Sunday, September 1, 2019
READING “We Covenant” Janice Marie Johnson
Covenants are intentional.
Covenants are audacious.
Covenants are a promise
that can change our lives
together in this faith.
Together, we will be stronger.
Together, we will be wiser.
Together, we will be gentler.
to recognize our uniqueness
to treasure our faith
to honor our neighbors with
We covenant to be committed to each other
to consider each as significant
to consider each as valuable.
to be invitational
to be accepting
to speak grace-filled truth
to forgive each other
over and over again.
Our Covenant stands firm.
It is our embodiment of faith in each other.
It is our blessing of each other.
It is our commitment to each other.
May we hold this community as a precious gift.
May we hold our relationships as gifts that transcend borders.
May we carry forth
the intention of our Covenant
the audacity of our Covenant
the promise of our Covenant
now and in years to come.
May it be so.
SERMON “Our Promises” Rev. Maddie Sifantus
We talk a lot about Covenant in Unitarian Universalist congregations. It is kind of a big deal for us. We say things like “we are not a creedal faith or religion but instead we covenant with each other.” You might ask, what the heck does that mean? Our Touchstones theme for the month of September is “Covenant”. If you don’t remember what Touchstones is, I will remind you that it is a theme based approach to planning the year in our congregations. There are other theme based approaches out there, but we have been using Touchstones for about two years, mostly coordinated by two of my colleagues, Kirk Loadman-Copland and Nancy Bowen out of the Mountain Desert part of the Pacific Western Region that we are a part of here at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula. They set up each month of the year with a different theme and we receive resources from them to use in the life of the congregation. Sometimes I pay attention to them, other times not so much. But since Covenant IS a big deal, I am giving it some little thought this morning.
To introduce the theme topic of covenant, Touchstones says, “Our congregations are not defined by creed. They are organized around a covenant. Ideally, this has two aspects: the internal covenant that are the promises that we make with each other within the congregation, and the external covenant that represents the promises that a congregation makes with the world. Because we are human, we break these promises, but we also recommit to them.”
That got me to thinking. Where does Covenant come up in our lives besides in a UU congregation and how can those covenants inform our understanding of the Covenant that we live by walking this path together? Where do we promise things to each other and what happens when we break our promises?
As you have heard, I was gone the last four weeks on what is called Study Leave. That means I was not on vacation exactly but it was a break from the routine of Sundays, meetings, pastoral visits and more that make up the rest of the year here at church. For me as a member of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, that group mandated by the UUA to credential the Candidates for UU ministry from the US and Canada, I spent a large part of my time away reading packets of materials about those coming into our “movement”, as some call it. And looking up the latest books, YouTube videos, blogs, podcasts and the like that those beginning their ministries are listening to or reading. I like to say I get a free continuing education experience three times a year.
But I also preached in a congregation in New Jersey, had reunions with my father’s family including some cousins I had never met from Wales, my mother’s family, and my elder chorus the Golden Tones. I helped clean out a storage unit of stuff from my family home with my brother and two sisters, finding my elementary school reports cards, my father’s purple candlepin bowling ball and various other treasures like an article in the local paper about when I won the first prize in Sixth Grade at the School-a-rama, singing a song from My Fair Lady.
I collaborated on a service with the minister of the First Parish in Concord where Howard Dana brilliantly tied together five Cole Porter songs I sang. I visited close friends, had gigs with both the Rowan Brothers and my accordion player Richard Conti…and officiated at the wedding of my closest friend from Sixth Grade through High School. Which got me to thinking about another kind of covenant and the promises partners make to each other at the time of their marriage. I thought about my own promises way back in the day.
A little known fact—in fact, a fact I mostly forget myself, is that I was married to my high school boyfriend a year after graduation. Back then, girls like me did not live with their boyfriends—at least not in my family—but got married if they were doing what my sister called “the big step”. So it was that I can vaguely remember the premarital counseling with my Episcopal priest. The centerpiece of any wedding ceremony is the covenant part—the part where to two people getting married promise things to each other. In the Episcopalian liturgy, those promises are prescribed for you…and they seemed so out of touch to me that I doubt that I thought much at all about what it said…I wanted the “big step.” This week I looked up this marital covenant in The Book of Common Prayer. Here is a taste of what the Priest asked me, “Wilt thou have this Man to thy wedded husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy state of Matrimony?” And it goes on to ask in some semi-familiar words, “Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honour and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him, so long as you both shall live?” Those are the promises I made—and many of us made—a covenant that was supposed to last as long as we lived. Well those promises lasted a couple of years…and they weren’t though out well to begin with. Promises were broken on both sides and when the band both of us were in eventually broke up, we broke up.
