The Courage to Covenant

(As delivered on May 6, 2018, at the UU Fellowship of Bennington, VT)


 “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.


I’m about to make a bold statement: We need to stop writing covenants.

Now hear me out… I know we’re a covenantal faith, which means that we make an agreement to come together to engage in mutual promises with Mystery, other people, and communities. But tell me if any of this sounds familiar:

  • Someone breaks the covenant, but everyone excuses the breach as “oh, that’s just Bob.”
  • New people are asked to sign a congregation’s covenant before they know what is in the covenant or even what a covenant is.
  • The members in power use breaches in the behavioral covenant to punish, not reconcile.
  • Significant donors demand to have things done their way or they’ll resign their membership or withdraw their pledge.
  • A congregation brings concerns about a minister’s conduct to a regional or denominational body, but there is no reconciliation or resolution.
  • A regional or denominational body asks congregations to take up a major justice initiative but provides no support for it, thus creating what we call in government an ‘unfunded  mandate.’
  • We affirm and promote the seven principles, but only as far as we’re comfortable, often excluding people for their skin color, gender, sexuality, class, ability, or religious belief.

And these are just a few examples.

What is a covenant for, if we aren’t going to actually use them as they are meant to be used, to hold one another in relationship? No wonder our circus can’t find the park.

I wonder why this is – why we regularly break the covenants we create – and while we’ll get to the courage part in a bit, I think we need to start with this simple fact: people want to fit in to a new group, and often we figure we will learn the jargon and the meaning of things through assimilation. We hear the words “covenant” and “chalice” and “principles” and figure eventually we’ll understand what they actually mean if we hang around long enough. I remember going through nearly an entire year of high school chemistry before I had the guts to ask the teacher what a mole was and what Avogadro’s number had to do with it. When, in May, I think, I finally asked, and he explained it, the clouds parted and the angels sang and I finally understood.

Now the experience I had at age 16 is the same many of us have as we become a part of Unitarian Universalist congregations. We don’t often know what the words really mean, or where they come from, and we’re often too shy or too deep into it to ask.

So let’s talk about what covenant is, and where it comes from.

The idea is as old as well, some of the oldest writings in the Hebrew scriptures, really, beginning in Genesis, with a guy called Noah.

Now the God Noah is talking to is angry with humanity, and God wants to 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 pretty much everything but the ark and its contents. 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, so God and Noah make a covenant, which seems more like authoritarian rule – as long as the people stay in line, there will be no more floods.

And then there’s Abraham, from whom God also demands fealty, so much so that after making Abraham the father of many nations, he exacts proof in the form of human sacrifice – namely, his son Isaac, which gets a puzzling, last minute reprieve. Again, it’s called a covenant, but it’s more like quid pro quo.

Fast forward a bit into the book of Exodus, and we have Moses, whom God taps to lead the Israelites out of slavery, and in exchange for keeping them safe gives them a set of rules – commandments – that they must follow. And of course, like many humans do, they bristle against the rules, and as soon as Moses is out of sight, break the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” By the time Moses is on the mountain chatting with God again, God’s seen the people melting down metals to fashion a golden calf idol. And God is angry. So angry. Soooo angry that he threatens another flood.

But what’s different in this moment is that Moses speaks truth to power and says “remember your covenant, how you swore to them by your own self – do you want to be as bad as those who enslaved us?” And – as the scripture tells us, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

So we learn something here in the early stories from Hebrew scripture – that a covenant is not just about rules and how those in power hold sway over those under them – but it’s about how those in weaker positions can hold those in power accountable.

But that’s not all of it – remember that about a thousand years after the Egyptian exile, a man we call Jesus came around, and he said “all of these rules you have about beards and shellfish aren’t important. 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 – as we come to understand – 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. Rather, it is about how we treat one another and how we forgive one another. It’s the often forgotten line in the familiar Rumi poem, “come come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving: Though you’ve broken your vows a thousand times, come yet again, come.”

It’s not about taking our toys – or our pledges – and going home. It’s not about ghosting or cutting folks off when we’ve messed up. Though we’ve broken our vows a thousand times, covenant asks us to come back to the table.

That takes courage.

It takes courage to create covenant; and that creation has to be driven by everyone. It can’t be driven by the people in power, whether that’s positional power like boards and religious professionals, or systemic power like the white people or the top donors. The process has to be courageous enough to include all voices of those who have agreed to freely come together in the process of creating and living it out.

It takes courage to write a covenant that actually treats everyone like a person, with inherent worth and dignity.

It takes courage to see covenant not as “yes or no” but as “yes-and.” In a world where you must choose between false binaries like this or that, yes or no, good or evil, friend or enemy, black or white, covenant suggests that there are multiple choices that may all be true. Covenant asks us to look for possibility, to say yes, and… this too.

It takes courage to covenant, especially when covenant is broken. Covenant audaciously says “come back anyway, trust anyway, make room anyway.”

