Can You Say COVENANT?
Rev. Jane Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
August 23, 2009
This past Monday morning after completing some of my morning routine, I announced to Greg – “Oh – Tomorrow is the 18th and that is my Boniva Day! Help me remember that!” -- And he chuckled and said, “Okay.”
Now for those of you who may not have seen the Sally Field advertisements – Boniva is a monthly medication that folks – especially post menopausal women – take to increase bone density. (Don’t want to break a hip while dancing.) And you take it once a month – first thing in the morning before you eat or drink anything -- with a full glass of water. And you have to remain upright for at least 30 minutes. It’s a big deal. So it was important for me to remember.
Later that Monday morning, I was sitting at my computer thinking about what I might include as an example for this sermon on covenants. And I thought – well one example is found when two people marry. They make promises to one another. And I thought – oh, I could use the promises Greg and I made at our wedding. Then I remembered. OH tomorrow’s our wedding anniversary!! So I immediately emailed Greg to share with him that August 18 was not only my Boniva Day, it was also our wedding anniversary! He had forgotten too. It seems that after only two years of marriage, we’ve already fallen into the forgetful habits of an old married couple. Maybe because we are. My son made the wise decision to get married on Valentine’s Day – so he won’t forget!
Well, the day is not so important. What is important is that Greg and I live in a covenantal relationship. We’ve made promises to each other. And a covenant is not really like a contract. When you “break” a contract, the contract is null and void. With a covenant, you might mess up – but the bond is too important and you just keep recommitting to it as long as you both agree to it.
Now unlike some couples who write separate sets of promises, Greg and I decided that we would make the same promises to each other on our wedding day – and these really were to be just a restatement of what we had been LIVING for the previous five years together. But since we wanted to say the same thing, we had to find words we agreed on. Needless, to say, our wedding vows were very short.
I, Jane Altman Page, take you, Gregory John Brock, to be my husband –
to have and to hold from this day forward,
in times of joy and times of sorrow,
and to grow with you throughout the seasons of life.
May our home be forever filled with peace, joy, and love.
Nuff said. That’s a covenant. And that’s our covenant.
The title of this sermon is “Can You Say COVENANT?” – and I decided to do this in correlation with the first lessons the children are getting in their RE classes as they prepare to form their own classroom covenants. I thought this might be a good time to address this as a congregation, since we really never have adopted a congregational covenant – of how we would be with each other.
Now like my other “can you say” sermons related to traditional religious language, I’m going to share a little with you about the etymology of this word and some history of how it’s been used – then you can decide whether or not you can say – (and do) covenant.
A covenant, in its most general sense, is a solemn promise to engage in or refrain from a specified action. It’s etymology can be traced to a French word meaning “agreement” – and on back to a Latin word meaning “to come together” – from which the word convene has also evolved. Although we use the word in legal matters – especially regarding real estate, the history I’m going to share relates more to how it has been used religiously.
Do you remember “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark?” That was the Ark of the Covenant. Oh, Harrison Ford was so impressive. There he was the boring anthropology professor – then the next thing you know he was the daring young man fighting the bad guys – including a pit of snakes that stands out in my memory. The Ark of the Covenant that they were searching for in this movie was the self-same Ark described in Hebrew Scripture and contained the Mosaic Covenant.
In Hebrew Scriptures, Yahweh God establishes this Mosaic Covenant with the Moses and the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt. The Qur’an, however, has the Israelites as the initiating party, offering the covenant to Allah. In any case, this was not God’s first covenant. There was a covenant with Adam and Eve in the garden – till they opted instead for a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” in a tree; and one with Noah after the flood – sealed with the rainbow; and a covenant with Abraham – with circumcision presented as a token of the covenant. God was going to make sure they were committed that time. In any case, Yahweh God made promises in exchange for promises and laws to be kept by the people.
Now one often hears of these covenants as part of the “Old Covenant.” Many believe that the idea of a “New Covenant” came with Jesus. But it is described in the Hebrew book of Jeremiah. And it’s a covenant that, again, was for Israelites. It was in the letters written by Paul in Christian Scriptures that a claim was made for non-Jews who proclaimed Christianity to be a part of this New Covenant.
SO that’s a taste of the biblical use of this word that is translated as covenant. This word also came to have widespread use in theology and Christian doctrine. John Calvin’s entire theology was known as “covenantal theology.” And this very prescribed doctrine is what I think got me in trouble with one of our long time members – who wrote me a letter when she saw this sermon title and thought that I was going to preach a specific doctrine to you. She admonished “The founding members of our fellowship will be turning over in their graves.” I wrote back and reassured her that I would be encouraging no prescribed doctrine from this pulpit.
Instead, the covenant that I’m referring to is more akin to the use of the word by the early New England Congregationalists – who were our UU ancestors in the United States. These folks, known as the Puritans and the Pilgrims, came from England in the colonial days. They were separating from the hierarchical Church of England. And they wanted no part of that kind of authority which they felt had moved the church away from the purity of the gospel. So since they had no church authority to tell them how they were to be with one another within and among their congregations, they just had to get together and decide for themselves – make agreements – often called covenants.
The big one we learned about in seminary was the Cambridge Platform – adopted by a church synod at Cambridge, Massachusetts. It had little to do with matters of doctrine and belief. Instead, it points to the very early Christian churches in the Bible and notes their independence – yet support for one another. It also describes how their own New England churches have agreed among them to certain aspects of church governance and polity. In other words – a statement that “You are not the boss of me – but we will walk together.” They often called themselves a free church. And we still use this terminology; because we are not bound by creed or hierarchy, but instead by covenants that we agree upon.