Several years later I married again, in what I called “the real marriage”. That time I got married in Saint Nazaire, France, in the Hotel de Ville, in front of a statue which used Brigitte Bardot as the model. That time the covenant was all in French which I was just learning to speak at the time. Who knows what I thought I was promising in front of the Magistrate. Those promises held for many years, but ultimately they did not. I still often wonder if we had been able to stay at the table, whether we would still be together. The breaking of covenantal relationships is painful. And staying in them takes maturity.
So it has been that I have spent a lot of time thinking about marriage covenants—the words said around the Vows and Exchanging of Rings in a Marriage Ceremony. Before I moved out here, I used to officiate at 30 or so weddings a year, in churches, on mountaintops, in fancy Boston hotels and wedding venues. I spent a lot of the time meeting with couples talking about what they would say to each other. For many of the couples it was all about the party; it didn’t matter to them what they said. “Just give us the regular”, they would say, no matter that there are many different “regulars”. The couples that did best really thought with each other about what they were promising. A couple like Sally and David.
Last Sunday I officiated at a wedding at the Holliston Historical Society back in Massachusetts, the site of the very first wedding I ever officiated at, back in 1999. I have known Sally my whole life…or at least since sixth grade. I have known her in relationships and in painful breakups. Somehow she never met the right person and was never married…until now. David had been married once before and his wife had left him. He thought he would never marry again. And so it was that they really thought about what they wanted to say to each other, what promises they would make, what kind of covenant they would make with each other. And they kept it simple. Here is what David said to Sally and then she said back to him:
Sally, today I take you as my wife.
I promise to always listen and never hurt you,
to always respect and never shame you, to
always love and never leave you.
You will have a home in my heart forever.
Our covenants are not so different. We have the Covenant we say each Sunday morning. Our Board has a covenant about how they are in relationship with each other and how they will be with anyone who comes to meet with them. As a congregation, we have a Covenant of Right Relations, sometimes called a Behavioral Covenant which details our promises about how we will be in relationship with each other. It covers how we listen and how we speak and how we work with conflict, since conflict is inevitable in any community. It details how we will be hospitable and welcoming. It talks about forgiveness and reconciliation. And it ends with Appreciation and Engagement: “We promise to acknowledge the service of others and support each other in times of joy and need.” And this congregation covenants with all the congregations in the UUA to affirm and promote our Seven Principles which are drawn from Six Sources. So Covenant is a big deal around here.
I like keeping it simple. Being inspired by the words Sally and David used we might say:
We promise to always listen and never hurt you.
We promise to always respect and never shame you.
We promise to keep at our hearts our phrase from I John: Beloved let us love one another.
We promise to keep showing up, even when we don’t always agree, bringing each of our voices to this gathered community.
We promise to hold each other and this place in our hearts forever.
We don’t all agree with each other. We have Humanists, atheists, agnostics, Christians, Buddhists and more here each Sunday and at our many activities. I would like to say we covenant to show up. We will break some of our promises. We will fail each other and ourselves. But we covenant to come back to the table, to work things through and make this into the beloved community, the beloved comunidad, as my colleague Marta Valentin said in our reflection.
I end with some final words on Covenant, by Rev. Rebecca Parker:
Let us covenant with one another
To keep faith with the source of life
Knowing that we are not our own, Earth made us.
Let us covenant with one another
To keep faith with the community of resistance
Never to forget that life can be saved
From that which threatens it
By even a small band of people
Choosing to put into practice
An alternative way of life.
And, let us covenant with one another
To seek for an ever deeper awareness
Of that which springs up inwardly in us.
Even when our hearts are broken
By our own failure
Or the failure of others
Cutting into our lives,
Even when we have done all we can
And life is still broken,
There is a Universal Love
That has never broken faith with us
And never will.
This is the ground of our hope,
And the reason we can be bold in seeking to fulfill the Promise.
May it be so. Blessed be. Amen
 Montgomery, Kay, ed. Bless the Imperfect (2014). Skinner House, 94-95.