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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, September 20, 2009

FAITH IN A CHAIR: A Consideration of Covenant as a Spiritual Endeavor

We’ve fallen into communion with the feisty, free-spirited Puritans of 450 years ago who advocated freedom of religious conscience and resisted the oppressive powers of church and state. We’ve fallen into communion with the people who believe revelation is not sealed. John Robinson’s words to the departing Pilgrims echo in us still, “The Lord hath more truth yet to break forth… I beseech you remember it is an article of your church covenant that you be ready to receive whatever truth shall be made known to you…

We’ve fallen into communion with the sweet-spirited Universalists of old, who rejected a notion of God as a tyrant ruling by the threat of hell, and named God as a gracious, creative presence, who saves all through the power of love. We’ve fallen into communion with the deep-feeling Transcendentalists, insisting that religion cannot be found in the dry bones of the past but must be discovered first-hand.

We’ve fallen into communion with the Iowa Sisterhood, and all those women and men who have argued and advocated for the rights and full humanity of women. We’ve fallen into communion with the all-embracing mystics, who see truth manifest in the diverse religious traditions of earth’s people and mysteries revealed in the trees and stars.

And we’ve fallen into communion with courageous Humanists, who dare to lift up the dignity and strength of human beings, the power and importance of critical reason, in a world that prefers the abrogation of human agency and the uncritical obedience to false gods.

Lives that speak and deeds that beckon. We live within this communion of souls and receive the beauty given to us by their lives, so closely linked with ours. This is the covenant we are already in. What shall we do with this gift?
— Rebecca Parker

So, a bunch of us were gathered together. Should have been over a beer, I suppose. But it was over in the Parish house, and we didn’t even have coffee. But we were talking about high-flown religious philosophy, so I was happy as a pig in you know what. Specifically we were talking about covenants as spiritual contracts. This particular conversation had been sparked by the fact the church’s membership book is nearly full. And beyond that our covenant, which is inscribed in that book is now considerably over a hundred years old and long past due for re-consideration.

Being who we were, we were arguing, I mean discussing definitions of terms. In particular we were trying to define “covenant.” We knew this was about promises. In fact the principal definition is to “come together by making promises.” But then, subtly, but powerfully, there was a turn, and the conversation felt more serious, and actually, in some ways, urgent.

We saw that these promises rested themselves upon foundations like fidelity, trust, confidence. Our immediate past president Cy O’Neal, said it right, I thought, when he suggested a spiritual covenant should be like a chair. When we sit on it, we should be able to trust that it will be there, and that it will hold us. Everything that follows today is about that confidence, that abiding trust, and is a reminder of the fidelity of women and men past, and of a call for us to continue the way for ourselves, of course, but also for all those who will follow.

Where our tradition of spiritual covenant begins is the stuff of heady and abstract argument. So, as you might imagine, I love it. Do we begin with Abraham’s covenant with God? That’s certainly the deepest beginning. Or do we want to begin near the start of the seventeenth century with that band of Puritans who gathered in Scrooby Manor nestled in a small English countryside village, deciding to completely separate from the Church rather than trying to purify it from within?

In 1606 they made a covenant one sentence long. It read “We, as the Lord’s free people, join ourselves into church estate, in the fellowship of the Gospel, to walk in all his ways made known, or to be made known, unto us, according to our best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost us, the Lord assisting us.” I hope you see the distant echoes of the Jewish ideal of covenant. It’s certainly there, if given new voice.

It’s a radical document, as is its successor the Mayflower Compact. Right up font they called themselves the Lord’s free people, which was, and frankly is, about as radical you might want. And something important; they understood intuitively that their path as free people, as individuals was informed by something greater than any one person, greater even than a king. They knew this was informed by something deep and true even if I wouldn’t quite agree with how they chose to define that deep and true. I think of those uber radicals who threw off their dependence upon monarchs, temporal and spiritual and declared themselves free people who could and should determine their way, and I find myself near tears. They gave us so much.

I also think we find much in the 1648 gathering of the Standing Order clerics of Massachusetts and Connecticut. The document which came out of that meeting, the Cambridge Platform, declared how the church is “the visible covenant, agreement or consent whereby they give up themselves unto the Lord...” I hope you don’t get caught up with words that might for you be hot button. Because in that gathering, in that meeting of high collared over-educated clerics, something powerful was happening. It was the power of covenant.

I’m not certain, but I believe our congregation the First Unitarian Church, over the nearly three hundred years we have been gathered, has composed three covenants. Our current covenant is the covenant of what we called at the time, although please note our church was by then a long established Unitarian congregation, the First Congregational Church. It was adopted by a vote of the congregation on the 30th of March 1882, and consisted, like the Scrooby covenant of a single sentence. “In the love of the truth, and in the spirit of Jesus Christ, we join for the worship of God, and the service of man.”

If you can get past what might be somewhat surprising wording, it’s a rather lovely statement, and a grand example of high Unitarian Christianity from the end of the nineteenth century. And it is not, I hope is obvious, representative of how we actually stand in the world today, we who have gathered together and thrown our hopes and spiritual lives into this gathering.

