October 6, 2019: “The Promise of Belonging”

STORY:          Adapted from “Sin” in Doorways to the Soul, edited by Elisa Davy Pearmain

In the story I’ve listed in the order of service, a certain metaphor is used to describe the relationship between people and God, and how we often break it and can re-make it. But I think it holds true for any relationship, including our friendships here in the church. I’ll explain.

First, I need two volunteers. (They stand ten feet apart holding the ends of a rope.)

This rope is your relationship. You are connected.

What happens when one of you makes a mistake, does something that hurts the other person, whether you mean to or not? (Take out scissors. Cut rope)

The connection is broken. What do we do now? This is the choice point, the crucial moment. We can stay broken, separated, unconnected . . . or what?

Maybe … one of you could say, “When you did that thing, I felt . . .” and then maybe the other could say, “I hear you. I’m sorry”

What happens then? (Take two ends of the rope and tie them together.) These folks are reconnected. What do you notice? (People say: They’re standing closer together.) Yes! they are closer to one another now. (And Repeat.)

Can you see that every time we make a mistake, that’s an opportunity? An opportunity to make amends, to say how you felt, and to hear someone else into speaking about how they felt.

It’s opportunity to tie a knot and get closer.

Can you do that today? Can you tie a knot with someone and get closer?

Thank you for listening.

READING:      “Held in Covenant”      (read by Chuck F.)

Recently, Rev. Susanne was in conversation with a UU minister who serves a congregation in another state. That congregation has a covenant — not about their beliefs, but about how they treat each other in a daily way, how they aim to be open and honest and speak directly, even in conflict situations. It’s similar to the one in your insert, marked “Midcoast.”

Rev. Susanne asked, “How does that covenant play out in everyday life in church?” And the other minister told Susanne the following story. She gave permission for us to use it in worship, quote “even though it kind of reflects badly on me.”

Here’s that minister’s story:

One recent Sunday morning, I was in the foyer, preparing a part of the worship service, and I noticed that woman who had volunteered to serve as greeter was not actually greeting. Let’s call her Peggy.

Peggy was standing nearby, engrossed in conversation with a friend. Then I noticed a group of newcomers come in, looking confused — and staying that way, while Peggy went on talking to her friend.

I was miffed, I must admit, and on reflection, I handled the situation not as well as I should have.

I went over. “Peggy,” I said to her, “I need you to have this conversation later. I need you to greet now.”

Peggy looked at me with a blank face. Then she said, rather loudly, so several others heard, “Well . . . you’re being poopy.”

Stunned, I muttered. “Um. I’m going to go get ready for the service now,” and I walked away.

It wasn’t like Peggy to respond in that way, and I felt a lot of tension between us that morning.

So, at Coffee Hour, I grabbed a member of the Committee on Ministry, and I asked Peggy if we could talk privately. The three of us sat down.

“I want to apologize for being abrupt with you,” I said. “And I also want to say that you can’t call the minister poopy, especially in a crowded foyer on Sunday morning. And also you can’t call anyone poopy, not in this church. We don’t treat each other way. That’s not our covenant.”

The three of us talked. And then we talked again, a couple weeks later. It took a little while for us to get really honest about what happened and to say everything we needed to say.

At the second meeting with Peggy I said, “I’m sorry if it felt like I was scolding you. What I want is for newcomers to felt seen and welcomed and oriented. I was concerned that that wasn’t happening.”

And Peggy said, “What was happening for me is that I woke up that morning really really missing my husband.” He had died about a year earlier.

“I was in a lot of pain, and I needed to talk to my friend about it.”

I was heartbroken to hear that, the minister said. Because I missed him too. He had been on my search committee, and I had done his memorial service. And I had even been with him there, on the day when he died. It broke my heart to know that Peggy was having such a bad day that Sunday, grieving so hard, and I didn’t know.

“I’m so glad you could tell me that,” I said to her, in that second meeting. And because she let me into her heart, I could own then, out loud, that I had overreached, and I was sorry.

Then the two of us had this lovely time together, a few minutes of remembering her husband together. It was an amazing moment of connection — that started when she made a face called me poopy.

When I think of it now, when I remember how pissed off I was and ready to shut down, I realize that we could have stayed shut down, we could have let the ice get thicker and thicker between us.

But we didn’t. Because of our covenant, which we as a congregation wrote and which we say often out loud. Because of that, both of us know, on a deeper level, that not talking, letting the tension lie, is not who we want to be together. That’s not how our congregation works.

Our covenant is our promise to be more, to do the hard work with one another, even and especially when we disagree.

