Bound by Covenant


We are bound by covenant, each to each and each to all, by what theologian Rebecca Parker calls “freely chosen and life-sustaining interdependence.” The central question for us is not, “What do we believe?” but more, “What do we believe in? To what larger love, to what people, principles, values, and dreams shall we be committed? These are the questions we will explore together to begin our focus on covenant, beginning with the UUA May 11th workshop at our church-all are welcome.

Reading One: by Vitoria Safford

When we welcome our new people we tell them “This is a congregation bound not by creed, but by covenant. Bound each to each and each to all, in a freely chosen and life-sustaining interdependence.” In a tradition so deeply steeped in individualism, this becomes a spiritual practice for each of us to ask, To what larger love, to what people, principles, values, and dreams shall we be committed? We ask, again and again, How do I decide which beautiful, clumsy, and imperfect community will carry and hold my “name, hand, and heart”? The life of the spirit is solitary, but our answers to these questions call us to speak, call us to live, in the plural.

Reading Two: “What Our Covenant Means to Me” by HUUC member Greg Stoddard

I remember setting out to find a church in Harvard. I planned to find a community for my wife and kids, and maybe some peace and quiet for myself on Sunday mornings. The first week, we were greeted with warm smiles and open hands, and our children were quickly enveloped into the horde transitioning to the fellowship building.
I settled in, prepared to sit through some “Jesus talk,” and wondering how I should best appear interested in a topic that – as an agnostic at best – I was not anticipating holding any natural interest for me. And then….. Tibetan Spirit Warriors…

The minister was talking about Tibetan Spirit Warriors. “Wait just one minute here,” I thought, “I know nothing about Tibetan Spirit Warriors… but I kind of want to.”
Over the next few weeks, sermons were about Eastern and Western Philosophy, about values, about choices… ideas drawn not from a single source, but from many sources, some ancient, some modern, some current, but all centered around a few key themes. These were interesting ideas – not dogma, but concepts, and promises, and thoughts about community.
That was about 6 years ago.

I agree with the ideas here. The values and principles fit with the way I try to live my life. I joined this church because I’ve come to know others here share that effort Jean McCrosky gave us our first Christmas Tree when we first moved in, before we even joined the church. Darrell gave me a hug when I lost my job. Jill said nice things to me on the phone while I drove my dog to the pet crematory. Stacie and Jon invited us to dinner. Laura loved our chickens. Marc taught my daughter to dance with swords. The senior high youth group members gave me the inside scoop about what drugs I’m going to have to warn my kids about when they go to Bromfield. There are two separate Suzies here who love my kids – two of them! Britt rhapsodized to my kids about the mysteries of the cosmos. Eleanor tolerates my kids never rehearsing their junior choir songs and still gives them treats and praise. This community has promised to help raise my kids, and I have promised the same in return. I help with the Senior High Youth Group because I promised to do so, and someone else will do so for my kids. I joined the board this year because many have promised to keep this community strong in the past, and more will do so in the future – it’s my turn to make that promise. I give what I can in time and treasure (I don’t have a lot of either right now) because these are values that are worth supporting, and my kids are growing up in a world where instant connection is easy but deep-rooted community is hard.

Love is important to me, and it is the spirit of this church. Service is our prayer, and it’s the only prayer I’m comfortable saying. I choose to dwell together in peace with the people in this room, because I love the way they seek the truth in their way while giving me the freedom to seek the truth in mine, and this is a place where we help one another not because a book or a minister told us to, but because we have promised each other that we will.

The Sermon

“Love is the spirit of the church.” We say it every week. Where did these words come from? Words with such power to inspire commitment from Greg, from us, to love, to care, to welcome, so unconditionally? Unitarian Universalist scholar Alice Blair Wesley says to tell this story we could go back 4,000 years, but we don’t have time for that. Know that these words of our unison affirmation were written in the late 1800s by James Vila Blake a Unitarian minister in Evanston Illinois, during an era when in NE alone, 125 churches claimed for the first time the name Unitarian. But to really understand how love became the spirit of this church, we do have to go back at least to the 1630s. A spirit born from a few people who had an idea of a free church, one that emerged from the oppressive religious political climate in England. An idea that eventually inspired 20,000 people to get a charter from the king, to come here and start a new life. An idea, that ultimately bound us in covenant.

