Each Sunday I step into the pulpit and call to worship the congregation sitting in the sanctuary of our 1842 New England Meetinghouse. The sanctuary is simple and elegant. Tall windows line each side, reaching up two stories to the high ceiling, with four chandeliers. The clear panes bring nature’s liturgy of the seasons into our service: bright sun, autumn’s colors, the soft fall of snow. The pulpit is big and imposing, built for an era when the focus was on the preacher delivering the Word. The people sit in the hard, wooden pews that creak whenever someone tries to find a more comfortable position.
The traditional Protestant formality of the sanctuary belies the informal and eclectic nature of the community that gathers in it now. This congregation, the First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, was founded in 1655 by the Puritans. Ours is the fourth meetinghouse, the previous three having been lost to fires. Looking out the windows, I see the Forefathers cemetery where several of my predecessors rest. I imagine that they would be shocked to see how the congregation has evolved over its 367 years, with a woman preacher only one among many unimaginable changes.
For our congregation is not made up of committed Christians who center their lives on salvation through their experience of God’s grace. Rather, we are seekers and skeptics. A mix of atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Christians, pagans, Jews, nones and dones, gathering for worship even if we struggle with traditional religion. But there is a thread, that our Puritan forbears would recognize. We, like they, gather together in covenant.
Covenant is an ancient practice, traditionally between God and God’s people, found throughout the Bible. The Puritans’ earliest covenant was simple: “We covenant with the Lord and one with another; and do bind ourselves in the presence of God to walk together in all his ways, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his blessed word of truth.” To them, nothing less than their eternal salvation was at stake in this binding together as a worshiping community, awaiting God’s continuing revelation of grace.
Our covenant is longer and wordier, as we accommodate our theological diversity. But the echoes are there, particularly in our second promise of five: “We, the Members of First Parish of Chelmsford, covenant together to sustain and strengthen our beloved community by….nurturing all souls in our search for truth and the sacred…” We cherish this practice of freely choosing to bind our lives to walk together in the ways of truth and love, as they are revealed to us. We don’t always do it well. We fight about the things that most communities fight about: money, authority, policies and procedures, music, talking during the prelude, parking, and money (again). But I have witnessed the ways our covenant helps us walk back toward the community we promise to be when our congregational decisions might get bogged down in anxiety and debate. Like when we chose to renovate our old 1842 building to make it handicap accessible instead of worrying about the cost.
Every time I step into the pulpit, my heart soars as I see the faces before me: some new, most familiar, and some present only in memory and spirit. Pew after pew, I know the stories of these souls I have accompanied over twenty years. On the left side, I see Deb, energized and joyful at the arrival of her first grandchild. Not long ago, her energy and joy were crushed under the unbearable grief of losing a child. Even this new life is colored by that grief. Life will always be bittersweet.
I see Dave, here, there, and everywhere, in what particular role he is volunteering for. A devout atheist, he finds inspiration, and truth in the beauty of numbers and the infinite universe. He is one of the most faithful people I know: generous in all he offers of his time, talent, and treasure, and true to the ethics of justice, kindness, and humility.
I see Beth in the front row on the right. Her wife died last year of a painful cancer. Eighteen years before that, I stood in front of this same sanctuary as their two young sons walked them down the aisle to exchange their vows, when Massachusetts passed the equal marriage law. We all knew such joy that day.
Salvation is not on the mind of most of my parishioners, at least not in terms of their eternal souls. But I think more and more about its necessity. In the past few years, politics and the pandemic have estranged us from one another as citizens, as neighbors, even as families. People are anxious, angry, and afraid. We are in need of salvation here and now--from our own worst tendencies, lest we destroy one another and our planet. When I see these souls who have freely chosen to bind their lives and their stories to one another and to me, to walk together in their living and their dying, their joys and their griefs, their questions and their struggles, I feel I have been entrusted with tiny pearls of grace: God’s love for us imperfectly, achingly, haphazardly embodied by us. I string them on the thread I have inherited, binding us to a salvation we have already been offered but rarely recognize.
Rev. Ellen Spero has been serving First Parish in Chelmsford since 2002. A version of this essay first appeared and is available at Bearings Online , published by Collegeville Institute.