A Multitude of Covenants

The Rev. Alison Cornish, January 8, 2012.
There is no life apart from one another… The question is not whether we are social, connected beings. That is a given.  The question is how we shape our modes of being with one another and with the sources that uphold and sustain life.– Rebecca Parker

Today’s message has its beginning many years ago when I was officiating at a wedding of two seminary classmates of mine.  They were young, and very much in love, and had gathered their family and friends at a somewhat unusual venue.  You see, the groom had been for several years a Buddhist monk at a monastery in Rhode Island.  After leaving the monastery to attend seminary – yes, you heard that right! – he met his bride-to-be, and together, they had continued a relationship with the Zen center.  So they chose to be married at the monastery, and I was asked to co-officiate with the groom’s teacher, a somewhat formidable and imposing monk. 

I had just come to the part of the ceremony, after the couple exchanges their vows, when I invite those in attendance to take a few moments of silence to contemplate, to touch in on, their own vows, their own promises made in love, to partners, family, friends.  And in that moment I looked up and saw the rows of monks looking back at me, and realized, with a start, that we were gathered in the presence of some very different vows – the vows these monks had taken when they entered and made their commitments to the Buddhist community. I quickly added to my list of vows and promises “and those made in and to community” to those I had already noted.  Perhaps I imagined it, but I thought I saw a few monks smile at the acknowledgement – a nod, as it were, to the presence of a multitude of covenants in that room.

Although that is the last wedding I officiated at a monastery, I have continued to use the words of the wedding ceremony that I hastily amended that day in each wedding I perform.  After the couple exchanges their vows, and as part of the prayer that follows, I say, “May we also use these moments to remember our own sacred bonds, our own commitments and vows made to primary relationships, family members and friends, and communities.  As our shared silence embraces these two people, may it also rekindle the pledges that ground each of our own lives.”  I don’t know what people might make of it, calling out the explicit and perhaps implied promises that form the sea in which we swim each and every day.  But the ceremony would now feel incomplete to me without that recognition.

In fact, I suspect we too rarely have an occasion when we, individually or collectively, have an opportunity to reflect on the covenants, the “promises made in love,” that form the relationships of our lives, which is particularly unfortunate for Unitarian Universalists because our faith is, at root, a covenantal one.  Our religion is a modern incarnation of this ancient concept: We promise to walk together in love.  By creating congregations around this core idea, we establish what might be called “nurseries for values that are key to a satisfying life.”  When we promise to walk together in love, we build trust – between one another, and, over time, a whole wellspring of trust that is sustaining to the congregation – and to its members – over time.  When we promise to walk together in love, we create a place where each of us can experience bonds of belonging, one to another, not for interest or advantage, but of care.  When we promise to walk together in love, we generate loyalty, the ability to stay together even in hard times.  Too often, I think, the idea of covenant is too abstract, too distant – but when we begin to talk about it as trust, belonging and loyalty, then it is no abstract notion.  Covenant is embodied, lived, real.

Unitarian Universalist congregations, of course, are not the only places we find covenants. Explicit and implied, there are covenants in marriages and families, friendships and communities, congregations of other faiths and voluntary associations of all kinds.  Jonathan Sacks, who wrote the book “The Dignity of Difference” that our reading group recently completed, wrote this about covenant: 

Covenantal relationships [are] where we develop the grammar and syntax of reciprocity, where we help others and they help us without calculations of relative advantage…[1]

And then he writes, even more plainly and powerfully [Covenanted communities] are the larger groupings where we develop our identity – the We in which we develop our I.[2]

Written, and heard, in this way, covenantal communities sound good, don’t they? Almost idyllic … places where commitment is treasured, trust can thrive, loyalty as a cornerstone to healthy, enduring relationships.  But although all these are possibilities, they are, we know well, not always manifest.  For being a covenanted community does not automatically protect, or insulate, from forces that do not uphold and sustain life.

Setting aside, for the moment, families, marriages and other communities, let’s take a look just at religious communities that have harbored actions and behaviors that have created mistrust.  I think of the continuing unfolding of the sex abuse scandals, most prominently in the Catholic church, but present as well in other faith communities. I think of religions that have used fear and intimidation to oppress women, gays and lesbians, nonbelievers and children.  I think of churches, synagogues and mosques that are places of exclusion rather than a generous welcome.  There are too many faith communities that are not perceived as places of love and trust, but of broken promises, danger, hypocrisy and abuse.  It is no wonder, then, that there is a continuing increase in what is known as “religion alone,” or as many people say it to me – “I’m spiritual, but not religious.  I want spirituality, but not organized religion.”  Liberal and progressive people in North America and Europe are particularly mistrustful of religion. 

