Our Covenant


Can two walk together
Without having met?

The verse comes from Amos, the Hebrew prophet who described himself as “a cattle breeder and a tender of sycamore figs.” It is a rather humble description for someone who bequeathed us great poetry. It is bit like former President Jimmy Carter describing himself as a peanut farmer or Rihanna introducing herself as a one-time Army cadet. Amos, after all, has given us one the world’s famous phrases:

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

I suspect that the words are familiar to many of you. What you might not know is that their author provided inspiration for a practice that is central to Unitarian Universalism: the creation of congregational covenants.

Hebrew is a notoriously difficult language render into English. There are many alternative translations of our text. A couple of them:

Do two walk together,
Unless they have made an appointment?

Can two walk together
Except they be agreed?

However the words appear, the passage, and their author, are profoundly important for our tradition. They inspired our religious forbearers to develop a different kind of religious institution than the ones that then dominated their society, and continue to dominate ours. Rather than unite around creeds–statements of beliefs–they would come together by making a set of promises to each other. These they called covenants.

In our tradition, each community develops its own covenant. Survey the covenants of contemporary Unitarian Universalist communities and you will find a wide diversity. Some speak of God. Some are silent on the divine. Some are long, detailed, statements of intent. Others rely on more poetic language.

Whenever we gather, we tend make covenants amongst ourselves. If you have children in our religious education program, if you grew up a Unitarian Universalist, or if you likely have had an experience of crafting a covenant. They tend to go something like this:

You show up for a group–a discussion group, a youth group, it does not matter–and at the first session the facilitator asks everyone to start a list of things that they expect of each other. You might answer by saying that you anticipate that people will listen. Your friend may suggest that each person speaks their own truth. Someone else could state that they make certain that everyone has a chance to talk. And so it goes, until you have a set of things that you all agree will guide your behavior for time you are together.

You are probably aware that the members of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston have just undergone a similar effort. The committee on Vision, Mission, and Covenant, was charged by the Board to help you answer the question, “What kind of church do we want to become?” The committee spent almost a year gathering your input in an effort to answer the question.

They have done an extraordinary job. Before I go further, I think we should pause and give them a round of applause. Over of the last months more than half of you have participated in one of their discussion groups or filled out one of their surveys. They have shared with you draft documents and you have shared with them your thoughts on how to improve the texts.

In the end, they have come up with three statements that each answer a question about the kind of religious community you aspire to be. The first of these statements is the proposed covenant. It answers the question: What does it mean to be a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston? The second statement is your vision. It responds to the query: As a religious community, what want do you want to do in the world as a religious community? And the third statement is your mission. It offers an answer to the question: How are going to live out our vision?

Last Wednesday the Board met and voted to present the proposed texts of the covenant, vision, and mission to you for your approval at a March 5th congregational meeting. It will be an exciting event and one in which you will set your intentions for the future of this religious community.

Between now and then I will be preaching three sermons: one on covenant, one on vision, and one on mission. We begin with covenant. We do so for theological reasons. Covenants are what bind Unitarian Universalist communities together. And as we have been considering the future of First Unitarian Universalist we have been trying to understand what it is that we promise each other. The proposed covenant is the committee’s best effort to put those promises into words.

Even though the text is on the back of your order of service, I am going to read it to you again. It reads:

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, we do covenant.

Thus, do we covenant. In the words of Alice Blair Wesley, one of the preeminent scholars of the theology of covenant, such covenants are meant to express our “shared, mutual loyalties.” Loyalty is quite the word for her to pick. It implies a commitment to give consistent and dependable support to something.

In thinking about our covenant, and as well as our vision and mission, I encouraged the committee to think beyond just what you shared with each other in the online surveys or during the discussion groups. I urged them to think about the history of First Unitarian Universalist. What is it that the members of the congregation have consistently demonstrated your loyalty to over the years.

A faithfulness to the spirit of love is without question your core loyalty. It is something that you have strived to live out decade after decade, ministry after ministry. I will share more with you about how this congregation has historically lived out your loyalty to love in my sermon in a couple of weeks on the proposed vision: “Widening love’s circle.”

This morning I am going to indulge you with a single historical example.

Love is the spirit
of our congregation

I do not know if you have been on the second floor recently but if you have you have probably noticed that we’re in the process of a small construction project. The library is being remodeled.

Part of the library project has been organizing our archives. We have over a hundred years’ worth. They take up a lot of space. I have spoken to my old friend Gloria Korsman about this. Gloria is the librarian at Harvard Divinity School who oversees the Unitarian Universalist collection. She let me know that they would be delighted to house our archives. So, sometime later this year we will be shipping almost a half room full of boxes off to Cambridge.

Once they are there, they should be more accessible than they are now. Gloria and her team will painstakingly catalog everything that we send them. In my experience, they are always happy to respond to requests for the digitization of materials. And if we need information about what happened at a Board meeting in say, 1963, and we give them a reasonable amount of time they should send a scan of the item in question along. I have used the Divinity School’s materials many times myself. I can tell you that our archives are up in Massachusetts they will be a resource not just for members of our congregation or researchers connected with Unitarian Universalism. They will be of interest to people studying the history of the civil rights, LGBTQ, women’s, and sanctuary movements in the South: all of the times that the congregation has been moved by the spirit of love.

It is because of the work of a young scholar at the University of Houston named Allison Sáenz that we are going to be able to send our archives off to Harvard. You see, we cannot just pack up a bunch of cartons and ship them on their way. We have to provide the archivists who are going to receive them with some sense of what is inside each one, especially since there are more than sixty boxes of materials.

Allison is writing her dissertation on the history of the sanctuary movement. As part of her research she organized our archives so that we know what the contents are in each box. Now we can find the sermons of pervious ministers, the Board minutes from the 1950s, and the membership rolls from the 1930s. There’s even a helpful folder containing a photocopy of the page where the famous journalist Walter Cronkite signed the membership book when he was young–his father was President of the Board for awhile.

Allison is interested in our community because, as you might know, moved by the spirit of love, First Unitarian Universalist played an important role the work of providing refuge and sanctuary to people fleeing CIA backed right-wing regimes and death squads in Central America in the 1980s. People like Rita Saylors did heroic work helping turn our sanctuary into a literal sanctuary where those political refugees could stay while they sought asylum or tried to get to Canada.

I did not know just how significant a role First Unitarian Universalist played in the whole sanctuary movement until Allison started her research. Did you know that we were the first congregation in Houston to offer sanctuary to Central American refugees? Actually, we were one of the first in the entire country to do so.

This fact brought a performance to us last month called “Little Central America, 1984.” Did you see it? Put together by Elia Arce and Ruben Martinez it recalled some of the atmosphere of that time. In it the performers included a fragment of Bob Schaibly’s sermon “Sanctuary!” where he convinced the congregation to serve as a sanctuary congregation. It was an act in which, to quote Bob, the members of First Unitarian Universalist could live out “the way of love and justice that transcends” ordinary life. In other words, it was a testament to how love is the spirit of our congregation.

Bob’s sermon is one of the most important that was ever preached from your pulpit. It was of sufficient note that the Houston Chronicle recently quoted it. Almost forty years after he gave it, it is still has some influence. The spirit of love, when it becomes palpable, can have an impact that stretches across great swathes of time.

Thanks to Allison’s help, we can now actually able to locate some of the congregation’s other influential sermons. We can now find a copy, for instance, of Horace Westwood’s account he shared with you about his experiences marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama. We are going to have them digitized before we send them off to New England so that we can continue to learn from them in the future..

Love is the spirit
of our congregation

While I was preparing this sermon I was able, for the first time really, to go back and read earlier sermons about First Unitarian Universalist’s covenant. I have shared with you in the past portions of Horace Westwood’s 1959 sermon “An Interpretation of Our Covenant” in which he reflects on the one the founders of First Unitarian Universalist adopted when they gathered as a congregation in 1914. It read:

In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus we unite for the worship of God and the service of man.

The text comes from Charles Gordon Ames, a nineteenth and early twentieth century Unitarian minister and liberal Christian. As was the practice for Unitarians, it was affirmed by all who joined the congregation for almost five decades.

In Horace’s 1959 sermon he reminded the congregation that it was “a creedless” community. The covenant was to be interpreted, in his words, “as a line of poetry that can be as profound, as high as the mind is high, and as deep with feeling as the soul is sensitive.”

He also told the congregation, “[t]here is nothing to prevent us from changing this affirmation by the action of the congregation duly assembled for such a purpose.” Soon afterwards, in 1962, the congregation underwent a process to identify a new covenant which read:

In freedom we search for the meaning of life,
Some find reality in man and the universe
Others find it in God.
We express our faith in service to our fellow man,
And in sincere commitment to the highest we know.

