Love is the Spirit: Covenant Sunday, 2024


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 3, 2024

This Sunday marks the anniversary of the adoption of our congregational covenant. A year ago, the members of First Unitarian Universalist voted on a statement that reflects the commitments we make to each other. We now recite it in unison every Sunday. We said it earlier in the service. I invite you to say it again with me:

Love is the spirit of our congregation.
Service is our prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
to seek truth in love,
and to encourage one another,
thus do we covenant.

Love is the spirit of our congregation.

Today, as we celebrate our covenant, I am going to focus just on the first line, “Love is the spirit of our congregation.”

The act of textual interpretation, of exploring the meaning of a passage of sacred text, is almost as old as religion itself. Portions of the Christian New Testament are little more than attempts to interpret sections of the Hebrew Bible. There are numerous Buddhist scriptures that attempt to explain other, earlier, Buddhist texts.

The method of interpretation that scholars use to approach a text is called a hermeneutic. The word… I know a few of you are probably reaching for the snooze button because I just used it… The word hermeneutic is a shorthand that is meant to pull together the set of approaches we use, consciously or not, to understand the meaning of a passage.

Love is the spirit of our congregation.

We have been living with those words for a year now. I imagine that they mean something to you.

I am going to venture to guess that they signify something a little different for each of us. For the longtime member the words possibly symbolize the commitment of care that people in this community have for each other. For those of you who have been around First Unitarian Universalist for five, ten, fifteen, or fifty years, the phrase “Love is the spirit of our congregation” might recall: blessing each other’s children, serving as stand-in grandparents, helping each other out when times are hard, visiting one another in the hospital, potlucks, memorial services, weddings, hammer slinging workdays, religious education classes, church auctions–let us hear for the auction team and the amazing work they did last weekend–and memories, so many memories, of services, sermons, friends absent and friends present, comforting each other in times of need and celebrating with each other in moments of achievement.

Love is the spirit of our congregation. If you have been here awhile, then you likely interpret the words through your experience of First Unitarian Universalist. They represent something to you about what it means to be part of a religious community and stick with that community over time. Such a sentiment is expressed in Jess Reynolds poem, “This Prayer is for You:”

You, unsure if you believe in God, believe in anything
but the tangled weeds in your garden and the stones
under your shoes. Under the wide, thundering sky,
I will tell you: You are proof enough of great Love
in the world, no matter the weather. Yes, you.

No matter the weather, life together, life in a religious community, is not always easy. There are bound to be disagreements: about the direction the congregation is taking, what it means to live out your collective vision, financial priorities, whether or not you like the ministers, how you feel about the Board, the music, or the social justice program, and even what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

But, I suspect, for many longtime members, when you say, “Love is the spirit of our congregation,” you are saying, in part, that the commitment that you have to your shared vision, and to each other, is greater than all of that.

This sentiment is expressed in the 1648 Cambridge Platform. A text written by the leaders of the congregational churches in colonial New England–many of which later became Unitarian Universalist–it describes how religious communities are to operate. It also names the role of religious leaders within them, the responsibilities of lay leaders for the care of the congregation, and the relationships between neighboring churches.

Perhaps most importantly, it places the congregational covenant at the heart of our life together. It tells us, “Saints by calling must have a visible political union among themselves, or else they are not yet a particular church.”

I like that phrase, “Saints by calling,” for the members of a congregation. It’s more than a little ambitious, and perhaps a bit haughty, to say that the folks who come together to form a Unitarian Universalist community are “saints.” It is, however, a nice summary of classical Unitarian theology and the hopes we often have for each other.

We are each, the tradition taught, born with the “likeness to God” within us. The purpose of religion to is to help us to uncover and grow into that likeness. Salvation by character–deeds not creeds as some of First Unitarian Universalist’s former ministers used to say–means that it is through our actions that we grow into that likeness.

Saints by calling, the religious community calls us into the pursuit of saintliness, the possibility of goodness. We come together, the text suggests, out of a desire to be better people: to act more justly, to think more clearly, and to love more fully.

And here, I want to say, that after last week’s service more than a couple of you reminded me of that aspect of our community. A few of you shared that you had not a voting plan when Sunday started–had not necessarily intended to vote in the primaries–but after the sermon you both had an intention and a plan to vote. I hope that you all followed through on your plans. If you have not yet voted in the primary then please know that Tuesday, March 5th, is election day.

The word “political,” by the way, in our phrase, “Saints by calling must have a visible political union among themselves,” does not represent the country’s political system. Instead, it is a reference to the idea that a religious community only becomes a religious community when its members unite around set of agreements. In most Christian communities, these agreements are doctrinal, statements of belief about the nature of God and humanity.

In Unitarian Universalist communities, we do not necessarily share such agreements. Some of us are theists. Others of us are humanists, to life up two common divisions. So, instead of doctrine, we unite around “mutual loyalties.”

Mutual loyalties, I take the phrase from Alice Blair Wesley, a Unitarian Universalist minister and scholar of covenant theology. She has observed that our congregational covenants are not statements of belief. They are expressions of what are, “individually and collectively  … [our] most important loyalties.”

