What They Dreamed Be Ours to Do: Lessons from the History of the Covenant

Rebecca Parker, speaking.

Rebecca Parker.

 Rebecca Parker, Starr King School for the Ministry


What shall we promise one another?

The history of covenant can help us answer this question.

Covenant, most simply, means "to come together" as we are doing here in this hall of Covenant. ("Convention" is from the same Latin root—con, "together," and venire, "to come.") Covenant, more specially, means "to come together by making a promise." As when two people promise to love and care for one another.

As Unitarian Universalists, we most often speak of covenant as a verbal statement of promise between individuals who exercise their power to choose, and thus bring community into being. There are historical reasons why we think this way. It is an expression of the dominance of an individualistic understanding of human existence. Individual, first. Then, community.

The theological history of covenant has another side, and can be a resource to help us see another way. And, we need another way now. The limits of a merely individualistic understanding of human existence are pressing upon us. Our attachment to an economic system that maximizes self-interest has broken our covenant with the earth and with our neighbor. In our religious movement we are grappling with what this means, including taking a hard look the complicity of our religious tradition in this broken covenant. It is important that we do this. Multiple oppressions that our hearts cry out against—racism, sexism, the neglect of children, and the abuse of the environment—intersect in an economic system whose bottom line is the maximization of self interest for individuals.

This morning, I invite you into a theological reflection on covenant-making, turning especially to history as a resource to help us see another way.

We Inherit Covenant Before We Create Covenant

To begin, a story.

Eight years ago I moved to California to become President of Starr King School for the Ministry. Truth be told, I was feeling proud of myself. Captain of my ship and master of my soul, I had valiantly charted my course to become first, a cellist, then a minister, and now an educator.

When I got to California, I discovered I had a passle of distant cousins I had never met. One of them, my cousin Eldon Ernst, was Dean of the American Baptist seminary at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He proposed an Ernst family reunion, and so we got together. When we arrived in the driveway of cousin Sally Ernst's home, I got the first introduction to my distant cousins by reading the bumper stickers on their cars.

One said, "If you want peace, work for justice."
Another, "Teachers do it with class."
Another, "Live Music Is Best."
And then there was one that said, "If you love Jesus, tithe."

Inside, over Jell-O salad, home-made rolls, and tuna casserole reminiscent of every church potluck I had ever attended, we said hello to one another.

Here was Sally—a minister of religious education, and graduate of Pacific School of Religion. And here was Mike, a professional French horn player and high school music teacher. And Eldon, a seminary Dean. And, David, a United Methodist parish minister. Every single one of my distant cousins was a musician, or a minister, or a teacher—and several were all three! Not only that, the ministers were all liberal, social-activist types with an intellectual bent. And all the musicians were classical.

Apparently I had never made any choices at all!

My life was given to me. I did not make myself. And this is how it is.

We receive who we are before we choose who we will become.

As human beings our lives begin and never leave the soil of this earth that shapes us through blood, kinship, genes, culture, associations, social systems, networks of relationships, and extended communities. Even when we do not directly know the people whose lives are linked with ours, our lives unfold in relationship to theirs.

And this is how it is with covenant, as well.

We are born into relationship before we shape relationships by our conscious intention.

We inherit covenant before we create covenant.

We do not make ourselves. We are given the gift of life, the gift of the earth that sustains life, and the gift of one another—here, now—and in all the generations leading up to now. As the Brian Wren hymn sings it:

We are not our own,
Earth forms us,
Human leaves on nature's growing vine,
Fruit of many generations,
Seeds of life divine.

Covenant making must begin with the question, "What have we been given? What is the covenant we are already in?"

In 1550, Robert Browne, inspired by the Reformation, drew on the Biblical image of promise making between God and people to propose a revolution in church life. Churches should come into being, he said, as a covenant among persons. Not through common assent to a doctrine, or through sacraments administered by priests hierarchically arrayed and apostolically descended. Instead, people should join themselves by a mutual agreement to walk together, to keep Christ's commandments, to choose their ministers and teachers, to put forth and debate questions to learn the truth, and to welcome the voice of protest, complaint, and dissent. Browne hoped there would be a church in which people would mutually agree "that any might protest, appeal, complain, exhort, dispute, reprove, ... watch for disorders, reform abuses, and debate matters." (Quoted in Woodhouse, Puritans and Liberty, p. 73)

"What they dreamed be ours to do" we sang yesterday morning. We thought we had made ourselves! Here we are, Mr. Browne, four hundred and fifty years later. We are the fulfillment of your dream..

