Victoria Safford tells a wonderful story. When she was called to a previous ministry there was this woman nearing 90 years of age who had been a member of that church since her own parents had joined in her childhood. The church itself was fairly progressive and liberal minded and the woman of a more conservative bent. She approached Victoria upon her arrival to say that she wasn’t sure if she liked Victoria or what she stood for, but that she loved her church; bound to it in covenant; a covenant that she had always taken very seriously. Over the years it had happened that many votes were taken and many times the woman’s vote had not been in the majority. You might imagine she’d get tired of this and move on to a place more like herself in thinking! But she remained because she believed so strongly in the commitment members had made to one another to respect each other’s voices, especially when it is difficult to hear one another; a commitment to walk together on the journey. They were promised to one another, she, and her congregation, for better or for worse.
I love this story because it really gets at the heart of what covenant is all about. It’s easy to stay together when everyone agrees on the path and the means to travel it. It is much harder to struggle through the times when we disagree. It’s easier to walk away, but that’s not what covenanted community is about.
The Israelites were covenantal people, trying to be in right relationship with God and with each other in God’s sight. That’s the way it works – you need that “something larger than ourselves” piece to make it function. So maybe it’s God or, like in the pledge of allegiance before God was inserted, the idea of a free and just nation. As Unitarian Universalists we are covenantal people, too. Maybe for us it is a sense of the beloved community that we aspire to. That overarching principle which serves as container and umbrella both, for our interactions within or beneath its watchful eye. It serves as a reference point; the place we go to bounce our relational dynamics off. You know – like - if beloved community is it then what does that mean for how I treat the member of a committee that I disagree with or the newcomer in our midst. What do I celebrate and what do I seek to change?
We repeat an affirmation every week that says love is at the heart of this place, grounded in service. It says that we are seekers and as we search for truth and meaning we will hold that umbrella of love over us, making room for truths that speak to the individual as well as to the whole. And we’ll help one another; a network of support that we can trust to catch us when we fall; this high wire act we call life a bit precarious at times. We call this our great covenant – great in the sense of expansiveness I am going to presume, so that it swings wide the doors of this building and of our hearts.
Alice Blair Wesley, in our reading this morning, suggests that we owe a debt of gratitude to our Puritan forebears. They brought us this spirit of covenant when they set about making church and community in a new land. She says we need to reclaim our commitment to that spirit; a commitment to the kind of fidelity which that octogenarian in Victoria Safford’s church possessed. It’s not so much about what we each believe in as persons, but instead about what we believe collectively – what we value together; what we are accountable to; what our umbrella is.
Covenanting is about naming our aspirations as a community of the faithful on life’s journey. It is about the promises along the way; promises that name what we will do and be for each other in this endeavor that is the UU Meeting House. And it is in that naming that we prepare a context from which to embark; a context to which we can return for guidance and grounding when the journey gets tough because it provides a framework for our expectations. It stresses who we are as a people here in this place over who we are as persons. When we make these kinds of promises in the context of our faith, we have an opportunity to explore and to deepen our relationships and thus to grow spiritually.
A dear colleague of mine was all about the fact that we are not a creedal, but a covenantal faith. They pretty much insisted on covenants with the committees and individuals that they worked. Over time folks where they served began to see the value of these covenants. The people began talking out loud about what was expected from one another in the context of church; a place that is supposed to be safe for us in our most vulnerable moments. They had had some of those difficult times with no pre-developed covenant to ground them and that left them to deal with situations based on assumptions about human behavior. As you can imagine, that doesn’t always pan out so well! But eventually there were these statements, created together, that could be pointed to that said, “Oh, we agreed to this standard of behavior in that context and to do this when that happens.” These covenants became a marvelous tool of empowerment. They spoke about their highest relational ideals and acknowledged how we often fall short of them. They created relational goals and made it okay to be human at the same time. They gave permission to make mistakes and made provisions for moving forward when that happens because this is how real relationships work. And that is what we have here at UUMH: real relationships among real people.
Our reading ended with the sentence, “Too often our promise, or covenant, is implicit, not consciously explicit. You know that I believe in naming things if we expect any depth or growth in our relationships. Implicit leaves us in the position where assumptions rule the day. Explicit leaves little room for doubt about what it means to be a part of this faith community; about what we value and how we intend to bear witness to it. When we dare to say it out loud, we become more accountable to it; we take responsibility for our individual actions and for the good of the whole based on agreed upon criteria.
Our Small Group Ministries are actually ‘Covenant Groups’. I remember a day long workshop introducing me to this idea what seems like eons ago! Small groups of up to ten people bond by a relational covenant that created a safe space for them to share from their most intimate selves. Joan Konopka shared with me her belief that,
“Small groups are a microcosm of the UU Church. We gather together in Peace. We welcome diversity knowing we do not always agree. We are seeking a sense of Community knowing we have cultural differences. It is an opportunity to question our perceptions of the World and ourselves in a safe space. We become Friends.”
I’d like to invite Marion Harcourt forward to share a bit about her Small Group experience here at UUMH. She is a long-time member and leader of one of four small groups that currently meet.
Our small groups have been a place of care, communities of meaningfulness; places of respite when one finds themselves suddenly alone; of intentional inclusivity. Bob Rice and Charlotte Edgecomb both shared with me their remembrances of the beginnings of small groups here and their evolution over time. And I think this is an important piece – their evolution. Because people and circumstances are constantly changing and our small groups have managed to flow with that over many, many years. Some small groups are topic based – choices agreed upon by the members – and sometimes very serious, but also very silly, too. But here’s the thing – the safety to be who you are in a space of commitment and relationship, without fear of judgement. Recently, in response to the pandemic things have shifted for our groups – some meeting more frequently, adjusting to virtual gatherings, some focusing more on how we are coping with things like isolation and loneliness. This shift has been difficult for those who may long for more of a serious discussion. And even more recently – and I find this to be so poignant and indicative of the true meaning in these groups – some folks have shared a need to step back for a bit, openly and honestly in a circle of trusted companions on the journey, without fear of reprisal. Their reasons don’t matter so much as does the fact that such a space had been nurtured over time – a gift to one another, because this is the one place outside of our homes where we come with full hearts and want so much to be able to trust that if we lay our burdens down, we will be held in love. It’s not so simple when so much is at stake and yet we do ourselves a disservice and lose out on meaningful relationship when we stay at the surface level out of fear or old pain or discomfort; whatever the case may be.
To focus intentionally on the idea of covenant is to think about why we are who we are together; to think about why we do what we do; and to consider how best to act on our thoughts. When we can say exactly what we need in relationship we are also saying that we trust one another with our most intimate thoughts and concerns. As our level of trust is increased the depths of our relationships grow. In honest and trusted relationship each of us is moved closer to becoming our highest selves. It is a sacred connection that binds us as we covenant together.
Maybe you have been thinking about joining one of our small groups. Or perhaps there may be a right-sized group of folks who want to start a fresh group. These are things I am happy to help you with!
On a larger scale though, what do you want for this place of worship and community? What is the umbrella that holds us? We have our affirmation, our vision, our mission statement, our UU Principles and Purposes, but ow do we go about ensuring that we are in right relationship as a people of faith? This is the bigger question that we may not have thought about in terms of how we strive to be with one another and how we set up mechanisms for that trust to grow. It is my hope, though, that we can look at some of this work because it has been my experience that when we do, the love we share in community is multiplied many times over.
So may it be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson