The Covenanting Congregation
A sermon given at First Parish Dorchester
January 21, 2018
Rev. Tricia Brennan
We hear the term Free Church often
in Unitarian Universalist congregations,
but often we who use the term, and I include clergy in that “we”,
don’t fully understand what it means.
I don’t fully understand what it means,
as I don’t always know history as well as I would like,
and Free Church is a historical as well as contemporary term.
For our purposes today let’s understand the Free Church
as distinct from the established church, that is,
the church of the establishment, the state, the government.
The First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution
gives us the separation of church and state,
and thus to some degree, all churches are free in the United States.
The government cannot tell you what church you should go to,
or what you should believe, or that you should go to church.
Some 40 countries do have an established religion,
England being one with the Church of England as its established church, Afghanistan another, where Islam is the official state religion.
The term Free Church, as we use it in a UU church,
refers not only to a freedom from state control-
but also to freedom of belief and freedom of governance.
As you know, you are not asked to hold any particular belief
in a UU church. There is no creed- no statement of faith-
though there is an expectation, a hope,
that we will engage in an exploration of what we do believe,
what is our center of spiritual gravity, shall we say.
From who, what or where do we draw meaning, comfort and direction. No creed, but a Unitarian Universalist congregation is on an adventure of the spirit, to use James Luther Adams’ phrase.
Likewise, when it comes to big congregational decisions,
who will be the minister, will a church sell a congregational asset
or start a capital campaign,
what are the children taught, what happens in your services-
there is no outside entity telling a Free Church
what it should do, or must do.
No bishop, no presbytery, no rabbinical council, no pope.
From those of us who come to Unitarian Universalism
from another religious faith where there were external directives,
there often is an aha moment- “wow, it’s really all up to us”-
that can be exhilarating and scary.
We have to be grown-ups in a Free Church,
cause there is no Big Momma or Big Daddy that is in charge.
The UUA offers recommendations, guidance, support,
but it cannot force a congregation to do much of anything.
So with all this freedom, what holds a free church together?
Without a common creed, a common theology,
without sacraments that all members participate in,
what binds us together?
There are some that say it is the history
that holds the UU free churches together.
There are some that say it is the values of social justice and action
that bind us together.
And there are some that say, and I am among them,
that is the covenantal nature of our churches
that is holds us together.
I think that covenants- which do bind us one to another-
counter our wildly individualistic world,
and serve to ground our free churches.
The very word Free expresses a desire to not be bound
to state, or creed, or hierarchy.
All good, still we need to say Yes
to something too, lest perhaps we flounder in all that freedom.
So let’s talk covenant.
It’s an old word, yes, and not always understood.
I like the definition one of my seminary professors gave for covenant:
he said “A covenant is a commitment to something greater
than we are, without which we cannot live and work together
to our greatest benefit.” *
In congregations, the word covenant gets used in many ways
and that can get confusing.
There are congregational covenants-
which are meant to support the whole enterprise
of a faithful community.
The one you say here every Sunday,
which interestingly you refer to as an affirmation,
was written by L. Griswold Williams,
around the turn of the 20th century.
It is the most popular of congregational covenants in the UUA,
and you will hear it said in many a church,
especially in this part of the country.
It is broad, non-specific, and aspirational.
Your Covenant of Right Relations,
also intended for the whole congregation,
is more specific than the covenant you say on Sunday.
It focusing more on communication and behavior,
with language such as “following through
and taking ownership for what each of us has agreed to do”,
and “asking for help when needed.”
Its aim is to help people be in good stead with each other,
in right relationship.
I find it both practical and inspiring.
We’ll spend time with that covenant
in the congregational conversation today at 12:30.
There are other covenants that were created by smaller groups,
such as the Board, the choir, the RE Committee.
These get even more specific,
and answer the question of how does this particular group
want to be together, what do we ask for and promise each other
as we seek to fulfill our part of congregational life.
Behaviors named and promised help people
to work together with greater clarity, energy and harmony.
No covenant is worth much unless we know it, own it,
struggle with it, talk about it,
and give oneself over to the discipline of living it.
A covenant is not a contract, right?
For instance, where a contact enforceable,
a covenant is not, it relies on cooperative spirit.
Where a contract asks us to commit only part of oneself,
a covenant calls us to commit many parts or all of oneself.
A contact is typically dated, and often has an end date.
A covenant is more open-ended.
A contract is specific, and often very wordy-
take a look at your cell phone contract,
a covenant is open, and many a covenant is spoken aloud.
A contract creates mutual benefits,
where as a covenant creates a relationship.
A contract is legal and carries the weight of law and state,
a covenant depends on faithfulness, and is energized by love. **
Well, I’ve gone on at some length now,
with more history that I usual offer, more information than usual,
and I hope it has been made your curious about it all.
