Sermons 2011-12

For Fixing What Is Broken

For Fixing What Is Broken
Rev. Douglas Taylor
10-9-11

Have you ever broken anything? Surely we can think back to a childhood experience of a lamp or a vase or a window that you broke. It’s almost archetypal in how the scene would play out. You were trying to be helpful or maybe you were just horsing around having fun. Your elbow bumped the vase, or you trip on the lamp cord causing the lamp to crash to the floor, or maybe your aim was off and you threw the ball right through the window. And when your parents discovered it they were sorely disappointed in you. Of course, we all came from different family systems and we each grew up in whatever healthy or unhealthy, functional or dysfunctional home we had. But the archetypal pattern is out there. A child breaks something of some value to the parents and the parents have an opportunity to teach the child about making an apology and making amends.

Learning to work through the mix of emotions surrounding relationships is a lifetime of work. Love, Justice, and Forgiveness are the larger elements that keep our relationships alive and healthy. And forgiveness is perhaps the most complex of the three. Fraught with guilt and shame, the process of seeking forgiveness is not an easy one. It is, however, one of the best things we can do for our children to help them learn to apologize and make amends when they have done something wrong. And of course, modeling is the optimal way to teach our children anything. Have you ever broken anything? No one would ever consider seeking forgiveness to be a good experience to look forward to. Yet, wisdom helps us know that it is worth it to be on the other side of the process.

I have been much impressed by the way all the world’s religions offer a healthful perspective on forgiveness. And I like how some scientific studies have begun paying attention to this as well. The Templeton Foundation funds an ongoing Forgiveness Project. Interestingly, however, I’ve discovered that much of the Templeton Scientific research and other research projects that focus on forgiveness do so from the “how to forgive” side of it. Little is studied along the lines of how to be forgiven, how to seek forgiveness. And so, for that I must continue to turn to the world’s religious traditions and other practical sources for stories and understanding.

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, a holy observance in which forgiveness is a significant element. Technically, this year Friday evening was the beginning of Yom Kippur which is a 24 hour observance from sunset to sunset. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish year.  It comes as the tenth day of the Days of Awe, the first day of which is Rosh Hashanah, the new year.  The ten days of the new year are called the Days of Awe because people feel fear as well as reverence during this special time of judgment and forgiveness.  Observant Jews spend the days reviewing their year, naming their sins as well as the ways they bless the world, the good things and the bad things they have done, weighing it all, seeking to repent from the bad things and encourage the good things. At the end of the ten days, Yom Kippur is a day for fasting and for the seeking and offering of forgiveness.  After the self-reflection and efforts to atone and make amends comes the forgiveness.

As Unitarian Universalists, we can take part in an observance like this. As a semi-observant non-Jew, I have taken part in the fasting some years, the full moral inventory most years, the seeking of forgiveness every year. Have you ever broken anything? Religion, at its best, helps us to come to terms with what is broken in life. On the Jewish calendar there is an opportunity to work through a personal moral inventory every year. The fasting is a bodily reminder to give your attention to the task. Fasting is a spiritual practice common to many religious groups.  Fasting is both an outward expression of repentance and even solidarity, as well as an inward process of preparation and realigning. It is a way to set oneself on a path to do God’s work or to follow a disciplined path of love and justice.

The times I have fasted I found the physical hunger to be a regular refocusing exercise. I would be doing the dishes or driving the car, checking e-mail or talking on the phone – and I would notice my hunger. But rather than going to the cupboard or refrigerator, I would silently say a prayer for peace and justice in the world. I would also set time aside to meditate and pray through the hunger for all that is broken in my life and in the world, and I would offer up my hunger as repentance for my part in it all, for my sins and also for the ways I heal others and our world.

Looking at my faults and sins is difficult and I find that on any given day I completely ignore them or excuse them. It’s pretty easy to do that. Have you ever broken anything? Do you think about it all the time? I don’t. But when I fast – which I don’t do very often – I find my body calling my attention and I can use that to turn my thoughts to seeking repentance and forgiveness. There are some in the world who cannot forget their sins and the things they have broken. There are people who do not need to fast to remind themselves of their failings and their own best longing to make a better world. Not because they have too much of what some call Old-fashion Catholic Guilt, but because they have committed a major sin or have broken something of great consequence. Consider the extreme example of a murderer with a conscience.

