. [i]  

And in the same year, he wrote,

I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children; who has undertaken to cherish it and do it no damage, not because he is duty-bound, but because he loves the world and loves his children; ….[ii]

READING    
From Howard Thurman, meditation at Marsh Chapel

Someone said that when people unite for a common purpose, their union is not expressible by adding A, B and C together and setting down the results accordingly.

There is something else that has gone into the formula, and that additional component is relationship.  There are various names by which this component is called:  Understanding, awareness, appreciation, sympathy, kinship, friendship, and even love. 

… And once that joint quest is undertaken, there is an irrevocable commitment to a deepening of the understanding of each other on the part of those who share in it.  …

READING
     From “The Church That is Free,” James Luther Adams, 1975


NOTE:  I think it’s fair to say that church Adams called “free” was also one he would have called healthy or “well.”  I find it easier to grasp what he’s saying by substituting “free and well” where he says simply “free.”  So I’ve taken that liberty here. 

Adams wrote:

“I call that church free and well which … brings every individual into a caring, trusting fellowship – one that protects and nourishes every person’s integrity and spiritual freedom.

I call that church free and well which declares liberation from bondage to the principalities and powers of the world …; and one which promotes the continuing reform of its own and other institutions.

I call that church free and well… which does not cower before the spirit of the times.  That church earns and creates a tradition that binds together past, present and future in a living tether, a continuing covenant and identity, bringing forth treasures new and old.

I call that church and well free which … promotes freedom in fellowship, seeking unity in diversity. 

I call that church free and well which does not cringe in despair, but which casts off fear to respond in hope to the light that has shown, and that still shines, in the darkness.

I call that church free and well which enters into covenant with the ground of freedom.  I mean by ground of freedom that sustaining, judging, transforming power that is not of human hands.  And the free church protests against the idolatry of any human claim to absolute truth or authority. 

Our churches are never wholly free and well.  They tolerate injustice, special privilege, and indifference to suffering.  They pass by on the other side, thus breaking the covenant.  Nonetheless, in the midst of this unfreedom, the congregation comes together to celebrate that which is holy, to confess its own brokenness, and to renew the covenant.


SERMON

Each one of us, in being here, comes into covenantal relationship.  Our covenant is a living, breathing, lasting commitment – to what?  And why?  And by what authority can I even suggest that all of you – all of us – are party to “IT,” whatever “IT” is?

The last question I can answer.  The authority by which I get to suggest or assert whatever I suggest or assert from this pulpit comes from you.  From the membership of this congregation, those of you who were here when you voted to call me, and those who came later. 

The authority by which I speak comes from you – AND it comes to me with an obligation to speak responsibly and faithfully.  We are in covenant with one another.  We formalized that covenant in a service of installation almost 10 years ago.

At that service, the congregation said this to me:
“We, the members of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, would have you speak the truth as you see it, and honor the truths of others; we would have you guide us, from the youngest to the oldest, in celebrating the wonder and mystery of life and each other. 

We would have you minister to us with compassion and strength in times of joy and sorrow, hardship and bounty; we would have you celebrate the highest values and principles of our faith, and serve us with love.”

And you said,

“We pledge to remember that the work of this Society belongs to us all.  We ask you to be forgiving of our mistakes and our shortcomings, and we promise to be forgiving of your mistakes and shortcomings as well.  We offer you our hearts and hands in the spirit of hope and mutual support.”

My response was,
“I confirm my commitment to you, to try to help us realize our dreams and fulfill our common purposes.  I covenant to walk with you in the spirit of love.  I promise to do my utmost to honor your call and your trust.”

You gave me my charge and your pledge – I gave my commitment. 

Is there more?  I think so.  It’s there in the promise.  It is reciprocal and shared among all of us.  We work and worship and play together in the spirit of love.

That concept comes from the Puritan First Parish churches founded in Massachusetts in the 1600s.  They are the ancestors of today’s Unitarian Universalist and Congregational churches.  The New England Puritans broke away from the hierarchical authority of their English counterparts and established a form of congregational governance and way of being in relationship.  Authority rested with the membership – not arbitrarily – but in accordance with a covenant to serve their faith and to hold each other in the spirit of mutual affection and care.

That understanding extends to our Unitarian Universalist Association, and to relationships within it, including among the ministers.   My husband Booker will be taking my place in the pulpit next week, sharing with you some of his experiences at the UU General Assembly last June.  I will be in Florida for the installation of a younger colleague whom I have been mentoring for the past year, honoring our traditions, and our covenant.

What covenantal relationships are there in your own life?  Marriage is one, for some of us.  A relationship in which a promise is made “to honor and to cherish, in good times and in bad, in sickness and health, as long as we both shall live.”  Sometimes it lasts a lifetime, sometimes not.

What about the relationship between children and parents – in either direction?  What is or was your covenant with your parents, your siblings, your children and grandchildren, if you have them?  What is or was your unbreakable commitment – and what is its source?

The God of both the Hebrew and Christian bibles is often cast in a parental role.  And in the Hebrew Bible God refers to his covenant with the Hebrew people, and at times with all humankind, as “everlasting.”  No matter how many times the humans disappoint, or commit evil acts, the covenant is everlasting. 

That sounds like the parent-child/child-parent relationship to me.  Care-giving, guiding and letting go, celebrating and despairing, delighting, disappointing, forgiving – in the spirit of love.

What else?  With whom or what else are you in covenant?  Wendell Berry suggests, to me, that we are in covenant with the earth, with all living beings, flora and fauna and categories not reducible to either.

“I am speaking of the life of a man,” he wrote, “who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children; who has undertaken to cherish it and do it no damage, not because he is duty-bound, but because he loves the world and loves his children.”

Because he loves the world and loves his children.

And what about our covenant – as a gathered people?  As the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence?

Wendell Berry said

“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives.”

And Howard Thurman wrote, when people unite for a common purpose they are bound together in relationship.  That union binds them to an “irrevocable commitment to a deepening of the understanding of each other on the part of those who share in the enterprise.”

“An irrevocable commitment.”

James Luther Adams wrote that the free, healthy and faithful liberal religious Society enters into covenant with the ground of freedom – which he calls “that sustaining, judging, transforming power that is not of human hands.”

That implies a bit of humility, as well as gratitude and reverence for that which transcends ourselves and our individual needs, wants and fancies. 

It implies a commitment to honor our responsibility towards that which calls us to know and declare that “we are not our own.”  What Adams called the “ground of freedom” and Wendell Berry called “the life of the world which humans know they can never compass with their understanding or desire.” Howard Thurman called it God.


In the context of this religious community, covenant means our promises of mutuality and support for one another, and it also means that we recognize that this Society exists to remind us of the covenant beyond ourselves – however each of us understands that phrase. That is what makes us a religious organization. That is what calls us, as our mission statement says, to our higher selves.

Adams sets a high bar for the church that is “free and well.”  And he recognizes that it will fall short.  And yet, and still, we come together to celebrate that which is holy, to confess our brokenness, and to renew our covenant.

We do it in the spirit of love.  And that is a gift and a blessing.

 

[i] Berry, The Loss of the Future, 1969

[ii] Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness : An Essay on Kentucky's Red River Gorge (1971),