Building and Strengthening Covenant in Our Congregation

Sunday, October 4

Good Morning

On the cover of our order of service is our mission statement. Let’s read it aloud together:

We, the members of the Marquette Unitarian Universalist Congregation, are:
Brought Together by a Core Belief in the Power of Love and are Committed to Building Beloved Community. We Care for, Nurture and Support the Spiritual Growth of One Another: We Share Reverence for our Natural Environment and are dedicated to the Respectful Stewardship of the Earth: and We Work Together to Bend the Moral Arc of the Universe Toward Justice, Fairness and Compassion.

That’s our mission statement, wordsmithed by a few, approved by the many an dit lays out the big picture of our goals as a congregation and for what we want to be known by the larger community.

We Care for, Nurture and Support the Spiritual Growth of One Another. That’s awesome! But how? What does that look like in our daily or weekly interactions? Are we there for each other? Do we trust one another to share our joys and concerns, personal trials and triumphs on a more personal level than when we  share and drop stones into a bowl of water in front of the congregation? Do we listen to hear what is being said, or do we listen to formulate our reply?  Since I returned to Marquette UU, I’ve heard of and experienced people coming and going, some due to life’s interventions and redirection and some due to major conflict and some who remain are working through residual feelings and are committed to resolving issues and want, as I do, to build and strengthen our congregation. To build, strengthen and sustain our congregation as not only welcoming, but resilient and committed to creating and maintaining healthy relationships to create the safe haven that supports and encourages that individual search for truth and meaning.

But how? There is no one magic trick that will miraculously transform MqtUU into the ideal…

But may I kindly submit for your consideration…Covenant.   

It’s a word, it’s one of those words.  

(Like the word church which I will be using. Previously I would stumble over the word church and use the term Meeting House, for the physical building or the word congregation, for us as a group…My son Joseph, one day, quite exasperated over my stumbling asked “Do you go on Sunday morning?” I answered yes. “He exclaimed, “Then it’s church!” I caved…)

Perhaps you haven’t given that word Covenant much thought, vaguely familiar with the term from “We, the member congregations of the UUA covenant to affirm and promote our 7 principles” or perhaps you have strong feelings about the word and it’s meaning as a sacred promise between an individual or group and God.

As some know but many don’t, the history of Unitarian Universalism is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition.

In her essay “In the Beginning”, Alice Blair Wesley writes:

“A young minister named John Robinson, a fine preacher in early 17th century England became troubled in conscience. He could not agree with a number of recent rulings of the bishops and the magistracy. These rulings imposed certain doctrines and practices on the Church of England, to which all citizens were obliged by law to belong. Robinson slowly became convinced that the church could not really be a church at all under such circumstances and that the church is misconceived if it is conceived as something done by reason of any outside authority.

In his conception the church was to be constituted, not by obedience to hierarchical authority (Bishop or king), not by assent to a set of propositional statements (a creed), and not by confession of a transforming experience (salvation). This church was to be constituted by a promise, a covenant to venture together as individuals in the ways of the Spirit, with entire integrity.” In 1607 a congregation of those who shared his passion for the free church was formed. Many of members were pilgrims who set sail for America and in 1620 established their congregation, First Parish of Plymouth, the oldest in the UUA.

Later, A main point of contention was the notion of Trinity, God as three persons in one being, “The father, the son and the holy spirit”, as Unitarians affirm that God is one entity and Jesus was in some sense the “son” of God (as all humans are children of the Creator), but that he is not the one God himself. 

In 1825 The American Unitarian Association was established “to diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of pure Christianity.”

“Universalism is the belief that it is God’s purpose to save every individual from sin through divine grace revealed in Jesus.” The Universalist denomination in the United States originated with John Murray, a convert to Universalism from England when he arrived in New Jersey in 1770. After preaching there and in New York and New England, he settled in Gloucester, Mass., where in 1779 he became pastor of the first Universalist church in the United States. The movement spread; in 1790 a convention in Philadelphia decided upon a congregational polity and drew up a profession of faith.

So both Unitarians and Universalists were Christians whose beliefs diverged from the established orthodox Christian Church.

Also, I learned that Unitarian Universalism welcomed those from many different faith traditions as well as those who consider themselves of no faith, long before the merger in 1961.

Rev. Dr. Earl K. Holt III – graduate of Brown University and Starr King School for the Ministry, Unitarian Minister and author, wrote in his essay “The Wise Weakness of the Congregational Way”:

“I would like new members of our churches to understand that in joining this church [you] are not allying [your]selves with a bureaucracy in Boston call the Unitarian Universalist Association. [You] are not joining a sect called Unitarian Universalism. [You] are not even becoming Unitarian Universalists. Rather, [we] are allying [our]selves with something much larger and much more important than anything categorized under a denominational label or religious brand name. [We] are connecting [our]selves with the great and noble heritage of the free faith. [We] are connecting [our]selves to the great and good of every generation that has stood against all idolatries and hindrances to the spirit, to those who have stood for truth as they saw it, even at the ultimate cost to themselves. [We] are connecting [our]selves with the freedom fighters and freedom lovers of every age and every race and nationality and every religion.”