This weekend I watched a movie about Restorative Justice called “Facing the Demons.” The one hour documentary tells the story of an Australian teen murdered during an armed robbery at a suburban pizza store. Through a series of interviews we meet the four perpetrators and the family of the victim as they lead up to a facilitated encounter orchestrated by a senior police officer. At the end of the movie there is nothing really tangible that has changed – the two perpetrators who agreed to participate went back to prison to complete their jail time. And all the participants walk away with mixed feelings – some saying it was positive or saying they could now move on, and others expressing disappointment and how the hoped-for feeling of closure was not found.

Yet it remains a remarkable demonstration that face-to-face encounters between offenders and their victims or the families of their victims are possible in some cases. Restorative Justice is focused on repairing the harm caused by crime and violence rather than on punishing the criminals. It allows the criminals an opportunity to apologize. It is important to add that such work is outside of the regular criminal justice system, no one was thinking the participants would be released from jail as a result of the conference.

In the movie one of the criminals – Karl – talks about how he had wanted to write to the family of the victim. He wanted to apologize. But he agonized over it and did not write to them because he didn’t feel he had the right to communicate with them, to intrude further on their lives with his need to apologize. When he is finally in the room with his own mother sitting next to him, he looks across to the parents of the murdered boy and takes responsibility. He doesn’t offer excuses or say “I only did this part and not that part.” He doesn’t minimize his role in their son’s death. He shares with them the facts and owns up to the thoughtlessness and depravity of his actions. And he apologized.

Leading up the conference Karl spoke in the interviews about being anxious about the possibilities. We open ourselves up without shield of defense when we offer an apology. The one we apologize to is certainly supposed to accept the apology, but that is not how it always works. The person may be angry, hurt, sad, scared, or even bitter. The other person may be vengeful and happy to see you in a position of vulnerability, standing there with your apology and nothing else. As one Unitarian Universalist author, Dwight Lee Wolter puts it: “To err is human, to forgive is an option.” Offering forgiveness is the spiritually mature thing to do, a deeply religious activity. But it is not something to jump into lightly. My colleague Rev. Tom Owen-Towle (in his book Theology Ablaze, p 264) tells of the time early in his ministry when he invited a grief-stricken parishioner to begin the process of forgiveness concerning the person who had murdered his wife. The man plaintively cried: “Oh, Pastor Tom, not yet, not yet!”

It is a noble theological perspective to call for forgiveness even when the hurt is fresh. Some are certainly capable of doing that, the Amish from Lancaster County, PA who forgave the man how murdered five girls and himself in the West Nickel Mines School a few years back. They forgave almost instantly. But for most people there are complex emotions, raw emotions to work through. To offer forgiveness when you don’t really mean it is not fair or just to anyone.

That is important to accept when you find yourself in the position of needing to apologize to someone. Offering forgiveness is a freeing act and is a step in the direction of reconciliation. But it cannot be forced. It is a choice anyone can make, but it must be real. But here is the great part of all this: Yes it is hard and painful and it makes you vulnerable and the other person may not even accept your apology. But it is worth it. It is freeing. It can change your life.

How do you seek forgiveness? How do you fix what is broken? Through confession and repentance. Admit or confess the fullness of your transgression, apologize for it, and try to make amends.

The starting point is to seriously accept your responsibility in the situation or in the relationship. No ‘politician’s apology’ will do. “Mistakes were made” is not going to cut it. “I’m sorry people were offended by my words” is not enough. “I am sorry I said offensive words” is a good start now. Don’t minimize it with excuses or candy-coat it with rationalizations. Everyone has broken something and can relate to the need to address it. And yes, every scenario is unique and complex and it is rare for fault to lie with only one party – but focus only on your part. Seriously accept your responsibility for the break. The next step is to apologize. Open yourself to the other person’s just anger and hurt. Say “I’m sorry” and give the other person time to consider what they do with that. No need to grovel or turn over your dignity; simply say “I’m sorry” and give the other person time to consider what they do with that. And then offer to make amends; offer to do whatever can be done to make it right.

There a story of a boy who had a hard time controlling his anger. He would often lash out when he was angry.  Finally his father told him that every time he lashed out in anger he should go out to the back yard and pound a nail into the fence.  During the first few days, the boy was out in the back yard pounding nails several times a day.  Over time, the boy went to the fence less often. Then the boy went an entire day with out going out to the fence to pound in a nail.  The boy said this to his father who replied, “Now every time you control your anger and do not lash out I want you to go out and remove one of your nails from then fence.”  And this the boy did.  Sometimes he would still pound a nail in, but more often he removed nails.