Who we want to be with each other is vulnerable, trying to connect even if first steps of that are uncomfortable or awkward.

Because we know that if we stick with it and do the work, we do connect, and we get closer and stronger and better, both as people and as a congregation.

SERMON:       “The Promise of Belonging” Rev. Susanne Intrilligator (copyright)

In 1630, John Winthrop, soon to become the first governor of Massachusetts, spoke to his fellow Puritans, afloat on the Arabella, who were just about to disembark here in Massachusetts:

“Now the only way to avoid . . . 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.. . .
[W]e must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. . . .
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 community as members of the same body.”

“It was an extraordinary declaration of interdependence,” writes the UU Rev. Victoria Safford almost 400 years later. She goes on: “Despite their stone-cold reputation, their caricatured intolerance, these Puritans promised to bear each other’s burdens as their own, to subvert their separate, private interests, their “superfluities,” to serve a vision larger than any single eye could see . . . The only way to avoid shipwreck, spiritual or otherwise, was . . . to make and keep a sacred covenant together.”

Religiously speaking, we here in this room are the direct descendants of those Puritans.

Have you ever wondered so many UU churches here in Massachusetts are called First Parish? It’s because they were the very first parishes founded in those towns, by their original puritan settlers. Over time, of course, their theologies evolved, and also disputes took place, especially over concepts like sin and salvation. In many towns, more conservative or traditional worshippers eventually split off to form new churches.

Then in the early 19th century, many of those First Parishes, in opposition to theology of the trinity, dominant at the time, took on the name Unitarian, signifying a belief in one God with Jesus as his human messenger. Even then, in the 1830s, these Unitarian churches were exploring world faiths, sharing texts from other world religions and inviting members to explore their own spiritual paths. As Emerson preached in 1838, our duty is to acquaint ourselves “at first hand with deity.”

Over the course of the 19th century, however, worries arose about this growing theological diversity. If we don’t impose a set of doctrines on our members, how are we a religion? Don’t we need to share and declare a system of belief?

Around the dawn of the 20th century, then, some of our congregations responded to this anxiety by using the Blake Covenant as something like our declaration of faith. It’s printed on the insert in your order of service. You can see that it has several key elements in common with the covenant that we recite every Sunday.

Sometime later, a Universalist minister named L. Griswold Williams wrote another covenant, first published in 1933, and it seems, used in this church ever since. Most commentators think Williams used Blake’s formulation as a foundation, and then added on those crucial last four lines, giving the covenant for the first time an end, a goal for all human endeavor:

“To the end that all souls Shall grow into harmony with the Divine.”

Importantly, as you can see, in the earlier Blake covenant we make the promise to one another. But in the Williams covenant, the promise adds in a reference to God.

Why would Williams do this?

Well, we don’t have a record of Williams’s internal motivations, but we do know that at beginning of the twentieth century, humanism was on the rise in both Unitarianism and Universalism. Growing factions in each faith maintained that people could be both religious and moral without believing in God.

In that historical context, then, I would guess that William’s formulation, his embellishment on Blake’s ideas, was in reaction to humanism, an attempt to reinforce theism and God-talk within our faith traditions.

So, in its time and place, the Williams covenant makes a certain amount of sense. But how about now? How about here? Is this 100-year-old covenant we recite every Sunday really a set of living promises among us? Is it a statement of our beliefs — or even of our aspirations?

A couple of weeks ago, at our church leadership retreat, the facilitator asked us to stand along a continuum, to arrange ourselves across the room according to how comfortable we are with God language. As you might have guessed, of the 25 people there, there was only one person found standing alone at the far end, saying yes, she was comfortable with “god.” Can you guess who that was? (Me. Wave.)

So I’m pretty sure that some folks in this room are uncomfortable with the words of our covenant, especially the God part. And I’ve heard people say that. So I want us to open a space where we can be honest with one another about it.

We are a free faith, that is the center of our heritage. Another of our UU covenants, the statement of our 7 principles, also printed on your insert, requires us to embark on “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” You would think that fact alone — our total commitment to theological diversity — would mitigate AGAINST us standing up every Sunday and reciting anything in unison. And in fact many many UU churches don’t do that, they don’t recite any statement together.

What are the numbers here? you may ask Do we have any research on this?

Why yes, yes we do. A 2005 UUA report called Engaging Our Theological Diversity, surveyed congregations, asking if they regularly used words of covenant in worship. Responses from 370 congregations showed that of those, 42 congregations used the Williams covenant or an adaptation of it — but 27 of those 42 dropped the word God at the end.