Our present day character was shaped by the vision long ago. We have inherited who we are. It is important for us to remember this side of things—that we are first of all relational beings, shaped by history, by a community of faith. Our exercise of free choice, is in the context of relational existence.

The early theologians of covenantal church life knew this.

They spoke of the Covenant of Grace. They said God, by the workings of grace, creates the community of regenerated souls. Human action in making a church covenant merely makes visible what the Creator of Life has already done by giving human beings the gift of life and empowering us to be together in freedom and peace.

Explicit covenant making is a human response to a gift from a source larger than ourselves. In our own time, James Luther Adams has emphasized this. Let us remember his voice:

"Traditionally our churches have been grounded in a covenant binding us together...but this enterprise of maintaining the network is itself not to be understood as simply a human enterprise. It is a response to a divinely given creative power, a sustaining-power, a community-transforming power. This power is ultimately not of our own making..."
—Adams, The Prophethood of All Believers, p. 252

There is room to imagine this source larger than ourselves in multiple ways: Earth itself, the Spirit of Life, God, the Buddha nature, the communion of all souls, universal love. The point is, there is a power that undergirds our covenant making that is more than the power of our will and decision making. In fact, our covenant making is a response to this power, a co-working with this power.

We make this response, most fundamentally, not by what we say, but by what we do—by coming together in peace, committing ourselves to be co-workers with the source of life.

Covenant is, first-most, not a verbal agreement but a practice.

The Cambridge Platform of 1648 defined the principles of covenantal church life in New England. The Platform says,

"...real agreement and consent they do express by their constant practice in coming together for the public worship of God, and by their religious subjection unto the ordinances of God...not only by word of mouth, but by sacrifice...and also, sometimes, by silent consent, without any writing, or expression of words at all." 
Cambridge Platform, Chapter IV, Section 4, "Voluntary Agreement, Consent or Covenant."

"If they say there is no communion without words, tell them, I have heard that lie before." 
—Barbara Merritt, quoting Rumi in the Service of the Living Tradition, June 28, 1998.

The Puritan Richard Mather wrote similarly in 1644,

Covenant "may be implied by ... constant and frequent acts of communion performed by a company of Saints joined together by cohabitation in towns and villages...the falling in of their spirits into communion in things spiritual..." 
—Quoted in Woodhouse, p. 301.

What a lovely phrase. The falling in of their spirits into communion

This dimension of covenant is important for us to recover. It is an antidote to our radical individualism. We need this older sense: covenant is brought into being by grace, and sustained by practice.

Our verbal promises are the frosting on the cake. They aren't the cake itself. They may help us keep the covenant we are in, but they are not the covenant itself.

As Rev. Dr. Peter Raible says, "Let us turn more to our act than to our word to declare our true religion."

By our act—for example our act of being here, our act of worshipping in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, our act of structuring our life together to give room for the experience, voice and vote of each person, our act of joining together to resist injustice—by these acts, to use Richard Mather's language "our spirits have fallen into communion..."

We've fallen into communion with the feisty, free-spirited Puritans of four hundred and fifty years ago who advocated freedom of religious conscience, and resisted the oppressive powers of church and state. We've fallen into communion with the people who believe revelation is not sealed. John Robinson's words to the departing Pilgrims echo in us still, "The Lord hath more truth yet to break forth...I beseech you remember it is an article of your church covenant that you be ready to receive whatever truth shall be made known to you..." We've fallen into communion with the sweet-spirited Universalists of old who rejected a notion of God as a tyrant ruling by the threat of hell, and named God as a gracious, creative presence, who saves all through the power of Love. We've fallen into communion with the deep-feeling Transcendentalists insisting that religion cannot be found in the dry bones of the past but must be discovered first hand. We've fallen into communion with the Iowa Sisterhood, and all those women and men who have argued and advocated for the rights and full humanity of women. We've fallen into communion with the all-embracing mystics who see truth manifest in the diverse religious traditions of earth's people, and mysteries revealed in the trees and the stars. And, we've fallen into communion with courageous Humanists who dare to lift up the dignity and strength of human beings, the power and importance of critical reason, in a world that prefers the abrogation of human agency, and uncritical obedience to false gods.