Eventually there came a day when the boy had not pounded a new nail into the fence in weeks, and he had removed all the nails from his earlier visits.  His father then took him out to the fence and said, “I am proud of you, you have learned to control your anger.  I want you to remember, however, that although you have removed the nails you had pounded into the fence, the holes from those nails are still there.  You cannot take those away.  You can always remove a nail that you have pounded into the fence but you can never remove the hole that you make with the nail.  So it is when you lash out with your anger.  You can apologize and be forgiven, but the damage you cause will always remain in at least some fashion.  It is good to apologize, better to not need to, but you will need to.  No one can move through this life without creating a few nail holes.”

What’s done is done, but how we respond is what matters most. This leads me to perhaps the most important part of seeking forgiveness that I have not mentioned yet, although it was part of the litany we did early this morning. What’s done is done. But in order to be free to respond at our best we need to forgive ourselves and begin again. “We forgive ourselves and each other, we begin again in love.”

Don’t beat yourself up for what you have done, don’t dwell in your sins and failings. Own up to them, acknowledge them, apologize for them and make what amends you can, and then move past them. In order to do that, early in the process, you need to forgive yourself. It may feel a little counter intuitive. “How can I forgive myself,” I imagine myself responding. “Isn’t that a bit self-serving? I’m not the victim – I’m the one who hurt someone else. The other person is the one to offer forgiveness.” But consider the offender who does not believe their crime is forgivable. We must be at least willing to admit the possibility of being forgiven for us to even pursue it. Don’t dwell on your sins and failings, forgive yourself and begin again in love.

Like the murderer who longed to offer apology to the family of his victim; like the father who realized his part in the estranged relationship with his son; like the person who remembers taunting others in school, remembers being a bully in grade school and is now a kinder, wiser, more secure person; like the countless other examples of people who have hurt someone or broken something – we can learn to forgive ourselves and each other. And we can begin again in love.

In a world without end,
May it be so.

Wineskins and Watersheds

Wineskins and Watersheds
October 2, 2011
Rev. Douglas Taylor

A colleague of mine recently proposed a topic for a book of essays about Unitarian Universalism. He proposed the essays be written by current young leaders who grew up as first generation Unitarian Universalists. His proposal was that those of us who grew up UU and became active UU leaders after the 1961 merger would have a particular perspective on religion and faith. The coming together of four hundred years of Unitarianism and two hundred years of Universalism in 1961 to merge as Unitarian Universalism 50 years ago was a monumental event. It was a watershed event.

Watersheds have been on my mind lately and I’m sure many people have been very aware of the watershed we live in. The Chesapeake Watershed is defined by the rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna being the most significant this far north. So all the rain that falls (~20-30 miles) north, east, and west of here ends up moving through the confluence of the Chenango and Susquehanna rivers at downtown Binghamton on its way south to the bay. And one of the tragically felt realities of a watershed is flooding as we have recently felt.

For this morning’s purposes, however, I wish to use the metaphor of a watershed – a metaphor that does not follow the reality that closely and so there is no flooding in this metaphor. I would use the idea of a watershed the way that Longfellow uses it in his poem entitled Keramos, from 1878. He writes: “Midnight! The outpost of advancing day! … The watershed of Time, from which the streams of Yesterday and To-morrow take their way.” And so, the stream of history for both Unitarianism and Universalism flow to a confluence point of history in 1961.

We could use another metaphor like milestones along a road or chapters in a book, but the image of watersheds has that sense not only of marking a progression from one place to another it adds the idea that there are a range of sources all flowing together toward this moment. The merger of the Unitarians and Universalists fifty years ago was exactly that. And all that has come over the past fifty years flows from that defining moment in our religious history.

It is not my intention to spend this morning as a history lesson, but please allow me to digress for a moment because often when we talk about our history we tell stories of a hundred and two hundred and four hundred years ago as if nothing interesting or noteworthy has happened during our lifetimes.

In the 1960’s Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. James Reeb was murdered in Selma, sparking a nation wide outcry and outpouring of support for racial equality. Many white Northerners travelled to march with Dr. King. Of the nearly 500 clergy who arrived, over 200 of them were Unitarian Universalist. Less than five years later a much sadder page of our history with racial justice played out with the Black Empowerment movement and what is commonly known as the “GA Walk-out” in which nearly all the black UUs left the movement.

