Promises, Promises

The Rev. Alison Cornish

October 3, 2004 – 

Summertime is many things to many people – vacations, a more leisurely pace, travel, even fresh local foods – but for ministers, summertime finds us, sometimes several times a week, doing what ministers have done for centuries – witnessing vows. Of course people do this year ‘round, but it is the late spring and summer when the calendar doth overflow. Over the past months I have officiated at numerous weddings and ceremonies of holy union, as well as several child dedications – the Unitarian Universalist ritual of welcoming children into a family and community.

At each of these celebrations, between the bouquets and buffets, something significant happened. People made promises to one another. Men and women turned to face each other, held hands, and spoke words of deep commitment. Parents and godparents stood side-by-side and spoke words of promise to babies not yet able to understand their meaning, but still able to take in the serious and even quaking voices that surrounded them.

The promises that these friends and families and I gathered to witness constitute covenants – and it is the meaning of covenant that I want to explore with you today, for I believe that this ancient word has much to offer our times.

Though Christians know the term covenant as another term for “testament,” as in the Old and New Covenants (Testaments), the Hebrew root of the word is “Berit” and it is from this that we draw some of the definitions that apply to modern covenants such as those of marriage or union – Berit refers to a close relationship, or to permanent loyalty between two individuals. What is most important from these ancient understandings is that covenants have these three qualities – a covenant is conscious, mutual and noncoercive. You can certainly understand why it is appropriate to talk about a covenant for marriage, rather than, for example, a contract, which is more likely to stipulate conditions or rights between parties with less than mutual standing.

For those who choose to make a promise to another, whether to a spouse or a child, it becomes clear that the significant part of a vow is the promise itself. One can list all kinds of intentions after that promise, but any list so dreamed will be incomplete. This is how I tried to capture that sensibility for one couple in their marriage ceremony:

Today, with the saying of vows to each other, something in your lives will change.

You have chosen to enter into a covenant with one another. A covenant is a promise, grounded in love. While there are known privileges and responsibilities that come with marriage, much of your actual future is still unknown to you. The commitment of marriage is one of those life passages that must made without knowing all the facts – your commitment is to the desire to be life partners, to be present to one another’s joys and struggles, and to share your own in equal measure.

In fact, the couple reflected this same sentiment in their vows, turning to one another and saying:

I love what I know about you, and trust what I do not yet know.

The same is true for parents and children. One can love a child, and promise to be the best parent one knows how to be, but how will that play out with the actual details of the child’s life? That is yet to emerge.

I began my exploration of covenant with these comments about marriages, unions and parenting because I think it’s easier to grasp the meaning on such a personal level. But my real focus today is the covenants that we make, as a Unitarian Universalist congregation. To do this, I’m going to lean heavily on an essay written by a wonderful Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Alice Blair Wesley, called “Thus Do We Covenant.” The essay traces the roots of our polity – that is, the way we govern ourselves – to its 17th century roots, particularly to the Dedham (Massachusetts) First Church, founded in 1637-38. The Dedham church has long been fascinating to Unitarian Universalist scholars because it was an early player in the division of New England’s “Standing Order” churches between the emerging liberal (Unitarian) congregations, and the established orthodox (Trinitarian) congregations. But that didn’t happen until 1820 – Alice’s research takes us back almost two more centuries.

As Alice explains it, the folks in the Dedham community in 1637 consisted of about 30 families who had come from various parts of England. They didn’t know each other before coming to the new colony of Massachusetts Bay. In order to become better acquainted, the families in Dedham set up a series of weekly neighborhood meetings to, according to the church records, “lovingly… discourse and consult together and prepare for spiritual communion in a church society, that we might be further acquainted with the spiritual tempers and gifts of one another.” In other words, there was no existing church for them to attend – they needed to create one, and took the opportunity to do so quite seriously – and creatively.

It is far too easy for us to forget how radical such conversations must have been. Here was a group of people just arrived from post-Reformation England. They had the extraordinary opportunity to discuss how they might “prepare for spiritual communion in a church society.” It actually took them a year to have their weekly conversations and establish the church – with all that talking, they must have already been Unitarian in spirit! Alice paraphrases the conclusion that they reached after their deliberations – “Members of [the] new free church should be joined in a covenant of religious loyalty to the spirit of love.”

Loyalty to the spirit of love – now how radical was that? It’s worth quoting Alice’s summary findings from these early church records:

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 topics is even mentioned in the record of the founding of the Dedham Church … In these pages there is much use of these words: reason, reasoned, deliberation, encouragement, liberty, comfort, help … but by far the most commonly used words in this written history are: affection, affectionately,

embrace and love, loving, lovingly. 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.