I have to say, though, that what touches my heart
the most about covenants is that inherent in them is forgiveness.
Why do I say that?
I say that because one can never fully live up to these covenants.
They set a high bar- which is part of their power and attraction-
and congregation ought to ask a lot of us, we want that, I think.
But inevitably we will fail.
We make mistakes, and we fall short of that high bar.
We don’t dwell together in peace all the time,
not a one of us always remembers that each of us comes
from a place of good intention-
which is in the Covenant of Right Relations,
and likewise, can we say that we never fail to encourage
active and mindful listening and sensitivity
to the perceptions of others… ?
Of course not. At least one person in this sanctuary- me-
can attest that I am an ongoing failure at these things.
So though the word forgiveness is not in any of these covenants,
we know that if they don’t breathe a spirit of forgiveness
they become brittle and break.
It is our commitment to them,
our intention to live them, that gives them their life and goodness.
And truth be told, love grows the most
when we can see ourselves and each other as the sometimes silly,
often scared and always imperfect people that we all are.
I feel closest to people when they show their regret
for hurts they have caused, or when I see them reflecting
on how they could have handled something better.
I have seen that courage here,
and it has inspired me, and made me better able to do likewise.
Yes, I do think covenants help us to be our better selves,
help us to aim for the high bar.
But for my lights, their deepest purpose is to hold us all
when we fall, to give us a place to return to when we get off track.
You know, I am sure, the song we often sing,
the round Come Come Whoever You Are,
wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
Our is no caravan of despair, come, yet again come.
It is a wonderfully welcoming song,
and we feel good when we sing it or hear it.
And you may know this or you may not,
but in the poetry of Rumi from which came the words of this song,
there is another line that comes after the caravan of despair
And that is: “even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.” Come, yet again, come.
I wish they had left that line in the song.
It is the ultimate call of welcome.
Come anyways, for we all have broken vows to one another,
to our families and communities, to ourselves.
And those broken vows cannot be the last word,
the end of the story, cannot define us.
The covenants we aspire to call us back,
and it is in the returning that we find ourselves.
That is what I love most about these covenants,
they have helped me not give up when I have disappointed myself.
James Luther Adams used to say that human beings,
individually and collectively, become human by making commitments, by making promises to each other.
We are promise-makers, promise-keepers,
promise-breakers, and promise- renewing creatures.
I feel that we are not asked that often or that seriously in our lives
to make commitments, to be in covenant with one another.
We do in our marriages, yes, those who are partnered,
and as parents, those who are parents,
and sometimes in our work lives,
but ours is not that much a covenantal world right now.
And that is too bad, for many reasons,
including that we lose out on the hard won growth
that comes from keeping covenant.
Which is why it counts for a lot that
here we can practice the discipline of living in covenant.
That is one gift that a faith community gives to its members.
And you know, here in these Free Churches,
the notion of covenant has been around for a long time,
its in the very air we breath.
There is UU minister named Alice Blair Wesley
who has studied the covenantal nature of the liberal free churches.
She spent a long time going through the old records
of the Dedham church, which was founded some 7 or 8 years
after First Parish Dorchester.
“For any who might suppose our 17th century Free Church ancestors talked mostly about original sin, predestination, and hellfire,
I am glad to tell you, not one of those topic is mentioned
in the record of the founding of the Dedham Church.
“In these pages there is much use of the words
reason, reasoned, reasoning…There is also repeated use
of the words sweet, comfort, help and brotherly.
But by far the most commonly used words in this written history
are affection, embrace, love, loving, and lovingly.
In the first 24 pages I counted 32 uses
of the words affection and love. Why?
Because then and now and for as long as human history lasts,
when all is said and done,
the integrity of the free church comes down
to our loyalty to the spirit of love at work
in the hearts and minds of the local members.”
These laypeople’s central conclusion,
from all these weeks of discussion, was this:
Members of their new free church should be joined
in a covenant of religious loyalty to the spirit of love. ***
I doubt the origins of First Parish Dorchester were any different
in that regard from the founding of First Parish Dedham.
Covenants are not for the faint of heart.
But they are of the heart, and as such,
they grow and change as fits the times we are in
and as strengthens the people who seek
to love this world and one another.
Covenant, from covenir- to come together, to walk together.
We are not alone.
- This quote was attributed to Mark Burrows in the personal files of Carl Scovel.
** Much of this contrast of contract and covenant was also from Carl Scovel’s files on covenant.
*** The 2000 Minns Lectures, The Lay and Liberal Doctrine of the Church: The Spirit and the Promise of Our Covenant. Alice Blair Wesley