In the 1970s our Beacon Press published the full Pentagon Papers, one step in the unraveling of Watergate and the undoing of President Nixon. We also launched a separate UUA department office for Gay Affairs and were one of the first religious bodies to officially sanction our clergy to lead Holy Union services for Gay and Lesbian couples. In the 1980’s we rewrote our statement of purpose in the UUA bylaws and created what we call our Principles and Purposes. It was an effort sparked largely by the women’s movement and the recognition of our need to degenderize our religious language.

Over the past fifty years, the number of female ministers has increased to and recently surpassed the 50% mark. Ministers who are homosexual are fairly common and such that we have moved on to the question of how to support and welcome transgender people into our ministry and our congregations. Racism and Classes, those old stumbling blocks we experienced in the late 60’s, are being respectfully approached again to try again to see who we are and who we shall become as a people.

And religiously we have grown more diverse as well. At the time of merger there was a debate that almost halted the merger from moving forward. I assure you there were a multitude of debates at merger. As these two religious organizations came together over the course of several years leading up to it, the actual sit-down-and-hammer-out-the details meeting was a democratically run joint general assembly with the Unitarians meeting in one space and the Universalists in another. They had over 50 specific amendments to debate, amend and vote on … and both groups had to affirm the identical wording for each amendment before it could finally gain approval. The biggest debate, the one that almost caused the whole affair to fall apart, was around a phrase in the principles.

The original phrase presented was “To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in their essence as love to God and love to man.” One group was unhappy because this was a weaker rendition of an earlier Unitarian principle that had the last part as “which Jesus taught as love to God and love to man.” Another group was unhappy because they would be just as happy to leave Jesus out as well as any reference to deity at all. A third group suggested a middle ground that referred to the great truths as coming from “our Judeo-Christian tradition.” The Universalists had actually gone ahead and approved the original wording and then had to wait while the three factions among the Unitarians sorted themselves out. Debate lasted past midnight but the meeting adjourned without a solution. Many people thought this issue might be the end of the movement toward consolidation.

Throughout the night while many slept, a few kept working on the wording and networking with people. A door-to-door campaign happened in the wee hours and a new version was proposed and adopted the next morning that read, “To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man.” Notice the change from our to the Judeo-Christian heritage, it didn’t make everyone happy but it was enough to keep moving forward. (These preceding three paragraphs are very much based on the text of the excellent history, The Premise and the Promise by Warren Ross, p18-21)

Rev. Walter Kring, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in NYC said,

“To some of you, statements of purpose may be simply matter of semantics. To some of the rest of us, they are a matter of deep conviction.”
(The Premise and the Promise by Warren Ross, p21)

This history has always fascinated me. What it shows is how we came to consensus about questions of organization and institution, and about activism and social issues. This consensus is borne out through the 50 years of history that follow with our emphasis on equality and inclusion as a religious association. But when, at merger, we butt heads on questions of theology and belief we fell back to our historic “freedom of liberty” clauses and had to agree to disagree. And that, too, has echoed down the line of years. Such is the nature of watershed events in history, “from which the streams of tomorrow take their way.”

Now, you who sit here listening to this engrossing page of history may be thinking to yourselves: “Didn’t Douglas say this was not going to be a history lesson; that he was only going to digress for a moment?”

OK, I hear you. All that history was to notice who we are becoming, to see the trajectory of our progress. We are a history-making people, not a history-bound tradition. We wed our tradition to a special form of religious freedom. As the third verse of our opening hymn puts it (Tranquil Steams #145):

A freedom that reveres the past,
but trusts the dawning future more;
and bids the soul, in search of truth,
adventure boldly and explore

That opening hymn was sung over and over in the plenary hall following the vote for merger.

As tranquil streams that meet and merge
And flow as one to seek the sea
Our kindred fellowships unite (they sang then)
To build a church that shall be free

At merger, we were both creating something new and carrying forward a rich heritage. 19th century Unitarian preacher and activist Theodore Parker once said “the church of the new age must have the smell of our own ground.” This is true of every age and generation. This leads me to my second metaphor this morning. In the gospel of Matthew (9:17) Jesus talks about the need for religious forms to be fit to the spirit of the lives we are living today – not contained and constrained by the patterns of previous understandings. He said,

Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved. (Matt 9:17)

As our Unitarian Universalist progenitors met to hammer out the details and give birth to this new and renewed faith, they paid close attention to the organization and structure – indeed that took a significant amount of their attention. They attended to the wineskin as well as the wine.