It is from this statement – that 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 – that Alice claims the overall form of the free church – now our Unitarian Universalist congregations – emerged. This 17th century free church form is reflected in the covenants we make even today – that is, what we, as a congregation, value, what promises we make together, and how we will be with one another.

I want to review what Alice calls the “eight key patterns” of the free church, and as I do, I invite you to reflect on your experience of this Unitarian Universalist congregation. Does her description ring true for you? And, again, for those of you who are new or visiting – may this serve as a small glimpse of who we are, and what we are all about.

First, she says, “right at the heart of a free church must be the spirit of love. The free church is a group of people who want the spirit of love to reign in their lives … [it is] the one good reason for founding a free church, or for joining one already founded.” When our 17th century ancestors spoke of the spirit of love, they used language that reflected their fidelity to Jesus Christ – the ways of love as spoken in the great commandment, love our neighbors as ourselves. I like Alice’s wording because, to me, “spirit of love” crosses the theological divides we find in our 21st century Unitarian Universalist communities. For if we are not for love, what are we for?

Next, she says, “the free church is self-governing, free from any outside control whatsoever. Whatever obligations members may honor outside the church – to governments, to the larger community, to family duties, bosses at work, whatever – these have no authority in the church.” Perhaps this is obvious, but still it is worth being reminded that crossing the threshold, entering this congregation, shifts something for each of us. Here we decide, together, what role each of us will have – teacher, president, worship leader, fundraiser – based on the same examination of “spiritual tempers and gifts” that our Dedham ancestors sought in one another, and regardless of our roles in the world “out there.”

Third, “loyalty to the spirit of love simultaneously commits members of the free church to the best understanding of truth we can attain, and that means reasoning.” The very foundations of this congregation are built on a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Many of the women and men who started this congregation were refugees from traditions that gave reason short shrift, or sidestepped the hard questions. The search for truth, however each of us interprets this, is bedrock to our tradition – and one of my obligations to you, as minister, is to speak the truth as I understand it – and to be open to your understandings of truth in return.

Next, Alice says, “reasoning together about what we love, and about all the social implications and complexities of love, in continuous consultations, has been a built-in part from the very beginning … our ancestors called continuous consultation ‘walking together.’” This takes discipline – self-discipline, and sometimes the discipline of speaking the truth in love to another. Alice quotes a colleague who says, “discipline in the free church is forbearance and engagement.” This is the part of our own tradition that reminds me of those vows made by partners in marriage, or parents, who stand before those gathered to promise… what? Ultimately, isn’t it to walk together, often into the unknown, which calls mightily for forbearance and engagement?

Fifth, “membership in the free church is open to individuals willing to sign a covenant – or promise – to be together, insofar as they are able, as a beloved community.” We reflect this in our own bylaws here – “we join together in community to affirm our liberal, non-creedal religion … we value and respect all members of the human race … accordingly membership is open to anyone whose beliefs are in accord with Unitarian Universalist principles.” It is statements like this one that show how directly we, in the 21st century are connected to our 17th century ancestors.

Next, she says, “the free church is an organized, not an organic, group. You’re not a member just because you happened to be born in the parish and your parents brought you up in the church.” This was a revolutionary idea in the 17th century, and one I believe we too easily take for granted. For too many people living in the 21st century, religion is imposed, not chosen. Every time we welcome a new member, I am again awed that we live in a time and place that allows choice in this most personal of matters.

Seventh, “when you sign the membership book of a covenanted free church, you sign a promise that may sound simple – should sound simple – but which, if you ‘keep covenant,’ brings you into intimate relationship with others who have promised to live with all the integrity you and they can together muster, in all the years of your lives.” I think Alice points to something very important here – we do make it easy to join our congregations, but, like marriages that start with a few simple words of promise, actually living as a member of a congregation is no simple task. Remember forbearance and engagement? When there are deep disagreements between members of a congregation, “walking together” feels a lot more like slogging through mud than taking a stroll on the beach. Alice even posits, “why would anybody ever rejoice to sign such a promise and regard it as a great privilege to do so?” “Because,” she says, “we are human beings, social creatures through and through – and the greatest blessings of life come to us and through us to all the world when, with intimate and freely bonded companions, we are trying together to live with the integrity of faithful love.” In other words, the pleasure is worth the pain – it is exactly why we love when we know we may lose the one we love – why we continue to create and raise children when we know the pain they may cause us to bear.

Finally, Alice says, there is a larger social justice dimension to a covenant each and every congregation makes. She asks us to contemplate “what faithfulness to the ways of love means to the whole human race and world.” Creating and keeping a covenantal community that is grounded in the spirit of love is important to more than just the members of a congregation. How? Surely by being there, and by welcoming people of all kinds into its life. But Alice doesn’t stop there – she suggests that “once you grasp the idea – of the spirit of love which may reign in a free church of equal members – the covenanted free church is the best hope for the world.”

