Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Covenant as a Spiritual Practice — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached March 11th, 2012


Sermon     “Covenant as a Spiritual Practice”   Rev. David Pyle

One of the most important lessons I learned in seminary, I learned from a three year old boy.  Now, it is true that this is a pretty amazing three year old, as you might expect of a boy raised in Seminary.  His mother was studying for the Unitarian Universalist Ministry, and so the environment he was being raised in both ate and breathed our Unitarian Universalist Faith.  Yet, it is also that little Jeffrey is a pretty amazing little boy.  I personally expect to be preaching his ordination service in about thirty years or so…


My wife Sandy and I were visiting with Jeffrey and his parents for dinner one evening.  As we sat down at the table, Jeffrey looked around at us expectantly… Now, I expected that they would say some form of Grace, but I was to be surprised.  Jeffrey was our leader.  He had all of us hold hands while his father, Jeff, lit the chalice at the center of the table.  He then had us recite their family covenant… Love is the doctrine of this family, and service is its law.  This is our great covenant, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.


Covenant as a personal spiritual practice… taught to me by a three year old Unitarian Universalist.  Amazing…


It seems that, when you wander around the congregations and events that comprise the practice of Unitarian Universalism today, you cannot go very far before you run into something that is being called a Covenant.  Congregations seem to have developed multiple covenants among themselves and between each other.  There may well be a charter covenant as a part of their bylaws and said at the beginning of their services.  There will likely be a behavioral or “right relations” covenant… an agreement that says how we will act towards one another in religious community.  There may be covenant groups, or small group ministries where people enter into a formal agreement with one another that together they will seek deeper, more aware relationship.  You may have UU weddings being formed around the development of a covenant between the couple.  Ministers who serve the same church together often develop a covenant.  Ministers sometimes enter into a covenant with the staff members they supervise.  Board members often form covenants with one another.


And that’s just in the congregation.  Look outside of the congregation and covenants seem to multiply exponentially.  Many of our district boards and denominational boards and committees are centered around something they call a covenant.


It is not surprising, the plethora and proliferation of covenants… considering the very beginning of the UUA Bylaws, our denominational charter, is written as a covenant.  Now, it is a covenant between congregations, not between individuals… but it is the closest thing to a unifying document we have, and it is a covenant.  It is from that covenant that the 7 principles and the 6 sources come… these same principles and sources that we stick on business cards, on pamphlets, and on websites when we want to tell people who we are and what is important to us.


So, you would expect, with all of these covenants going on… with parents forming covenants with their newborn babies, with minister’s forming covenants with their congregations, with the denomination forming covenant with all of us, you might expect that our religious movement has done quite a bit of deep thinking about the meaning of covenant…


Actually, that has begun to happen, mostly in these last ten years.  Credit for the study of the idea of covenant and the role of these many covenants in Unitarian Universalism can be given to the Rev. Alice Blair Wesley, and the set of Lectures she delivered at the Meadville Lombard Theological School in 2000-2001, where she not only traced the history of covenant in our faith tradition, but also explored the ways that this idea of covenant may be shaping who we are to become.  UU Historian and Philosopher Conrad Wright did much the same study from outside the ministerial perspective in his book “Walking Together”.  I have attended seminary classes and ministerial seminars that discuss the meaning of covenant, and there has been some discussion on the UUA Blogosphere about what covenant means among us…




And I’ve found an almost complete lack of the meaning of covenant beyond many of these specific circles and discussion groups in the ministry and among those who academically study Unitarian Universalism.  I am not singling out non-ministers with this critique of a lack of an understanding of or respect for the meaning of covenant in our tradition… I have been in plenty of minister’s meetings where I ask a question on the meaning of the covenant we are agreeing too, and my fellow ministers look back at me as if I had just asked why Zebra’s have wheels and are shaped like a doughnut?


Among those who have not spent tens of thousands of dollars on a theological education, there is an operative definition of covenant that exists in our religious movement, one that has come into being I believe in large part because of the fuzzyness of the meaning of covenant that exits among our leaders and ministers.  That operative definition is, in my assessment, this…


A covenant is an agreement you make at church.  It differs from other agreements we make in life mostly because it was made among religious people, for religious purposes.  The same agreement at work would be called a contract or an agreement… but if we make it at church, we call it a covenant.


Can you all hear the heebie jeebies in my voice as I say this definition?  Covenant is so much more than an agreement, so much more than a contract, and so much more than what occurs in other parts of our lives that to broaden it to being simply “churchy” language for agreements we make in our religious life sends shivers down my spine.  Covenant is too central in my personal practice and theology to be taken so lightly.


Last week, Kristen, our Intern Minister, walked you all through some of the history and spiritual center of covenant in our religious faith… a task I had asked of her.  It is one of the harder skills a minister can learn, that of how to preach on a topic that someone else asks of you.  She did so, because she has formed a covenant with the ministers of this congregation, that we will focus her engagement with this congregation around her learning the practice of ministry within a religious community.  From all I’ve heard, she did a wonderful job with what I asked her to do…


When I used to talk about covenant with Unitarian Universalists, I would often preach the kind of sermon that I asked Kristen to preach last week… that covenant was something that could be learned by knowing of its roots and its meaning.  The roots and the meaning are important, because they set the context in which rests this most vital aspect of our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition… but I’ve come to believe that the most important lesson about covenant did not come from any of those seminary classes on it, or any of the books I read on its history or its theological implications.


