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A sermon by James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, April 11, 2010

THE ART OF THE DEAL
The Work of Articulating a Congregational Covenant


Text
We the members of the First Unitarian Church of Providence with respect for the worth and dignity of each person, with wonder at the light we know by many names and with gratitude for our deep connection, covenant to walk together in our search for truth, seeking the paths of compassion and justice.

One consequence in that brief period when Jay Leno held forth at ten o’clock at night was that on occasion I actually saw him, well, at least for the monologue. It was a small reminder of past years when I kept somewhat later hours, and the question might be was it going to be a Leno or a Letterman night? Letterman’s style is a tad subtler; he knows what irony means. Leno on the other hand, goes for loud and in your face. Watching him again, I remembered just how much he likes to repeat the joke, or at least the punch line, sometimes three or four times. Just to make sure you get it.

Well, there are those who think I only have three or four jokes and worry about when I’m going to begin recycling them. Turns out it is today. I used this about a year ago. And I have to admit there is a fair to middling chance people laughed last year out of politeness. It was, after all, already an old joke when I got my hands on it. That said I really find it on point for today. So, slightly adapted from a web version, here it is.

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over crying out, ‘Stop! Don't!’ ‘Why not?’ he replied. ‘What is there to live for?’ I said, ‘There's so much!’ Then he asked, ‘Like what?’ I said, ‘Well, are you religious or atheist?’ He said, ‘Religious.’ I said, ‘me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?’ He said, ‘Christian.’ I said, ‘me too!’ I asked, ‘Are you Catholic or Protestant?’ He said, ‘Protestant.’ I said, ‘me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?’ He replied, ‘Baptist!’ I said, ‘Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?’ He said, ‘Baptist Church of God!’ I responded, ‘me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?’ He said, ‘Reformed Baptist Church of God!’ I said, ‘me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?’ He said, ‘Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!’ I yelled, ‘Die, heretic scum!’ and pushed him off the bridge.

Is it too snarky to say that’s creedalism in a nutshell? Probably. Still, creeds are a signal feature of Western religions, and deeply shadowed things. Not a part, by the bye, generally, of Eastern religions. But, in the West, people put a great deal into their creeds, their statements of belief. And, and this is important: we Unitarian Universalists are an exception to that rule. While Western religions are for the most part defined by creeds, by clear and unambiguous statements of belief, revealing for all who is inside and who is outside, or rather, who is sheep and who is goat, our tradition has from the beginning resisted creeds. No Nicene creed, no Athanasian creed, no Apostle’s creed. No Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915 creed.

When I meet with people, particularly people who are not Unitarian Universalist among the things I like to say is that rather than being a creedal faith, we are a covenantal faith. It rolls nicely off the tongue, and even if people don’t get what it is supposed to mean, it sounds kind of important. And if you have that joke in mind, and think of how cruel we can be to each other about the niceties of belief, well creeds don’t come off particularly well, and it feels like we who’ve moved in another direction, have in fact found a higher ground. Maybe that’s true, perhaps not. But this focus on covenant speaks very much to who we are as a spiritual community.

So, saying we’re not creedal, but rather covenantal really isn’t just a way to show I have a pile of expensive degrees. It points to how we within our community of faith choose to stand in this world. It means we do not put a test of faith on membership. You and I can, and as we know about ourselves, often do disagree about pretty important things, the mere fact of which amazes folk from other religious traditions. For instance we disagree about whether there is a God, and if there is, what exactly that’s supposed to mean. We count in this Meeting House people who believe there is no God, people who wouldn’t hazard a guess as to whether there might be, those who do indeed believe in a God, some in a traditional theistic sense, some meaning a way to speak of the universe as a whole, and, heck, then there are those of us who believe in a multitude of divinities, a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Reminding me of one of my closest friends among UU ministers, who is fond of saying “one God is either one too many, or not nearly enough.”

So, if a covenant isn’t a creed, what is it? Well, it is a contract, but of a special sort. We trace the inspiration for our covenants to the Jewish story of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. It is a statement of relationship. It is a promise. And it is what means we’re not the Elks or a gathering of spiritual Democrats. What makes it a covenant rather than a contract is that it starts with an invocation of our deepest aspirations or values, what classically has been called God. However widely we define it, it is before that deep we make our promises.

The smallest fly in the ointment for us, that is us, you and me, here at the First Unitarian Church is that we haven’t revisited our covenant in one hundred and twenty-eight years. When we sign the book becoming a member, the covenant we sign is “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.”

