Sermon Reading by Rev. Preston Moore
A contract is a matter of law. A covenant is a matter of love. A contract speaks this way: if you do this, and only if you do this, then I will do that. It is hedged, cautious, risk-averse. Its most basic principle is “no surprises.” A covenant speaks this way: you and I will do whatever is needed to achieve our shared purpose. We will remember that our covenantal relationship is more important than any particular action we take or fail to take to serve its purpose. If either of us fails to honor this shared commitment, the other has permission to call the one who fell short back into covenant, to ask what is happening, to be demanding and supportive at the same time. In a covenantal relationship, there is an understanding that no one fulfills his promises each and every time. Sometimes you make a doubtful promise, and then put your heart into it, and then fail, and then you and your covenantal partners pick yourselves up and ask, “how shall we recover from this failure? How shall we keep going?” In a covenantal relationship, the message you get from your partners when you fail is as just as much an affirmation of self-worth as if the promise had been fulfilled.1
This is the beginning of my 13th year as your minister. Fortunately I am not superstitious! During these years I have heard quite a few stories about this church community from members. Longtime members like to reminisce about their experiences 15 or 20 and, for a few, even 50 years ago. They share stories of love, sadness, anger, humor, and nostalgia. They express gratitude for the existence of this church for all these years and gratitude that it is not only still here but that it has a vibrancy and clarity of mission.
Those who have been around for decades know this community in an intimate and unique way. They know what it is to have a long relationship with this religious community. They embody the wisdom of longevity, a stick-to-itiveness and tenacity, and a fierce passion for Unitarian Universalism and for this particular church.
They have given many hours of their time to the church community over many, many years. They have faithfully paid their pledges each year, often going above and beyond financially. Their fidelity has transcended the many changes over those years, the imperfections and blunders, the painful times as well as the high points. No institution or community, especially one that’s been around for 184 years like this one, is going to have smooth sailing all the time. There will be failures and surprises.
What I know about the long-timers in our midst is that they have hung in when the roof desperately needed to be repaired and there was no money for it. They hung in during periods when there was no minister, when the minister they did have (including this one) failed them in some way, or did not see eye-to-eye with them, or preached sermons that did not speak to them, or changed some favorite worship practice of theirs.
They hung in when church friends moved away or died or stopped coming to church. They hung in when the church community made decisions they disagreed with and seemed to them to be on the wrong track, and even when there was discord in the church that broke their hearts.
They picked themselves up and asked, in the words of Rev. Preston Moore, “how shall we recover from this failure? How shall we keep going?” They covenanted with this congregation. They promised to “do whatever is needed to achieve our shared purpose.” The ability to remain in relationship and to weather both the difficult times and the harmonious ones and to know that no one fulfills promises each and every time is at the heart of being a covenantal community.
As Rev. Victoria Safford says, “A covenant is a living, breathing aspiration, made new every day.”2 Those who covenant with this congregation renew this covenant making it new every day. They devote themselves to this faith, to its noble history of uplifting human dignity, fairness, love, and hope. To uphold that covenant over several decades is an incredible example of what it means to live interdependently, mutually, lovingly.
Why do they do this? They do it for a number of reasons, among them for the abiding ties with others who share their core progressive ethical values and concerns for each other and the world. One person told me that the friends she made when she first arrived have been enduring to this day. Another person told me she stays because she feels comforted knowing there are other people of good will who share her values, especially when she feels out of sync with the culture, especially when violence, hatred, and division are rampant. It is a way to forge connections that can nurture the hurting spirit and a hurting world.
Such loyalty to institutions and churches in general is no longer normative in our culture. In fact, establishing deep roots has become counter-cultural. Even among ministers and congregations, long ministries of 7 years or more have become the exception. In my clergy chapter of Unitarian Universalist ministers of 30 or so congregations, our ministry together, our covenant, is the second longest.
The notion of covenant, of being part of a covenantal community, has ancient origins. It is rooted in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Puritans based their churches on this idea of covenant. Theirs was a covenant of “mutual consent for mutual benefit.” The Puritans needed mutual cooperation for their survival. But there was more to it than that. They were also rejecting church hierarchy. They rejected the requirement for set beliefs and pledged instead “to walk together in the ways of truth and affection.”
