A Covenantal Tradition

A Covenantal Traditionã
preached for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
October 5, 2014

The reading was a video and can be viewed here:

Do you know why Unitarian Universalists have a reputation for such poor singing? 
We are always reading ahead to see if we agree with the words….

I’m glad to say that I think that reputation is undeserved and that we sing quite well together.  My apologies for the opening joke – I know that some of you longtime UU’s have heard that one many a time, and there are a few more that I’m going to tell this morning for which I request, in advance, your forgiveness. 
I tried to tell some jokes this week in the class Corie and I taught for people first learning about Unitarian Universalism, but each time I tried, I either couldn’t set it up right, or completely forgot the punchline or both.  A stand-up comedian I am not. 
It’s interesting the kinds of jokes we tell about ourselves, because though an exaggeration, if there weren’t some truth in them, they wouldn’t be funny.  It’s true, for example that many of you left other traditions because of the theology that was espoused, and that theology was often expressed in the words to the hymns you sang…and once you began questioning that theology it got harder and harder to sing those words.  So, when you took the risk to check out another church, one of the first things you noticed were the words to the hymns.
It’s actually true that that’s one of the things I checked out in this church as well.  I’m speaking of checking out this particular congregation to serve it as minister.  In your packet of materials for ministers seeking the job was included a CD of your choir music.  Now, rather than checking to see if I agreed with all the lyrics, I was now checking to see if your church choir was willing to sing a true diversity of lyrics – would they sing male pronouns for God and use the word Lord on occasion?  or were they painfully politically correct, which, as you can imagine, by the way I said it, I was not seeking.  Of course, I wasn’t seeking it, because I grew up in Unitarian Universalism – in a congregation in which the minister would tell us all to pull out a pencil before we sang a hymn, and cross off one word and replace it with another.  I know I’ve shared this story with some of you before, because a few years ago, I decided to look in one of your old blue hymnals – that’s the hymnal we had before this grey one, which predates the teal update – and in one of your books, hymn number 266, Morning Has Broken, the word “his” was crossed off and in its place was written “their” – an attempt to be gender neutral , even though it was grammatically problematic.  The line was Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden, sprung in completeness where His feet pass.  So it became where their feet pass.  It’s been fixed more recently to where God’s feet pass, which works as long as you see the word God as genderless.
In any case, I wanted to know this was a congregation which wasn’t so politically correct that you squashed all diversity of opinion, and in fact, I found that in that CD of choir music, and in you as a congregation over the last 12 years.
Diversity of opinion and diversity of people is an important value among Unitarian Universalists.  And it’s not incidental or coincidental – it’s sewn into our fabric as a movement.  In its development over the years, Universalism was as wary as Unitarianism of creedal constraints.  Both faiths developed a “freedom clause” that would allow for difference of opinion when it came to matters of religious belief.  And that makes so much sense, given that both Universalists and Unitarians were named out of beliefs that had become heretical.  They had direct experience being the minority opinion and wanted to protect other folks with different opinions, at the very least, on religious matters.
A visitor to a Unitarian Universalist church sat through the sermon with growing incredulity at the heretical ideas being spouted. After the sermon a UU asked the visitor, “So how did you like it?”
“I can’t believe half the things that minister said!” sputtered the visitor in outrage. “Oh, good — then you’ll fit right in!”
It can be hard to explain to visitors this faith tradition called Unitarian Universalism that is named after two creedal positions – belief in one God, and the salvation of all souls – and yet, we are not beholden to either of those creeds.  We have no creed at all, and what binds us is not particular beliefs, but rather our covenants or promises we make with one another.  What we do in the world, not what we think about it.
Teaching the class on Monday was the first time I’d seen that video we showed you this morning – I’ve had interns teaching class the last several years.  So I was pleasantly surprised by the content.  I like how it explained covenant in its historical context – and that context reminded me why it is some people dislike the word covenant so much – they may associate the word with a narrow version of God and that religious triumphalism, violence, slaughter and enslavement.  Of course that is not the kind of covenant that holds this community together.  It is rather that inclusive and transformative covenant that helps us determine our commitments and live them out in spiritual justice making.  I like that term, spiritual justice.  and I love all those questions…
What is your ultimate concern?
To what do you owe your loyalty and commitment?
What do we promise one another,
How willing and capable are we of commitments that ask us to live our high aspirations?
What promises do we make to our faith?
What sacrifices are we willing to make to create and sustain communities of welcome, hope and service?
Perhaps I come at this whole covenant thing from a different direction entirely.  Though I learned the history in seminary, that is not how covenant resonates with me.  Covenant, for me, is a very practical way of articulating the cultural rules of a people so that others can join and belong.  Before I became a minister, I was a bilingual teacher.  I taught languages, literacy, and culture, and helped people who were learning a different language and culture than the one they first knew.  If you don’t know the “rules” of a group, you don’t know how to participate appropriately.  So the reason that joke works about the visitor to the UU church is that some churches expect you to agree with the minister.  But the rules here are different.  Here, you are expected to decide for yourself.   But if you came from a place where the rules were different, you wouldn’t necessarily understand this, unless you had observed it for a while, or been told directly.  Covenants are a way of making implicit agreements, explicit.  It’s a way of negotiating being a part of a group, a way of helping us consider others and our highest aspirations.  How do we become the people who others can count on to stand on the side of love?
The story this morning about the bear, the salmon, and the river illustrates the power of covenant – the power of speaking what each needs and what they promise to one another, and their love for each other.  And that’s the kind of covenant that helps us live a moral life, and asks who is our neighbor, and do I love, if I love only my own?  It’s an inclusive and transformative covenant that allows us to nurture a world of creativity and peace.  What responsibilities do we have and to whom?
The small groups we have called covenant groups are gatherings of 8-12 people who ask such questions and listen to one another deeply.  They speak their agreements aloud, in order to enter into deep relationship with one another and not take anyone for granted.  In the middle of all this silence, there had to be an agreement.  “No one could just do something, whatever they wanted. You couldn't just take someone for granted.”  They’re called covenant groups because at their core is an articulated covenant agreed upon by the members in order to create a safe place where our differences can show up, deep listening can occur, and group transformation can take place.  There are a couple of covenant group opportunities coming up that I urge you to consider if you’re seeking a way to connect with others in this congregation.
The story this morning about the bear, the salmon, and the river illustrates the power of covenant.  What do you need from this congregation, and what do you promise to it in return?  Do you, like Susan Rothfuss said this morning, declare your love for these people?  Is this your chosen beloved community?
We have the kind of covenant that helps us live a moral life, and asks who is our neighbor, and do I love, if I love only my own?  It’s an inclusive and transformative covenant that allows us to nurture a world of creativity and peace.  What responsibilities do we have and to whom?
We enter this annual pledge drive season with that question.
What if we are the ones?
What if it’s in our hands?
What if our actions change the world?
What if love binds us?