And they surely knew that in a generation there would be again new wine, new spirit and focus that would emerge. Let me offer up one particular change from then to now that I see. It is a change that flows from the theological work left undone at the time of merger. There has been a change from the divisiveness that threatened to halt the proceedings those years ago.

The sharp divisions have eased. There are still staunch Humanists among us who insist that if you can not prove it empirically, it is not meaningful. And there are still old-school UU-Christians taking regular communion and doing Bible-study. But there are also Buddhists and Pagans, Jews and Transcendentalists, Native and Earth-centered spiritualities, atheists, agnostics and mystics among us as well. But the extremes have eased and the most consequential shift is that we are all in the same congregation, all part of the same worship community.

Even a mere fifteen years ago when I was in seminary I saw the divide. I witnessed and studied the divide between Theists and Humanists, and the ensuing chaos introduced in that dyadic split by the acknowledged presence of the Pagans. A few short years back any given congregation was generally dominated by one of those three prominent positions, and that was considered a fair solution. We could be Humanist and Theist together, but not in the same building.

Today, I find congregation after congregation with a respectful balance of Theists, Humanists and Pagans. That respectful balance allows for a flourishing breadth of other theological perspectives. We are moving from a position of ‘agree to disagree’ on points of theology, to a respectful engagement with each other. More to the point, the labels are growing less important while the recognition of the whole person – the intellect, the emotion, the spirit of a person – the whole person is fed on Sunday mornings.

In short we are becoming more relational. That is our new wine. Not that we could not relate to each other 50 years ago, but our theologies and our communities are becoming more concerned with – more grounded in – relationship. Our justice making is seeing the same. It used to be about issues. Justice making was about the issue of racism or feminism or gay rights. Now it is becoming about how to be in partnership with people, how to be an ally, how to connect across differences.

This is the biggest difference I see in who we are becoming. This is the new wine. And the new wineskin is clearly the concept of covenant. I will not repeat my entire sermon from two weeks ago on this topic. Suffice to say, our container – our wineskin – is not a profession of faith as it was a hundred years back, or a statement of protest for ‘what we are not’ as we would usually offer in generations past. Our container is covenant; our new wineskin is ‘how we are in relationship together.’

In reflecting on the growth of change he had seen in Unitarian Universalism, former president of the UUA John Buehrens writes:

Covenant “captures the best of that heritage and applies it in a new setting – one that is much more multicultural, much more in need of vivid spiritual demonstrations that people of different beliefs, orientations, backgrounds, can not only live together but can actually contribute to one another’s moral and spiritual growth.” The culmination, he concludes is Unitarian Universalism in a new key: that of spirituality joined to justice making. (The Premise and the Promise by Warren Ross, p205)

Our container is covenant; our new wineskin is ‘how we are in relationship together.’ And it makes perfect sense for us to be here based on the watershed event of fifty years ago in which we set out as not only a merged pair of solid traditions but also as a new faith with new days as yet unseen. And as we round this bend in the stream, I trust we are headed into a vibrant and good future, yet I cannot possible imagine where fifty more years will see us. And truly my friends – that is exciting!

In a world without end
May it be so.

Covenant

Covenant
9-18-11
Rev. Douglas Taylor

The first time I entered this building there was a small framed letter board hanging on the hallway wall next to the entrance of the sanctuary. It was there for a few years before some remodeling, taken down temporarily but never replaced. I spent a few minutes this week looking around in the church closets but I could locate it, but then I’m not sure what I would have done with it if I had located it.

The framed letter board had the words of the Blake covenant inside:

Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.
This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
-James Vila Blake

The words of this covenant were not used in the regular weekly liturgy on Sunday mornings. (*I later learned that it was a regular worship element, at least in the 1960s and probably into the 1970s) I had asked and discovered that the words were not our official or formal congregation covenant. No one was able to express to me why we had that covenant hanging there in such a nice framed letter board. As best I could learn some one had thought they were pretty good words and had set them up there – and no one had seen fit to contradict them so they remained. Until the remodeling when they were removed – and no one had seen fit to complain at their removal so they remained.

