Covenant Power: Essentials of Unitarian Universalism, Part 4

Several weeks ago, I asked you to consider the huge difference between two assignments: one is to copy an existing painting, another is to create your own. And then I talked about how conservative religion basically gives a person a full painting and says that your job is to copy that painting down to the details. Repeat, recreate, echo. Make THAT your spiritual life. Liberal religion, by contrast, gives you just enough ideas to face down the blank canvass of your world and paint the picture that is true to your experience. Not orthodoxy, but flexidoxy. Don’t merely repeat, recreate, echo. Create something new! Build your own theology!

Today we continue our exploration into our Unitarian Universalist flexidoxy and the ideas it gives us to build our own theology. So far, from the past three sermons in the series, here’s what we know:

  1. The Sacred Heart of Reality is fundamentally a Mystery and always bigger than any beliefs about it;
  2. The sources of truth about the Sacred are many (at least Six), and drawing from many sources makes for an exciting and rewarding path;
  3. Spirituality is best seen as a lifelong journey in which we never stop learning. Mistakes are allowed. We can know we’ve encountered truth when it changes our lives in line with our Seven Principles.

Today, we add this fourth major idea: How a powerful way of supporting people’s growth over time in community is through the practice of covenant, not creed.

To help explain, I’m going to use a story, just as I’ve done in the other sermons in this series. I do this in part because I simply love stories and love how profoundly they can preach, but also because they help people remember. I want what I’m saying to go down deep. I want the knowledge to be there when people ask, “What’s Unitarian Universalism all about?” Well, you say, it’s just like that story The Blind Men and the Elephant. It’s just like that story about the mouse who barked at a cat. It’s just like that story of the boy in The Alchemist, where he learns the secret of happiness. It’s just like that. That’s what I want you to be able to say. The stories remind us about who we are.

And now comes the fourth story, which we heard just a moment ago: The Soup Stone. Classic, classic story. Let’s see how it illuminates what covenant is all about.

Just like the stranger in the story, Unitarian Universalism comes to us. Comes to our village, and like the woman, at first we are cautious. “What? Me?” “I’m sorry, I have nothing in the house.” Now, to be fair, this might not echo absolutely everyone’s experience. You might have grown up in some religious community and it was a good experience for you. You might have been in a place in life where you were ready again for another experience of religious community. If so, you handed over food to the stranger immediately. You already knew what was going to happen next, because you’ve been there before. And since you carried no burdens of hurt or anger, your heart was open and easy.

For some of you, perhaps. But I suspect that for many of us, especially many people now, Unitarian Universalism came to us and we WERE cautious like that village woman. For one reason, we might have grown up unchurched, so we don’t have any first-hand experience of what we’re getting ourselves into. This is especially true with regard to being asked to make an annual financial pledge. It can take a while to understand what this means and why it’s important. Couple this lack of familiarity with what we hear about organized religion on the news—the way the news likes to focus on the negative—and you bet we’re cautious. It’s no wonder it no longer works just to wait for people to find us. Nones—people who identify with no religious tradition whatsoever—don’t just show up. We have to reach out….

Now, maybe we did grow up in church. But what if the experience we had was not so good? Was terrible, in fact? God is an Incredible Hulk figure to us. Religion is the last place where we seek out adventure and joy because it was always a scene of terror, no mistakes allowed, got to toe the line and get it right or you are going to HELL! It wounded us, it hurt us. And like all wounds and hurts, our old experience plays inside us like a broken record, making it nearly impossible to hear a sound that is truly new and sweet. Making it nearly impossible to believe that religion could be anything other than brutalizing and diminishing…

For all these reasons, and more, Unitarian Universalism comes to us, and we are cautious. What is it? Is it the same old thing as before?

But here you are. Here we are. The story doesn’t end with caution or with the village woman saying, “I’m sorry, I have nothing in the house right now.”

Because what happens is that the stranger says, “Not to worry. I have a soup stone in this satchel of mine; if you will let me put it in a pot of boiling water I’ll make the most delicious soup in the world.” He has a vision. We can create something amazing, if we are all engaged, if we all contribute.

The most delicious soup in the world. Not the same old thing as before, but something truly different. That’s why we’re here. We want it! Soul food! Soul soup! Unitarian Universalist style, which tastes of fundamental sacred Mystery and many paths into the Mystery and truth about the Mystery that takes a lifetime to encounter and we are changed and changed again and it is savory, it is just the best thing, it is MM MM GOOD!