"Lives that speak and deeds that beckon."
We live within this communion of souls, and receive the beauty given to us by their lives, so closely linked with ours.
This is the covenant we are already in.
What shall we do with this gift?

What We Have Been Given: A Community of Resistance

I'd like to propose one answer. You may think of others. My suggestions is this. What we are given, most of all, is membership in a community of resistance to oppression. Let us wake up into the dream they dreamed of abundant life for all, and, in our time, put into practice the way of life that will embody the realization of that dream.

The words of English Puritan Richard Overton, 1647:

"It is a firm...and radical principle in nature, engraved in the tables of the heart by the finger of God in creation, for every living, moving thing, wherein there is the breath of life, to defend, preserve, guard, and deliver itself from all things hurtful, destructive and obnoxious thereto, to the utmost of its power.....By all rational and just ways and means possible.. to save, defend, and deliver [life] .... from all oppression, violence and cruelty ..."
—Quoted in Woodhouse

The Free Church tradition emerged in the 16th century as part of a reforming movement that resisted the corrupt hierarchical power of the church and the economic alliance between the feudal aristocracy and the church. The making of church covenants asserted the power of people to determine their own lives, and to choose who would govern them. It was a grassroots empowerment movement that became a decisive factor in the rise of modern democracy and the emergence of a post-feudal economic system.

In the presence of injustice and oppression, our forbears embraced freedom. They advocated for free speech, dissent, open debate, tolerance of different opinions in a disciplined search for truth. This free speech was important, not only as an end in itself, but as a means to social change. They challenged economic systems that neglected the poor, justice systems that were unfair, prison systems that were cruel, and economic practices that concentrated wealth in the hands of a few.

The covenant of which we are a part is a tradition that resists oppression by directly challenging the authority of oppressors, acting to remove them from power, and establishing new structures or alternative communities that put what is hoped for into practice. Most importantly, in this covenant, oppression is resisted finally not by argument, not by protest marches, not by passing resolutions, but by the practices of covenanted church life.

Betty Reid Soskin, a contemporary Unitarian Universalist community activist, articulates this radical principle this way: "The way to change the world is to be what we want to see."

Quaker Jim Corbett, the leader of the Sanctuary movement, speaks of this as civil initiative. Civil initiative, in contrast to civil disobedience (as important as civil disobedience can be) brings about change by proposing and manifesting, more than by dismantling and opposing.

Our Puritan forbears resisted oppression by putting into practice a way of life that manifested an alternative to the structures of oppression that dominated their lives. This was the heart of their covenant: to be what they wanted to see, to live as if the day of justice had arrived. They organized their church life to include the free conscience of each individual in a mutual commitment to the common good. They manifested an alternative to the oppressive use of power by a small elite, uninterested in the welfare of all, exercising economic and religious power without consent or accountability.

As matters evolved, what the Puritans first practiced in their congregations transformed nations. Puritan scholar, A.S.P. Woodhouse, remarks,

"the congregation was the school of democracy. There the humblest member might hear, and join in the debate, might witness the discovery of the natural leader, and participate in that curious process by which there emerges from the clash of many minds a vision clearer and a determination wiser than any single mind could achieve. ... If the Leveller [radical Puritan] emphasizes the contract on which the authority of just government depends, and insists on the principle of consent, he has had, in his church, experience of a community organized on these very principles."
Woodhouse, Puritans and Liberty, p. 76

The Fulfilling the Promise Survey asked, "What are your dreams for the UU movement?" A strong majority of us said our highest hope is to "become a visible and influential force for good in the world."

The history of covenant-making shows that the means for tremendous influence for the common good are in our hands. We do not need more money, though it always helps when we are as liberal regarding money as we are in other matters. We do not need more people, though it would be good to have them, and many in our society need what congregational life can give. To be an influential force for good, what we need to do is establish more strongly in our congregational life the practices that embody loving, just, and sustainable community. We need to be what we want to see, and make visible an alternative to the forms of oppression, alienation and injustice alive in our time.

Doing so will be a form of keeping faith with the covenant we are already in—the covenant of resistance to oppression. To not do so, will be to break covenant with those who came before us, who built...

the house we gratefully inhabit.
Though the path be hard and long,
Still we strive in expectation;
Join we now their ageless song
One with them in aspiration.
One in name, in honor one,
Guard we well the crown they won:
What they dreamed be ours to do,
Hope their hopes and seal them true.