James Luther Adams, the prominent Unitarian theologian of the 20c says we need to know this history, so we can have a lucid conversation with newcomers about the lived essence our thriving liberal church. Not a conversation about our beliefs but about our loyalties, the things in our lives we deem most worthy of our faithful love. A history in which we might recognize ourselves. You see, prior to coming to these shores, the 20,000 Englanders were subjected to mandatory church services that lacked substance. They skipped Sunday services to meet in small groups, to visit other parishes to talk, and to learn especially about the Bible, just beginning to become widely disseminated. They came together to experience the holy spirit of mutual love in freely organized groups. The Bishops were not pleased. They ordered the lay people to stop what they called gadding about. The King and Queen backed the bishops, so these lay people decided to leave and they got the king to pay for it.

Just imagine, being on board the ship Arabella, as it was approaching these shores in 1630, when John Winthrop, soon to become the first governor of Massachusetts, spoke an extraordinary declaration to a soggy, stalwart band of fellow Puritans. He said:
“Now the only way to avoid . . . shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. . . . [W]e must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” Despite their stone-cold reputation, their caricatured intolerance, these were people who promised to bear each other’s burdens as their own, to subvert their separate, private interests, their “superfluities,” for the public good of all. Humbly, gently, patiently, they would serve a vision larger than any single eye could see; they would hold a larger hope.

A hope, a vision, so in need now in our time. Grace Lee Boggs, an author and activist who lived to be hundred years of age was known to ask: “What time is it in the time of our world?” Up until her death, just a few years ago, she would answer by saying we are living in a time of disruption. A time in which communities and nations are disrupted by terrorist acts, lives are disrupted by dysfunctional and violent bureaucracies, and whole regions upended by a radically changing climate. Disruptions that make it tempting to retreat from one another, from values that held us together, from ideas and practices that encourage inclusion, even from our belief in basic human goodness. We live in a time when it is important now more than ever in our recent history to realize and cultivate the spirit of mutual love. To ask ourselves anew what do we choose to be brave on behalf of?

I want to tell you about the bravery of one small group of our ancestors and what they did to claim the spirit of love once they arrived on these shores. How this group of people were brave on behalf of their religious integrity, their truth and their agency. They arrived in this little piece of wilderness soon to be called Dedham, belonging then to Wampanoag tribe, and much like suburbanites now, they were strangers to each other. After establishing their homes, they set up a series of weekly neighborhood meetings, lovingly to discourse and consult together, and prepare for spiritual communion in a church society. Every Thursday, at several houses in rotation, anyone could come. They did this for over a year, until the church opened in Nov of 1637. This process happened throughout New England, though Dedham was one of the few communities that recorded their gatherings with such depth. Historians say this was because the people were still wary that news of their gatherings still could get back to the king and the bishops. Some say, they tended to each other so well, because they were so earnest to keep the peace, and not give any reason for the king to revoke their charter. Whatever their intention, their writings have a present day relevance. How they discussed things “humbly with teachable hart”. How they would listen in turn, and would question only after all had spoken. How their reasoning was” very peaceable, loving, and tender, with much edification.” The conclusion after so many weeks of meeting is that each member of their free church should be “joined in a covenant of religious loyalty to the spirit of love, working in their own hearts and minds.” Can you hear the contemporary ring these words have! I have sat in many UU gatherings with such qualities present.

That’s the story of how love came to be the spirit of this church. How membership in this free church today is still open to you who are willing to keep covenant or promise insofar as you are able to make others’ conditions your own, rejoicing , mourning, laboring and finding delight together. This is us. I know all this to be true here, especially after the groundswell of caring concern I received yesterday as fake email went out that said I needed your help. I was touched. But there is more to the Dedham story that makes us who we are today. This group in Dedham didn’t meet on their behalf alone. That their foundational concern was to ensure the justice, peace and healthy conditions of not only a free church but also for a free society. For them, the church was the example to all on how to embody and speak on behalf of peace and justice.