Unitarian Universalism says we can have this, and we are curious. Can it be true? So, just like the villagers, we give into the possibility. Someone brings out a big pot filled with water, another brings out potatoes, a third adds meat, then comes vegetables, then comes the salt and sauce, then comes the bowls we use to eat. We do this. It happens because we give our gifts, we create the common meal.

How otherwise can the most delicious soup in the world be made?

There has to be a vision that makes all the work worthwhile. And then, there must be the power of WE to make it happen. Which is so very different from the very American emphasis on the power of ME. For some things, yes, power of ME. OK. But when you want to bring a little slice of heaven down to earth? When you want to do that? NOT power of ME. It takes power of WE.

Three years ago, a vision of delicious soup emerged out of the heart of this congregation. I’m talking about our Vision 2016 Long Range Plan. Back in 2011 when the plan was being formed, hundreds of us were involved. We discovered four aspirations we wanted to focus on over a five year period:

1. People more engaged in our congregation
2. People more active in our social justice ministries
3. People reaching out and telling our stories to each other and the world
4. People more generous with their resources of money and energy, which makes the delicious soup of our aspirations possible; making sure that this building (1911 Cliff Valley Way) is serving the mission; and also asking (and answering!) the question of what kind of building our future long term vision calls us to….

Ever since 2011, we’ve been making progress on all these points, which I track in my monthly Executive reports to the Board, and which are available online for anyone to see.

Now, remember what I was saying a couple weeks ago in my sermon entitled “What it Means to Move”? I wanted it to get us fired up about something that this congregation already committed itself to doing, through its Long Range Plan. Thinking long term and seeing how that impacts our sense of the kind of building we need. What if we were to see ourselves as the premier gathering point for Unitarian Universalists in the Southeast, where religious liberals come together to build community, raise their children, reach out, worship, study, work, and play? What kind of spaces would facilitate this in amazing ways we have never known before?

(As a side note, soon after preaching this sermon, I received an email from none other than Kay Montgomery, whom I quoted in that sermon, who has been Executive Vice-President of the UUA for forever, and who has old and important ties to this congregation. She said, “Someone sent me to your sermon on moving and I sent it on to Gene Pickett. Gene and I just talked. We both said ‘good for Anthony!’” Better to say, though, good for us. Because it’s about US and not ME.)

Folks, I’m talking about delicious soup! Not just Unitarian Universalist soup. But Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta soup. MM MM GOOD!

But, you know, all this talk about the future of our building opens up a big question. How do we continue to live richly in our present, even as the future is as yet unknown? It’s a little like what we all experienced earlier this week with the ice storm: living in the shadow of the power possibly going off at any time. When you are living in the shadow of that possible future, what happens to your present? Folks, we have a Building and Grounds Team that is loving our building RIGHT NOW and taking care of it. We have a Playground Redevelopment Team finalizing a plan that will go before our Board so that we can secure funds to get cracking on improving what’s out there RIGHT NOW. But because we aren’t RIGHT NOW sure where we’re headed (we don’t even have a Task Force up and running to study the long-term issue yet), do we hold the present hostage and press pause? Why invest in the here and now when the future may lead us elsewhere?

But you know, I believe that quality now is a stepping stone to quality in our future. The only way into the future is through the present. We just don’t dare starve the present. We just don’t dare stop caring for the now.

Absolutely. And yet I still have to admit: this general principle does not instantly solve the particulars that need to be decided now. Just how do we live in the mushy middle of complex issues? How do we do that?

How do we channel and support the power of WE?

This big question resounds throughout all aspects of our life together. The most obvious case of this has to do with our theological diversity. We are atheists and we are theists in worship together. We are atheists and theists and Buddhists and Pagans and Jews and Christians and New Agers and star-bellied Sneetches and plain-bellied Sneetches and I-don’t-know-what-I-am-but-I–know-what-I-don’t-like and on and on and on. Whaaaat? says most of humanity. Whaaaat? How do we do this? How do we work this miracle?

How do we get anything done? How does it all hang together?

