A Covenantal People
by Rev. Terry Davis
Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation
on April 2, 2017
When I was a child growing up in the Catholic church, the biblical story of Noah and his ark was one of my favorites. I was enchanted by the magical notion of a giant wooden ship carrying pairs of animals of all kinds. I never once doubted that the lions, tigers and bears, and other living things that were crammed on that boat with the Noah family somehow managed to all get along for 150-plus days.
The horrific notion that God would kill everything and everyone on the planet except these lucky chosen ones didn’t really sink into my child’s brain. Nor was that part of the story emphasized by my Saturday morning CCD teacher.
Rather, it was God’s covenant that we talked about the most. God promised that Noah and his family and all the creatures on the ark would be taken care of during the flood. And then, after the flood had wiped the earth clean of all living things, God said that he’d never send another one.
And, so assuming we can somehow put aside the troubling notion that a loving God created a massive and destructive flood, the writers of this ancient story leave us with the lesson that God’s word is God’s bond, no matter what.
This story came to mind when I thought of the topic of covenant. It reminded me that promise-making isn’t an activity just relegated to the realm of the Deity. We human beings make them, too. In fact, we make lots of them. Little and big promises. Formal and informal ones. At work, at home, with our kids, with our partners, with our friends. Even when we know that there’s a very good chance that we won’t be able to keep them, we often make them anyway.
Why do we do that?
I can imagine that, on occasion, our promise-making has been motivated by the fear of losing something . . . losing money, losing approval, prestige or affection, for instance. At least, those have been some of my reasons.
However, I think most of the time, my promises have arisen out of my desire to live into my highest ideals. If I really analyze it, I think my promise-making is my attempt to launch decisions and behaviors that will lead to a better Terry.
For example, if I promise to exercise regularly as a way to take better care of my body – a promise that I have broken repeatedly over the years, by the way – does this mean that I should stop making promises to myself around exercise altogether?
Perhaps. Perhaps I’m going about that one the wrong way. I’m not sure.
What I am sure of, however, is that when I make a promise, it’s usually one that – at the time – I fully intend to keep. My marital promises to my spouse Gail . . . my ordination promise to our UU faith . . . my installation promise to you as your minister . . . my promise to myself to do what’s necessary to stay sober and abstinent . . . all of these promises reflect my own sense of striving as well as an understanding that it might be necessary to aim high in an effort to achieve a better self and a better life.
These promises, in other words, can pave the way toward personal transformation.
This morning, I’d like for us to consider the role of covenants in our lives. I’m using the term covenant here rather than its synonym promise because there are qualities to this word that I think have particular meaning for us as Unitarian Universalists.
Latin in origin, the word covenant means “coming together.” One source I read says that the preferred meaning of the word covenant in the book of Genesis where it appears 280 times, is bond.
When I think of a bond, I think of something that’s very difficult, if not impossible, to separate. Something more permanent and more demanding than a promise . . . sort of the Gorilla Glue of commitments.
Because as Unitarian Universalists we don’t have a common understanding of God nor a common doctrine of belief, we are a faith who relies heavily on covenants. We make promises that reflect our aspirations and our strivings. And I believe they are meant to be as binding as Gorilla Glue.
If you turn to the page just before Hymn #1 in our gray hymnal, you’ll see in large, capital letters the words:
WE, THE MEMBER CONGREGATIONS OF THE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION, COVENANT TO AFFIRM AND PROMOTE:
followed by the list of our Seven Principles.
“Covenant to affirm and promote” . . . I take this phrase to mean that we are making a Gorilla Glue-binding promise to affirm and promote our Seven Principles within our congregation and in our lives. And, in the spirit of its original Latin meaning, our covenant to affirm and promote our Principles is something that also brings us together. It’s a promise that binds us to one another.
For those of you who are members of Northwest, you may recall that during your new member ceremony, you and the congregation were also asked to read aloud a covenant. What you were doing in that moment was making a binding promise to one another . . . one that said you would commit to walking together in your shared quest for truth and meaning.
I think it’s safe to say that many of us here have unorthodox religious views and that we all support our Seven Principles. So it would seem that living up to our promise of mutual support would be a piece of cake. Well, I’m aware that it isn’t.
Not because we’re doing anything wrong, but because not all Unitarian Universalists are cut from the same theological and ideological cloth.
At Northwest, for instance, I’m keenly aware we do not all identify as humanists. We are not all Democrats. And we did not all vote for Hillary Clinton. We have much more diversity here than we may realize.
When we discover these differences among us . . . that some of us do believe in a transcendent God, for example . . . or that some of us are Republican . . . or that some of us did vote for Donald Trump . . . what do we do about that? How bound to we feel about each other in these moments? How do we respond to and treat one another?
Well, while our feelings are our own, we do have something at Northwest to guide our actions. A few years ago, Northwest voted to adopt a Covenant of Right Relations. Which means that, addition to upholding our Seven Principles, we agreed to be bound to one another by practicing some common behaviors, including:
- Speaking our opinions and our feelings with care and compassion;
- Seeking to understand others’ truths by listening actively and respectfully;
- Being kind;
- Being calm;
- Continuing to talk directly with the parties involved, to resolve conflicts or concerns; and
- Holding ourselves and others accountable for our words and actions.
Is this a tall order? It may be . . . and my understanding of covenant is that it invites me to act as if it is not.
If we’re truly bound to each other, then I take this to mean that we are obligated to be in relationship and in dialogue with one another, no matter what our differences may be.
Please know that I’m not suggesting we stick out relationships where we’re experiencing oppression or abuse. Rather, I’m saying, for the sake of our personal and spiritual growth, that we don’t have the luxury of avoiding difficult conversations. To intentionally practice avoidance means we are not abiding by our covenant.
And, so what are the consequences of that? Wouldn’t it just be easier to avoid talking to the theist or the Trump supporter . . . or the Clinton supporter . . . over coffee in the Lobby after the service?
It might be. But, I also imagine that this behavior is also growth-inhibiting. And, assuming that I’m not the only one here who joined a faith community to connect with others and grow, it seems that avoiding difficult conversations runs counter to that. It runs counter to what it means to pursue a rich and transformative spiritual journey.
The longer I’m a Unitarian Universalist, the more I’m realizing just how important and life-affirming covenants are. I’m aware that a lack of covenant between me and some members of my extended family, for example, has been the primary contributor to some painful long-time estrangements.
Unlike my understanding of this community, we aren’t Gorilla Glue-bound to one another. We haven’t successfully found a way to hold ourselves together in spite of our theological and ideological differences. We are fractured . . . and, quite honestly, it feels terrible.
Our Unitarian Universalist covenantal faith provides me – provides all of us – with a chance to do this differently. Covenants offer us a unique opportunity to build the beloved community right here, among people who are both like us and not like us . . . but with whom we share our highest ideals.
What a gift our covenants are! They can help us strengthen our muscles of acceptance and understanding in here and then use them out there, where the differences may be greater and our common ground less apparent.
I think upholding covenants is hard. I believe to do so calls for spiritual maturity, accountability, and a willingness to make and forgive mistakes. But when we hit a rough patch, covenants can remind us that we don’t have to drift apart or walk away. They invite us to love one another and stay connected to one another in spite of our differences.
A covenant is not a handcuff, in my opinion. It is a blessing. And, I believe it has the power to save us and our hurting, divided world.
So, may we strive to live into them and live up to them . . . live like we’re Gorilla Glue-bound . . . to their tenets and to one another.
May it be so. Amen.