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We Promise Making Animals – 3/10/2013

I would begin this morning with thanks and gratitude for the life and memory of Prof. James Clarke Chace, who was a teacher and mentor of mine some years ago. As I’ve shared with you before, between my first experience of a call to ministry and my decision to follow it, there was an interlude during which I aspired to a career in international diplomacy. It was during this period that I studied with James.

The seminar classroom chairs were too large for almost any human, and particularly ill-suited to the man’s small, sharply-angled body. He cut a figure drawn in edges and points: the nose, the elbows, the lines of his suit coat, his habit of jabbing the air with a finger to emphasize whatever point he was making. That sharpness matched perfectly to the talks he gave and the lessons he taught. He sought always to cut through any sentiment or diversion which might distract from the matter at hand. He was incisive without being biting or uncompassionate, and that was critical in a classroom full of undergraduates.

In his classes we were studying, many of us for the first time, the history of relations between nations, particularly the United States and everyone else. And that history, viewed honestly, is not very happy. So that nearly every discussion of why this emperor or that president chose to declare a war or sign a treaty could be turned by morally affronted college students into a debate about the wrongness and injustice of that decision. Yet knowing that we needed to understand how and why things had gone before, and how things were going today, before we could think about changing much of anything, James always drew us back to trying to understand the schemes of nations – particularly our own – even when we found them contemptible. Morality and ethics are worthy pursuits, he might say, but things being as they are, what is a government to do, in this situation or that?

He was fond of invoking Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu – for those not intimately familiar with pre-revolutionary French history – was the First Minister of France during most of the Thirty Year’s War. During the conflict, he led his overwhelmingly Catholic country to make alliances with Protestant nations against Catholic ones, at a time when armies can and were killing and dying over such differences. He did this because of raison d’etat – the reason of the state. He felt those alliances would better serve the interests of his country. Richelieu did this in an act of defiance against the Pope, despite the fact that he was himself a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, and sworn to obey papal authority. My teacher brought up Cardinal Richelieu to remind us that our ideals and even the specific promises we have made often come into conflict with the immediate needs of the moment.

This sermon is the second in a series exploring some key words from our religious vocabulary as Unitarian Universalists, and this morning’s word is covenant. On the surface, this might just be the easiest one. It has a somewhat familiar secular meaning; an archaic word for a contract or some sort of agreement. Its specific meaning as a term in law is a promise to do something, or not to do something. And because covenant comes with this meaning, it is liable to be tarnished by it.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche asked, “To breed an animal with the right to make promises – is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of [humanity]? Is it not the real problem regarding [us]?”[i] He was pointing to the fact that we have the gift, possibly unique amongst animals, of being able to make promises, to establish intentions and commit ourselves to things. With that gift of making promises comes our vast capacity to break them. I don’t mean that we are all hopelessly incapable of keeping our word – many of us do manage to fulfill many of our most important obligations. But it is a certainty in lives made up of thousands of promises, big and small, that we will not live up to all of them all the time. Here I will trust you to think of some example from your own life of some commitment you made, but fell short of in fulfillment.

We often blend covenant and promise together under the heading of contract, thinking of these things in the same way we would think of a legal agreement. Generally, when a contract is broken – when one or more of the parties in it fails to honor the agreement – there may be some punishment or consequence, but afterwards the contract itself is ended. One strike, and not only are you out, but the game itself is over. But the original idea of covenant, as it comes to us through the Jewish and Christian traditions, is not at all like a contract in that sense. It can be broken, but the breaking doesn’t end it.

Covenant is a translation of the Hebrew word berith, used in the Hebrew bible to describe several different promises made by God. The first comes at the end of the story of Noah; the storm has ended, the waters have receded, and Noah, his family, and all of the animals aboard his ark have survived. A rainbow appears in the sky, and according to the story this is a symbol of the divine promise not to send such a destructive flood ever again. It is a covenant between the God of the bible and every person and living thing. Genesis, the book in which Noah’s story appears, doesn’t say much more than this, but the Jewish tradition holds that the agreement between God and everything that lives is not one-sided. Humanity’s side of the equation is to obey a simple set of ethical commandments – not to kill or steal, for instance.

There are at least four more covenants presented in the Hebrew bible, in which God makes some further promise, and the gift of that promise caries some new responsibility. Each new covenant seems to get more specific: Noah’s rainbow covenant applies to all people. Abraham’s covenant covers his family and all his descendants: that they will grow numerous and have an abundant place to live. The commandments received by Moses, the 613 mitzvot – the positive and negative provisions of Jewish practice – are supposed to apply only to Jews. The last two covenants that followed apply only Judaism’s priests and kings. Each covenant establishes a connection, a relationship, between the Holy One and some person or group of people. It is a relationship built on some divine promise of mercy or generosity which is linked to some set of responsibilities for the people who receive it. The Jewish festival of Passover, which will be observed later this month, celebrates the events that led to the covenant of Moses: the story of enslaved Hebrews gaining their freedom, and then taking on a set of religious laws and obligations.

