“Covenant and Commitment” Mark W. Harris
September 19, 2010 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”
Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck and to provide for our posterity is to follow the counsel of Micah: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together in this work . . . we must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together; always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
Religious Education Teachers Dedication (adapted from Arthur G. Severance)
Minister (M): This morning we dedicate our religious education teachers who have been called to minister to our children. Without them to teach, nurture, challenge and mentor, our religious movement would be greatly diminished and would die. Religious education is a lifelong process, which integrates the wisdom of the world’s religions with our present experience of reality and hope for the future.
DRE: Many people who discover our Unitarian Universalist movement say they first came to our church so their children could have a religious, but not indoctrinated education. We are grateful to you teachers for your willingness to take on this responsibility.
(M): Sophia Lyon Fahs, the great UU religious educator wrote “It Matters What We Believe”:
DRE: “Some beliefs are like pleasant gardens with high walls around them. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged. Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathies.”
Teachers (T): “Some beliefs are like shadows, darkening children’s days with fears of unknown calamities. Other beliefs are like sunshine, blessing children with the warmth of happiness.”
(M): Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies. Other beliefs are bonds in a universal kinship, where sincere differences beautify the pattern.”
ALL: “Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world. Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.”
(M): It is indeed important what humankind has believed. And what a child believes is also a serious matter – not a subject for jest or sentimentality.” (will the teachers, please rise?)
DRE: Do you teachers covenant with the children and the adults of this congregation to take on the awesome and wonderful responsibility of religious nourishment in your classes, to help them understand what Unitarian Universalism stands for and for helping them to become all they can?
(T): We covenant to do our part to the best of our ability as teachers of the religious education of the children of this congregation.
(M): Will the congregation please rise? Do we as the gathered liberal religious congregation also covenant to nurture and support these teachers called to minister to our children. Do we acknowledge the great importance of religious education throughout life? Do we covenant to support the director of Religious Education and the Religious Education Committee?
(Congregation): We covenant with the teachers, the children, the Director of Religious Education, and the committee to acknowledge and value the ministry of religious education, to support you and to realize that we are partners in the religious nourishment of our children.
(M and DRE): We dedicate these teachers to be a crucial part of the nourishment of our children’s spiritual growth. You who have chosen to teach our children will have the special blessing of being a part of their religious development and a loving part of their memories in the future.
Reading – “i am a little church (no great cathedral)” by e. e. cummngs
i am a little church (no great cathedral)
far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities
– I do not worry when if briefer days grow briefest
i am not sorry when sun and rain make April
my life is the life of the reaper and the sower,
my prayers are prayers of earth’s own clumsily striving
(finding and losing and laughing and crying) children
whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness
around me surges a miracle of unceasing
birth and glory and death and resurrection:
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols
of hope, and i wake to a perfect patience of mountains
i am a little church (far from the frantic
world with its rapture and anguish) at peace with nature
– i do not worry if longer nights grow longest;
i am not sorry when silence becomes singing
winter by spring, i lift my diminutive spire to
merciful Him Whose only now is forever;
standing erect in the deathless truth of His presence
(welcoming humbly His light and proudly His darkness)
Sermon – “Covenant and Commitment” Mark W. Harris
Our cottage in Maine is called the Three Crow Cottage, although few people know this. If you are sitting below the front deck in front of the sliding doors gazing out at the harbor and the Rockland lighthouse, and look up at the supporting timbers for the deck overhead you see the words Three Crow Cottage hanging on the beam. The name was created from letters left over from the El Tremdeal sister city group that holds concerts here at First Parish. Several years ago Andrea and I gave the cottage this bird like name, and have used it when we advertise for rentals. It has a dual meaning. The first is experiential. If you spend any time at our cottage you might expect to hear seagull calls, tidal waters whooshing in or out, or even the gas motors of lobster boats. Yet most distinctive of all in the quiet morning light even as dawn approaches is the caw, caw, caw of those big black birds who we usually depict as evil and villainous in our cartoon characterizations. The crows are calling out from the dense tree cover that borders our property. It is annoying to be awoken every day long before you want to be by the not so melodic sounds of crows. But the crow calls are reliable, and have a certain rhythmic nature, and certainly are not solitary. So despite the mild annoyance. There are feelings of continuity of place, and the goodness of daily rhythm.
