A Covenantal Church

A short sermon by Rev. J. Mark Worth Harvard Unitarian Universaslist Church, Harvard, MA, June 5, 2016


Rev. Kelly Crocker, Minister of Religious Education at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin, says that she likes to ask her 9-year-old son, Sam, about his school day each day. He doesn’t always want to tell her, but she asks anyway. She calls it “engaged parenting.” He calls it “the after-school interrogation.” But he’s good-natured, and he usually is willing to tell his mom about his day.

The other day Sam told his mom that at recess he and his friends had invented a new game – “Everybody’s It Tag.”

“That’s sounds great,” she said. “How does it work?” Sam started telling her a complicated set of rules that involved being “frozen,” or “unfrozen” depending on what happened to the original person who tagged you at the beginning of the game. The truth is, it sounded complicated, and Sam’s mother didn’t quite understand it all.

So she asked him how they came up with these rules. And Sam said, “Oh, you know, we sat and talked about one rule that we would each like and we went around and listened to everybody’s rules and then figured out which rules would work best. Lots of talking, lots of listening, and then we figured out how we wanted to play together – You know, it was like coming up with those covenants we come up with in church class, where we decide what we need to make it fun and safe for everyone.”

And at that moment, his mom, Rev. Kelly Crocker, excused herself and went around the corner into the kitchen and did a little mom-who-also-happens-to-be-a-UU-minister “happy dance.”

Because these moments can be really few and far between and when they happen, you gotta dance!

Covenants – they are the promises we make to one another here in community. Covenants are what call us together, that bring us into relationship and give us the ability to create deeper, healthier, and more sustaining relationships. We may travel different theological paths, but our covenants bring us into community with others, and encourage and help us and them as they travel their paths.

I grew up in another denomination, the Methodists. The Methodists are really good people, but there came a time, growing up, when I realized I couldn’t be a Methodist. Because the Methodists gather around a creed rather than a covenant.

We said that creed every week in church. It went like this – I still know it by heart: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose from the dead, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic [universal] Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

As I say, the time came when, as a teenager, I just didn’t believe those things. And I also didn’t believe that those doctrines were especially important. The creed was full of magical-sounding theology, but actually said almost nothing about the life and teachings of Jesus. And by then I had decided that how you live your life is more important than what you say you believe.

We are a church of covenants, not creeds. Covenants are about how we live our lives. They are the promises about how we will treat one another. They give us both boundaries and freedom. Covenants begin with the premise that we are all individuals, and what you believe may not be exactly what I believe. But we can still treat one another fairly.

Compare the Apostles’ Creed, which I said a moment ago – and which, by the way no Apostle ever said or even heard – and the covenant we say nearly every week:

“Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its prayer. And this is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in freedom, to speak the truth in love, and to help one another.”

To me, that’s beautiful. This is not the only covenant we ever use, there are others in our hymnal, the Faith Formation Team has a covenant of their own that they have agreed upon and use, and in this wonderful Faith Formation program our kids learn about covenants and develop covenants.

Our Unitarian Universalist Principles are a covenant. “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant – [there’s that word] – we covenant to affirm and promote:

~ The inherent worth and dignity of every person ~ Justice, equity and compassion in human relations ~ Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations ~ A free and responsible search for truth and meaning ~ The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large ~ The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all ~ Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” A lot like Sam and his friends, figuring out the rules for “Everybody’s It Tag” so it will be “fun and safe” for everyone, our adults – the delegates from our various churches – figured out these principles at one of our General Assemblies. They are not carved in stone. If we decide in the future that we forgot to say something, or we have a new and better understanding how we should make it fun and safe, we can go back and discuss and change them at another General Assembly in the future. (By the way, General Assembly this year is June 22-26 in Columbus, Ohio.)

Besides our Seven Principles, we also have the Sources of our faith which say more about how we came to be who we are, how we are alike and how we are different from one another, and that that’s okay. We list these sources – one or more may resonate with your own religious beliefs:

~ Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.

~ Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.

~ Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life. ~ Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

~ Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against the idolatries of mind and spirit.

~ Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

This past year our students in the Faith Formation have been learning about our Principles and our Sources – and our heroes, those who have lived and worked for fairness, compassion and justice in ways that inspire us. Our heroes are not perfect people, they are human just as we are, but they have lived in ways we, too, hope we can live.

Having grown up in a more traditionally Christian church and family, one of my heroes is still Jesus of Nazareth. Recently I got into a conversation with a friend. My friend said the government spends too much money on poor people who are lazy and don’t deserve our help. Knowing that she says she is a Christian, I mentioned that Jesus said, in the Gospel According to Luke, “Blessed are you who are poor… but woe to you who are rich,” and that he said we should show compassion.

My friend said, “Do you believe in Jesus?” I said, “Yes. I believe he was a real person, that he was born, and lived a life of loving-kindness and compassion, and taught us to be compassionate. And I believe that if we live as he taught, the world will be a better place.”

She said, sounding a little angry, “You know that’s not what I meant. Do you believe in Jesus?” I said, “It’s easy to say you believe in some theological doctrine. To me, how you live your life is much more important. It’s easy to worship Jesus. It’s much harder, and more rewarding, to follow him.”

She did not like my answer. But that’s why I’m here in this church with you today. Our religion is about how we live and what we do. Our religion doesn’t demand acceptance of a set of dubious theological propositions; rather, it’s a religion of sacred promises that we make to one another, and how we live out those commitments.

Then, can we believe whatever we want? Well, I want to believe a lot of things. Sometimes I want to believe that I can live for 900 years, like Methuselah.

I want to believe that I can get mad and say nasty things, and it won’t actually hurt anyone’s feelings, and everyone will let me get away with my bad behavior. And God will tell me, that’s all right, Mark, because you’re my favorite.

I want to believe that I can eat ice cream for three meals a day, every day, and never get sick or gain too much weight. But it isn’t true, even though I want to believe it.

No, we don’t believe anything we want. We do our best to learn, to use our reason, and decide what makes sense. And we believe what we must. We believe what our conscience demands of us.

We are seekers on our spiritual journeys, always open to new wisdom. We learn from the past, but are not locked into the more limited understandings of those times and ancient societies.

Our religion is about covenants, not creeds. It’s about how we treat one another, not what we say we agree to believe together. That’s what Unitarian Universalism is all about. It’s about how we live our lives…Amen.