News flash: We are a religious community.
I know, it’s a surprise, especially since we seem more like nomads right now, especially sitting here in the fire station, singing hymns off photocopied paper.
But we are a religious community – not a business, not a club, not even a typical non-profit.
And even more, we are a particular kind of religious community – not one built on a creed or set of beliefs, with a top-down hierarchy, but one built on shared values, shared ethics, shared responsibility, and most importantly, covenant.
But what do we mean by covenant? The idea is as old as well, some of the oldest writings in the Hebrew scriptures, really, beginning with Noah.
Now the God Noah’s talking to is angry with humanity, and God wants to reformat the entire hard drive and hit the reset button. But God’s got a soft spot for Noah, apparently, and tells him to gather his family and a bunch of animals into a big boat – that went pretty well, I suppose, although I’m still not sure why Noah saved the mosquitos. And like God said, a huge flood comes, wipes out the entire hard drive, except for the files saved on the disk marked “ark.” Now you can imagine Noah and his family were pretty freaked out, especially when it seemed like it Went. On. For. Ever. But then, God shows up, right on cue, the original deus ex machina, like in a Broadway show – “don’t cry for me, Noah’s family…the truth is I never left you…all of my wild days, my mad existence…I kept my promise, don’t keep your distance…” And so God and Noah agree – keep the people in line, no more floods.
Of course, there were plenty of other times God nearly hit reset – and every time – with Abraham, Moses, David, just to name a few – God asked for a covenant. But they amounted to ‘follow my rules, like circumcision, no shellfish, no mixed fibers – and crazy schemes, like kill your first born, tromp through the desert for a generation – or I’ll destroy you.’ Some deal, huh?
So hundreds of years later, a socialist, bleeding heart liberal, dirty hippie named Jesus came around, and he said “nah, you’re cool if you treat each other right, seek forgiveness when you blow it, remember what I taught you about caring for the sick and poor, and maybe talk about me over a nice glass of merlot now and then.” It was a new covenant – one that’s the model for how we understand covenant today. Especially the merlot part.
Jesus understood that what covenant is not about is authority or demands. Covenant should not be a set of hard and fast rules that carry a punishment. But interestingly, authoritarian, law-driven covenant is what our faith is borne out of.
Universalists and Unitarians historically come out of a model called Congregationalism, which was borne from the separatist movement in 17th century England. The separatists did not like the idea of an overreaching authority in their religious affairs – they thought the King as head of the Church of England was as bad as the Pope in Rome. Instead, they thought a church should have autonomy over clergy, liturgy, buildings, music, and behaviors.
To escape what they saw as tyranny, some of these separatists left England to find a place to practice their religion without interference; a good number of these separatists sailed to lands they perceived as unsettled and promptly created their own settlements – much to the dismay of the indigenous people already living there. As these pilgrims built their “shining city on a hill” as John Winthrop called it – they developed a covenant of sorts, known as the Cambridge Platform.
Now there’s a lot of talk in our denomination today about this model, which forwards ideas of congregational autonomy, along with connection and accountability among congregations. Yet just underneath all this good stuff is a scary set of rules for who can and can’t be members, punishments for misbehavior, and a full chapter on the process of excommunication. While these Congregationalists were preaching the loving, forgiving kind of covenant Jesus was on about, they were running their churches by an old school covenant, tied to a set of rules, enforced by law, not by conscience. Well scratch that – that’s not it either.
So what IS covenant to us modern Unitarian Universalists?
I have some ideas.
Covenant is a process. As Reverend Tom Owen-Towle points out, it is both a noun and a verb. It “implies that covenanting includes a blend of movement and substance, action and context.” When we are in covenant, we are not just debating and discussing, we are acting and promoting. In fact, our Statement of Principles begins with the words “Unitarian Universalist congregations together affirm and promote” which speaks to the action of covenanting, with one another.
Covenant is also a call to generosity; when we are in covenant, we give our time, resources, talents, and respectfulness. As Owen-Towle writes, covenant points “not only to who we are, but primarily to whose we are” meaning we are responsible to one another. “We are not the sum of our aspirations or affirmations, but rather the sum of our gifts.”
Covenant is yes/and. In a world that suggests you are with me or against me, where there are lots of this or that, yes or no, good or evil, friend or enemy, covenant suggests that there are multiple choices that may be true. Covenant asks us to look for possibility, to say yes, and this too.
Covenant is a bit audacious. People rarely commit to one another – really commit. We are taught to judge quickly, trust no one, be for ourselves alone. Covenanting requires that we trust each other and be deeply connected to other souls.
Covenant is both obligation and blessing. We enter into a shared journey, where some of us will sometimes stumble and fall short, yet we continue to be bound together. Covenant asks us to be in ‘right relationship’ with each other; that means we acknowledge that most people are trying to act out of their best intentions even if their behavior is hurtful, and we show each other mercy when things go awry. We forgive. We offer help. We don’t retaliate – rather, we offer to help correct what is mistaken and heal what is broken.
Covenant requires us to negotiate and compromise, even as the covenant remains in place. Sometimes parts of a covenant no longer work for everyone, and things need to be adjusted. That’s okay – it isn’t a sign of the covenant’s weakness but rather its strength that it can bend and not break. Sometimes covenant needs to be reexamined after a crisis, or after new people join in the covenant, or when its omissions become glaring holes. But ultimately, when we approach covenant with respect, shared awe, and openheartedness, covenanting together means we are greater than the sum of our parts, and strong together even when something breaks down.