The second meaning of Three Crow Cottage runs deeper. Andrea’s ancestors were Birds. I know this is shocking, but you get used to it in time. But please don’t take this too literally and start examining the evolutionary similarities in her. She doesn’t need you to stare to see if she has remnants of a beak. No, her grandmother on her mother’s side had the birth name Frances Bird, just like our former Boston Celtic basketball star. The Bird family were natives of Maine, and Andrea’s grandmother was born in Belfast, just north of where we go in the summer. A century and more ago this area of Maine was a booming maritime home to schooners that were built and sent out on trade routes that spanned the globe, and most particularly were involved in the China trade. John Bird was a ship captain who became involved in trading spices, and built a very successful business with his brothers – three Birds altogether, thus making a Three Crow brand a good identifier for them. I have become interested in learning about this family I have married into, which includes a relative who invented the doughnut hole, apparently by putting the dough over the ship’s wheel, so that the center was expunged producing the bread treat with a hole in the middle. Two years ago I went collectible shopping to find Andrea some of the original containers for the Bird company spices, and found a couple for Christmas presents, including the ginger that is here today with its three crow moniker.
The crows from one of the places we love most dearly represent our experience there, and our roots or adopted roots in my case – living a daily life cognizant of a wonderful tradition. Surviving the daily course of what can be a harrowing life, and finding a deep sense of enduring meaning were foremost on the minds of those Puritan ancestors of ours who gathered this congregation in 1630. Mostly we don’t reflect on that tradition because it was so long ago, and things are so different now. Plus there is the enduring stereotype reflected in H. L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism – ‘the haunting fear that someone somewhere might be happy.” We do recall their inclination to be intolerant of religious diversity, and how they hanged nineteen accused witches in Salem. Yet even if we don’t have their lively sense of sin, many of us have retained a kind of New England character that lingers in our lives and faith development. We are earnest and dedicated in our beliefs and our work. We try to live lives full of integrity coupled with a kind of moral seriousness about making the world a better place.
There is much that we have borrowed from the Puritans that we don’t even think about when we gather in this meetinghouse on a Sunday, but if you look around you won’t see any icons or images depicting religious traditions. They wanted to purify the Church of England, and that meant clear glass to experience God directly through the natural world, and no elaborate rituals or symbology. No idols also meant no crosses, and so even our chalice would have been suspect. Their style of worship was plain and very literate. It is no accident that the sermon was central. Some of this came from the general Protestant emphasis on the supremacy of the spoken word in opposition to the Catholic or Anglican focus on the sacrament. But the sermon was not merely the act of explicating the Word of God from the Bible, there was also a feed back time in Puritan worship where parishioners could ask questions about what something meant so that they could learn how to implement it in their daily lives. Everything was aimed toward creating a life that reflected the saintliness they longed to attain. Worship was an educational tool more than anything. How can we learn how to live lives filled with goodness, and how can we create the good community? Fundamentally, what can we do to be holy people in a holy comonwealth?
The worship setting and style that you may see reflected in the Puritans and us grows out of something deeper and more fundamental. It is being reemphasized today in many of our congregations. We have not talked about it much in recent years, and yet we say the summary word every Sunday when we recite the affirmation beginning with Love is the spirit of this church, and soon come to the crucial embodiment of how the love is made manifest in the world – this is our great covenant. This is it! We agree to do it. Rebecca, our Director of Religious Education is a self-defined covenant junkie. When the RE committee gathered she wanted them to have a covenant to govern their parameters for being together. The word surfaced at our committee training last Saturday with the implication that each committee could formulate such a covenant to direct their life as a unit. I think a few people thought, what’s that? Today Rebecca has gathered the children from each class together to formulate covenants for their groups. Simply stated, these are agreements among the group for how they will be together. It may be rules of behavior such as no yelling, or as was the case with one group, “no killing.” It may be rules of process such as we will give everyone a chance to speak. It may be rules of group understanding so that if one member needs help, the group will make space for how that help can be rendered –listening, speaking, behaving, caring, supporting may all be elements of a covenant. Behavioral agreements are one thing, but our tradition holds that covenant is what determines our very reason for being. Covenants were central to the Puritans because they were central to the Jews, who had twice made covenants with God, after the flood, and with the Commandments. There is a recognition of something deeper and more sacred, and it calls us to live in harmony with it, and with each other. Using the concept of covenant and understanding our own relationships with it might help us understand ourselves better as Unitarian Universalists, especially because we often feel confused about our identity.
Many members often say I don’t know what it means to be a UU. I feel there would be less confusion for us if we always remember that we are a covenantal faith and not a creedal one. Everyone is hung up on beliefs. Catholics and Protestants alike often stand up on a Sunday and recite, “I believe in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” and so forth. The Apostle’s Creed is what I learned as a child. It outlines specific beliefs. Many UUs who have come to this faith from other religious groups commonly expect that they will be able to explicate exactly what it is we stand for, and are frustrated that they cannot. They like the freedom from dogma, but don’t know where to go from there. Former UUA president Bill Sinkford encouraged each of us to come up with elevator speeches, short little formulas for what UUism is. Some people use our principles as a kind of substitute creed, and this gives them a way to say; now I have it. Covenant points us in a different, and I believe, more helpful direction for understanding our free faith.
When I teach Puritan theology it sounds incredibly conservative. I use the misnomer flower acronym TULIP, and begin with a “T” that stands for total human depravity, and it goes downhill from there. But the nice thing for us is that the Puritans had such common agreement in their theology, they didn’t feel the need to recite a creed in worship. They believed they had a relationship with God, and with each other in community, and articulated a covenantal theology that stipulated their common agreements for maintaining church and community. All Puritan churches when they were founded based their very reason for being on the written words of the covenant, and not on a creed. Creeds are about beliefs. Covenants are about relationships. This was fortuitous for us. The wording for these varied from church to church, and some were quite simple. Being a kind of wordy group, our Watertown covenant was not. Here it is. The central theme for these covenants was that the church community agreed to walk together in the sight of God. It was similar in intention to the opening words from John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the Arbella, the flagship of the fleet that brought Watertown’s first settlers. The only way to avoid shipwreck is to be knit together. We must look out for each other as best we can. We will mourn and rejoice together. The people make a promise to God and to each other that they will renounce all evil, and carry on in an upright manner with one another.
What happened to these covenants? As Unitarianism developed it became more of the open, free faith we know today, and these covenants, like ours with their archaic language, and references about the pollutions of jolly old England seemed dated, and so they were mostly neglected, except that congregations soon began to use substitute covenants, either rewritten originals or ones like we use every Sunday. And that affirmation still echoes the very essence of the original idea of covenant. Their covenants stated that they were in a continuing supportive relationship, and they would try, not always succeeding, but try as our covenant today says to dwell together in peace, seek the truth in love, and to help one another. Like the Puritans our basic reason for gathering is based not on the traditions of the church, the creeds, the apostles, or any religious trappings, it is based on our relationships with each other. This is not only a powerful and enduring tradition, it is also a much more sure way of understanding ourselves than trying to find common beliefs in a free faith. These ancestral congregations developed in a howling wilderness, “far from the splendor and squalor of hurrying cities,” as cummings says. And instead of the old, anonymous church tradition for grounding, we have the intimacy of being part of each other’s lives: “children, “ cummings declares, “whose any sadness or joy is my grief or my gladness.”
The covenant also provides a political understanding of how we empower the people who are members of a particular congregation. The covenant was based on the mutual consent of the people. They all agreed to live by it, and do their part. The congregational way was a form of church government where each congregation had, and still has, power to govern its own affairs. We tell you that it means every member has a voice in how the congregation is governed. But in covenant that voice is meant to reflect that each person becomes educated to what the larger issues are, and participates not based on getting his/her own way, but in discovering what will enhance community cohesiveness. Covenant will also bring us back to a belief in collective liberty rather than individual liberty, which has sometimes been the bane of Unitarian Universalist congregational life. Often liberals in their efforts to listen to everybody, lift up the voice of those who are loudest in their individual needs or interests without reflecting on what is best for the whole congregation. Covenant can call us back to what is best for the community.
In a sense the Puritan notion of marriage was a covenant or agreement. Marriage for us was never a sacrament, but more of a legal contract, and in that agreement you lived up to your obligations of love, fidelity, understanding, support, parenting standards or whatever the couple agreed to as the parameters of their marriage. But it was not something made in heaven, it was a real down to earth relationship that you set up, agreed to, and swore to live up. As the marriage of my oldest son to his fiancée approaches in two weeks, I have been thinking about what I would say to them as they embark on this exciting but harrowing adventure together. A week or so ago tears began to run down my cheeks as I watched the film, The Kids are Alright. It is the story of a lesbian couple whose children meet their sperm donor, and develop a relationship with him. One member of the couple, Nic, is a workaholic doctor who gives no time to her partner. Jules, the unfulfilled wife, ends up in a sexual relationship with the sperm donor. The couple comes to realize that their marriage and their family is the true covenant that is calling them back from the crazy things they both do to fill their individual needs. At one point, Nic describes marriage as a marathon of unending challenges, but you try with all your heart and soul (not always succeeding) to live up to up this covenant and renew the covenant to keep its meaning alive.
