The Blessings of Being a Covenant-Keeping People by Rev. Anthony D. Makar

I want to start with the two sisters in our drama from a moment
ago-the new frontier they are facing in their lives. Life without
their father. Life after his funeral. Now that he is dead, what is to
happen with his house? Where will Catherine live now? How will Claire
and Catherine’s relationship change?

These two sisters face a new frontier. And what will spell the
difference between heaven and hell for them and for anyone and
anything else facing a new frontier is a special kind of shared
commitment which I want to call covenant-keeping. Covenant-keeping is
about love, and how to keep love alive. It’s about people
promising each other that they are going to practice mutual
encouragement, constructive communication that never gives up, and
good-natured tolerance. And then people keeping the promise. Getting
clear about what exactly is involved. Striving to live the promise
down to the details. Staying accountable to it. Coming back to it
after straying.

And if we don’t do this? If we just talk the talk and that’s
it? Then love dies, is pecked to death or bludgeoned to death. Our
relationships will be too weak to contain all the energies released
through our interactions. Especially the ones characterized by
conflict and disagreement and misunderstanding and even betrayal.
These things will happen, in our personal lives and in this
congregation. And so, in the drama, one of the sisters is trying to
sell her father’s house, and she is all full of good intentions,
all sorts of plans. So the truth eventually comes out and her sister
feels cut to the quick. Betrayed. The hurt and anger explode like a
mushroom cloud. What will happen next? Is their relationship strong
enough to survive, and move towards reconciliation? Or will it break
apart and become a memory that never quits, full of bitterness and
gall and hate?

Covenant-keeping can make all the difference. And that’s what I
want to talk about today: the blessings of being a covenant-keeping
people. My primary focus will be on covenant-keeping in a
congregational context, but I hope that the implications to our
families and friendships will be apparent throughout. Certainly the
implications are there already in a very practical sense: how we
behave in a congregational setting can and does trickle down into the
rest of our lives. Healthy relationships in the congregation can heal
and strengthen our relationships elsewhere. The issue is truly
important, and worth our attention.

The blessings of being a covenant-keeping people. One of these
blessings is that it links us to our heritage of religious freedom and
reminds us about who we truly are. Covenant-keeping is part of our
DNA, and we can trace it all the way back to our spiritual forbearers
from almost 500 years ago-the Puritans coming out of the Church of
England, some of whom eventually made the long journey to North
America.

Let’s take a closer look, starting with their core conviction that
life in healthy religious community is key to achieving spiritual
growth. One Puritan put it this way, “A good man cannot
tell how to go to heaven alone. The communion of saints must be a
point of practice, as well as an article of belief. One candle
lighteth another.
” The language here is 500 years old,
but the meaning is still fresh. Spiritual freedom isn’t something
we can stumble into all on our own, in isolation. Just as a hands-off
approach doesn’t work with our children (and ultimately results in
other people and other forces parenting them), a hands-off approach
doesn’t work with ourselves. Our continued learning and growth,
which includes release from personal blind spots and self-defeating
behaviors, happens in beloved community. “One candle lighteth
another.”

And so, in the context of the established congregations of England,
Puritans were busy inventing new ways of “one candle lighting
another”-doing this without permission from Church of England
authorities on high. In those days, the law required people to attend
services in their neighborhood church, every Sunday, no matter how
boring or dull-and evidently they were usually dull as death. So the
Puritans would do their duty, and then, later on, they would leave
their neighborhoods and meet in people’s homes, listen to some
really good preaching, and then talk and talk and talk and talk about
what they had just heard. “One candle lighteth another.”
This was how it happened for them, and how it happens for us today!
But back then it was scandalous, an illegal innovation that Puritans
introduced into the religious scene; and lucky for them, for a time it
all went unnoticed by the bishops of the Church of England.