It is an ongoing challenge to build a case for religion – and, in the case of Unitarian Universalism specifically, a case for covenanted congregations – the core of who we are.  But that is what I hope to do this morning, in part, because I think that is our calling, our vocation, just as it has been since the mid-17th century when our first American spiritual ancestors began “walking together in love.” And, if we do this – and do it well – I believe that we will have an effect much, much larger than our actual numbers.

Returning, for a moment, to Jonathan Sacks’ work, Sacks makes the case that key aspects of modern life – particularly the institutions of democracy and capitalism – are dependent on other types of institutions which teach, build and create reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community and trust.  In his view, all these are needed by the giant engines of market and state that are so much a part of the planet’s life, but are actually not able themselves to produce these qualities.  Then where do they come from?  Sacks’ answer: “From families, communities, friendships, congregations, voluntary associations … wherever people are brought together not by advantage of wealth or power but by commitment to one another or to a larger cause they serve in common.”  The challenge? The market and state have actually weakened these trust-creating institutions.  And without those ancient covenantal institutions, the bonds that connect us have begun to fray, and the sense of identity and belonging that once grounded our lives has become ever more tenuous.  There are different names for these qualities that are so necessary to life – sociologists call it trust; economists, social capital; sociobiologists, “reciprocal altruism;” and political theorists, civil society. But they all say basically the same thing – that life is about more than a series of market exchanges, more than contracts and preferences and temporary, one-time encounters designed for mutual gain.  Those attributes that covenantal communities create, support, generate and spread – trust, loyalty, belonging – are essential to the wellbeing of institutions far larger and more powerful than our own.[3]

I have spoken in the past about how much I believe that faith communities have always been, and must continue to be, communities of resistance.  It is a hard road to be true to values that are not necessarily honored in the society where many of us spend most of our days. Whether that’s the inclusion of all people, regardless of sexual orientation, or resisting the forces that would demonize women and men born in other countries searching for work on our shores, or raising children to be spiritual seekers rather than indoctrinated by creedal belief, or any other of the multitudinous ways people who seek justice and spiritual freedom go against the grain in support of love and life, someone has to do it. And, I know and you know, from experience, these roads are difficult, sometimes impossible, to walk alone. Together, we support one another, encourage each other, laugh and play and cry and pick one another up after a tumble or defeat.  Faith communities, I believe, will always be the places this work is first and foremost.

Rebecca Parker offers another case for religious communities, and most particularly liberal, covenanted congregations, just like ours. She refers to them as “an embodied experience of freely-chosen, life-sustaining interdependence.”[4] Which is a fancy way of saying “we need one another,” and “I need you.”  But let’s not skip over her elegant language too quickly, because deep inside it is that essential component – “freely-chosen.”  Our congregations are formed by the will of the people themselves, and governed by the members – rather than a hierarchal church, authorized by tradition, governed by priests and so forth.  Why is this so important? Well, I believe it is when we have full freedom in a spiritual setting, such as that found here, that we can best learn what we need to about ourselves. This is the place where each of us can find our “I” in the midst of “We.”  And that puts all of us in very good stead when we need to live and work and even confront the other places in our lives where we are less likely to have such openness and freedom. 

These are just three ways that I see our covenanted faith communities as essential to life in the 21st century – we create and sustain the values and practices that are needed by other institutions, such as the market and the democratic state; we are the necessary communities of resistance where the fires of justice are stoked; and we are communities gathered in and for freedom, for the full expression of human potential.  But before I close, I want to offer just a couple of thoughts not about why we should exist, but how we walk together in love; that is, in the words of Rebecca Parker found at the top of your Orders of Service.  “There is no life apart from one another… The question is not whether we are social, connected beings. That is a given.  The question is how we shape our modes of being with one another and with the sources that uphold and sustain life.”

