“Indivisible” by Tracy Johnson

The First Parish of Watertown, Unitarian Universalist

October 12, 2014

Reading –from Alice Blair Wesley, Redeeming Time


The pilgrims ought to be especially important to American Unitarian Universalists.  They are our spiritual ancestors.  We misapprehend our own identity and miss out on a great richness if we do not understand our derivation from their extraordinary spirit.  I believe we could much diminish fruitless and sterile individualism among us and instead foster together far richer varieties of authentic individuality in community if we could, through the seventeenth century Pilgrims, set about reclaiming, for today, a fresh, dynamic commitment to the spirit of the covenant of the free church . . .

The center of the free church, the heart of the whole thing, is a promise of fidelity, a covenant, which each member freely makes upon joining.  Actually also, each member begins again with, or renews or renegotiates, his or her promise many times in the course of the life of the church, in the privacy of renewed conscience or spiritual growth.  Too often our promise, or covenant, is implicit, not consciously explicit.


Sermon – “Indivisible” by Tracy Johnson

It has been several years now, but I am reminded every time I get in my car.  I was in Starbucks getting a tea and noticed this promotional material on the counter.  It said it was a bracelet, but it was too big for that and it might have worked as a necklace, but it’s really not my style.  Instead, I hung it from my rear view mirror as a note to self and to anyone else who rides in the car.  It is a red, white and blue woven stretchy cord with a single rectangular bead strung on it.  Imprinted in the bead is the word “INDIVISIBLE.”  Starbucks had partnered with the Create Jobs for USA Fund, a part of the Opportunity Finance Network.  The wristbands are made in America as are all of their components:  The red, white and blue cord is manufactured in Rhode Island, and the brass crimps come from Florida. The zinc alloy bead is made in a woman-owned manufacturing plant in Los Angeles where the wristband is also being assembled.  When you buy one you are supporting a return to manufacturing in the US; you become part of a larger message that we are “indivisible” in terms of people’s right to make a living wage and support themselves; a message that we can create and support work for everyone.

Indivisible isn’t a word that we hear all that often.  We pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, some say – under God – and then there it is – INDIVISIBLE – with liberty and justice for all.  This we teach our children as soon as they start school unless something has changed since I was young. The only other thing I can think of that we say is divisible or not is numbers and it turns out that they really can be divided using decimals and fractions and such.  Who knew?

So what do we mean by this idea of indivisibility?  It says that we can’t be reduced to something smaller than we are as a whole.  And yet we are individuals that make up this whole.  And we affirm and promote the notion that each of us is unique and valuable separate from everyone else.  Can we have it both ways?  Does it mean that the fact of our individuality can’t be the thing that tears us apart?  I’m thinking this is part of it.  Because as it is used in the pledge we recite it seems to be saying that we are part of something larger that withstands the tests of time; withstands of our lives’ individual ins and outs; that there will always be this principle of the nation we have become that we can count on.  We may have our doubts about how well the nation is actually faring in this regard, but it remains intact and when held up beside some other places it seems we are pretty fortunate here.

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 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 of.  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 we begin with love and that service is what makes it evident.  It talks about the ideal of harmonious sharing in this religious home.  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.  It is about our relationships as a gathered body on a journey together – a journey that we describe in our mission statement.  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 First Parish.  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 of 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.

I come to you from a church who eventually called their minister after contracting with her for several years.  She came to us as someone who was all about the fact that we are not a creedal, but a covenantal faith.  She pretty much insisted on covenants with the committees and individuals that she worked, and she encouraged us to develop them in our various groups as well.  So she had one with the governing board, with the DRE, with the music director, with me because I was the President and had an additional relationship with her due to that role.  I thought before she was done that she might develop a covenant with the woman from the cleaning service!  It took a while, but over time we began to see the value of these covenants.  In various settings we were talking out loud about what we expected from one another as we did church; a place that is supposed to be safe for us in our most vulnerable moments.  And we had had some of those difficult times with no pre-developed covenant to give us a context out of which to operate.  That left us to deal with situations based on assumptions about human behavior.  As you can imagine, that doesn’t always pan out so well!  But now there were these statements we had created together that we could point to and say, “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 for us.  They spoke about our highest relational ideals and acknowledged how we often fall short of them.  They gave us relational goals and made it okay to be human at the same time.  They gave us permission to make mistakes and made provisions for moving forward when we do because we know that this is how real relationships work.  And that is what we have here:  real relationships among real people.

