Covenant (9/22/2019)

I tried growing a different variety of cucumbers in my garden this year. The kind I usually grow in containers were all right, but I decided to grow cucumbers in a raised bed this year where they had a little more room. I chose climbing cucumbers. They didn’t seem that different at first. They climbed on the A-frame trellis and spread out broad leaves. But then they kept going. I added a few bamboo stakes next to the trellis. Then they started climbing on the sunflowers next to them. 

At the end of July, the sunflowers were done blooming, so I cut the flower heads off and saved a few seeds that the squirrels hadn’t gotten. I couldn’t cut the sunflower stalks because they were now part of a network of climbing cucumber vines. Cutting back the sunflowers meant more light, and the cucumbers really took off. I made little zip lines of string from the high stalks to the fence for the vines to climb along, added more bamboo stakes, and generally encouraged the little tendrils to grab anything that wasn’t a tomato plant. I provided some of the structure that keeps the whole thing up, and some of the support grew from within. 

My hanging garden of cucumber vines is beginning to fade now, but for the moment there are bridges and archways, twine and vines and fruit, all held in a delicate balance. Watching this system grow and self-correct and find stability in motion has been a satisfying part of my summer. 

In my earth-centered practice, the fall equinox is a good time to dive into gratitude, and to let that gratitude help me find balance. It is a good time to gather in community, celebrate what has come to fruition, and organize ourselves for resilience through possibly leaner times ahead. Getting in closer proximity with each other, we remember that being in community actually takes some practice, and it’s a good idea to have some agreements about how we will be together. In a garden, it’s a good idea to have boundaries like fences, supports like trellises, and a regular practice of stepping back to see how everything affects and connects with everything else. In a spiritual community, it’s a good idea to be aware of and to maintain our covenants. 

Exploring covenant is vital to Unitarian Universalism because it goes straight to the heart of how we understand ourselves as a people. We bind ourselves in union through covenant, not through creeds. The word covenant helps us see the transcendent aspect of our shared spiritual life, the larger context for the commitments we make as a community.

Honoring covenant goes way back in Unitarian Universalist history, even before Unitarianism and Universalism were organized in America. The idea of covenant was deeply embedded in the reformations of the sixteenth century, movements that recognized religious freedom and were skeptical of dictators who imposed faith by political decree. Covenants are essential to the spirit of a free religion.

Covenant is mutual. Entering into a covenant means we believe ourselves and the people with whom we are in relationship to be rational enough to make the promises outlined in the covenant. It means we accept shared responsibility; everybody has a role in keeping those promises. Entering means all of the covenanted people have the freedom and the capacity to accept the duties of that relationship.

At first glance, we might think that duty and freedom are opposing forces. Let’s take another look at this. Accepting duties is not the same thing as being coerced to follow orders. Covenant is not compatible with coercion. If we are going to declare ourselves free to make choices, we take on all of the implications of those choices. On the other hand, if we obey our whims and impulses, we aren’t really free, we are tied to consequences that we didn’t consciously choose.

To give another example, if we feel that there are life-and-death punishments to joining the correct political party or religious group or gang, that’s coercion. If we freely choose to take on the obligations of a group, to make commitments for a shared mission and mutual wellbeing, that has the makings of a covenant. Obligation and freedom make an inseparable pair.

To use an example of a covenant that many people are familiar with, at least by observation if not direct experience, let’s take marriage. Covenants in marriage can be life giving in the right circumstances. Our Unitarian Universalist understanding of covenanted adult relationships honors the agency of each person in the relationship. We trust that adults who choose to become a family understand themselves and each other as free and capable of making decisions and taking on long-term obligations. We don’t see one partner as the lifelong authority and another one as helpless. It’s not a UU marriage without mutual respect.

In other words, the Unitarian Universalist understanding of covenant reflects our implicit affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Whatever our gender, our culture, our gifts –and whomever we love—we see the capacity for covenant in every human being. Covenant reflects a worldview in which all people should be able to grow to their fullest potential, free from oppression and supported by mutual relationships.

Another ingredient in deep covenant making is time. In addition to the qualities of mutuality and respect, covenants carry far-reaching implications. Covenants are not simply agreements for immediate mutual benefit. We enter into them steeped in our own histories, and we recognize that the effects of the covenants we make will resonate after we are gone.