The answer is one of our Unitarian Universalist essentials. Covenant. Open up your hymnal to the pages right before the first hymn. Do you see the headline in big capital letters: “WE, THE MEMBER CONGREGATIONS OF THE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION, COVENANT TO AFFIRM AND PROMOTE?” See that? “Covenant” is a word you need to know if you are a Unitarian Universalist. It’s one of our essentials. Because it tells us how we come together and stay together, and this way is different from what you might see in many other religious communities.

Go back to the story. The stranger wants to engage the village community in making the most delicious soup in the world. But do you notice that he doesn’t care what you may believe about God or Jesus or the afterlife or any of the other key religious questions of life? All he wants to know is, will you contribute something good to the making of the soup? Will you protect the space of our common meal? This, as opposed to such things as:

  • bringing something rotten and insisting that you have every right to add it to the pot (freedom of speech you say! inherent worth and dignity you say!) even though it spoils everything for everybody;
  • gossiping about what someone else brought, behind their back;
  • if you feel there’s only one way to make the soup and it’s your way, and you aren’t getting your way, then you take your particular contribution out of the mix and go home;
  • pushing the pot over;
  • getting into fights around the pot;
  • getting so caught up in conversation about the soup that nothing actually happens about actual soup being actually made.

What the stranger wants—what Unitarian Universalism wants—is not this. We dare not have this, if we want to channel the power of WE in constructive, creative ways.

Therefore , we Unitarian Universalists say that the best way for individuals to journey together in community is through covenantalism, not creedalism. Creedalism basically says that the best way to organize as a group is everyone believing in the same things, down to the details. Copy the existing painting, right? To this way of thinking, you can’t really have a religious identity otherwise. Identity means uniformity.

Covenantalism, on the other hand, is when a group organizes itself around the deep promises people make to each other about how they are going to treat each other and work together, and this leaves the details of particular beliefs to individuals themselves. Thinking alike is not the point, but loving alike is. That’s where we get religious identity from. “You will recognize them,” said Jesus of Nazareth, “by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” We are recognized through what we consistently do.

The practice of covenant runs deep in our way of religion. Trace it back, for example, to 1568 and the first and only Unitarian king in history, King John Sigismund of Transylvania. (I know, Dracula “I-vant-to-suck-your-blood” jokes… but the reason why Transylvania looms large in our history is that during the 16th century and beyond, Unitarians were pretty much murdered everywhere else in Europe. Transylvania was one of the only safe zones for people like us.) This is what he said, this Unitarian king: “In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied….” Essentially this says that the preacher in our tradition gets to say what his or her heart moves him or her to say; the pulpit is free. But it also says that the congregant in the pew doesn’t have to swallow it; they are free too. They can agree or disagree, as their own reason and conscience and heart dictate. What gathers preacher and congregant together is not agreement on everything but respect. That is the spirit of covenantalism. That is what makes what we are doing right now work.

Not thinking alike, but loving alike.

At UUCA, this ancient tradition of covenanting takes the contemporary form of our Covenant of Healthy Relationships, which you can find easily on our website. We created it together soon after I began my ministry here in 2007. It consists of four basic promises:

  • We will be mindful of how we communicate with and about others.
  • We will seek a peaceful and constructive resolution process when conflicts arise.
  • We will celebrate the diversity within our community.
  • We will build the common good.

Each of these basic promises comes with particular pointers on what is meant, what each promise implies. A separate policy—a Serious Breach of Covenant Policy—completes the circle, helping us know how to act with fairness and justice when we encounter truly severe violations. The larger picture, though, is how, in this way, we link ourselves with Unitarian Universalist congregations and communities throughout history, and how, thereby, we are conveying the essential genius of our spiritual way into the future.

The question of 1911 Cliff Valley Way—how to love it now, how to be open to a future that may surprise us—none of us has the answer this instant. Same thing goes with other questions we might have. But getting to the answers I think is a lot like making soup. Promising we will all contribute something good. Promising we will protect the common space of our common meal. Don’t bring something rotten. Don’t gossip. Don’t insist that it’s my way or the highway. Don’t push the pot over. Don’t get into fights around the pot. Don’t get so caught up in talking that we never get to doing.

Unitarian Universalism comes to us. Our congregation comes to us. All there is at first is a stone. But if we fulfill our deep promises of respect to each other: that is how we can know we are living in the truth of our spiritual way. That is how the most delicious soup in all the world is made.


The complete Soup Stone story is available