Forty-one other congregations used the Blake covenant, or an adaptation. Nine congregations said they used a covenant that combines Williams and Blake and four others used a third covenant.

But that means that 274, or 2/3 of the responding congregations, didn’t use a covenant in worship. Which is also a really interesting finding.

It means we don’t have to say it. Just because we done so for something like 50 years, it doesn’t mean we need to continue.

What we need is a good conversation, a way of sharing our perspectives and hearing each other out.

As a way of preparing for today, I phoned dear Margaret Grometstein, our member of longest-standing, with over 50 years clocked here.

“Margaret, have we always said this covenant?” I asked.

“Well yes, as far as I can remember,” was her reply.

So I decided to probe a little bit. “So I guess, after all that time, all those recitations, you must be pretty attached to it, eh? It’s important to you?” I asked.

“No, not really,” she said, with a chuckle, “It doesn’t really mean much to me at all.”

Shouldn’t it, though? is my question then. Shouldn’t something we take the time to recite together every Sunday mean something to us, at least to a large number of us?

One last piece of history for you — in the last 20 years or so, another movement has risen in Unitarian Universalism around the concept covenant. Many congregations have built new covenants, not as statements of faith or even of aspiration, but more around what we value and how we treat one another according to our values.

Which is why I included the Midcoast covenant in your order of service and I had Chuck share that story, from a congregation with a covenant like that one. Because it’s a vastly different way of thinking about what we promise to one another, and it makes a difference in the life of the community.

I like how Midcoast’s covenant explicitly invites its holders to

  • Challenge each other to live our values.

And, in the quest to build a loving community, members vow to

  • Speak up when we are hurt.
  • Be open to hearing when we have caused hurt.
  • Invite healing through forgiveness and making amends.

The Midcoast congregation really gets the point about tying the rope end together again, about how that decision point in every relationship and how we handle it forms the foundation of our life together. So they’ve made tying the knot the very center of their covenant to one another.

How would our church be different if we each vowed to speak up when we are hurt?

How would our church be different if we each vowed to be open to hearing when we have caused hurt?

“We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own,” preached John Winthrop 400 years ago, “rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes, our community as members of the same body.”

As UUs, this covenant, this extraordinary declaration of interdependence, is our birthright, our heritage. We know we are bound together not by creed but by covenant, the promises we make to one another, like the 7 principles and our mission statement.

Here in this congregation, I believe a great many people already honor and obey their own understanding of religious covenant. These are the people who show up every week, even when they don’t feel like it, to usher, mow the lawn, pledge, paint the multipurpose room, present to the board, and teach RE.

In my experience, people in this congregation keep their promises to it — they KNOW in their bones the meaning of religious covenant and they hold it with one another, day in and day out, year in and year out. These folks hold our congregation together, by making and keeping and re-making their promises.

My only project in this sermon is to ask you, all of you, if those real true promises are conveyed in or supported by the Williams covenant that we say every week, or if perhaps that time in our service could be better used, maybe by adding another hymn, or expanding the testimonial or the story, or by reciting a different covenant or our mission statement. Or maybe, just maybe, we want to hold a newer fresher covenant, one that we write, one that reflects who we are today and how want to treat one another in community?

So just to start that conversation, I’ve put pencils in all the pews today — or maybe you have a pen with you. When you can, maybe during the postlude or Coffee Hour, I’d like you to look at all the various statements in today’s order of service, and just circle the parts you like and cross out the parts you don’t. There’s space on the back of the insert for more notes and suggestions, along with my email address. Add your name if you want. There’s a basket in the back labeled Covenant Feedback where you can drop it.

In addition, I’m going to plant myself in the Parlor here after the service, after the Receiving Line, so we can continue this conversation. I want to hear from all of you.

Then in a month or so, when the Worship Committee and I have looked through your replies, I’ll come back with a summary and maybe a suggestion for how to move forward from here. Perhaps we’ll rotate through some statements, trying out a few different things, based on your feedback.

“Covenant is a promise I keep to myself,” writes Victoria Safford, “about the kind of person I want to be, the kind of life I mean to have, together with other people, and with all other living things.”

When we UUs welcome and bless new babies, new members, new couples, new ministers, we use not the binding language of contract, but the life-sustaining fluency of covenant, from covenir, to travel together.

We promise to walk this life together with you, child, friend, minister. We will walk with you toward the lives we mean to lead, the world we mean to build — one of compassion, justice, joy and gratitude.

Covenant is the path. It’s how we get there.