I think about the long-term nature of covenant in Unitarian Universalism when we celebrate child dedications. A child dedication is a ceremony of welcome for a baby or a young child. During the ceremony, those who are present make promises about the ways in which they will dedicate themselves to a specific child or children. These ceremonies can be private, but they are usually done during a Sunday service, because the congregation has promises to make, not just the parents. If there are older siblings or other children from the congregation at the ceremony, I outline the ways they can dedicate themselves to the new child. All of us have responsibilities when it comes to creating communities where young people can thrive. The child doesn’t usually choose to be dedicated, but our choice to support them means they will have what they need to make an informed choice when they are ready. To support them until they get there, we make a place where young people  can be grounded in the community and the tradition that covenants around them as children.

The ripples of responsibility in a covenant of child dedication don’t just emanate outward from one child. Each time we dedicate ourselves to being a nurturing community, our promises lead to nurturing everyone in our community. We take on obligations that affect future generations. When new members join, they, too, become part of the network of mutual responsibility.

If you weren’t dedicated here or your children weren’t dedicated here, the promises we make still apply. I believe that belonging to this congregation—adding your time, talent, and treasure to this covenant—will bring individual blessings and benefits. I also believe that it’s not really about us as individuals. By covenanting together, we become stewards of blessing for future generations, we become a sanctuary that will save the lives of people we haven’t yet met. 

This sense of longevity also extends to other covenants made as a congregation. Earlier, we heard an excerpt from the covenant of right relations of this congregation. It is hanging in the foyer outside the sanctuary, and it can be found on our website, if you would like to study it further. The congregation can certainly choose to review or amend or replace this covenant, because covenants are living agreements. Meanwhile, we have a continuous line of care from the framers of that covenant to the present. Even for those of us who were not here when it was written, the congregation’s covenant of right relations is still something we enter into, something we agree to in order to keep this community healthy. 

The covenant of right relations for this congregation says we will, among other things, “Set aside our individual agendas and look for common ground so as to find the ‘we’ in our journey together.” Covenants bring us into something that is larger than ourselves, probably a larger something that will outlive us. 

So far, I have talked about covenants as promises built on mutual relationship and respect. I’ve talked about the long-term implications of covenants. Another aspect of covenant that sets it apart from an everyday contract is the space for growth and reconciliation.

Covenants are about living relationships. The covenants we form together as a congregation make us accountable to our best selves. We notice when we’re not living up to our values together. At the same time, we know that none of us can be perfect all the time. We leave room for each other to try things we’re not so good at. If we were to have a disagreement or a temporary breach, the relationship among us would lead us to gently speak the truth in love, figure out where we needed to heal, and to re-enter the covenant. Covenants give us something to live up to, and also a place to come home when we don’t quite live up to our ideals.

The congregational covenant of right relations here says:

Knowing we will at times fall short of these ideals, we intend to use this covenant as our guide for the behavior we expect of ourselves and others as we live and work in community.

Creating opportunities for acknowledgement of harm and return to right relationship is intrinsic to the design of a living covenant. 

This is not to say that injuries that break covenants don’t hurt. Of course we feel hurt when we disappoint ourselves and each other. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Some of us believe that all of the Divinity in the universe is right here in this world, in the present moment. The relationships we’re in are the ones we’ve got. Human beings are too precious for us to lose each other if we have a choice. Space for growth and reconciliation is part of the deal.

Making covenants can be intimidating. They are mutual, requiring us to think seriously about our freedoms and responsibilities, demanding that we explore the meaning of respect for our partners in covenant. Covenants are created in an interdependent context, with a past and a future. We enter into them, knowing that our promises will mean something to those who come later. Covenants leave room for growth and forgiveness. We have to face up to our own imperfections.

I think it is worth it. Covenants respect our power and that of our beloveds to make decisions and to take on obligations. Covenants help us to be mindful of the effects our actions have on future generations. Covenants are rooted in the wisdom that some of the things that are broken can be healed. 

LIke my cucumbers, healthy communities need support and boundaries. Like my cucumbers, when we offer those things to each other, we can be surprised by the vibrancy of what develops, and by the connections that form in support of growth. 

As a covenanted, spiritual, human community; we have chosen the joys of human relationships, the pride of respect for human dignity, the vision of future generations, and the comfort of a reconciling Spirit of Life. This is what it means to belong to a free religious faith. May our covenants long endure.

So be it. Blessed be. Amen.