In the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago there was an article called “The Covenant.” It is the story of Francis Collins, a believing Christian, who is also a geneticist, and the director of the National Institute of Health. He is an Obama appointee who it was thought would bring science and faith together in the debate over stem cell research, but a federal judge has reopened the debate. The covenant here represents his approach to devoting his life to faith. He was an atheistic scientist who didn’t know why he didn’t believe. He studied the question of whether God existed or not because he thought it was an important one. He read for two years, and went to play golf with the local pastor, telling him he would need a lobotomy to join his church. After asking a million questions, he ended their match by signing his golf card appended to a statement that said, “when God knocks on my door, and I know it is God, and not you or my wife, I will accept Jesus.” Later he went on a hike where he saw a frozen waterfall perfectly formed in three parts, representing the Trinity. He took this as a sign that he must devote his life to his new found faith His pastor now calls this the Francis Collins Covenant. While the theology may seem wrong headed to us, the experience shows the power of covenant. We find God or faith or religious community by experience, not by beliefs. And when we find this power, we sign on to devote ourselves to its embodiment in the world. This church in its noncredal covenantal approach to faith invites you to experience a community of love. Out on our Wayside Pulpit it says, “Love is a faith, and one faith leads to another.” (Henri Amiel) So our covenant of faith is fulfilled in the experience of reaching out to someone who needs our care, by acting in the world.
Andrea and I are exhaling over the completion of a manuscript called an Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions. Her mother had warned us that writing a book together might kill our marriage – the kaput of our covenant. So far that has not happened, and we sent in the revised manuscript this week. In the introduction, Andrea quotes Michael Servetus, often considered the first person to articulate Unitarian views: “Love is something more difficult than believing. Love easily endures difficult things; it puts up with everything and makes everything, such as poverty, death and other things easier. Because love is more lasting; love is a natural symbol of the future kingdom . . . Faith begins; love completes. Most wicked people believed in Christ, but no wicked person loved Christ … There is nothing that makes us more like God than love because God is love. . . Loving not believing is a property of divine nature.” I think covenant helps us get to this place, because it says stop getting hung up on believing – God, Jesus, salvation, whatever. Even Francis Collins, who believes very differently from me or you, finds the covenant when he experiences it. Then he can devote his life to living it. We believe that beliefs limit, and love expands. You can’t set boundaries to love, one early Universlaist exclaimed. You and I are here at the beginning of a church year. Covenant is the very essence of our faith. It is a faith where everyone counts. You can come into the covenant, but we sometimes forget the part that if you want to be part of the covenant, you have to give yourself to it. You have to give yourself to love.
We began our service today with a dedication of our teachers, and we read It Matters What We Believe. “It matters what we believe, but it matters most what we love. “ (1) The free church with its concept of covenant is gathered to help us find again and again what our worthiest loves are, but moreover, what these loves require of us. The crows in Maine are not alone, but cry at the dawn together to see what the day will bring. I think our church is in a period of its life where we are considering as members, what is required of us. What can I give to this covenant I have entered? It may ask for more cooperation between us, more challenges before us, and more love from us. We are not here to expound some beliefs, but to find deeper ways of loving so we can transform our lives, and the world, and the covenant between us means we promise to do that. It means I promise to you to learn more about how love really works and could work in our lives, and in the world.
(1) see Alice Wesley’s Minns Lectures on Covenant
Closing Words – “As the Crow Flies” by Elizabeth Tarbox
A crow is said to fly in a straight line from point of departure to destination, but that is not what I see. Crows fly in sweeping circular arcs across the apron of the sky, using all the available space from horizon to horizon before setting on the top swaying branch of the tallest tree.
You may think crows caw, that their voices are harsh. But I tell you a crow can whisper to its mate across a density of pines, and its voice is comfortable and reassuring. A crow is mighty in its passion, voracious in its appetite, and fearless in its flight. So I aspire to live as the crow flies and stretch my soul to meet the sky.