When I think of covenant, I think about weddings. Weddings are times when two people makes promises to one another, usually before witnesses. We call them vows, but I have always thought of them as covenants. Reverent, life-long promises, that each person will do their darndest to keep, recognizing that they are not perfect, that promises will be broken, and that making this commitment to one another also means forgiveness when a promise is broken, recommitting to one another when a promise is broken, and continuing to promise to one another after a promise is broken, all in the spirit of love.
I have officiated many wedding ceremonies, I think in the hundreds. In many of them the 1st letter of Paul to the Corinthians Chapter 13 from the Christian Bible is often read: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (NRSV)
The word that Paul used for love in this passage is agape (enduringword commentaries). Agape is not sexual love or parent-child love or even the love between friends. Agape “is … love that gives without demanding or expecting re-payment. It is love … given [even] to the unlovable or unappealing…[a person gives or expresses agape because they want to, not because they have to or have anything to gain or to prove]; … Strictly speaking, agape can’t be defined as “God’s love”… but it can be defined as a sacrificial, giving, absorbing, love. The word has little to do with emotion; it has much to do with self-denial for the sake of another.”
I am fairly certain that not many of the couples who have this passage read at their weddings realize the context and intent of this passage. Paul was speaking about intention/motivation. If a person has the gifts of speaking in tongues or speaking different languages, or has prophetic ability or extensive knowledge or powerful faith that could accomplish the impossible, or even if a person gives away their possessions or even their body; if a person does these things because they have to or for personal gain or pride or to prove their faith in god, or for any of a number of other selfish reasons, then these would not be acts of selfless, sacrificial, giving, absorbing, love. These acts or abilities would be termed “love” only if selflessly given freely to help another, with an open heart, not for personal gain, and without expectation of anything in return. This giving of love is intentional—often thought of as wanting to put another person’s needs before one’s own. And this giving may sometimes be sacrificial, because sometimes helping another person may result in the temporary or sometimes permanent sacrifice of one’s comforts or needs.
At the end of the service, I will read a story for the children, and the story today is the Good Samaritan. Now many of you know this story. A man is attacked by bandits and left for dead. Supposedly good people walk by him, ignoring him. The person that helps this poor fellow is someone unexpected, someone generally considered unlovable and unloving, a Samaritan. The Samaritan goes out of his way to help this person, giving of his own time and resources, to making sure this person is cared for and will continue to be cared for as he recovers.
I have read this story over and over and each time I get something new and different from it. Not only discovering new understandings of the underlying messages in the story, but how this story speaks to me about how I live my life, even as my life has changed. Lately, I have been thinking about what it says about the concept of covenant. Today I think of how this story speaks to the promises I make to myself about how I will treat others, my wife, my family, my friends, the people in this congregation, people I meet as I do the work of ministry, and strangers who come into my life beyond these walls. I keep in the forefront of my mind this idea of agape as I review the covenants that I make to myself and others—taking care of my needs and giving lovingkindness to myself as well as taking care of others and giving them lovingkindness, not for my benefit or gain, but at times being willing to put another’s needs before my own. I am not asking all of you to covenant to yourself or to others the same way I do, but I am asking you to consider both your needs and feelings and those of others in your life, even if considering the needs and feelings of others means that it might be a little uncomfortable or inconvenient or even a little sacrificial to you.
When I was much younger, in Catholic Catechism, I remember a nun teaching me that suffering, like Jesus’s suffering on the cross, was good for the soul; god respected you for suffering, and loved you even more. I am not advocating suffering for the good of others or for god’s love or even that suffering makes you a better person. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker writes (in Soul Work: anti-racist theologies in dialogue), “The doctrine of atonement valorizes violence as life-giving and redemptive. The interpretations of Jesus’s death on the cross as a saving event speaks of the violation that happened to Jesus as the will of God and the source of salvation. When this theological perspective prevails, either explicitly or buried within cultural patterns and norms, the violence and abuse that human beings experience or perpetuate becomes valorized as necessary and good for the salvation of the world. Victims of …injustice, identifying with Jesus, may interpret their suffering as necessary, holy, and redemptive. [Even] perpetrators of … injustice, identifying with God, may interpret their violence as necessary, holy, and redemptive.”
So here is the problem I am facing. How do the teachings of “suffering is good for the soul” and “god respects you for your suffering” and “suffering makes you a better person” land in a Black Lives Matter culture? What about the idea that “perpetrators of injustice, identifying with god, may interpret their violence as necessary, holy, redemptive” land in a Black Live Matter culture?
And here’s a really big question I’m grappling with: these biblical teachings, written by old white men thousands of years ago and passed down to us through the ages as sacrosanct teachings, how much are they part of the system of white supremacy that is baked into our culture? How does this all tie into covenantal relationships?
When considering a covenant with myself, I make promises that are consistent with my present world-view, values, and morals. I emphasize present, because these promises cannot be static—I will change, others will change, the world will change and so will my understanding of it. When I am making covenants with others, I must listen to them as we co-develop promises we will keep with one another and promises that we will continue making with one another, understanding that these promises will change as I change, as they change, as the world changes and our understanding of it. I come back to a definition of agape that involves making an attempt to put another’s needs, beliefs, feelings before my own. I am considering looking at what agape means a little more intentionally now, particularly in terms of a white man in a Black Lives Matter culture. For me, agape also means being willing to listen to those with whom I want to develop covenants with, without trying to impose my worldview on them. Actively listening, not just waiting for my turn to talk more. Radically willing to step outside of my own comfortable worldview and to step into a worldview that isn’t primarily shaped by me or this white supremacy culture we live in.
Given all this, when I facilitated a retreat for this Board this year, I invited them to consider the following covenant as a place to start in developing their own covenant for the retreat.
We covenant with one another:
● To embody in our lives the values that we proclaim—for us it is our Unitarian Universalist Principles;
● To use our power constructively and with intention, mindful of our potential unconsciously to perpetuate systems of oppression;
● To cultivate practices of deepening awareness, understanding, humility, and commitment to our ideals;
● To listen from the inside out, or listen from the bottom up (a feeling in your gut matters!);
● To Make Space, Take Space —step up, step back to help balance the verbose and the reticent;
● To adhere to Confidentiality — take the lessons, leave the details;
● To be open to learning;
● To building, not selling — when you speak, converse, don’t pitch;
● To affirm Yes/and, both/and;
● To value the process as much as, if not more than, you value the outcomes;
● To affirm self-care and community care — pay attention to your bladder, pay attention to your neighbors’ needs.
What do you notice about this covenant, besides the word “bladder”? Are there things in this covenant that are different from or the same as other vows, promises, covenants that you have made? Would you feel comfortable using this covenant or parts of it with a partner, spouse, family member, this church community?
I want to invite us into a different way of thinking about covenants and vows and promises. A way that pushes us to grow and learn and perhaps be a little uncomfortable, with the understanding that we can share from a position of abundance, whatever abundance we have to share. And that yes, every decision or outcome may be important, but the process of getting there, including how we treat one another, is at the very least equally important, if not more. We must risk making promises, even if we sometimes come up short, even if we break promises. We need to co-create a process to find our way back to relationship with those whom we value and the communities we value, through forgiveness, compassion, lovingkindness, and beginning again in love.
Let me close with this quote from Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Gretchen Haley: “What our faith asks of us, what our faith imagines for us, is that somehow, right at that moment when our hearts break, we will find our way to see through that heartbreak. We will stay put – not close off, not run away, not hurt back – but keep on being in relationship, doing what we can to repair the world and each other.”