I would like newcomers as well as the rest of us, to have a better understanding of that “great and noble heritage of the free faith” and of the claim that we are a congregation bound not by creed but by covenant.

Our Board of Trustees has a covenant of right relations, a promise of how they will treat one another and make decisions during board meetings. I suggest the congregation create a covenant as well and more specifically committee members create covenant amongst themselves as well, like ground rules.

I might suggest some specific strategies (some of those ground rules) of how to build and stay in right relations. Put into practice our first principle to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person by learning and practicing our communications skills, especially deep listening skills. There are two small covenant group programs that provide exercises and opportunities to hone those listening skills. Heart to Heart and Soul to Soul.  When a committee or the board is faced with the need for decision making, ideally all members who feel they have something to say are allowed that opportunity not only to speak but to be heard. When there is more than one valid perspective that needs consideration then let’s not hesitate to practice our 5th principle, the use of the democratic process, engage the group and take a vote, as we do bring some decisions to the congregation for a vote during annual meetings.

Why is this important to me, why it perhaps, ought be important to you…Other than a number of services I’ve led in the past to celebrate the pagan holidays, I also led two services on community…I am very much a community oriented person, (despite the fact it seems as the season makes the days shorter, I become more of a hermit, and I seem to become even more so not only as the seasons change but as the years go by) and I, not so much fear but believe the worst case scenario to be our future and though I “think” hopelessly” I “feel” hope, or maybe just want for a better, stronger community of people that supports one another when times get tough…as if it is in the future that times will get tough…times are tough now…I was working on this sermon Friday morning, when I read about the Oregon shooting…the 41 school shooting this year, 142 incidents of gunfire on school campuses since the Newtown massacre in December 2012. For how tragic that is, it is but one small example of how and why we need each other and we need each other now.

In the essay “Rising to the challenge of our times” – former president of Starr King, Rebecca Parker lists the numerous hate crimes and acts of violence that occurred within 3 blocks of her home and goes on to say

“We are all aware of the increasing endangerment to our environment, the rapid loss of species, the infiltration of the world’s water system by poisonous chemicals, the growing hole in the ozone layer, the depletion of rainforests and the creation of more deserts.

We are all aware of increasing hatred and compartmentalization of human communities. In California we have passed laws to exclude immigrants from participation in public education and health care. In Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Florida and North Carolina conservative political forces have repeatedly introduced legislation to constrain the lives of lesbian and gay people.”

Rebecca Parker lives in Oakland, Ca and wrote that essay in 1997, nearly 20 years ago. Feel the weight not only of that location but of crisis of American society in the 20 years since…

The LGBTQ community has since won the long fought for right to marry. Congratulations…one small step for humanity…but

I know the ideal is to see these issues resolved or eliminated and much thought, effort and resources are funneled into those challenges. My personal preference would be to see more focus, effort and resources directed towards the people  currently being effected by these issues.

Oh, that was me backing up and seeing the big picture again, but how might we effectively address those BIG ISSUES…Only if we as individuals and members of this congregation, create and maintain a covenant, a promise to each other to be there for one another to stand firm in support and encouragement of one another  and commit to working through conflict, create and sustain right relationship with one another. To create the safe haven that long time members and new comers can trust will be here for them in time of need but also as a congregation to effect positive change in the larger issues.

Conrad Wright – perhaps the most respected scholar of liberal religion, an author and Professor Emeritus of American Church History at Harvard Divinity school writes in his essay “Congregational Polity and Covenant”:

“…there is something to be said for the word covenant, quite apart from the fact of its long currency. It emphasizes that the church is a community of mutual obligation which involves a sense of commitment. Even the freest of free churches needs that much discipline if it is to last long enough to accomplish anything of value in this world.”

Alice Blair Wesley concludes her essay with an adaptation of the covenant of the Pilgrims, written for contemporary UUs…

We pledge to walk together
In the ways of truth and affection,
As best we know them now
Or may learn in days to come
That we and our children may be fulfilled
And that we speak to the world
In words and actions of peace and goodwill.

Now if you would please open your hymnal to hymn #317 “We are not our own” but before we stand to sing, let’s take a few moments to silence to reflect on this notion of covenant and such questions as: What is our relationship, as individuals with our congregation as a whole? Why do we come here on Sunday mornings or any other time we come to a UU gathering? What is it that we give and what is it we hope to receive? What would your covenant with MqtUU look like? What might we promise to one another?

Heidi Gould