The important lesson of covenant for our Unitarian Universalist faith lies in the practice of covenant.


I want you all to join me in a little meditative exercise… won’t take but a minute.  So, close your eyes, become comfortable in your space.  Breathe in, breathe out…  I want you to think of the promises you have made in your lives.  The ones that are the most important to you.  Perhaps it is the promise you made to be in relationship with someone.  Perhaps it is the promise you made to care for someone when they were born.  Perhaps it is the promise you made to join and care for the other members of your community, this church.  Perhaps it is a promise you made to the wider world.  Think of those promises you have made that, if you were not to keep them, would drastically change who you are as a person.  Breathe in, breathe out.


Now, see if there is in any of those promises someone who has also made such a promise to you.  If there is anyone who has joined you in that promise, or who has made a parallel promise, that if they were not to keep it would change drastically how they understand themselves.


Hold onto that promise that you share together… It could be a relationship, it could be a commitment to save the world from global warming.  It could be to remain in relationship as parent and child, no matter how difficult or distant it gets…  and it could be your relationship with this church… breathe in, breathe out…


Open your eyes…


That, is what I mean by a spiritual practice of covenant.  Covenant is not an agreement you make at church, but a promise that is shared by many hearts, that if that promise were not to be kept it would drastically change who we are as people.


A few months ago I gave you a similar definition for the word faith… when I defined faith as a sacred trust… a trust that if it were to be broken would change our understanding of ourselves.  There is a reason that covenant and faith share such closely aligned definitions… because covenant is in essence the acting out of faith.  Covenant is how we put faith, or a form of sacred trust, into practice.


I’m going to go back to little three year old Jeffrey to make this point.  Jeffrey had a faith, or a sacred trust in his parents.  He had faith that they would care for him.  That they would provide food, clothing, and shelter.  He had faith that they would help him to learn and to grow up.  He had faith that they would not abuse him or be mean to him, even if at times it might feel like they were being mean.  Little Jeffrey had faith in his minister-mom and computer programmer Dad that when they said no, there was a good reason… and that if he had a tantrum about it they would love him anyway.


And the way they practiced and lived that faith within their family was through covenant, or a sacred agreement that they made, in light of the vision of the family that they wanted to be.  Each night, as they sat down to dinner, they lit a chalice, and reminded each other of the covenant of faith that they shared… Love is the spirit of this family, and service is its law… this is our great covenant, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.


This week, I was talking with my friend Rev. Katie Norris, better known as Jeffrey’s mom… and she told me they still begin every dinner by lighting the chalice, holding hands, and saying their family covenant… reminding each other of the sacred promise they share.  Things are not always easy for them… Jeffrey is now in his early adolescent years, Rev. Katie has all the challenges of serving as the minister of a small UU church, Jeff has a demanding full time job.  Katie also has publically began writing about her experiences caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s, and about her own personal struggles with bi-polar disorder.  And yet, every night, they remind each other of how Love is the doctrine of their family, and service is its prayer…


This is the meaning of covenant…  I could give you a hundred different academic expressions and definitions… but this is the meaning.  A family, gathered around a chalice, ritually reminding each other of the sacred promise they share in their hearts.


We too share in a covenant amongst each other.  It is more than the words that are on the page of the document outside on the membership table.  It is the sacred promise we make to one another to care for one another, to assume good intensions, to practice honesty, to listen to each other with respect, to accept decisions when all views have been heard, to remain committed to the church even when we disagree.  It is a guide to more than behavior, it is a guide to what is important among us… that we are important not only as individuals but as the community we build together.  If you have not read our congregational covenant recently, I invite you to go to the website and read it, or pick up a copy at the membership table after the service.


When we say that Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith, and not a creedal faith, what we are saying is that we are a religion that is based not in a set of dogma or beliefs, but a religion that is based in a set of sacred promises we make to one another… and a sacred promise we make with a vision of a future… a vision of a world made whole.


May it be so… Amen, and blessed be.

3 Thoughts on “Covenant as a Spiritual Practice — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

  1. Hello Dear Friend,
    I was searching the interwebs and found this sermon. I remember us talking about our covenant at dinner. We still say it, in fact we shared dinner with a minister in formation tonight and said the covenant with him too. Thank you for reflecting on covenant so beautifully and getting at it’s deeper meaning.
    Rev. Katie

  2. Dearest Katie,

    My private worship web crashed, and so rather than maintain two sets of software, I have decided to put all the sermons, readings, opening words, quotes, and everything else here in the main Celestial Lands sites… And so this sermon just made the searchable part of my website. I’m glad you found it… (I think I asked permission before using this story, but if not, I’m sorry).

    Young Jeffrey really is amazing…

    Living so far away, one of the things I miss is seeing you from time to time. Be well and blessed!

    Yours in faith and friendship,


  3. Is there any way I might kindly quote a portion of your sermon on our site? If so, please let me know the appropriate details.

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