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

Walking in Covenant — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on February 6, 2011

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.  Boards 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.

The ministers of our region not only have a covenantal relationship with one another, but we also have a specific covenant with the District Executive… in case you didn’t know, a District Executive is what we Unitarians call a “Bishop”.  At the UUA General Assembly, our annual denominational leadership meeting, covenants abound.  I once attended a workshop at GA where the first fifteen minutes or so of an hour long workshop was spent trying to negotiate a covenant between the forty people or so who had decided to attend.

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.

Perhaps a little history of covenant is in order, and even a little bit of where covenant rests in our Unitarian Universalist tradition.  The early inspiration for covenant lies in the treaties made between people in what we now call the Middle East in the days prior to Moses.  Many such agreements between these peoples were thought to be witnessed by God, and were thought to be sanctified and enforced by God.  Yet much of the covenant tradition in the world rests not on these early treaties, but in the tradition and the stories of the covenant that God made with Abraham, when God told then Abram that his children would outnumber the stars.  The story of an earlier covenant also exists, one where God made a covenant with Noah … a sacred promise never to destroy the earth again with water , signified by a rainbow placed in the sky.  A rainbow is profound symbol for a covenant, but not as profound, at least for men, as the sign of the covenant God made with Abraham…

For a sign of a four thousand year old covenant with God, circumcision is still a pretty profound thing for a young baby to go through… and even more so if you are not a baby when it happens.

God made another covenant with the Hebrew people, when Moses led them out of captivity in Egypt and toward the land of Canaan.  In the story of that covenant, God named the Hebrew people as his chosen nation, and gave them a series of commandments they must follow.  The ten commandments… the inspiration for all of the “Right Relations Covenants” that congregations in the UUA produce today…  Although I’ve heard them referred to in UU circles as “The Ten Suggestions”.

Do you see a pattern in these early covenants upon which the covenantal tradition rests?

The pattern continued.  In the early Christian church, and continuing in some Christian denominations today, the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth is thought of as another covenant between God and human beings… a sacred promise of the forgiveness of sin and an afterlife for believers.  Many of the early Christian churches employed some understanding of covenant between themselves and their relationship to God as a way of explaining their faith to a world sometimes hostile to it.

Such covenantal understandings between Christian peoples and their God have continued throughout the history of the Christian tradition.  God’s covenant with Abraham forms one of the foundational understandings of both Jewish and Muslim peoples, and God’s covenant with Moses is a foundational understanding and a binding force for much of the Jewish faith today.

When our Unitarian Universalist ancestors, the pilgrims came to America fleeing religious persecution, they formed congregations that were understood as “covenanted communities of saints”.  They were seeking freedom to hold their individual relationship with God, outside of the formal structures and doctrines promulgated by the Church of England.  In setting up their congregations as a covenant between them and God, the relationship between a member and God was unimpeded by church doctrine or formalism.  Congregants were joined together because they had each made a sacred promise, not only with one another, but with God… and they believed God had done the same.

For over four thousand years of human religious history, Covenant has had a particular meaning… an agreement between either an individual or a group of people… and God.  The key ingredient was God… not church.  There were many agreements within religious communities about how people behaved or what they believed… but unless God was a signatory to the treaty, it was not a covenant.  It was only an agreement.  It was not the Hebrew people agreeing to behave according to the Ten Commandments that made it a covenant, only the belief that Moses had brought those commandments from God.  It was not that Jesus died on the cross that made the act a covenant, only the belief that many Christians hold that he was sent by God to die on the cross that made that death the sign of a covenant.

So, in our modern Unitarian Universalist tradition, where even those among us who believe in something we call God tend not to believe in a God that so actively intervenes in human free-will, how do we justify calling the agreements we make among each other, no matter how sacred they might be to us… how do we justify calling them covenants?