It is exciting to contemplate what might be asked of us, and what promise we might fulfill, if we took this task with seriousness, and gave our lives to it.

But it will take courage to do this. It will take spiritual stamina and strength. To find it, we will have to go by a path that we may not want to follow. We will have to look at the complicity of our religious tradition in the failure of our society to be just and sustainable.

Broken Covenant and Beyond

The history of covenant making shows us that covenants can fail, can be broken, or can be severely compromised.

In our time, the broken covenant we live in is loss of love for neighbor and care for the earth. The dismantling of welfare, the increasing gap between rich and poor, the marginalization of the most disadvantaged, and the abuse of the environment, are profound social failures. This broken covenant has come about through economic practices unsuccessfully checked by values beyond individual gain. The covenental tradition that we claim as our own has tragically helped to bring this about. We are implicated in the deep intertwining of radical individualism and economic self-interest.

Robert Bellah named this for us on Saturday night:

"Almost from the beginning the sacredness of conscience, of the individual person was linked to "the right to pursue one's own economic interests...freedom of conscience and freedom of enterprise are more closely, even genealogically, linked than many of us would like to believe...It is not accident, as they say, that the United States, with its high evaluation of the individual person, is nonetheless alone among North Atlantic societies in the percentage of our population who live in poverty and that we are dismantling what was already the weakest welfare state of any North Atlantic nation...And this is in not small part due to the fact that our religious individualism is linked to an economic individualism which...ultimately knows nothing of the sacredness of the individual."

Naming our dilemma is a start.

Feeling it is also important.

In this brokenness, lives are fragmented, the luster of living is lost for all of us, we are missing something, something important.

It matters that we not deny this.

Adrienne Rich provides an image for our situation in her poem "Power":

"Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no long hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power."

—From Dream of a Common Language

How will we find the spiritual resource to purify our souls?

What will it take for us to untangle our deepest religious value—the sacredness of the individual and the importance of freedom—from its alliance with an economic system that is failing the poor and threatening the earth?

What must we do to find a new heart, unfettered by the false alliance of freedom with greed?

A final story from the history of covenantal theology provides some clues to a way ahead.

The first great failure of Puritan covenantal life happened in 1649 in England. The Puritans had led a movement to reform English society, to end abuses of power by the monarch, to advocate for land reform, prison reform, alleviation of poverty, unjust laws, burdensome taxes, debtors prisons, etc. Fueled by the power of covenant making, and the principles of free conscience, free speech, open debate and dissent, they rode a tide of high hope and put their love of freedom and their opposition to oppression into dramatic action.

In 1649 they won. King Charles was deposed, and Cromwell came to power. But, as soon as he was in power, in order to make a stronger alliance with those in England interested in economic expansion, Cromwell moved to suppress the radical puritans who had helped bring him into power. Two groups of Cromwell's supporter were crushed. The Levellers, Puritans with a passion for reform and the Diggers, even more radical advocates of economic change, were imprisoned, silenced, punished.

The broken-hearted visionaries protested, implored, appealed, demanded that the covenental commitments be honored but they were squelched.

In the aftermath of that broken covenant, more Separatists came to America hoping that a new land would provide greater hope. In England, new religious movements emerged.

One was called the Ranters. The Ranters responded to the anguish of a broken covenant in an outbreak of rage. Quaker scholar, Douglas Gywn, describes them this way:

"...like the unemployed ranks of punks in England of the 1970's snarling "no future," the Ranters were a disturbed and disturbing presence within a receding utopian horizon. In an era of intense covenant theology, their ranting oath-swearing was the perfect expression of rage, a dissonant diatribe that flung covenantal blasphemies aimlessly in all directions. Ranters frightened the Church, the Government, and almost everyone else."
—Douglas Gywn, The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism

They evolved a nihilistic theology that paired light and darkness as one, and viewed good and evil as intertwined. When put in prison, they quickly recanted. Brokenhearted, they held to no principles that were worth living or dying for.

Another group to emerge was called the Seekers

Douglas Gwyn, again. The Seekers were "individuals who passed from one new group to the next, finally coming together in the twilight of radicalism, united in their sense of what they had not found. The Seekers saw that none of the current agendas was adequate to the situation...they met in silence...they awaited a new revelation from God…to plumb these mystifying depths. Rather than lapse into nihilistic rage, they settled into a penitent silence that kept the covenant faith even beyond human understanding...A renewed emphasis was placed upon the overwhelming power of God's grace and the need for human stillness to sense the spirit's motions. They watched and waited in the dark night of eclipse."