Perhaps you remember a bit about James Luther Adams who made an “appearance” at our December 11th service when he was advocating for the desegregation of First Unitarian Church of Chicago? Well, JLA, as he’s familiarly called, was famously an enormous champion of covenant. But, he would say, there must be some correctives in order for covenants to be effective.[5] The first, he said, is that a covenanted community must be dedicated to the thriving of all beings and all life, not just those within the covenant. That is, the agreements, the bonds, that draw people together in covenant must not be so exclusive as to apply only to some, to themselves, but must somehow seek to uphold and sustain life beyond its own borders, its own members.  In a way, this is what is meant by “think globally, act locally.” Or, more prosaically, it’s never all about us. 

The second, Adams said, is that covenanted communities must hold themselves accountable to something or someone beyond their own group.  Now before you think that I’m invoking a deity here – Adams himself was quick to say “not necessarily.”  A community could hold itself accountable to those most at risk of harm – think, for example, about the biblical injunctions about widows and orphans that would ask, what would we do differently if their wellbeing was the first of our priorities?  Or think of the American Indian principle of Seven Generations – to consider how any decision made will affect the next seven generations of descendents – not only their own, but that of the flora and fauna as well.  This question of accountability is one, I believe, much under-explored in Unitarian Universalist congregations, because I think we confuse it with authority.  But it is a place of richness and possibility.

Finally, I believe there is another necessity to life in a covenanted community – forgiveness.  John Buerhens says it poetically – “we are the promise-making, promise-breaking, promise-renewing animal.”[6] This is the reality of the human condition.  We make promises, one to another, in good faith and sound intention. And it doesn’t always go as we planned, hoped or dreamed, in relationships, in families, or in congregations. In fact, one UU minister, writing a word for new members, spoke a hard truth when she said “you will not truly be a member here until we disappoint you, and you find it in your heart to forgive us, and keep walking together, in love.”  That is the point, really, of those words that I use in every wedding service – a pause in the headlong rush of life for each person to reflect on the promises made, promises broken, promises to be renewed.  So let’s, in closing, do just that. May we take a few moments of quiet to remember our own sacred bonds, our own commitments and vows – promises made, promises broken, promises renewed – to primary relationships, to family members and friends, and to communities, including this congregation.  As our shared silence, here in this space, embraces these images and names, may it also rekindle the pledges that ground each of our own lives.

A Tangerine Communion
Adapted from Robert Fulghum, From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives[7]

The members and friends of all ages, all walks of life, of this congregation – you and I – we – are tangled up with one another – woven together in a unique fabric called the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork. Sometimes we understand why we are here together. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we will talk about our being in this place together. Sometimes we can’t. But we keep showing up here on a pretty regular basis. Because there is something here, and more of it here than anyplace else for us. And that something is essential to our well-being. That something is community – religious community. Common concerns, common needs, common principles – these bind us together as an extended family.  And the ties which bind should be celebrated from time to time. This is communion, an ancient tradition, an occasion when those who trust and care for one another share food together. Often we do this after our service – or between services – but those times can be a bit chaotic, or rushed, or even chatty.  So let’s, this time, do it at the heart of our time together.  Communion is an act of spiritual community.

This morning we will share a tangerine – a fruit of midwinter. Small yet bright – like our best hopes and dreams. Both bitter and sweet – like life itself.  Nourishing – as we wish our relationships to be.  Plucked from a tree, it is a dead thing – like yesterday. But look at it closely – it contains seeds – like today. Planted, the seeds contain great possibilities – like tomorrow.

So, here are baskets of tangerines. Now, there are only enough for about a third of us to take a fruit.  Those who take a tangerine must peel it. Someone else will take the fruit and divide it so that everyone will have a piece.  And a third of us will be responsible for the peels and seeds. Sharing the tasks is an act of community as well. When everyone has a few pieces of tangerine, I will say a blessing, and together we will savor these fruits.

We share this as an act of community;
As a sign of the covenant we have made with one another;
To sustain, support, encourage, and love one another.
May this place ever be the workshop of our finest endeavors,
And the cradle of our highest hopes and noblest dreams.

[1] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (NY: Continuum, 2002), p. 151.
[2] ibid.
[3] Sacks, p. 151-157.
[4] John A. Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker, A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), p. 38.
[5] Buehrens and Parker, p. 42.
[6] Buehrens and Parker, p. 49.
[7] Robert Fulghum, From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives (NY: Villard Books, 1995), p. 84-85.
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