Now, two disclaimers before I move on… first, even with all I’ve just said, I believe Unitarian Universalism is, at its best, a covenantal faith.  I’m preaching this sermon this morning because I believe this congregation should seriously consider understanding itself as a covenantal community, much in the same way the Pilgrims did.  The idea of covenant is central to my personal theology and to my practice as a Unitarian Universalist Minister.  So, I am by no means arguing that Unitarian Universalism is not, or should not be a Covenantal Faith.  I just think we have some work to do in understanding what it means to be a covenantal faith.

Second, and probably the more important disclaimer… I perceive my beliefs and thoughts about covenant to be out-of-step with the majority of Unitarian Universalist Minster colleagues.  If there is a particular theological and ecclesiological hobby horse that I seem to want to ride on around my colleagues, covenant is it.  It is reaching the point where they do not even want to hear from me on it…  I was in a meeting where we were negotiating a covenant among ministers awhile back, and when I raised my hand the moderator said “Yes, David, we know… there is no God-equivalent in the document… and therefore it’s not really a covenant…”

At first, I was appalled at being so predictable… and then I realized that it was at least an affirmation of being heard if not being agreed with.  Small victories… small steps.  Eventually they will learn it is just easier to go ahead and agree with me.

I asked you all a question in the last two sermons, and it is a question I am going to keep asking.  Who are you as a Fellowship?  What is the purpose of this Fellowship in the world, in our community, in our lives?  What is our mission as a religious community?  Okay, that’s three questions, but all around one larger theological point… for what do we exist as a religious community?  Now, I could, and will continue to ask the question, and that would not be enough from me.  It is part of my role as your interim minister to reflect back to you what I hear… and so I’m going to start doing that.

And it is that reflection, that assessment of what I am hearing from you that brought me to change today’s sermon from one on Leadership to one on Covenant.

As I have asked the question among you, what is your purpose as a Fellowship, one of the answers that has begun to bubble forth is that we as a fellowship exist, our purpose, is to provide a liberal religious community in the area.  The development and maintenance of this liberal religious community, this, to use the Pilgrim’s language, “gathered community of saints” here in Mid-Michigan… this is why we go to all of the expense, the effort, the trial and turmoil of a religious community.  Our mission, from those of you who have come to speak to me, seems to circle around providing a space for the spiritual development and religious shelter of those who have found their way to us, set back behind the willow trees.  Shelter from the religious strictures of our day, from the religiously conservative community we perceive to be around us.  Many of us found our way here through traveling in that religiously conservative community, and have built this community as a new and better hope… a different way to be human, religiously.

You can see why the image of our religious ancestors the pilgrims comes to mind, when I think of our Fellowship.   We have a lot in common with them in how and why we have formed this Fellowship, and how and why they formed their religious communities.  And when the snow is really high, we might even feel as isolated as they did, in their colony in Plymouth, in what later became Massachusetts.

One of the lessons I have had to learn as an interim minister, quite different from that of a settled minister, is that it is more important that I reflect back to the congregation how I perceive the congregation to understand itself, rather than how I would like the congregation to understand itself.  Just as the congregation changes with each new member, settling a minister means the congregation will shift its understanding of itself to include that minister’s vision… but as an interim shifting the foundation of this congregation along the lines of my personal vision of religious life is not my role as an interim minister.  You all have probably figured out by now that, were I your settled minister, we would be in for some interesting times as my more evangelical vision of Unitarian Universalism “danced” with the perception of this congregation as a “gathered community of saints” in the pilgrim tradition.  Not the least part of that dance would be a challenge to whether we are as saintly as Unitarian Universalists as we sometimes imagine ourselves to be… but that is another sermon for another Sunday morning.

Is anyone chafing a little bit at the idea of this Fellowship as a Pilgrim “gathered community of saints?”  I thought you might be.

Let me just share this for you all to think about… no less than five times, in conversations with different members here at the Fellowship about membership and growth, someone has said to me something like “Well, we want to grow, but only if they are people who are like us”.  Sounds a little “saintly” to me…

Ok, I’ll get off my soapbox… for this morning anyway.  The danger of letting a preacher loose amongst you is that they tend to preach…

So, we have this conundrum…  Unitarian Universalism has this history, this tradition, and this attraction to the idea of making sacred promises among one another that we call covenants, and yet as a religious tradition that is non-creedal and in which large portions of our membership, both theist and non-theist alike, do not accept the idea of an intervening personal God.  Yet, the history of Covenant seems to call for a intervening, personal God.