Now while I was in seminary learning this history, we had a revival of the concept of covenants among Unitarian Universalists. The small covenant group was gaining popularity and some folks were beginning to write behavioral covenants for their RE classes, their boards, and their congregations. In one of my first seminary classes at Meadville Lombard, we had a difficult situation to arise as we discussed one topic. And one of our members said, “This would have never happened if we had a covenant.” So our student association took some leadership in this matter and developed a sample class covenant to read at the beginning of each class we were in, develop modifications depending on that particular class, and then come to some agreement with our class members – including our teacher. We also developed a covenant for our student association and encouraged covenants to be developed in other areas of our seminary. One of my fellow students made this a major part of her calling and spreads the covenant gospel as a Unitarian Universalist community minister.
At the same time that we were doing this and UUA churches were jumping on that bandwagon – and it was a good bandwagon – I was a part of this congregation doing practicum activities and preaching – but not an “official” leader in any way. And I really didn’t do anything to move that idea forward here. Besides, we all seem to get along pretty well. Perhaps because we have had good leaders who would see potential problems in our relationships and lovingly address them before they became obvious to others.
So now here we are in 2009, the year preceding our 25th anniversary, and we have no behavioral covenant. We do have bylaws and a mission statement – but nothing about how we will treat each other in the congregation. Now some say – what about our principles. Isn’t that a covenant? Yes, it is. It’s our Unitarian Universalist Associational covenant. Our UUA congregations came together in our general assembly and agreed to affirm and support these principles as congregations. Now I do think we’ve often pointed to some of these in our efforts together and perhaps they have become our implicit congregational covenant. But the principles are broader reaching than what one normally thinks of as a behavioral covenant for a congregation.
We also have an affirmation that we state at the beginning of our services. We say it’s our “congregational affirmation” as if it’s some official statement – but we’ve never agreed to it as a congregation. Several years ago, one or more of our worship leaders began using this modification of a reading in the back of our hymnal at the beginning of the service and it just became part of our ritual. It includes these words:
“This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.”
Maybe that’s enough – or maybe not. It’s just three little guidelines. (Of course, Unitarians are skeptical about honoring THREE of anything!) And Erk Russell, the legendary coach of the Georgia Southern Eagles and a real hero of mine, would have said “That’s two more than you need.” Erk and his teams had one rule. Who knows what it was?
Erk felt that by the time most students reached college, they had a pretty good idea of how they should really treat each other. He thought they just needed the right encouragement and motivation to do that. And he was a truly great motivator. I saw first hand how his “one rule” worked back in 1985 after the Eagles had one their first national championship in Tacoma, Washington. I was fortunate enough to be on the chartered plane bringing this Cinderella team back home. On the way back, a couple of the players began to sort of harass one of the female flight attendants. Erk observed this – walked down the aisle to where they were seated – just looked at them and said, “Do Right.” Then he turned back around and walked back to his seat. That’s all it took. They did not have a rule that specifically stated: Thou shalt not harass the flight attendant. Just one rule: Do Right.
But most of the experts say we DO need something more specific in our UU congregations. Perhaps because we are not led by some divine figure like Erk Russell – that we follow without question. The joke is that leading UU’s is like herding cats. We are all very independent, finicky kinds of folks. So this is something we probably should think some about.
When I shared with the board the idea of our adopting a behavioral covenant for the congregation, one of our board members questioned the value of a bunch of UU’s sitting around a room trying to come up with something and causing dissension where perhaps none was necessary. ( Hmmmm. … Yeah.) I was glad she raised that concern. And I agree.
I believe because we have said those three guidelines as “our great covenant” for several years, they have, indeed, become our implicit covenant. And that there probably is no reason to throw them out and start over from square one. Instead, I’m proposing that we use keep these three statements as our broad guidelines for our congregational covenant. However, I DO think that we may need more specifics to point to when folks join us as members – or that we can point to when there is a problem. Now you may be saying: What kind of problem are you talking about Jane? Well, here’s something that comes up more often than you might realize in congregations – especially with our ability to spread information so rapidly via the internet. Someone will have a problem with or criticism of a leader or member, and instead of addressing that in the most direct manner feasible, they’ll express that concern over a listserv or perhaps to just some few folks they are connected to via email or facebook or even the old fashion way – over the phone or over a cup of Joe. Then the next thing you know – this concern – which may not even be true or fact- based will have spread throughout the congregation --- and the more it’s said, the more people believe it. We’ve seen that happen recently in our country with the misinformation spread about health care reform. So including a guideline about how to express criticism more directly is often included in a covenant.
I watched a consultant doing a whiteboard demonstration on the web about the most efficient way to create a covenant with the broadest participation possible. And she suggested that the congregation do an anonymous open-ended survey where folks can share their own statements of how we should be together. Then after these are done, have one or more of our good wordsmiths combine and word those that seem to be agreed upon into a few statements for a congregational review and vote.
With that in mind, my plan is to send out a link to a questionnaire on survey monkey that is open-ended and asks for you to describe specific guidelines or statements of behavior that can support the three major ones we currently recite in our services. Then we’ll have a good wordsmith or two put it all together, send it to the board, and hopefully have the board present it at our congregational meeting on November 4 for adoption. Then, if adopted, we can publish this statement in our directory and post it on our bulletin boards. We’ll share it with folks in our UU 102 seminar we do about membership and we can point to these if we see problems arising.
Folks, this is like taking my Boniva or going for a mammogram. (Well, maybe it won’t hurt that much.) But it’s a preventative measure that a healthy congregation should take to make sure they can maintain that health for a long time. I hope you will be willing to participate and bring your thoughts and ideas to our stew pot.
Just as those folks in the village added their good vegetables to that pot of stone soup, when we all give what we have, we can create something truly nutritious and delicious.
May it be so!