What does it mean to be a community of covenant?

Rev. Kevin Tarsa

UU Community of the Mountains

Delivered September 18, 2016


After Jesus died… (which is not how I begin most sermons, by the way, or have ever begun a sermon, until now)  the people who had known and loved and followed him had a lot of questions.

The reason I’m starting there, in a room full of us atheists and agnostics and humanists, as well as Buddhists and Christians and others, is because though you might not know it from looking around this room or the rest of the building, Unitarian Universalism has roots in the Christian tradition, in Calvinism, to be more specific.

Our ancestors – both Unitarians and Universalists – rejected certain teachings of Calvinism,

which was one of the protestant traditions that had rejected aspects of Catholicism,

which was one form of Christianity,

that had evolved out of some of the small communities of the early Jesus followers,

who were, for the most part, Jewish.

We retain pieces of all of those traditions and I think its important to know where you come from as you figure out where we’re going, even though much has changed over the centuries. So I want to offer you a little bit of the backstory.

After Jesus died, there were two fundamental questions for his followers, questions that people argued about for centuries and still do:

1) What was Jesus’ purpose? I.e. Why was he here and for whom?

2) Who or what was Jesus, exactly – God? A god? Partly god? Divine but not as high on the ladder as God, a special prophet, a wise guru, en exemplary human being? What was his nature?

The Judaism that gave birth to Christianity prioritized ortho-praxy – correct action, over ortho-doxy – correct belief/opinion. Both were important, but when push came to shove, what mattered most, is what you do. What you believe about a ritual, for example, is less important than that you do the ritual, and do it correctly. Think the 10 Commandments….primarily about what you do.

The earliest Christian communities also prioritized action over belief (even as they argued about their beliefs about Jesus), perhaps because they were made up primarily of Jewish people. At their best, loving action was at the center of these communities and I find the ancient accounts of them powerfully inspiring. Following Jesus’ teaching, these people cared for the least and the ostracized, the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the lepers at great personal expense and risk. And they cared for each other in a way that elicited remarks from the Romans, according to Tertullian, “See how they love one another,” they would say.

Justin Martyr, born around 100 CE, portrayed Christian love this way, as he tried to convince the Roman emperor to stop persecuting Christians:

“We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, . . . we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.”

One of my favorite songs as young catholic, as guitar masses were coming in, was “They’ll know we are Christians by our Love (sung).” That’s how I wanted to be known…by the visible evidence of my love.

After 300 years or so, when Christianity had spread and included people from many different cultures and traditions, there were many different ideas about Jesus’ purpose and nature and Christianity was fragmented. In hopes of unifying Christians in the known world, Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicea in 325, to decide once and for all, among other things, which ideas about Jesus’ nature were correct.

Their answers have important repercussions in our UU history, but today I want to name that what that Council of Nicea did, in our heritage, is shift the focus in Christianity from orthopraxy (correct action – doing the right thing) to orthodoxy (having the correct belief). It was a turn away from being the religion of Jesus, toward being a religion about Jesus. That’s oversimplifying it, but that turn was significant.

What thereafter defined a true Christian, was holding the approved/sanctioned beliefs – the beliefs spelled out in the Nicene Creed. For the next 1300 or 1400 years or so in much of Western Christianity, people were in or out, included or ostracized, burned at the stake or allowed to live, based on what they were willing to say they believed.

Fast forward to the 1600s and our direct religious forebears on this continent – the Pilgrims and the Puritans. They came for many reasons, among them the freedom to practice Christianity as they felt it ought to be practiced. The Pilgrims sought to build a community separate from the world. Puritans sought to build communities that would become a shining example to the world and the folks back home, and many expected to return to England at some point. You know how that goes. You plan to stay for a year and 20 years later you are still there.

They were here on their own all that time, without bishops or any hierarchy telling them what to do. And when Presbyterian ways of governing churches started to become a trend in England – where regional groups of elected elders had the power to make decisions for congregations – our ancestors here said wait a minute, we like making our own decisions.

They called a meeting at Harvard, the Cambridge Synod, and drafted and eventually adopted what we know as the Cambridge Platform, which is the basis for how we govern ourselves in UUism. It is the basis for our congregations making decisions for themselves, and the basis for our focus not on a creed or a specific set of beliefs, but on covenant.

The drafters of the Platform looked back to and referenced the early Jewish communities in the Hebrew Bible, and the early Christian communities in the Christian New Testament, and they said that THE reason to form religious communities, and the purpose of everything religious communities do is “mutual edification” – mutual teaching and learning –  that is based on the second of the Great Commandments, “Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself.”

As Alice Blaire Wesley put it, our ancestors said that we gather “for mutual learning and teaching concerning the (many and complex) ways of Love.”

Wesley points out that there are an infinite number of subtopics in this category of Love, and that our Forebears believed that people have to gather with others in order to figure out the details, or as they put it, to discern God’s will.

Communities like ours must figure out continually what, specifically, love demands of us now, so that “neighborly love” is not just a “fuzzy, sentimental abstraction” …but rather a challenging call to be more and more our best and most courageously loving selves within our gathered community, with our sister congregations, and in the wider world.

Our job, according to our forebears, is to help each other figure out what loving your neighbor (as yourself) means and looks like today, and then to help each other do that, while caring for each other along the way.