Our reading ended with the sentence, “Too often our promise, or covenant, is implicit, not consciously explicit.”  In the next line, Wesley suggests that it doesn’t matter so much if we say it out loud, but I disagree.  I believe that naming things is important if we expect any depth or growth in our relationships.  Implicit leaves us in the position of my previous church where assumptions ruled 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 children and youth create covenants all the time.  I suspect any of your children could tell you all about what covenants are and what they have promised one another in our religious education classes and activities.  And we may think that as adults we don’t need to be so particular and actually write down what we expect.  After all, we know how to act in public, right?  But what about knowing the kinds of things that make someone we are in a relationship with feel really uncomfortable?  What about people feeling safe enough to say what those things are – here – 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 just not so simple when so much is at stake.  We do ourselves a disservice and lose out on meaningful relationship when stay at the surface level out of fear or old pain or discomfort; whatever the case may be.

Beneath the things that sound like rules of behavior in our children’s covenants I have found a fair amount of wisdom and I am suggesting that we might consider naming and claiming some of it for ourselves.  They say a lot about how they will talk to each other and that they agree it’s okay when everyone doesn’t all think alike.  We might be inclined to sum this up as “respect,” but our children name explicitly how they will act out that respect.  They know we all make mistakes and covenant to be kind when reminding others who have forgotten what the covenant says.  Here they show trust in their relationships by suggesting that another has simply forgotten and isn’t acting out of maliciousness.  And they are vowing to actually use the covenant as the tool it was intended to be.  They say they want to come to understand one another; that they promise to listen to what each other have to say; that no one should be excluded because of who they are.   This is the one that I found so moving when I read it because it speaks to how much they value the relationships we have at First Parish.  Our children are willing to name the ways they want to be in relationship; willing to risk revealing their true needs in community.  Maybe it is easier for them because they have fewer years of accumulated baggage to get in the way!  I wonder, how willing can we be to set our baggage down and enter into covenant?

Back at my old church we set about creating a covenant for the whole of the faith community.  We had a workshop one Saturday and included everyone’s voice in the creation of what it takes to be in relationship together.  Yes – almost everyone came!  And then we gave it to some wonderful word smiths who crafted a beautiful, poetic statement of how we wanted to be with one another and why that was the case.  Back and forth it went through drafts and revisions until we could all agree in a vote of the congregation.  What was adopted is on its third or fourth iteration now, because people and circumstances change and we promised to revisit it to keep it current.  I can’t say that it has acted like a magic potion to heal all our wounds, but it has certainly promoted a healing that was long overdue.  And people use it in good times and in times of trial.  They lift it up as something that made an awkward situation easier and with gratitude for the foundation it has provided.  That congregation is no longer divisible because they have sought together what it is that holds them in relationship and how they will act on it.

We say we are a covenantal faith and I believe we are.  It’s there in many ways in this church:  in the words of the original members of First Parish; in our weekly worship; in our religious education program.  We put the section of the UUA By-laws about covenanting to affirm and promote certain principles on our literature. 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.

What do you want for this place of worship and community?  What is the umbrella that holds us?  How do we go about ensuring that we are indivisible as a people of faith?  Big questions that we may not be so accustomed to thinking about in the hectic pattern of church life – all good stuff, but it takes time and energy and we may not have a lot left over for digging deeper.  It is my hope, though, that we can 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.