Now, I actually love that covenant. It is a grand example of nineteenth century Unitarian Christianity. You notice we join with the spirit of Jesus, and that is something different from the worship of God. I have no problem with Jesus’ spirit, well mostly. And as long as no one is defining God for me, I’m cool. And you know I think we the current members of this church continue in some very real ways with the actual promises that our forbearers were making in 1882. And that covenant very much follows the classic pattern. There is an invocation of the deepest as we understand it, or understood it. And then, before that sense of the deep, our articulation of a need to reach out to each other and to the world.

And you may have noticed life is complicated. The reality has been people are in fact not signing onto that covenant when they join this church, even though it is written in the book. We have, probably for nearly a hundred years, been signing an unspoken covenant of relationship, made before an intuition of interdependence, to make this our spiritual home and from this place to try and do some good for each other, and the world.

Still, that’s not what we actually sign, and so, some of us have a problem. We started discussing this at the Prudential Committee last year. At the beginning of this year two committees were formed. The first was charged with gathering information. Carol Adams, Marilyn Eanet, Ted Martin, Cy O’Neil and Rita Rossi did a great job in that gathering of information. After a sermon or two outlining the problem, and some larger group discussions, the committee formed small groups that were charged with describing what they saw as those abiding principles among us and what our promises should look like today.

When that was done a second committee, which came to be called the Scriveners, was put to work. Margaret Balch-Gonzales, Stephen Kolez, Martha Manno and I were charged with reflecting on the information that we have gleaned, together with a discussion about our church’s history, and out of that to present a document to you, our congregation that we hope more accurately represents our ideals and aspirations today. And, hopefully, might stand in place for a decade or two.

If you don’t know the Scrivener’s let me say for the most part the team was well chosen. There are those who might question why I was included among these amazing people. Old hands and newer members, all have some background in writing. Margaret Balch-Gonzalez is an editor and research analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. She is also a freelance writer and editor and has recently completed a novel manuscript. Stephen Koelz received his Ph.D. in English from Brown University last year. His scholarship focuses primarily on American poetry of the twentieth century. Martha Manno is the publisher and editor of Little Pear Press, an independent publishing house formed in 2003. Her short stories have been published in various journals and anthologies. And she currently serves on the board of The Newport Review.

We went to work. And let me tell you this wasn’t an easy project. What we learned was that we have real tensions among us. There is the perennial tension between individuality and community. We want to be part of something bigger, but we don’t want anyone to push us around. We want a sense of comfort, a safe harbor, and we want challenge, we want to push ourselves to be better. We care about compassion and justice, but we hold these ideals in creative tension.

The Scrivener’s ruminated, we talked, we wrote passages, we tried on and threw away things. How does one create a document that reflects the broadest possible while still saying something meaningful? One thing we were confident of, however, was that this is an authentic community of quest, that we care deeply about things that matter in the spiritual life, and that we see the fruit of this venture manifests as the various projects of compassion and justice.

Finally with many hours of work put to this, thanks to PG tips tea and to chocolate cake, we did our best, and now bring to you, a document, our proposed draft for a new Covenant.

We the members of the First Unitarian Church of Providence with respect for the worth and dignity of each person, with wonder at the light we know by many names and with gratitude for our deep connection, covenant to walk together in our search for truth, seeking the paths of compassion and justice.

This is a big deal, if we agree to it; it becomes our covenant. Therefore it should not be taken lightly. Our bylaws only allow for three kinds of votes. The call of a minister, which requires an eighty-five percent affirmative vote, a change in the Bylaws with requires a two thirds affirmative vote, or any other business which requires a simple majority. The Prudential Committee is bringing this language forward as a proposed Bylaw amendment, to stand as a preamble to the Bylaws. And therefore, for it to pass, we will need that two-thirds majority.

We the members of the First Unitarian Church of Providence with respect for the worth and dignity of each person, with wonder at the light we know by many names and with gratitude for our deep connection, covenant to walk together in our search for truth, seeking the paths of compassion and justice.

At noon today those who are willing to discuss this text are invited to come back here into the Meeting House. We will read and talk.

We the members of the First Unitarian Church of Providence with respect for the worth and dignity of each person, with wonder at the light we know by many names and with gratitude for our deep connection, covenant to walk together in our search for truth, seeking the paths of compassion and justice.

So, two weeks from today, for the fourth time in our history we will vote on a covenant for this congregation. May wisdom and grace follow us and our deliberations.

Thank you.

Amen.