Friends, we have to get this right if we’re going to covenant at all. We have to pay close attention to how we create and live out covenants in our congregations. We have to have the courage to get it right in our congregations, or we have no chance of getting it right in our denomination.

Because as a faith movement, we regularly mess this up. We struggle with the fairly recent understanding that gender is not a binary state, with many outright refusing to call a person by the names and pronouns they identify with. We struggle – or in one case, outright refuse – to make our spaces fully accessible; one congregation refused to put a ramp in because it ‘interfered with their aesthetics.’ We struggle to make full membership and participation available to those with lower economic resources. We struggle with misogyny and sexism, not only among members but also in hiring practices. And we struggle – as our history tells us – with racism.

Truth be told, I don’t even know where to begin to share this history with you without going way over my time, and getting the board to bring in lunch and maybe dinner.

What I need you to know is that we white UUs have been regularly making toothless covenants for a very long time. I beg forgiveness here for my incomplete bullet points:

  • In 1965, while some of our Unitarian Universalist ministers, seminarians, and lay people answered Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to march in Selma, far too many stayed home – not because they didn’t agree in principle, but because they were not connected to enough people of color to see the need to put covenant into practice.
  • When the UUA attempted to address the uprisings in the late 1960s and put our money where our mouth is, white UUs were too disconnected from people of color to actually live up to the financial promise. White UUs broke their covenant, and our movement lost over a thousand members of color.
  • At the 1993 General Assembly in Charlotte, coordinators suggested a “Thomas Jefferson Ball” inviting 18th century period costumes; ministers of color protested, asking “shall we come in chains?” White UUs broke their covenant by ignoring the reality of every person who might attend.
  • At the 2005 General Assembly in Fort Worth, there were multiple incidents of confrontations between white participants and youth of color, harassment by Fort Worth police, culminating in a confrontation between three youth of color and a white minister at the assembly’s closing ceremony. White UUs broke their covenant by treating those not like them as suspicious.
  • In 2017, less than a year after the UUA committed $5 million to Black Lives of UU, the hiring of a white man over a woman of color opened white eyes to what our fellow UUs of color have known all along: that the culture of white supremacy that allows racism to thrive under the surface permeates our denomination too. The resulting turnover of leaders at the highest levels has led us to focus on better hiring practices and a denomination-wide series of teach-ins and fundraising so that we might meet that five million dollar goal.

This has not been without consequence: just two months ago at Thomas Jefferson Memorial UU in Charlottesville, a religious educator of color, Christina Rivera, came to work to find a note from a congregant that attacked her based on her skin color, meant to intimidate her and encourage the ministers to stop preaching about racial justice, take down their Black Lives Matter signs, and get back to comfortable whiteness. This not an isolated incident, as many religious professionals of color have faced intimidation and distrust, and then cowardice from white UUs unwilling to call others back into covenant.

Now in Rivera’s case, senior minister Reverend Erik Wikstrom had the courage to covenant;  instead of a large anniversary celebration, Wikstrom changed the program to address this horrific act and call everyone back into covenant, to reexamine what it means to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to voice concerns in healthy ways, to seek forgiveness and reconciliation and strengthen the covenant.

But this isn’t happening everywhere, because the courage to covenant is in short supply among white Unitarian Universalists. There is amazing courage among UUs of color who come back time and time again, knowing they are entering white spaces yet knowing that there is hope and freedom in the things we affirm and promote. These courageous people of color are asking us white people to be brave with them, to make sure that they aren’t the only ones having to be brave, to come back into covenant and reaffirm our commitments to justice because they believe we can do better if we too are courageous enough. We who are white need to see and meet this courage.

We must be courageous enough to not forsake our own covenant with our principles. As Stafford’s poem says, if we stop holding each other’s tails, we wander – even when we know that it’s happening. “It’s important that awake people be awake” he writes… we must be awake to the fears and anxieties that keeps from forming real, strong, accountable covenants with one another.

Covenant – whether in a small group, a congregation, a denomination, or the larger beloved community – requires us to be accountable and responsible, to negotiate and compromise, even as the covenant remains in place. That’s okay – it isn’t a sign of the covenant’s weakness but rather its strength that it can bend and not break. We should always be reexamining our covenants to embrace the reality, not just the idea, of every person, making room for the reality, not just the idea, of every person’s color, sexuality, gender, ability, and economic status. 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 – because it inevitably will.

So – maybe I’m wrong about my original proposal. If there are no objections, I’d like to retract and revise my original statement… My bold statement is this:

We must have the courage to actually get close enough to know one another, so that covenant means something, even if we covenant with people who don’t look like us or act like us or love like us. We must have the courage commit to one another, to trust one another, to be deeply connected to other souls, to consciously covenant in healing, helpful ways, to come again, come, though we’ve broken our vows a thousand times. We may be wanderers, worshippers, and lovers of leaving, but instead, we must courageously say come yet again – come.

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