It was gray today, overcast mostly, with low clouds shredding on the wind. Snow flurries on and off; a dusting overnight had melted by the time I got to the window this morning.
I am not eager for the snow to come. People forget how to drive in it during the months that it is not on the ground, and the first accumulating storm of the season usually results in an uptick in fender-benders and general anxiety.
We can do without more anxiety right now, really. There is plenty going around. It is a scant two weeks past the election and I have had little to say about it, at least directly and in public. My writing energy for the last couple of weeks went primarily into worship preparation for a short-notice preaching opportunity with the lovely folks at the Midcoast UU Fellowship this past Sunday.
I’m not posting whole sermons, or whole worship services, anymore; I’ve come to the sense that a worship service and particularly a sermon is something I prepare for a particular time and place and gathered body, and you can’t throw a stone into the same river twice. I also don’t write out full manuscripts these days, just long form notes, and the transitions work differently in spoken form than in writing.
But I also am still tumbling around what the Spirit gave me, which seems too timely to keep just between those of us who gathered this week.
We sing of community now in the making
In every far continent, region, and land;
With those of all races, all times and names and places
We pledge ourselves in covenant firmly to stand.
4th verse, “We Sing Now Together”
Hymn #67, Singing The Living Tradition
Almost any broad history of the US will mention the Mayflower, the sailing ship that brought the Pilgrims to New England in 1620. People who got educated up here also learned about the Mayflower Compact, the agreement that established governance for the English colony at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts.
I’m from away and I had to look it up. The story goes like this.
The passengers on the Mayflower were two different groups, with very different goals, quite literally in the same boat: the Puritans, who were mostly trying to get away from the institutional church; and an assortment of other folks seeking their fortune in the colonies for secular reasons. The ship was bound for Virginia but went off course in a storm. When they worked out where they were, it was November and they were just off Cape Cod. This was outside the territorial jurisdiction of the Virginia colony charter. When they realized their provisions would not get them to their original destination, the men of the expedition prepared and signed an agreement by which they would govern themselves until they could send back to England for the proper paperwork. This document, the Mayflower Compact, is interesting because it was based on Puritan congregational agreements – it was essentially church boilerplate repurposed for secular governance.
Any relationship includes implicit agreements – how we expect to be with each other – but when the chips hit the fan, it becomes important to make those agreements explicit, to put them into writing so we are, as we say, all on the same page. That’s what our ancestors did: writing out their mutual expectations of what right relationship would look like, and then signing their names to it – an active, public agreement, a commitment to participation in shared endeavor. They understood that by coming together for a shared purpose they would be stronger than would be possible separately.
Another word for this kind of agreement is “covenant.”
Covenant – this idea that community is the agreement of its members to be in (sacred) relationship with one another, in the presence of our highest good – is the direct institutional lineage of our Unitarian Universalist congregations today.
I woke up the morning after the election and realized that for me, a student preparing to serve in our ministry, the work I’m called to do just got a lot more complicated. Our nation, our communities… sometimes our families… are deeply divided around the outcome of the election. Vitriol, anger, resentment, prejudice and violence have been laid bare where we can’t ignore it anymore. If we had any comfortable illusions before, they are now shattered. The story we told about America, that story we thought we knew, has turned out to be at best terribly incomplete.
What does it mean, then, to live our values on this newly tumbled, broken ground?
We are a people of faith and conviction, committed to being in relationship with one another, to behaving in ways that are in accordance with our principles and grounded in our sources – and that has not changed. What has changed, perhaps, is our awareness, our consciousness of the gap between our ideal of beloved, relational community – and what is happening in the world beyond our walls.
This raw, new reality is daunting. For some of us, it’s dangerous. As I was preparing this service I realized that it feels to me that America itself is somehow “out of covenant”: the implicit rules that governed our ways of being one nation together have been thrown carelessly aside.
The language of covenant speaks deeply to me right now. Like those early settlers washed up on an unknown shore, we are all in this boat together. We need each other to survive.
As people of faith, as people of covenant, we are therefore called to two things: Continuing to work at right relationship with one another, within our beloved communities; and Building right relationships out there in the rest of the world.
Right relationship is messy. It is complicated. It is a practice, which means we don’t get it perfect every time. It means working to keep these promises made, to one another, in the presence of our highest good, even when it seems impossible.
Even when it feels like we have to choose between the things we value.
Even when there are no perfectly good options.
Let me be clear: Right relationship is not about “being nice.” It is not about “meeting in the middle” with those who violate our trust. Compromise and cooperation are great: they are useful tools – but not always the right tools for the task before us.
We are called to examine our actions – and our relationships, both within our communities and beyond their boundaries – in the light of our values. When I look back I probably ought to have done this more, but I can start now:
- “Respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person” does not imply the inherent worth of every idea or opinion.
- A “commitment to fairness and compassion in human relations” is not one-directional; we must insist on fairness and compassion from all sides.
- Our third principle pairs “acceptance of one another” with “encouragement to spiritual growth,” and that means we can say “No, you may not do that here” when we need to.
- Our commitments to democratic processes and the well-being of our interdependent world are lenses through which we must evaluate action, process, and public commitment.
And so on.
There is a lot of work to be done.
The real test of covenant is not in the initial making of that agreement to relationship — but rather in the returning to relationship when – not “if” but “when” – we fall short of our ideals.
It is the hardest work we will do.
And we are called to do it, we are all called to do it, over and over again. To have each other’s backs. To listen to the difficult stories. To not hesitate to speak or act when the values we cherish are torn apart in the public sphere. To not only call one another back to our best selves, among ourselves, but also to invite those outside our walls into right relationship, to draw the circle wide.
We are called to live our UU values as best we are able, knowing that our efforts will always be incomplete.
The work we are called to do is love.
Love one another, and be ready to trust each other’s love.
Love also the stranger, and be ready to welcome them into our ever-widening circle. (Our colonial ancestors were… imperfect… at that. That’s how we got Rhode Island.)
Most difficult of all, we are called as people of faith to love those with whom we have differences, sometimes deep dividing differences, and to call them into loving, mutually respectful relationship.
Over, and over, and over again.
This is not fluffy love. Fluffy love is great, but this is not that.
This is fierce love.
It is the hardest work we will do, and the most holy.
And we are all in this together.