Now, as I shared with you last May, this covenant quickly fell into disuse. While the Ames covenant had been included in every service–either simply appearing on the order of service or recited by the entire gathered community–the 1962 text was quickly forgotten.

Rooting through the archives I was able to get some sense as to why. We have an incomplete record of our sermons. But from the sermons we do have, it appears that the subject of covenant was preached upon infrequently at best and almost never at worst. As near as I can figure, after Horace’s 1959 text, the next substantive sermon preached on the subject of covenant came in 1998 when Gail Lindsay Mariner–her last name was Weaver at the time–offered one titled “Promises to Keep.”

It is an engaging piece of writing that traces the history of Unitarian Universalist covenant to the ministry of the Rev. John Robinson, a clergyman who rebelled against the Church of England way back in 1607. Robinson, she tells “was distressed that the government required all citizens to be members and financial supporters” of the state religious institution. He believed that religion should not be compulsory. It should be voluntary. And congregations should not consist of people who were obliged to belong to them. Instead, they should be “voluntary groups” where the “legitimate authorities” were “the members themselves and the ‘Spirit’” as they might come to know it.

In response to his advocacy, the bishops “promptly stripped him of his parish and outlawed his preaching.” He countered by bringing together “a small group of independent souls and they created their own congregation.” That congregation formed around a covenant, in its members words, “in fellowship of the gospel, to walk in all God’s ways made known or to be made known unto them, according to their best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost them.”

You might that the congregation that Robinson and his friends formed became, in time, the First Parish Church in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The historic Unitarian Universalist religious community that is better known as the church of the Pilgrims.

There is a lot to be said about that church and our tradition’s connection to both its legacy of religious freedom and awful project of settler colonialism. But I want to leave that to side for the moment, we will return to both later in our sermons on vision and mission, to ask you a question and make an observation about Gail’s sermon.

The question, do you hear the words of Amos within the Pilgrim’s covenant? They are there, in the statement, “walk in all God’s ways.”

We contemporary Unitarian Universalists would not necessarily endorse the explicit invocation of the divine in a covenantal statement. And when the Unitarians parted ways with the Congregationalists back in the early nineteenth-century part of the dispute was over the passage in Amos. The Congregationalists were more conservative in their theology. They claimed that in order to “walk together”–and I apologize for the ableist language but it is what is in the historic texts–people had to have agreements about certain beliefs. A covenant was not enough, they needed a creed.

The Unitarians responded that the covenant was sufficient. It brought together the community around their shared loyalties and, in words of Conrad Wright, another theologian of covenant, “mutual obligation.” At that same time, they asserted, in Wright’s words, “diversity of opinion is a good thing” and “a source of creativity, even of life itself.”

Love is the spirit
of our congregation.

For all its historical and theological adroitness, there is something rather strange about Gail’s text. It makes no reference to the covenant of this congregation. It does not say how you have chosen to dwell together. Instead, it offers a reflection on covenants in general.

Now, I do not want to be heard as criticizing either Gail or Horace–or any of the ministers that came between them. What is clear to me is that since the late 1950s a practice of regular reflection on the covenant of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston has not been part of the congregation’s worship life. The next sermon I found centered on covenant was from 2004 when Bruce Bodhe told you that they are based “on the practice of ‘right relations’ over ‘right’ belief.” It appears that my sermon last was the next one preached on the subject.

This is not to suggest that covenants have been not part of the congregational culture. As I stated earlier, visit the religious education program or an adult discussion group and you are almost certain to experience the process of covenant making in action. It is to suggest that the habit of regular reflection on our shared loyalties, what we promise each other when we become part of this congregation, has not been a strong part of your worship life.

Love is the spirit
of our congregation.

The 1962 covenant, the one that did not stick, does not use the word love. Instead, it hinges upon the word freedom. Freedom is very important to Unitarian Universalists. We are a people who believe that the freedom to make our own combinations, to form our own groups, is fundamental. We understand, as James Luther Adams, another theologian who wrote about covenant, that “[h]uman beings, individually and collectively, become human by making commitment, by making promises.”

The groups we form, the groups we are part of, define us. We are social creatures. We believe that we find that freedom through participation in a group which both offers us space to explore the freedom of our own beliefs and, at the same time affirm, in Adams’s words, that what “holds the world together, according to… [our practice of] covenant then, is trustworthiness, eros, love.”