You may be wondering why I’m talking about the Puritans. Our Unitarian Universalist theologies today don’t resemble that of the Puritans, but their way of being in religious community laid the groundwork for our way of walking together by mutual promise. This became known as congregational polity, which is the self-governance model used by Unitarian Universalist congregations.3
Our emphasis is on what we choose to give our love to, our time to, our talents to. The emphasis is on our choosing to promise ourselves in relationship. Rather than confessing to particular beliefs or creeds, we instead choose to promise our hearts, ourselves, and to trust each other. Theologian Rebecca Parker calls this our “freely chosen and life-sustaining interdependence.”
At first blush, it may seem like the idea of covenant is more internally focused and a matter of self-preservation. But it would be a mistake to conceive of covenant in such a narrow frame. The covenant is not just a sweet, feel-good idea, and it’s not just for ourselves or some narrow insider group. It’s bold, powerful, and life-altering. It requires something of us. That’s part of what makes it so consequential.
Rev. Alice Blair Wesley describes covenant as “the spirit of mutual love” given freely for our own sakes and for the sake of the world. She says:
More than any other single reality, the spirit of mutual love redeems and enhances human life. The good news is: We can learn to recognize the presence of the spirit of mutual love among us. And we can, in response, organize ourselves into a free church, a group religiously dedicated to giving the spirit of love a fine chance of working among us, for our own sakes and for the sake of the world around us. That’s “the gospel,” in my book….4
Essential to our Unitarian Universalist good news – to our gospel - is our dedication to the spirit of love for our own sakes and for the sake of the world around us. L. Griswold Williams articulates this good news in the covenant he wrote, which we read earlier from our hymnal. I want to pause to read his words again:
Love is the doctrine of this church,The quest of truth is its sacrament,And service is its prayer.To dwell together in peace,To seek knowledge in freedom,To serve human need,To the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine –Thus do we covenant with each and other and with God.
Williams was a Universalist minister who served this congregation for a decade from 1920 to 1930. For the Universalists, Love was the defining quality of the church and the divine. In fact, the Universalists had as their motto: “God is Love.” Historically, their idea of God as all-loving contrasted with the Calvinist theology that only some – not all - people were elected for salvation by God. For Universalists, God was understood as loving humans too much to condemn anyone to eternal damnation or hell. Or to say it in the positive, in L. Griswold Williams’ words, “all souls shall grow into harmony with the Divine.”
An important, essential, part of our Unitarian Universalist covenant is to the broader world, to the web of all existence of which we are a part, to this growth into harmony. Our covenant includes being a prophetic congregation that strives to serve human need.
An incredible example of embodying that understanding of covenant as being for the sake of the world is the daring story of Waitstill and Martha Sharp. Their story, entitled “Defying the Nazis,” is a PBS documentary directed by Ken Burns and starring Tom Hanks. Waitstill was a Unitarian minister, and Martha was his wife. This heroic couple went to Europe where they saved hundreds of political dissidents and Jewish refugees. They left their children behind in the care of their parish in Wellesley, Massachusetts. That is quite a sacrifice, a risk, and a promise that would be hard for most of us to fathom or begin to undertake in our own lives – with or without children.
The story of the Sharps is not only a story of our Unitarian history. It is a story for our current times when refugees fleeing crisis are still desperately in need of hope and tangible help. It is a story that reminds us that covenant is indeed “a matter of love.” I want to read to you a brief description from the website of “Defying the Nazis” that articulates the courage and devotion of the Waitstills:
In January of 1939, as Americans remained mostly detached from news reports of the growing refugee crisis in the escalating war in Europe, Waitstill received a call from the Rev. Everett Baker, Vice President of the American Unitarian Association, asking if they would travel to Czechoslovakia to help provide relief to people trying to escape Nazi persecution. He invited Waitstill and Martha to take part in “the first intervention against evil by the denomination to be started immediately overseas.” The mission would involve secretly helping Jews, refugees and dissidents to escape the expanding Nazi threat in Europe. If they were discovered, they would face imprisonment, probable torture and death. Seventeen other members of the church had declined. With two young children at home, the Sharps accepted. They expected to be gone for several months. Instead, their mission would last almost two years.5
A covenant is “a matter of love.” It is for our own sakes and for the sake of the world. A covenant gives expression to how we wish and hope to be in relationship, how we imagine ourselves enacting the beloved community, and how we will achieve our shared purpose. It is a tall order and a worthy, life-affirming pursuit.
Last week during our water communion ceremony, members and friends shared the promises they are willing to make. These promises are our pledge to walk together in mutual love. Those individual promises made in community are built upon our shared purpose and commitment to make Love the spirit of this church. Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.
This is our great covenant.
May it be so. Amen.