But then the bishops noticed. And the King took the side of the
bishops. People were ordered to stay in their neighborhoods. The few
preachers who were really any good were forbidden to preach. No more
private meetings. Innovations were redefined as violations; and
violations meant conviction and prison until violators yielded
themselves to the will of the bishops.

The authorities were cracking down. Which takes us to a young Anglican
minister named John Robinson, troubled in conscience by the
conservative crackdown. As a Puritan himself, he had tasted the
sweetness of developing spiritual practices that worked on a
grassroots level and helped people connect with the Spirit. He had
tasted of the sweetness of religious freedom. And it had opened his
eyes. A new vision of congregational life unfolded before John
Robinson, and there are two basic parts to it.

The first part is suggested by this quote of his: “The
Lord hath more truth and light to break forth out of his holy
word.”
This is what he said. There is an abundance of
truth and light in this world, coming out of sacred scriptures but
also out of the revelation of nature and of our own hearts and lives;
and it will break forth, it is an ongoing revelation, it will
ultimately overspill all rigid categories and containers. Thus our
best response is openness to this, personally but also
institutionally. Our best response is to set up congregational life in
such a way that it can be fine-tuned and responsive to how the spirit
of truth is moving in it. The local congregation needs to be able to
make its own decisions and changes so as to ensure continual alignment
with the spirit moving among its people.

Thus the first part of John Robinson’s vision of the local
congregation calls for the power of self-governance-a
congregational-based polity. External powers just won’t know
what’s happening on the ground, and therefore their decisions will
constrain the spirit of unfolding truth. The local congregation ought
therefore to raise its own money and spend it according to its own
vision and values; it also ought to decide for itself who its
ministers will be. It ought to do all this and more-anything it needs
to do to allow the revelation of truth that is unique to a local
congregation fully to unfold.

As for the second part of John Robinson’s vision: it has to do
with the quality of relationships within the congregation-ensuring
that, indeed, “one candle lighteth another.” I mean, a local
congregation can have all the autonomy it wants, but it can still fail
to serve the ongoing revelation of truth. Because what if the people
within the congregation are running around snuffing out each
other’s candles? Then there will be no light. That congregation
will be full of shadows. Spiritual freedom is within people’s
grasp-but they aren’t able to reach for it because they’re too
busy fighting, or they’re paralyzed by differences and conflict.
Given this, John Robinson urged that the preservation of spiritual
freedom in the local congregation necessitates people being in
covenantal relationship with each other. It necessitates people being
thoughtful and intentional about how they will walk together in a
spirit of mutual encouragement and love, knowing how hard things can
get sometimes; and then, when things break down, as is inevitable,
coming back to the covenant again and again, doing one’s best.

This was John Robinson’s vision of the free church: that it is
self-governing, and that its participants walk together in the ways of
love. Spiritual freedom absolutely, absolutely requires it! Thus his
sore disappointment when Church of England authorities stepped in and
said NO WAY! YOU CAN’T DO THAT! But Robinson wouldn’t relent.
How can an individual congregation be a true congregation without
autonomy, or covenant-keeping? How can it grasp its authentic and
unique destiny in the world? Ultimately John Robinson resigned from
his position in the Church of England, but only so that he could
follow the call of his larger ministry and vision. And so, in 1607, in
a town called Scrooby, he helped organize a new congregation on the
basis of his “free church” vision. Other leaders involved
included seventeen year old William Bradford, who gave the members of
this radical new church the name by which history knows them today:
“pilgrims and strangers upon the earth.”

We are directly descended from them. Fleeing persecution, this
congregation of Pilgrims would leave England for Holland, spending
twelve years there, until about 100 members of the congregation set
sail for America on the Mayflower, landing in 1620 at Plymouth,
Massachusetts. There, in that very same year, they would establish
what is now the oldest continuous congregation in New England, which
also happens to be … the oldest congregation in the Unitarian
Universalist Association.