Is this hyperbole? Extreme optimism? Fantasy? Perhaps. Nonetheless, I tend to agree with her. At the most basic level, a covenanted congregation anchored in the spirit of love is a nursery of sorts for all people, of all ages, to learn the ways of living with the integrity of faithful love. Not everyone is privileged to receive such a blessing wherever it is that they are raised. Finding a community that can walk the walk as well as well as talk the talk when it comes to love can change a life.

But even more than being the proving ground for loving relationships of trust and fortitude, a covenanted community based in the spirit of love serves as a model for other gathered communities, of all types, in a world desperately in need of healing. What would happen if groups such as governments, and rebels, and separatists – all manner of people who are clustered in groups – could bring forbearance and engagement to processes of mediation, peacemaking and reconciliation? What if they even allowed the inbreaking spirit of love a place at the table?

Well, you see where this is going – big ideas come from small experiments. It is hard enough to accomplish a covenant between two people who, in a moment, promise to walk into the unknown, together, based on their love. We all know the casualties. What I am suggesting is not easy. Each and every time I stand with a couple facing one another, making their promises, I say a little prayer that it may be so for them – that walking together into the unknown will continue to be fine – just fine. And we might say a similar prayer every so quietly each time someone new signs the membership book of this – or any – freely gathered congregation. May it be fine, this walking into the unknown – may you stay with it, and us, through the mud, knowing that it is a very good thing – for you, for our congregation, and, yes Alice, for the world at large.

Our Promises

Alison Cornish, minister: The consulting ministry program that has helped to “match up” the UUCSF and me requires that we draw up a contract, outlining the basics of our relationship. The Board of Trustees and I did just that over the summer. But while this document outlines the expected number of hours I’ll spend and tasks I’ll accomplish, it doesn’t say much about the nature of our relationship.

Marilyn Mehr, Co-president: The same could be said for our UUCSF bylaws. The bylaws outline the basic duties of the Board of Trustees, but they, too, say little about the nature of our relationship – minister to Board, or Board to the congregation as a whole.

Stuart Lowrie, Co-president: The Bylaws say that the Board is charged with fiduciary responsibility for the on-going business of the congregation and that the congregation supplies approvals for our budget – these and other roles are the mechanics, but in what spirit are we called to serve?

Alison: The promises we speak this morning have their roots in the long history of our congregational polity, and yet they reach up towards new hopes and dreams. They recognize the solid foundations laid by our predecessors here at the UUCSF, and yet also chart a course for the changes that must be made to keep any community vital and growing.

Marilyn: Will the members of the Board of Trustees please come forward and join us in saying these words?

All Board Members: We, the members of the Board of Trustees, promise to dedicate ourselves to managing the business of this congregation. We will support the committees and volunteers of this congregation in their efforts to create and run the programs of the UUSCF. We will keep our minds open to new ideas. We will create our own covenant for working together as a Board. And we will support the work of our minister as she challenges all of us to grow into a larger, more diverse, programmatically rich fellowship.

Alison: In my covenant with you, the UUCSF, I promise to respect the traditions of this congregation, and, in conversation with you, to work to enrich these. I promise to hold to a single standard of respect and help for all members of the congregational community, regardless of age or position. And I promise to exercise a reasonable freedom of the pulpit with respect for all persons, including those who disagree with me. I will encourage your own spiritual lives by living my own as one that is inclusive, loyal, generous and loving. I promise to walk with you individually through life passages and changes, and collectively through major changes that affect the whole congregation. I promise to immerse myself in this work.

Stuart: Will the congregation please rise and join voices together?

Congregation: Alison, we welcome your return in your new capacity as the Reverend Alison Cornish, a transformation for which we immodestly take some credit. We recognize that having a minister living among us poses challenges and requires adjustments. But we are ready to proceed down the path of the unknown, together. We will work diligently to integrate you into the life of the congregation and to use your time and skills wisely. We look forward to your services, but also hope that you will provide pastoral care and leadership in other key congregational areas. Together with you, we will complete our new home and establish it as a sanctuary for spiritual growth and a center for community betterment. We will also enrich our children’s and adult programs, and expand our congregational membership. We commit ourselves to work with you on all these projects, and in the process move closer toward the fulfillment of the principles that have brought us together as a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Closing Words (Alice Blair Wesley, adapted)

In our going out from this place, let us pledge to walk together in the ways of truth and affection as best we know them now or may learn them in days to come –

That we and our children may be fulfilled –

And that we may speak to the world with words and actions of peace and goodwill.

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