And this week as I’ve been thinking about the concept of ‘covenant’ and considering what I would say, I remembered that framed covenant and how it had been featured prominently on our hallway wall next to the entrance of the sanctuary several years ago. I wish I had been paying more attention to their presence when they were here for I find I miss them now. I find myself wanting a congregational covenant, one that has some history with us, one that’s been here for a while – especially as we are bumping along with writing up a new mission statement. I wonder if perhaps we avoid being specific about these important foundational pieces of our religious identity as a way to avoid having to follow through with the consequences implied in them.

Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.
This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
-James Vila Blake

That really does sum up fairly well what binds us as a community. We gather in peace. We’re looking to know more truth. We’re here to help each other. To do this we have love and service at our center. This is our promise, our bond with one another.

Unitarian Universalism is a covenanting faith. We do not gather around a set doctrine or creed, rather we join in a shared process of discovery. We promise to help each other in the search for what is ultimately meaningful in life. We are a church where you can believe as you must, as your conscience demands. We travel different theological paths, but our covenant leads us to support, challenge, and encourage those around us to each travel our different paths well.

We are seekers first; always open to new learning to new insight, to new understanding. The best avenue we have found is to be seekers in community. The covenant of respect and mutual care is the framework that provides the freedom we long for and the best boundaries possible for being in community.

Covenants are thread throughout much of the life of our church. Yesterday our Sunday school teachers had a training session and one of the things they talked about is making classroom covenants with the children. Most of our children and our Sunday school teachers are very familiar with the idea of covenants. Another prominent area where covenants show up is in our Small Group Ministry program. Each Small Group makes a covenant for how they will be together. A few of the groups do not have formal covenants written down, but even those talk about the meaning of covenant and how it helps the groups to work.

Typically the classroom covenants and the Small Group covenants say things like: we will respect each person in the group. The adults add things like: we will begin and end on time, we will keep conversation confidential. The children add things like: no name-calling, one person talks at a time. Some of it is just details but much of it traces back to the essence: we will treat each person in the group respectfully. “To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”

Covenants come up in other places as well. The Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism are written as a covenant among the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association. When I was called by the congregation to serve this community we had an installation service in which we covenanted together. Earlier in the service this morning we did a ‘teacher dedication,’ which is a form of a covenant we the congregation make with the teachers. When a person joins the church and signs the membership book, we recite a covenant together. The one we read as a congregation when a new member joins is a composite by Napoleon Lovely:

Though our knowledge is incomplete, our truth partial, and our love uneven, We believe that new light is ever waiting to break through individual hearts and minds to enlighten our ways, that there is mutual strength in willing cooperation, and that the bonds of love keep open the gates of freedom. (N. W. Lovely)

But this begs the question for me: do we as a congregation actually have a specific covenant? Is it the old Blake covenant, or perhaps the Lovely version we use in our New Member liturgy, or something else still?

A few years ago a group did a study in which they asked congregations whether they had a covenant, if they recited it on Sunday mornings and if so – what was it? This was part of the Commission on Appraisal’s report entitled “Engaging Our Theological Diversity” from 2005. As a part of their search to articulate our Unitarian Universalist theological identity, they asked about the use of covenant in our congregations’ worship. They found that about half of the responding congregations recite a covenant in worship each Sunday and the most commonly used statement is the Williams Covenant.

If you look in your hymnals in the back at #471, you’ll find it. It says:

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 humanity in fellowship, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine, thus do we covenant with each other and with God. (J. Griswold Williams)
The Williams covenant is from the Universalist side of our family, the Blake, which you will see on the same page of the hymnal (#473) is from the Unitarian side. The Williams covenant, often with some variation in the text, was the most popular covenant and the Blake, the second.

I think I am going to bring the Blake covenant into our regular worship liturgy, just to try it on for a while, see how it feels. I still think it is the congregation’s work to name and own a covenant, not the minister’s work; but as the minister I can suggest and present, and even persuade – so I will. But ultimately, this is ours, not mine. And that’s kind of the point of covenantal theology! If we had a creed I could just tell you all what it is. But a covenant must be an authentic part of the community – there is no covenant independent of a community. A covenant arises from the relationships.