We have a second conundrum, in that we have formed here at the Fellowship a modern day equivalent of a Pilgrim Gathered Community of Saints, and yet we lack the glue that bound the pilgrim community together in covenant, and that was a single, shared understanding of divinity.

We have a third conundrum… and that being that there is indeed something that binds us together here as the UU Fellowship of Midland, Michigan… else we would not all be here this Sunday morning… and yet we have difficulty articulating what that binding force is even to each other, much less to the wider world.

Three conundrums…  none of which have easy answers.  All of which I believe this congregation needs to answer if you are to find a way to understanding the purpose, the vision, and the mission of this Fellowship in our lives, in our community, and in our world.

Unlike the Southern Baptist Preachers I grew up with, I’m not going to give you an easy answer this morning.  What I am going to do, before I close, is share with you one of my personal answers, and to offer a way we can continue this exploration in the coming weeks and months.

Personal answer first…  I’ve made no secret that I am a Theist… that I believe in something I call God.  In full disclosure, I am comfortable being named as a Unitarian Universalist Christian as well as being a practitioner of Zen meditation and a religious naturalist.  And yet, my understanding of God is that God does not intervene in the lives of human beings in any direct way.

My theology does not even require that the divine totality I call God can even know that I exist as an individual, much less have a personal relationship with me, or be able to enter into treaties or covenants with me.  So, under the classic understanding that Covenant must be with a relational, personal God… having such a covenant would be just as far from me as it would be from any Atheist or Humanist.  The God I believe in simply does not relate to human beings as individuals.

And yet, I believe in covenant.  Covenant is the basis for my understanding of my life as a religious liberal, it is the basis of my understanding for why I entered into the ministry, it is my basis for understanding why I serve as a military chaplain and as a parish minister.  It is why I am a member of religious communities and communities of ministers.

In the place of an interventional, personal God… my covenant is with the ideals I have set before myself.  In the words of Edward Schempp, the UU who fought the legal case that ended prayer in public schools in the U.S., my faith, my covenant is a “conspiracy with the future”.  It is the idea and ideal of a world made whole, of beloved community, of right relationship, of peace and of justice that holds me accountable in the sacred agreements I make with my fellow UU’s and others.

Just as God is the image of an unachievable ideal many are still called to strive for, my vision of the future, just as unachievable, is what calls me personally into covenant with all of you, with our movement, and with our world.

It is the vision of a world based in our ideals that is the center, the anchor and the purpose of my life of religious covenant.  And, I believe that such a center around vision and ideals is what could make covenant a real and vibrant force in our liberal religious movement.  And, it is such a covenantal understanding of the purpose and religious life of our Fellowship that is the missing ingredient in the sacred depths of our religious community, of our “gathered community of saints” here in Mid-Michigan.

So, here is what I want to propose… I would like us to take a moment, at the end of each service from now until I leave in July, to recite a covenant of a Unitarian Universalist congregation… to see if such a covenantal understanding could be a key part in moving this congregation into deeper religious waters… a key part of developing not only our understanding of ourselves as a Fellowship of Religious Liberalism, but also of helping us learn how to share, to articulate our purpose and place to each other and to others.

For the month of February,  I will be asking us to recite at the end of our services the covenant that someone had written and left hanging in the McPeake room here at the Fellowship, and I will bring others over time.   I want us to begin to get a feel for what it would mean to understand ourselves as a covenantal community, and from these examples begin to uncover the covenantal understanding that I believe already exists in this congregation, but has not been expressed.

So, as we close the service, I invite you to turn to the beginning of your order of service and read it with me…

Love is our Doctrine,

The Quest for Truth is our Sacrament

And Service is our Prayer


So may it be… blessed be… and amen.

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