This is where we come from! This is who we are! Direct descendants.
The free church tradition is our tradition; and we are the
beneficiaries of Puritans and Pilgrims who risked everything on behalf
of freedom. This is why, today, denominational headquarters can put an
ad in Time magazine, to be seen by 20 million Americans, which reads,
“Find us and ye shall seek.” Have you seen it? “Find us
and ye shall seek.” That’s right! Yes you will! And it is
John Robinson all over again: “The Lord hath more truth and light
to break forth out of his holy word.” It’s an abundance
message, and in our searching we find and find and yet still we
search, still we seek, we talk and talk and talk and talk just like
the Puritans did 500 years ago in their secret meetings, and it is all
good. It is all good. Ongoing revelation.

This is the Puritan and Pilgrim legacy, and we have received it, and
we want to extend it into the future. And this takes us to today’s
special focus, which is not so much the self-governance aspect of our
religious freedom as it is the covenant-keeping aspect. I’m
talking about creating our own congregational covenant-starting the
work right here and right now. I’m thankful for the work of the
Transition Team, which has helped us get to this point. But before we
go any farther, though, I do feel I need to mention something about
the Principles and Purposes, which is itself a statement of covenant,
although one that links individual Unitarian Universalist
congregations to the larger Association. It says, in part,
“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian
Univeralist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the inherent
worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in
human relations; and acceptance of one another and encouragement to
spiritual growth in our congregations.”
This is just
three of our seven UUA Principles, but these three are the ones that
explicitly affirm something about interpersonal relationships. And my
point is this: that these affirmations only give us a start to our own
covenant here at UUCA. It is a denominational covenant that invites a
local, congregation-based covenant. As the history I’ve described
a moment ago suggests, covenant-keeping is a central spiritual
discipline that preserves our freedom; and therefore every Unitarian
Universalist congregation must go beyond general denominational
statements to achieve its own clarity about the specifics of how
people walk together. Exactly HOW will we treat each other as beings
with inherent worth and dignity? Exactly HOW will we express justice,
equity, and compassion? Exactly HOW will we accept and encourage each
other? Each individual congregation, if it is truly serious about
covenant-keeping, must answer these HOW questions for itself, and then
live into the answers. Keep the covenant. Keep it, so that “one
candle lighteth another.” That’s the blessing right there.
Not just the blessing of being connected to our past, but the blessing
of moving into the future as a people that will be intentional and
proactive about nurturing and safeguarding its capacity to be free.
That’s the blessing.

And thus my invitation to you today, as friends and members of UUCA.
Creating our own congregational covenant. It’s just not about
being “nice” to each other. It’s about containing the
energies of this place-generated through all our various interactions
with each other-and channeling them in constructive, creative ways.
It’s about ensuring that all our diversity and differences empower
our spiritual seeking and do not block it or paralyze it. We just
don’t want the advertisement in Time magazine to be false
advertisement. We just don’t want people to find us, and when they
find us, to discover that our focus is inward, tied up in gossip and
anxiety and infighting-no seeking going on, since there’s no
energy left over for that. We don’t want this.

So, at this point, please take a look at the insert in your order of
service. Perhaps you have already scanned it… Take a look in
particular at the third paragraph, the one with two bullet points.
What are some behaviors that I want to ask others for (and I’m
willing to practice myself) that will help create an atmosphere of
mutual encouragement, constructive communication, and trust? For this
place to feel safe and welcoming for myself and my family, how do we
need to treat each other? These are the questions I pose to you right
now. Please write your responses in the box below, and know that after
we have collected all the responses, a Congregational Drafting Team
will analyze them and put together a proposed covenant that we will
then vote on at the Spring congregational meeting next year.

Two final notes: You have two examples at the bottom of the sheet of
what we’re looking for-perhaps these can suggest other
possibilities for you.

Also: the offering baskets will go out in a moment to collect your
responses; but there will be a second collection today, and that will
be the one for the regular offering.

And now-let each of us contribute to the creation of our
congregational covenant. Let the doctrine of this place truly be …
love.