That is Christianity at its best, I say, and I know people who live that faith beautifully and powerfully. I expect that you do too. The thing is, that is also Unitarian Universalism at its best, no matter whether we think of ourselves as Christian or not. I would go one step further to say that that is religion at its best: helping each other discern and practice loving action in our community and in our world.

For this to happen well and in ways that can keep evolving with our evolving understandings, our forebears said it’s not a creed that we need, its a covenant – not a static statement of beliefs, but a mutual, aspirational, voluntary promise of how we’ll go about being a community trying to discover the demands of love and how to live that love. A “declaration of interdependence.”

Though we let go of many aspects of the Cambridge Platform over time, our UU congregations today are still rooted in covenants, mutual promises developed and chosen and committed to within each congregation as well as between and among congregations.

I want to acknowledge that some people feel uncomfortable with the word or the idea of “covenant.” For some it feels too churchy, religious, old fashioned, or too legalistic. Some fear that covenants are used as punitive instruments to pummel people back in line.

I would offer:

The root – “co-venir” – means to agree (to) – to be not merely of like mind, but of like heart and like commitment. It’s about shared commitment

The word and concept are indeed churchy, religious, old fashioned, and legalistic. The drafters of the Cambridge Platform drew the concept from the Hebrew Bible (the covenant between God and the Israelites), and the Christian New Testament (meaning new covenant), It is a concept rooted in political agreements of biblical times.

Covenants are entered voluntarily.

However, to be a member (of a UU congregation) requires entering a covenant with the other members, making a set of mutual promises. Members do not always realize this. Since the tradition is not defined not by creed but rather by covenant, simply agreeing with other UUs or even with the Seven Principles is not enough. One must be in a covenant with other members. That is our religious practice. That is our spiritual discipline

Covenants are created by the members, not handed from on high or elsewhere, and they are not etched in stone forever. Each congregation, group, or committee decides what it will covenant in order to best achieve its goals and care for each other in the process. Dave has already asked a small group of people to explore ways for this congregation to review, revise and renew its behavioral covenant.

Covenants are upheld mutually. The people who have entered a covenant with each other are responsible to help each other live into it and live up to it. A covenant does not say you can do whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want. It holds out mutual expectations.

Covenants are aspirational. They are not a tool used to slap someone’s hand, but a tool to help us hold out a hand to invite members to live into community-building and love-enhancing behavior. More about this next week.

“A contract is a matter of law. A covenant is a matter of love.” 

~ Rev. Preston Moore

“A contract protects interests, but a covenant protects relationships.”

~ David Brooks

The theme this month is “What does it mean to be a community of covenant?”


SLIDE of word cloud from last week’s service: Answers to, “Why are you here?”

The words used most often were: Community, Love, Others, Friendship, Connection

All relational.

A few final thoughts:

Covenant is a way to become ONE out of many.

With all these different theological beliefs, and in a culture that prizes individualism, the question is: How do you hold together/cohere as a community?

When I work with choirs I try to help them understand the difference between singing at the same time and singing together. Singing at the same time can sound beautiful, but when truly singing together, something else happens, something powerfully transcendent and even transformational. Covenant binds us and, ideally, helps us “sing” not just at the same time and in the same direction, but together.

We claim to prize diversity – which is important – but diversity does not connect people. To be a community of cohesiveness and meaningful depth, people have to connect in common around something so important that they can draw on their differences to reach toward a common goal, rather than to have those differences interfere with that reaching.

I therefore believe that our foundational covenants in congregations must speak to the largest, most compelling goals we hold, and that mission statements are best framed as covenants or in covenantal language. Name your deepest shared aspirational mutual commitment up front, and covenant toward reaching it, so that members new and old know that that’s what they are signing up for and signing on to…

Your congregational covenant cannot be shallow. It must lay claim on your heart, must inspire you enough to want to be subject to its demands. Not because anyone said you have to, but because you want to, because you know, as frightening as it might be, that it will call you toward who you most want to be in the world. It ought not be easy. It ought to give you pause before you sign on to it. It ought to be worthy of your commitment.

Our ancestors said that we best covenant in order to figure together what loving our neighbor (as yourself) means and looks like and asks of us now, and then to help each other do that, caring for each other along the way.

My personal dream is to be able to sing with total honesty and conviction, “They will know we are UUs by our love” (sung)… whatever that love might need to look like in Grass Valley these days.

What great end does or would keep your critical thinking skills humming AND grab your heart at the same with such power, that you would risk a great deal to be here, to be part of it.

Figuring that out together – so that you can be ONE and a powerful force for good in this community – that’s the work ahead. The marvelous, hard, and joyful work ahead.

Yonder, come day!

May day be a’breakin,

and may the sun be arising,

In your collective soul.


So may it be.


Works cited:

Wesley, Alice B. Our Covenant: The Lay and Liberal Doctrine of the Church : the Spirit and the Promise of Our Covenant. Chicago: Meadville Lombard Theological School Press, 2002. Print.

This is a 2000 Minns Lecture Series by Alice Blair Wesley, available for free download at http://minnslectures.org/archive/wesley/wesley.php

The Cambridge Platform 1648

Available to read online at https://books.google.com/books?id=aSkPAAAAIAAJ&ots=rPIGSnDqRP&pg=PA43#v=onepage&q&f=false