The spirit of love is what binds us together. Adams was certain of that. And so I am. And I imagine that the reason why the 1962 covenant fell into disuse was because it focused on the wrong thing. In the twenty-first century freedom of belief can be found on the internet or over social media. What you is harder to find is a community that loves and accepts you.

Two decades ago, Bob Schaibly gave a centenary sermon where he observed that most people “came to [our congregation] … for the sense of community they felt lacking in their lives.” Reviewing First Unitarian Universalist’s then hundred-year history, he observed that across that span people “have always come for human affection.”

Love is the spirit
of our congregation.

It is my hope that placing love first in the proposed congregational covenant you have created an enduring one. And if you have then I want to tell you that your experience will not be entirely unique. The period of time when the theology of covenant was not preached from your pulpit coincides with the time that Unitarian Universalists overemphasized freedom of belief to the detriment of a commitment to love and largely forgot the practice of covenant. Read through a similar archive of sermons from a different congregation and you will probably find an equal lack of focus on covenant. Freedom of belief will be there but an attestation to what it means to live out the congregational covenant, not so much.

At the beginning of this century Alice Blair Wesley and other Unitarian Universalist ministers, theologians, and lay people of her generation launched an effort to revitalize the practice of covenant amongst us. They believed that a clear articulation of our deepest loyalties, those things to which we commit our whole selves, was essential for both the growth of Unitarian Universalism and the ability of Unitarian Universalists to, in her words, alter “positively the direction of the whole society.”

The Unitarian Universalist Association in a recent report on our movement’s anti-racism efforts has concurred and claimed, “Returning to the practice of honoring covenant is essential in the world in which we find ourselves.”

Love is the spirit
of our congregation.

Honoring the covenant of this congregation means, I suspect, upholding the spirit of love and recognizing that it comes first before any commitment to freedom of belief. We live in a time when people are lonelier than ever before. This is especially true in the wake of the social isolation phase of the pandemic when many networks of connection and care were disrupted. Having talked to so many of you about why have joined and why you stay part of First Unitarian Universalist I can attest that a sense of community is the crucial thing.

And that community is knit together by the spirit of love.

I shared with you earlier about how the commitment to that spirit of love led you to support the sanctuary movement in the 1980s. I want to close with two brief vignettes that I think illustrate the way in which you have manifest the spirit of love within this community.

The first comes from a member who has shared a story about her experience visiting the congregation for the first time as a then single mother in several venues around First Unitarian Universalist since I have been here. And I hope that she will not mind if I share the story she has shared publicly again.

It seems she visited the first time when her son was very little. Now, her boy had a lovely time in religious education on his initial Sunday here. He felt right at home and so, as children do, zipped around a bit. After the service, on the way out of the fellowship hall, he was so enthusiastic that he rushed right past two elegantly dressed older members of the congregation, Joyce Ambler, of blessed memory, and Leonora Montgomery.

The young mother was mortified and quickly began to profusely apologize. Joyce or Leonora, I am not certain which in the story, stopped her and said, “Oh, do not worry. In this church children come first.”

Now, some of you might debate Joyce and Leonora’s approach to parenting but the family in question are devoted members of the congregation almost twenty years later. And I want to suggest that want Joyce and Leonora did in that moment was manifest the spirit of love. They let their visitor, our now member, know that she and her son would be loved and accepted in this congregation. And they demonstrated to her that their highest loyalty, the thing they valued most, was love.

My second vignette is about the care team. And it is not really a vignette but a series of observations. Since I have been here the care team, alongside other members of the congregation, has repeatedly gone out of their way to care for elderly and sick members who were isolated or alone. They have helped people clean out their houses so that they could move to assisted living. They have helped people find assisted living. They have taken people who can no longer drive on innumerable errands. They have spent hours upon hours advocating for people who are not fully able to take care of themselves anymore. They have visited hospitals and hospices to comfort the dying.

Can two walk together
Except they be agreed?

Love is the spirit
of our congregation.

You have answered Amos’s query by stating, yes, two may travel together as long as they agree upon the spirit of love. You, the members of First Unitarian Universalist, have done your best to live that spirit. You have made it manifest in your actions and in your lives. And so, in the coming weeks, I pray that you might covenant to continue to live in the spirit of love together. 

That I might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.

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