Although. Although. Rebecca Parker has observed we “inherit covenant before we create covenant,” that is we are already swimming in a sea of relationships, we are the heirs to all that has gone on before, and in particular all that has gone on before within these walls and within the walls of the two Meeting Houses that preceded this one all the way back to our first gathering as a spiritual community in 1720. We’re all that, including the 1882 covenant, and something new.

We are, as I’ve said, running out of pages in our membership book. Before we create a new book, it seems right for us to consider the nature of covenant and of what exactly it is we are covenanting together to do, and to write those words down in the front of our new membership book.

So, here’s the invitation. Let’s consider why and how we come together, and what it means. Over this next year, let’s make the invisible, visible, let’s re-covenant. The first step in that enterprise, I feel, is making sure we’re more or less on the same page as to what a covenant is. In our times we make much of terms like mission and vision. They are rather mutable terms, but in general we tend to see mission as how we hope to be in the world, what we want others to see when they look at us. Our vision consists of those things we hope to accomplish in specific amounts of time. And with those working definitions, I suggest it is our covenant, which creates the circumstances that allows both mission and vision to happen.

A small anecdote: Some years ago, not long after we moved to New England Jan determined we needed to go to the Cambridge graveyard and put some flowers on Henry James’ grave. Not to be outdone I said I wanted to bring some flowers for his brother, as well. So, with a quick stop at the florist, off we went. After laying those flowers down in front of their tombstones and contemplating for a few minutes these men and their sister and their various gifts, we turned back to the car. That’s when I saw a tall gravestone with a flaming chalice carved on it. We walked over and saw it was James Luther Adams’ grave. I went back and retrieved a couple of flowers from the James brothers; they had plenty, and deposited my hasty bouquet at the base of that tombstone.

Professor Adams is arguably the last truly great Unitarian theologian. I’m sure more will come along; at least I’m pretty sure. But for now, he is the apex. In fact his influence extended well beyond our small denomination, and justly so. He was also particularly interested in the whole idea of covenant and reflected on it in a number of places. Eventually he came to the conclusion covenant within our free tradition has five principal aspects.

The first is that “human beings, individually and collectively, become human by making commitments, by making promises.” That is we find who we are within the deals we make, and particularly so within these promises we make to create a sacred community. Second, a covenant is made “with the creative, sustaining, commanding, judging, transforming powers, which may be interpreted theistically or nontheistically...” That is we make our promises drawing upon our deepest values however we name those values.

Third, “covenant is for the individual as well as for the collective.” That is it is about mutuality and so the place of the individual is as important as the community that is formed. Fourth, within these sacred covenants there is a “responsibility (that) is especially directed toward the deprived…” the downtrodden, the powerless. That is a sacred covenant at some point calls for transformation and justice for the least powerful among us as well as the most successful. It is all about mutuality and the works of mercy and justice rise naturally from this, like life giving waters. And, fifth and last, a sacred covenant “depends on faithfulness, and faithfulness is nerved by loyalty, by love.” That is this is about the foundation of a worthwhile life and so a violation of such a covenant as this is a violation of our deepest need as well as the bonds of trust among people.

We need to think about all this. And, I have. Now, I’m no James Luther Adams. But, as I’ve thought about covenant, for me it more less boils down to three things. The first has to do with those deepest values we heard of earlier, compressed for our ancestors in the words God and Lord and Christ. We need at the very beginning, I feel, to look at what drives us, compels us, pulls us along from what was to what might be. What are our truest, our most profound values?

We must begin by looking deeply into our hearts and to honestly look at what we find there. What moves us to action in this world? What do we hold sacred? UU minister George Kimmich Beach calls us to be explicit “about what those values are.” And he helps us along with some naming. “They are,” the Reverend Beach tells us. “Expressed in every age and tradition; the prophets of ancient Israel announced them in ringing tones: justice, faithfulness, steadfast love, mercy, truthfulness, goodwill, and peace.” Perhaps these are your words, as well. Perhaps there are other words that work better for you. What are they?

Second what promises do we expect from this gathering together? What do we want? What do we need? Or, rather more accurately, more specifically, what do I want? What do I need? Of course, this way presupposes the deep worth of each individual, another cardinal value. Here old Professor Adams puts his finger on the great matter when he observes we human beings are the covenanting animal, and we know ourselves by the deals we make, by how we keep them, and how and when we break them. We find our humanity as our values manifest in what we ask for from each other.

And, third, what will we give to the gathered community? Which of course is the other side of that mutuality coin. This is without any doubt a two way street. We give as well as receive. It is all about mutuality, very much all about mutuality. And so, particularly when all this is done in the face of our deepest values, once again Professor Adams puts his finger on it: this becomes a call to care, to care for each other, and for this whole precious broken world. That is this caring while grounded in our parochial promises, that is how we choose to relate to each other, you and me; it all moves naturally and quickly to our concerns for the larger community, for our nation, for the world itself and everyone and everything in it.

This is the project. And I believe a worthy one. Our covenant is the articulation of who we are, of our deepest values, those things we find sacred, and in the face of that, what it is we wish from one another, which we will promise to one another. A good thing, a holy thing, I think.

Let’s do it. Let’s do it.