We unite, in other words, around what we hold to be important. Say again, with me, our congregational covenant:

Love is the spirit of our congregation.
Service is our prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
to seek truth in love,
and to encourage one another,
thus do we covenant.

Love, service, peace, truth, and encouraging one another, these are the things to which we offer our loyalty, commit our support, when we gather as a community. God, Jesus, the state of Texas, the United States, theological creeds or political doctrines, do not form a portion of our shared commitment.

Love, service, peace, truth, and encouragement, do not, of course, have settled meanings. What love means to you, and what it means to me, might be different. Numerous texts debate the nature of the word. The writer bell hooks, to offer a solitary example, argues that is not just affection–I like you–but “care … recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communications.”

Much of that sense of love is lived out in the practices of care and concern that long time members share. But for the new member, or the first-time visitor, I anticipate that the interpretation of “Love is the spirit of our congregation” is somewhat different. For those of you who fit into those categories, possibly the majority of people in our sanctuary or watching us online today, I expect that your understanding of the phrase has less to do with your relationships with other members of our religious community and more to do with your expectations for Unitarian Universalism in general.

“Justice,” Cornel West has said, “is what love looks like in public.” And so, when we say the word “love” you might envision a community committed to engage in the work of acceptance and compassion in a state beset by the politics of cruelty. It is, perhaps, that understanding of “love” that brought you through our sanctuary doors or prompted you to look us up online. The words, “Love is the spirit of our congregation,” might symbolize to you First Unitarian Universalist’s dedication to welcoming the LGBTQ+ community, efforts to reduce gun violence–I hope you saw the two articles last month about the press conference we hosted calling for sensible gun laws–, advocacy for migrants and refugees, commitment to voting justice, attempts to help address the climate crisis, opposition to white supremacy, or any of the other things we strive for in the larger community.

Occasionally, this understanding of love can be conflated with conventional understandings of politics. People wonder how a religious community, for example, can support common sense gun laws when, by law, churches are supposed to stay out of politics. The answer is that this stricture pertains to endorsing candidates–telling people who to vote for. It does not connect to stating our values, offering a vision of what love looks like in public.

A just, a loving, society is one in which nonbinary children like Nex Benedict are not afraid of living fully into who they are. A just, a loving, society is one is which Nex Benedict is still alive, free and safe from violent, lethal, bullying, and the political class proclaims care and concern for all children not just some. Nonbinary children–and for that matter children in Gaza–are born just as much in “the likeness of God” as anyone else.

This kind of love, the love that manifests itself in public as justice, is a loyalty to the larger humanity and to all being. It requires critiquing the powers and principalities of the hour no matter who occupies the White House: George W. Bush started two wars of choice that resulted in the deaths of millions of people; Barack Obama was the deporter in chief; Donald Trump inspired a failed coup; Joe Biden will not call for a ceasefire in Gaza and is aiding and abetting mass murder.

Love, love as justice, calls us to do better: to work for peace between the peoples; to offer compassion to refugee and migrant; to nurture and protect democracy.

“Love is the spirit of our congregation,” we say. Love is mutual care. Love is working to build the just society. I have not said anything yet about spirit. Spirit, as I have shared in the past, comes from the Latin spiritus, which means breath. It is the thing that animates–sometimes metaphysically, in the sense of a soul, and sometimes literally, as in breath, that thing that gives, maintains, and sustains life.

It is also thing that connects each to all. To be alive is to breath. To be breathe is to share the air, not just with each other but with the Montrose oaks and every other living thing on our beautiful muddy blue green ball of a planet.

So, when we state, “Love is the spirit of our congregation,” we are observing that it is love that both unites and animates us as a religious community. Not God, not an adherence to a particular scripture, not a set of doctrines, but love–mutual care–and love–justice.

To return to the Cambridge Platform, more than four centuries ago our religious ancestors understood that, on their own, “Stones, timber, though squared, hewn and polished, are not a house,” a place of worship. It is only when they inhabited, perhaps I should say blessed, by a group of people “knit together” by a shared covenant that they become a place for religious community.

Yes, you. You, with your mud-caked dreams
and thistle-studded heart. This clear water prayer
is for you,

Jess Reynolds tells us. Their words are a reminder, if we need one, that all who are willing to unite in love–to open themselves to the spirit moving through each and connecting each to all–are welcome into our fellowship.

Our covenant, then, might be understood as an invitation. It says that anyone, regardless of theological perspective, regardless of race, gender, economic class, education, sexual orientation, political party, or other human divisor, who is loyal to love–care and justice–is invited, no encouraged, to be part of our number.

“Love is the spirit of our congregation,” today is Covenant Sunday, an opportunity to reflect upon the significance of our covenant, what we promise each other as members of the congregation, and what it means to be part of this Unitarian Universalist community. The meaning of the words will be a bit different for each of us–longtime member, new member, visitor, or friend–but I invite you now, one more time, to say them with me:

Love is the spirit of our congregation.
Service is our prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
to seek truth in love,
and to encourage one another,
thus do we covenant.

In the hopes that the members of this congregation, and all of those of good heart who wish to join us, will do what we can to live into this covenant, I invite you to say Amen.

About the author


Add comment

By cbossen

Follow Me