The Christian tradition, having a Jewish teacher at its center and having been led for its first hundred years by unorthodox Jews, recognizes basically the same set of covenants. Christian orthodoxy, however, holds that they have been made mostly or entirely irrelevant by a new covenant, established through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The annual commemoration of that story is also coming up at the end of the month. Christianity’s new covenant applies to all people and grants atonement for sin on the basis of faith in Jesus. It’s a broad promise, like the one given to Noah, but it’s more transactional than the earlier covenants of the Hebrew bible: in orthodox Christian understanding, if you do not believe, you are not forgiven. The new covenant idea is also all wrapped up in something called supersessionism, the idea that Christianity superseded and replaced Judaism. The terrible, painful legacy of hatred and violence perpetrated against Jews by Christians in the last eighteen-hundred years should rightly make us uncomfortable with such a theological idea.

Our Universalist and Unitarian ancestors, diligent heretics that they were, also took issue with the doctrinal understanding of the new covenant. They offer us several alternate understandings. One, that the death and resurrection of Jesus did create a new covenant of forgiveness of sin, but that that forgiveness is truly universal, and faith is not a requirement for it. Another understanding was that the Easter story didn’t create a new covenant, it only illustrated the eternal truth of God’s mercy and again, forgiveness is available to all, not just professing Christians. And a third version holds that the spiritual generosity of the divine was always active and present, and that the truth or untruth of the resurrection simply doesn’t matter. The capacity to help and to harm has been entrusted to every person and that, in itself, is a profound display of kindness and trust. Our response should be to return that generosity in kind.

This is where our current understanding of covenant finds its strongest roots: not an exchange of forgiveness for faith, but an acknowledgement of life’s gifts and a gratitude which requires that those gifts be

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used creatively and lovingly. Just as Noah’s covenant was marked by a rainbow, a beautiful manifestation of the natural world, Unitarian Universalists have looked to the world around us, to what we can experience for ourselves, in order to understand the covenant of which we are a part. That project has been a part of this congregation for much longer than there have been Unitarian Universalists here. Our congregation’s founders were anti-establishment Christians, conservative in their theology but radically liberal in their organization. So when this community was first gathered its members followed the practice of establishing a covenant for themselves, to describe what they were for and about.

Members of this congregation and others like it were said to “own the covenant” of their respective churches. These statements might be relatively short and general, or sometimes much longer and detailed; all were centered on the practice of Christianity and how it was to be expressed by the people covenanting together. Unlike those of the Hebrew bible, there was no explicit divine voice to intone the words of these covenants, nor was there the orthodox doctrine

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of old European Christianity to give each congregation exactly the same words to live by. Each community had the duty to arrive at these agreements themselves, based on their own understandings and experiences.

This meant that the wordings of these congregational covenants could change, and in fact here in Beverly they did change several times over the centuries. New members were born or joined, old members died or left, and even long-standing stalwarts could have changes of the heart or mind. As this congregation moved from conservative to liberal Christianity, to the heresy of Unitarianism and eventually to the post-Christian orientation of Unitarian Universalism, the written expression of our deepest shared commitments naturally changed as well.

There’s a funny little example of this same process at the national level of our movement. The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations also has a covenant shared between its member communities. If you open the hymnals in front of you to just before the first hymn, you’ll see a passage from our bylaws articulating this covenant. It’s made up mostly of two lists: the principles which we affirm and promote, and the sources which inform our faith. The current version has seven principles and six sources, but most of you will find that your copy only has five sources, because just two years after the first printing of this hymnal, new wording was approved to add a sixth source. Being dedicated lovers of religious music here, we bought our hymnals promptly in 1993, and ended up with copies that were very quickly made out of date. Only the few of you who have additional copies purchased later will find the current list of all six sources in yours.

Today, in our congregation, the affirmation we recite together each Sunday follows in the tradition of the covenants our forbearers used: it describes some of what we are for and why we are here. But we also recognize that it is not the end of all meaning and purpose – it is only a beginning. Words, on lips or paper, can be powerful and important, but unto themselves they do not make a covenant, exactly. It is more that they are expressions of a covenant, something that exists beyond words. In the chalice lighting we recite each Sunday, we witness that there is a unity which binds us together. Covenant is the set of mutual, constantly renewing promises that come from the recognition of our profound connection. Holiness dwells in and is accomplished by that promise. If you are looking for God in this understanding of covenant, that is where you will find it. Because we are constantly polishing and reforming the words and ideas that express our covenant, it can and will change. And because we make these changes together, on the basis of our own experiences and insights and the lessons we have learned from living in and observing the world, each covenant is an expression of the universe.

Things being as they are, my teacher used to recite. It was his way of pulling us out of the realm of ideals and into the world of reality. But our covenant, our understanding of our obligations to ourselves and each other and the world, and to our highest purpose known as God or any other name, this functions on the same principle. We look out, and in, and consider the universe. Things being as they are, what ought we to do? How should we live and work and worship together? For now, our answer, for which I am glad, is this: our spirit is love, our law is service, and we owe one another peace, truth, and mutual help.


[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Genealogy of Morals”


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