We live obviously in a different and more complex time. Yet still the practice of covenant is more relevant then ever. Author and international leadership expert Margaret Wheatley writes, “The solution to the global problems of our time—poverty, economics, climate change, cannot be implemented because we lack the conditions to do so, we lack the political courage, the collaboration and the compassion needed across national boundaries.” She goes on to say, “we need to turn away from conditions beyond our control to lead people back to an understanding of who we are as human beings, to create the conditions for our basic human qualities of generosity, contribution, community, and love to be evoked no matter what. We need to become Warriors for the human spirit. ”

In our practice of covenant, our churches have been warriors for the human spirit for centuries. A practice that helps us discover and renew our confidence in our goodness and the goodness of others. A practice of mutual love that invites relationships in which we listen to each other’s deepest needs, and in that listening find those needs met. A practice of that allows us to fail and yet still be in relationship. A practice of mutual love that creates space for belonging and for growth. Stacie Green, one of our co-presidents, who is doing the march for hunger right now, wrote this about covenants. “While I didn’t grow up this way, I love the idea that
underpins a covenant. I see it as a detailed blueprint that helps me practice being a better human each day, week, month, and year. By spelling out what it means to be in community with each other, I’m reminded of the bigger picture—-what we are working towards and why. It reminds me to proactively look outward and broadly, instead of only looking inward and reacting to the stresses of day to day life. I need those reminders because I can forget, sometimes more frequently than I want. But we get to keep practicing how to be a human and thank goodness for this practice and for *this* community because it helps me in other areas of my life.”

Those of you who have been here awhile, know, we covenant when we get together in our small groups and committee meetings. We promise to listen, to assume good intentions, to speak directly to each other, and many other things. But we have never, or at least not in a long time, created a covenant that declared collectively the deepest loves to which we will be faithful. We have yet to name what we will stand up and be brave for. Margaret Wheatley, told a group of Danish leaders “that to be warriors of the human spirit, in this age of disruption, you need to create the conditions she says, for your people to show up in generous, kind, creative ways. Experiences that will ground your confidence in the goodness of people, a confidence that will inspire goodness where ever you go.” The practice of covenant does this.

Second, she says, “you need to know to what you will be faithful. Where you have and will continue to make your stand.” A few years ago, the Vatican started bullying a group of American nuns for being too secular, too feminist in their service to the poor. The Vatican started to investigate their finances, threatening to close their order. Though grieved, they showed up in court always in good cheer. When one Vatican official leered down at one sister, he asked, “you aren’t scared are you?” To which the sister said, “no, for I have been faithful.” The practice of covenant grounds us in faithful accountability to what we most value.

Thirdly, Margaret says, you need to reinstate learning in everything you do.” Learn from what is happening, stay vigilant about the quality of relationships, and create conditions where people can realize their own value. The practice of covenant creates space for this reflection and affirmation. This Saturday, I invite you to become a warrior of the human spirit and join 40 other UUs in the region, 7 from this congregation, in learning how we can create a covenant in this church by which we ask to what larger love, to what people, principles and values shall we be committed? What practice must we claim, to do so? Radical hospitality, forgiveness, reconciliation, teaching, growing and more? Big questions, that in the asking provide space for a shared experience full of possibility, not only for the loving spirit of our free church, but for the loving spirit of the people we serve. Stacie teaches educators and she made the suggestion to one of her students who is creating a learning program for the Syrian kids in one of the refugee camps in Greece that the kids create a covenant with spiritual practices that will help them navigate their trauma. She says, “I got all of these ideas from our church.”

The people of Dedham in 1630 knew that the idea of covenant cannot be taken for granted as something once and for all delivered to the saints…they understood that the covenantal idea of the free church has been nearly lost many times. Without an active practice we tend to assume things will go well, and can too easily bow to the power imbalances woven into our societal norms. The workshop on Saturday, is just a beginning of a longer conversation that will continue into the fall. But I do hope you join us in renewing our practice of covenant and being warriors of the human spirit. We are hosting this workshop in the Fellowship Building, starting at 9:00 so it is free. I hope you join us not only because we will be stronger with you there, but because ultimately, the only freedom adequate to human dignity is the freedom to do what love asks of us. And the greatest blessings of life come to us and through us to all the world when, with intimate and freely bonded companions, we try together to live with the integrity of faithful love. Let us be so blessed.