And let me clarify the nature of a covenantal relationship in a congregation. A wise colleague of mine, Rev. Dr. Brent Smith, says that all covenants are always between two entities. One might assume the basis for this is the old marriage analogy. I exchange vows with my spouse – the two of us make a covenant together. But that is not what is happening. At least in Dr. Smith’s interpretation of the concept of covenant, that is not what is happening. It’s more like this: I am making a covenant with the “us” that is created by our marriage. There are three things here: there is me, there is my spouse, and now there is us. The “us” is the part I make my covenant with, the “us” is the part I offer my promise. My wedding vow is a promise to care for the “us” we are creating.

Draw that same interpretation to a congregational covenant and we see the elegance. You are not in covenant with each individual person, you are in covenant with the “us” that is the congregation. The covenant, therefore, calls you to consider and treat each individual member of the congregation as you any other member of the congregation. There are certain basic pieces that you shall automatically offer to every member – not because you like them all or even know them all – simply because all of them are under the same covenantal relationship. It is a theological system that creates a relational justice of equality. You treat people well not because you like them but because you have chosen to be in covenant with this congregation and what it stands for.

Thus we need to get clear and specific about our congregational covenant and our mission because otherwise, how do you know what you have signed up to stand for? As Paul Rasor wrote in our reading, (“Identity, Covenant, and Commitment” by Paul Rasor in A People so Bold) “Covenant helps clarify our religious identity if we take it seriously enough to specify its terms.” Let’s work with the Blake Covenant for now, if we find we need to tinker with it (which I assume we will) or consider a different one, then that is what we will do. But for now:

Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.
This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
-James Vila Blake

Each individual shall remain free to responsibly interpret the truths and meanings they find. This covenant should in no way impinge on your beliefs or your theology. It will, however, impinge on your practice here, on how you are with others. Covenant does carry obligations by which we each need to abide. At minimum, any covenant worth its salt will call you to treat others in the covenant with respect. And that is not a small thing. It means listening to someone when they disagree with you and seeking to resolve conflict productively. It means being in relationship with people not because you like them but because you are keeping the covenant with them.

But what do we do when it doesn’t work? What do we do when someone is not keeping the covenant? How do we respond when there is disrespect or disharmony? What do we do when the covenant is broken? Well, at our best we should offer correction and disciple to one among us who has broken the covenant. Correction and disciple are often heard as words of punishment and judgment, as something negative that we Unitarian Universalists avoid and have nothing to do with. If such was your gut reaction when I mentioned our need to correct and disciple each other at times then I gently suggest you should look at that. But the word ‘disciple’ in its original definition is ‘to teach’ or perhaps even more accurately, ‘to guide.’ Yet if there is no way for us to respond when the covenant is broken, then the covenant is not real. And if we are unwilling or unable to help each other through correction and disciple in non-judgmental and non-punitive ways then all our attempts to respond to disrespect and broken covenant in our community will be punitive and painful. That would be terrible.

We are a covenanting faith, a free faith. When you join our congregation you are under no obligation to say you believe this or that creed. You join, not because everyone here agrees with you on significant theological points, but because we agree to support each other in the search for truth and meaning. We have a bond, a covenant, freely entered into by each member who seeks after the truth in love.

If we take the concept of covenant seriously, then it does establish some boundaries in what too many see as an “anything goes” faith. We do have boundaries, not defined by agreement to beliefs but by agreement to behaviors of respect and support. They are passive boundaries – each individual is left free to choose to join or define when they are ready. But we ere to think we can be passive because of our boundaries are passive. Alice Blair Wesley writes in her Minns Lecture Series Our Covenant, “No member of a free church is ‘cast out’ for dissent on some proposition. Rather, a persistent refusal to engage with forbearance is the only proper cause to remove any member from the rolls.” The two elements Wesley calls for in her definition are “engagement” and “forbearance,” and by forbearance she means grace or tolerance.

We agree to “walk together.” That phrase “walking together” dates back a long way, it actually is a reflection from the book of Amos, but more recently in the 1600’s the pilgrims used that phrase in writing up their covenant: We do bind ourselves to walk together in the ways of truth and affection, they wrote. “Walking together” requires us to be engaged with each other and to offer ‘forbearance’ for each other.

We each are seekers first; always open to new learning and new understanding. The best avenue we have found is to be seekers in community. The covenant of respect and mutual care is the framework that provides the freedom we long for and the best boundaries possible for being in community.

Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.
This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
-James Vila Blake

That really does sum up fairly well what binds us as a community. We gather in peace. We’re looking to know more truth. We’re here to help each other. To do this we have love and service at our center. This is our promise. This is our bond.

In a world without end,
may it be so.