And of course, we do fall short, even when our covenant is strong.
The story is told that twenty-three years ago, our denomination held its national General Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina – in the heart of what was then known as the Thomas Jefferson District. Excited to celebrate the historical figure the district was named for, the organizers proposed the Thomas Jefferson Ball – where people were encouraged to wear period costumes for the occasion. But this suggestion obscured the fact that Jefferson was a slave owner and not necessarily a positive role model for our open and affirming faith. A group of our black ministers, including Mark Morrison-Reed and Rosemary Bray McNatt, replied in horror: “Shall we come in chains?”
Suddenly, our covenant to “affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all” was in jeopardy, as a group of well-meaning organizers found themselves pushed up against their own blind spots around race relations in the US.
I wish I could say that suddenly we healed our racial issues within the denomination; sadly, we are still wrestling with these questions, even as progress is being made – the current debates inside many of our congregations over Black Lives Matter is evidence that we have a long way to go. Fortunately, progress IS being made, largely because we are in covenant with one another; forgiveness, grace, and mercy are at the ready; and our deep connections keep us coming back to do better with and for each other.
Covenant makes space. It makes space to build a loving, just, and sustainable community – both in the world and inside our own circles. It makes space to hold the very real fears we feel, to answer the despair those hurting may bring to us, and provide solace for the disillusioned. Covenant makes space for religious community.
Folksingers Kim and Reggie Harris would call this the shelter of each other:
In the shelter of each other
In the shelter of our lives
We are open, we are dreaming
We are hopeful, we are wise.
Our religious community is a shelter – built of covenant.
It isn’t because of a creed or a set of rules that we create this shelter of each other, it is because of our covenant, WITH one another. One person isn’t the foundation of this shelter, and another isn’t the roof – if that were true, when one person fell out of covenant, the entire shelter would be destroyed. No – we are the sum of our gifts, and that is the shelter of each other – this covenantal space that defines our religious community.
So what do we do in it? We welcome and give each other support, comfort, space to explore, room to consider possibilities, and we offer kindness, generosity, mercy, and forgiveness. We encourage people to go out into the world and fight against oppression, racism, poverty, and violence. And we give care to them when they return.
I am reminded of the story of Mary and Martha, from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus and his disciples have been out on the front lines, ministering to the needy, sharing hope and joy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. They come to the home of Mary and Martha to rest, have a meal, get some sleep. Now Martha – well, let’s just say Martha Stewart was well named. Martha is the consummate hostess – she prepares a sumptuous meal, makes sure everyone has comfortable places to sit and lie down, washes their feet, brings them absolutely everything they could possibly need. Meanwhile, her younger sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his stories – what it’s like out in the world, who he’s talked to, what’s happened. She listens as he shares a remarkable perspective on God’s love, on what the Kingdom of Heaven might be.
Martha is having none of it, however. She’s pretty miffed at her sister for not lifting a finger to help. She confronts Jesus, saying I’m busting my butt over here, and she’s not doing a thing. How can you let her just sit there like a slug? But Jesus turns to Martha and remarks, “There is need of only one thing; Mary has chosen the better part.”
Now most people will tell you Mary was great, Martha was terrible. Mary listened and learned from the great teacher, Martha was a help-a-holic. But I will tell you that I think Jesus was a bit harsh in his comment to Martha, and really, both sisters are pretty awesome. Between them, they model what the shelter of each other looks like – on one hand, it is about giving care – taking care of basic needs, whether it’s just a cold drink and access to a bathroom, or a hot meal and a place to sleep. On the other hand, it is about making space to listen to each other’s soul music. Sometimes when people have been out in the world, putting their faith into action, they see only the difficulties of the work ahead and lose track of their own souls. Sometimes when people come in to our religious community from traumatic and sorrowful experiences, they see only the pain and lose track of their own souls.
When we become deaf to one another’s presence and relate violently to each other, we lose the music and move through our days in a cloud of numbness. Giving space in the shelter of our religious community for the soul means giving space for silence so that we can hear the soul again, so we can witness the stories and allow our soul’s music to return. Martha’s taking care of the physical needs allowed Mary to take care of the soul’s needs. We are called to do this too – in the shelter of each other, there is care for the body and the spirit.
Think about our first source: direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit. This is what we do best – and when we create the shelter of each other, for each other, we must make sure we carry out our rituals, sing our songs, tell our stories. We must make sure that everything we do – from serving coffee to teaching religious education to planning the stewardship campaign – everything we do must be sacred. We’re not just trimming the bushes, we’re tending our sacred space. We’re not just planning a potluck supper, we’re building beloved community.
We must make sure everything we do makes room for the renewal of the spirit, which energizes us to go back out and do the work. As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to transform the world; thus, we must offer spiritual and religious leadership to each other, so that we can then offer it to a society that is called to change its fundamental ways of being.
So we come together on Sunday mornings, welcoming in the weary so they may find comfort and care and a renewal of hope, tending to each other and the particular needs we have to continue being a religious community, and preparing others with the spiritual strength they need to fight the good fight. And in between, we keep the faith. Rebecca Parker says that “Even when hearts are broken by our own failure or the failure of others, even when we have done all we can and life is still broken, there is a universal love that has never broken faith with us and never will.”
The good news is that when we create the shelter of each other, for each other, we strengthen our covenant to each other and to the world we hope to heal.
There is always more to learn, more to do, more to love. But may we always covenant together in this shelter of each other.