When I stand up here and ask you to pledge money to the church – to let your leadership know how much money they can count on in the 2015 fiscal year to operate this church – I am not asking this on my behalf.  Though you do pay me – and an entire staff, I am not asking you to do this for me or for us.  I am asking you to do this for those folks in the membership class on Monday who have just barely found us, and are intrigued and want to belong to something bigger.  I am asking you to do this for our neighbors who count on us to show up and stand on the side of love.  There are some great events this month you can attend that highlight the various activities this church offers – beginning this afternoon with a music concert…come back at 3pm for that.  And next Saturday for brunch and great conversation.
I did want to get to the joke that I couldn’t remember Monday night, for those in the membership class who suffered through my attempts at humor.  The reason I couldn’t get the joke right, was that I had mixed up two entirely different jokes with different punchlines!
One of them was a line by Thomas Starr King, who was a Unitarian minister, son of a Universalist minister.  During the Civil War period, he was a California politician credited with saving California for the union, rather than breaking off entirely.  With his Unitarian and Universalist leanings, he would sometimes say that while both Unitarians and Universalists believed in universal salvation, Universalists believe so because God is too good to condemn man to hell.  Unitarians, on the other hand, believe that Man is too good for God to condemn him to hell.
There’s a truth in that distinction – a humility and a pride that distinguishes the two strains of our tradition.  Universalists were the more humble working class folks, and Unitarians were the more proudly educated and elite class.  Where the idea of God fits into that spectrum is very interesting and telling.
Monday night I mixed up that joke with one about why Unitarians didn’t hold worship in the summer months.  It’s true that in many Unitarian churches, especially those located near universities, took the summers off.  In fact, so many of you still take the summers off that we only have one service from Memorial Day through Labor Day.  There’s a long tradition of this.  When I arrived 12 years ago, you didn’t have any programming for children during the summer months, a last vestige of this trend I suspect.  Anyway, the joke is that the reason Unitarians didn’t have to hold worship in the summer months, when the Presbyterians and Methodists and others do, is that God trusts us.
God trusts us.  The joke could be seen as a dig at those other groups whom God doesn’t trust, but remember it’s a joke.  Please don’t take it too seriously.  Taking ourselves too seriously can be a sign of stress.  We can become rigid when we’re scared or overloaded or overwhelmed.  We can get stuck in our strong opinions and take sides on issues when flexibility may be exactly what’s needed.  Flexibility and a little humor.  Fantasy and playfulness.  Imagination.  When the stewardship committee came up with this theme of What if we are the ones, I remembered a poem by Shel Silverstein called “what if”…  (which I read, but won’t print.  You can read it here:

By making fun of this kind of thinking, it helps release it, I think – a little like meditating, perhaps.  We focus in on the chatty worry for a bit in order to move beyond it, and ask more helpful questions.  Questions like:

What if we are the ones?  What if we’re enough?
What if its in our hands and our hands are beautiful?
What if our actions change the world for the better?
What if love binds us to each other, to all beings, to the planet and to the universe?
What if we are the ones we’ve been waiting for?

All you really need to know about this covenantal tradition of ours is that we care more about how we live our commitments in this life, than any kind of creed or statement of belief.  Like those before us, and those who will follow us, we create beloved community as we seek to heal the world.  May our promise find fulfillment so our future can begin.