In despair at the suppression of the radical Puritans, the Seekers literally became wanderers.

One of the wanderers was George Fox, who was a youth when Cromwell turned on his co-religionists and dashed their hopes. Fox left home and traveled from village to village asking the Puritan clergy if they could answer him in his suicidal despair. He sought refuge in nature—sleeping in open fields, and in trees in the forest. For ten years, he wandered, and in his wandering a new religious awareness came to him.

Through desolation, the despair of broken covenant, he began to experience the presence of a spirit of life, sustaining him and all of life. He articulated this spiritual discovery, with these words: "inward life did spring up in me."

From this spiritual discovery he formulated, in Gwyn's description "a deeper spiritual practice…a tender pacifism melded to a fierce commitment to social activism fueled by a sense of hope born through trial."

Among us, there is a deep spiritual longing. According to the Fulfilling the Promise Survey, over 75% of us feel something is missing in Unitarian Universalism. And, when asked to identify what is missing, we said "spiritual discipline and depth."

We need to see the longing for spirituality among us as an expression of our awareness of broken covenant—of something that is failing in our culture. A promise unfulfilled. All of us who have come into Unitarian Universalism from another religious context know something of promises broken. All of all us as human beings, have experienced promises not kept. We know the impasse and the anguish that comes to human life when commitments are broken.

We need to see our own longing for a deeper and more disciplined spiritual life as a sign that we are aware that something is missing.

It is by patient pursuit of this longing, including the willingness to wander without its anguish being relieved, that fresh vision will come.

The place of limit becomes the place of revelation.

Gywn writes of the spiritual renewal the Quakers: "to arrive there, they had passed through a desolating fire of disillusionment, despair, and purification. This spirituality of desolation not only transformed their inward life; it also radicalized their social vision."

The new religious consciousness was "a true eruption from the 'political unconsciousness, a disturbing upwelling of the otherwise repressed "knowledge from below."

The path to deeper spirituality begins in the experience of promises failed, covenant broken, hope suppressed. It begins with disillusionment, impasse, and grief. And it passes through the fire to a new revelation. This is the path we need to follow to find a new heart.

In our time, seekers wander from church to church asking "Can you answer my despair?" Ranters cry out in the public square, their anguish filling public space with the witness of our collective breach of faith. We suppress either of them at our peril—either within ourselves or around us.

For each is part of the path from broken covenant, failure, and limit to a fresh discovery of the deeper resources for hope and strength. From that discovery arises new practices, new covenant. From there is found a center of religious illumination strong enough to move us beyond the limits of our inheritance into fresh hope and creativity.

We must never tire of asking the question that the rich young ruler put to Jesus: "Who is my neighbor?"

And we must never abandon the path Guatama followed.

Seeing, as he did, who our neighbor is,
and what the condition of their life and therefore our life is,
we must seek and continue to seek,
until in whatever forest we find,
the illumination comes to us in our time
as it came to George Fox in the wilderness of seeking,
and to many forbears in the faith, in the community of resistance:
that there is a Universal love of which we are a part
that there is something that will not let us go
and it is in obedience to this truth
that the promise of life is fulfilled in us and we become a blessing
to the world.

Whether we know, as I've heard theologian Bill Jones describe it,
as a fierce rebellion lodged in the human heart
that will rage against oppression and injustice
and fight it to the end
out of sheer cantankerousness of spirit,
with nothing to sustain it beyond passionate determination;
or know it with the tenderness, as I know it,
of one who has passed through the valley of suicidal despair
and found there a divine comforter who has never left
and will never leave
who embraces even the violators of every covenant
within the fire of redeeming love—

The experience of brokenness becomes the place of revelation;
and the revelation found there is what will fuel a new covenant.

The finding of that deeper center is often through the fire of broken hearts—
it is the Seeker and the Ranter in us and around us that can lead us into the future.

Stillness that listens and Rage that protests
will guide us to a new covenant.

If we will have the courage to not flee from our tears.
and to embody what we come to know in
in everyday practices.

So, given the lessons of history, let us consider this as a possible expression of our covenant:

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 small bands 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.