Thus Do We Covenant

When I submitted the week’s topic last month, Covenant seemed like a good, fairly neutral way to explore our faith and our relationship to one another. It seemed like a good discussion to have as we embark on the new church year.

And then last week, the bad news started pouring in.

Another in a long list of young, unarmed black men, Michael Brown, was gunned down by officer Darren Wilson in the sleepy town of Ferguson, Missouri.

A dispute at an auto race in upstate New York resulted in the horrific death of a driver, Kevin Ward, Jr., who was on the wrong end of a speeding race car driven by Tony Stewart.

A deeply beloved actor, Robin Williams, died as a result of suicide.

A catastrophic rain storm caused major flooding throughout the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, causing the death of two women.

Four tragedies. And that’s just here in the US, no less the tragedies that continue to fester around the world. It feels terrible.

Where’s covenant in all of this? It seems like this rather abstract concept couldn’t save any of these people. And we feel hurt…. Disappointed. Angry. Longing for healing, and seeing no way to repair the damage.

Why do we bother with covenants, if people are going to harm each other – and themselves – this way? Why do we bother making promises people can’t seem to keep? Why do we trust that others will live up to their commitments? Covenants – spoken and unspoken – were broken this week.

And then Unitarian Universalists around the globe gather today and declare that ours is a covenantal faith – many congregations recite together some version of the Williams Covenant:

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 other and with God.

If you think you’ve got a little cognitive dissonance here, you’re not alone – in this room, or in our liberal faith.

So let’s take another deep breath.

And let’s consider what we mean by this word “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, 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 – 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.

For you see, what covenant is not about is authority or demands. This is where the Ferguson police fell down, forgetting their covenant to protect and serve. Covenant is not a set of hard and fast rules that carry a punishment. Broken covenants should never end in jail time…or excommunication. Interestingly, this kind of covenant – authoritarian, law-driven – is what our faith is borne out of.

Unitarians and Universalists 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 people already living there. As these pilgrims built their new “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.

In fact, this so-called “covenant” is also 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?

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 to be giving. “We are not the sum of our aspirations or affirmations, but rather the sum of our gifts.”

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 – as Kim and Reggie sang in our music for gathering, to be in the shelter of each other, where “we are open, we are dreaming, we hopeful, and we are wise.” That’s audacious.

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 show each other mercy when things go awry. We forgive. We offer help. We don’t retaliate – rather, we offer to help 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-one 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 replied in horror: “Shall we come in rags and chains?” Suddenly, our covenant to “affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person” 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. 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.

Our covenant is constantly calling us back together.

But sometimes, covenant is – or seems to be – irreparable.

Some covenants break down because of a lack of trust. Someone lets us down, so we are more likely to believe they will let us down again… and before we know it the covenant is broken. We see this in Ferguson, where an apparent history of profiling has caused the largely black community to mistrust the largely white police force. Thus, when Michael Brown was killed, the covenant between the citizens and those meant to protect them was already broken. How does this one get repaired? How do other young black men in other cities ever enter into a covenant with a police force that does not seem willing to protect and serve them?

Some covenants break down because we don’t realize how much we affect and are affected by others. In upstate New York, two race car drivers forgot that their participation in the race affected those around them, and they had a responsibility to each other and to the fans to be sportsmanlike. Thus, when one got irate, and the other got more irate, and the situation escalated to the point that Kevin Ward, Jr. was killed, any covenant of sportsmanship was killed as well.

Some covenants break down because all the players aren’t part of the covenant. Climate change – caused by humanity – is real. 97% of scientists say this is so. Most of the world’s people agree this is so. Yet because some people continue to deny this harm to our planet, because they are not part of the covenant to affirm and promote “the interconnected web of all existence, of which we are a part,” we see harmful environmental policies in play. So by the time a major flood destroys huge areas in Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, and two women in Detroit are killed, our covenant to be stewards of the earth is put in serious jeopardy.

And sometimes tragic things happen even when a good covenant is in place. By all accounts, the Williams family is loving, caring, and communicative. There were plenty of family, friends, and health professionals working together in covenant to keep each other supported and cared for. And still, Robin Williams died, and that covenant’s foundation was shaken to its core, with the survivors wondering how they missed the signs, and wondering what they could have done to prevent his death by suicide.

What can we do?

The week’s tragedies in some ways seem so far from us – yet they touch us deeply. I will confess to you that on Thursday, I was simply overwhelmed with grief, frustration, anger, and fear. I could not see how any faith – my personal faith, or my covenantal faith – could possibly make even one iota of difference.

But instead of disengaging completely and throwing in the towel, something remarkable – and covenantal – happened.

A fellow UU intern minister called, knowing I was feeling under the weather, and listened as I explained my feelings. I posted a little something on Facebook about it, and friends answered me with loving support and reminders to take care of myself. Another UU minister called and advised me to walk away from it all for a bit, to get a bit of beach therapy, to keep a covenant of self-care. When I returned a few hours later, with a light burn that’s already tanning, I discovered that our covenant to support and affirm each other was solidly in place. A member of the covenant – me – was in need, and they responded. They reminded me that I am part of this incredible creation, part of this body that commits to love and compassion, and sometimes parts of this body need a bit of rest and a couple of hours in the sun.

And I was transformed. I could go from overwhelmed to determined, from scared to focused. I could take those next steps knowing good people have my back, who listen to me and trust that their support does not diminish but rather increases their own selves.

Yes, covenant does in many ways point to something much larger. As a covenantal faith, we act – covenant – to affirm and promote a set of principles that propels us toward something larger than ourselves. Without covenant, we get stuck in our personal ruts and forget that we are part of a much bigger whole – and our covenant, to each other (and for some of us, also to the Divine) – holds all of the planet’s beings and the very planet itself, in care.

But covenant begins personally. It begins with you, and me. It begins here, in a place where everybody knows your name.

It begins when we talk to each other, not about our accomplishments, but about our lives.

It begins when we ask ‘how are you’ and genuinely care about the answer.

It begins when we stop assuming the confident person is too busy to join you for lunch or a movie or a project.

It begins when we stop assuming the shy person doesn’t want to be talked to.

It begins when we are present to those who otherwise might be outside our close circle of friends.

It begins when we listen. And it calls us to engage.

When something is wrong, we must not sweep it under the rug because we think it is someone else’s problem.

Our covenant requires us to speak up when someone is treated unfairly.

Our covenant requires us to demand answers when someone is harmed.

Our covenant requires us to seek justice on behalf of those who cannot.

Our covenant requires us to protect one another.

And our covenant requires us to be one beloved community.

We are a covenantal faith because of respect, generosity, mercy, and most of all, love. There is always more to learn, more to do, more to love. But may we – today and always – covenant together.

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