At Shawnee Mission UU Church, Lenexa, Kans., where I have been a member now for some five years, we are following a thematic approach to worship. Each month, there is a theme to which the worship should be tied.
September’s theme was “covenant.” As I haven’t posted in a while, and haven’t posted other than sermons in quite some time, I thought I’d take my own crack at this. What does covenant and being in covenant mean to me? It seems most connected to the Seventh Principle that promotes “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” At a very basic level, we are all in covenant with one another, in that we are part of a closed system. Our actions, and inactions, have effects beyond ourselves. As such, whether we like it or not, our connection puts us in relation with the rest of existence. There is no way to escape this connection. Some might look at this closed system as something like a “cage match,” where two fighters are put in a cage and fight until one or, sometimes both, I imagine, are unconscious. One could acknowledge the interconnected web and still despise it, and still look at it as “every man (or woman) to him (or her)self.” In this Social Darwinian view of the interdependent web, it would be our job to fight for our side and for our opponents to fight for theirs, with the fittest surviving and thereby bettering the world.
But such belligerent behavior seems to violate the idea of “respect” that is in the seventh principle. One does not, I suppose, have to respect another to be in covenant with one another, at least in the sense of having some agreed upon set of rules. Treaties between countries that cannot stand one another would constitute covenants established to halt, if only briefly, the fighting between them. Our own Constitution is a covenant between the United States, some of which cannot stand other states or regions.
But is a covenant nothing more than a contract? I think it is a contract, and I think that the more explicit we make the contract (always allowing for improvement), the more satisfactory that contact will be. We all have stories and tapes running in our head of the world and how it should be, and none of those stories or tapes is likely a completely true representation of the world beyond our heads. As long as those stories and tapes and assumptions are unstated, no discussion can happen. By making them explicit, by trying to come to some understanding of what makes us tick, and enabling interaction between people, we can, I think, reduce the amount of suspicion and misunderstanding.
That is easier said than done. Our stories, our tapes, our prejudices are familiar to us. Right or wrong, they are part of us, and we hate to see them challenged. In agreeing to enter a relationship with others, and into some sort of covenantal relation, we are opening up all that to possible revision, and that’s scary. So the first step is acknowledging that a relationship already exists (due to the closed nature of the system in which we are located), and then, taking a leap of faith to say “I do” to community. That, too, is not easy. For some, solitude is very much a refuge, and community, even when we don’t expect monsters, is scary. But this is a necessary first step to building community and building and maintaining a covenantal relationship.
Is covenant necessary? I think that we are bound together as part of the interdependent web, and take that as a given. Failure to establish covenant and to then try to live within the covenantal bonds established will have an effect — in looking out only for ourselves, we’ll tear and tug at this web. The web cannot break, but I imagine we can make quite a mess of it, making building covenant and growing community all the harder.
Unlike story, which is often set in the past, and often the distant past (“once upon a time” or “long, long ago”), covenant is very much story/definition in the present with a view to the future. When we make a promise one to another, we do so partly out of self-interest, but also in a recognition that the other must be recognized and valued. And, in daily keeping our promises (assuming these promises are well-intentioned and loving), we not only build community, but ourselves as important parts of that community.