“Covenant”

Worship Script 3


Covenant
Worship Script (3 of 4)

 

OPENING WORDS

Whatever your name,

Whatever your story,

Whatever you've done in your life,

And whoever you've loved,

You are welcome here.

You are welcome here

Not only in half-measure, or with reservation,

But for all that you are,

All you have been,

And all that you'll be.

Come into this hour with hearts open,

Ready to meet that great and generous

Spirit of Love

 

HYMN #2 Down the Ages We Have Trod

 

 FIRST READING
“When God makes a covenant with us, God says: 'I will love you with an everlasting love. I will be faithful to you, even when you run away from me, reject me, or betray me.' In our society we don’t speak much about covenants; we speak about contracts. When we make a contract with a person, we say: 'I will fulfill my part as long as you fulfill yours. When you don’t live up to your promises, I no longer have to live up to mine.' Contracts are often broken because the partners are unwilling or unable to be faithful to their terms.

But God didn’t make a contract with us; God made a covenant with us, and God wants our relationships with one another to reflect that covenant. That’s why marriage, friendship, life in community are all ways to give visibility to God’s faithfulness in our lives together.” 
― Henri J.M. Nouwen

 

SECOND READING
“…Then another porpoise broke the water and rolled toward us. A third and fourth porpoise neared. The visitation was something so rare and perfect that we knew by instinct not to speak—and then as quickly as they had come, the porpoises moved away from us…Each of us would remember that all during our lives. It was the purest moment of freedom and headlong exhilaration that I had ever felt. A wordless covenant was set, and I would go back in my imagination, and return to where happiness seemed so easy to touch.”
― Pat ConroyBeach Music

 

HYMN #10 Immortal Love

 

STORY FOR ALL AGES

In the Bible, in the book of Genesis, there is a very strange story.  It goes like this.  Abraham, who had been specially blessed by God, was commanded by God to go up on a mountain-top with his only son, Isaac.  Up there, Abraham was commanded to bind his son Isaac and then to slay him.  It's a gruesome story, and you can tell in the story that Abraham is doubting whether he should do it--he obviously does not want to.  But he trudges onward.  And Isaac follows.  Up on the mountain, Abraham binds Issaac--ties him up with a rope--and it is as if he is going to do this terrible deed, when, in a nearby bush, he sees a ram.  So, he sacrifices the ram, and spares his son.  Many people over the years have tried to make sense of this story.  Some people believe that the story lifts up this dilemma--this hard decision--that we sometimes face, as people.  The dilemma is whether to honor our family relationships, or to honor what we understand as the call of love, or the holy.  That's hard to hear in this story, because to sacrifice Isaac is so gruesome a prospect.  But if we hear it as a dilemma between following the instructions and obligations of love, versus following our allegiance to the people we love, we can begin to see how it is a dilemma that we might have known in our own lives.  Have there been times when your family or loved ones compelled you to go against what your heart was telling you was the right thing to do?  This is part of the challenge in maintaining different covenants: ones with people we love, and ones with the source of all love.  Something to think about in the week ahead!

 

MEDITATION

Breath of life,

Spirit of Peace,

Rest among us now.

Be with us in our re-dedication

To lives of powerful purpose.

Be with us in our bravery,

As we attempt to change old habits,

And to live how we have intended to live

Be the grace that catches us when we fall

And the generosity that shows us

New pathways or new doorways

When we have gotten blocked

Breathe into us, breath of life,

All new possibilities

For how we might live.

Shalom.  Blessed be.

 

CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN

Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives. As you do, you may briefly share what it is. We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.

 

Sermon

The Covenants We Keep

by Mark Stringer, minister, First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, Iowa

My seminary classmate was 30 years older than me. I sat in his small apartment, hoping for the kind of wisdom and guidance I had already come to know he might provide. At the time, I was only a few months into theological school and just over a year into my marriage.

The world in which I moved was heavy with transition and new ways of being. I was feeling the burden of all this change, and so was my marriage. The details of the challenges my spouse and I were facing don’t matter now. I suspect most married couples have endured similar pressures, especially during the early years of their covenant with one another to remain together “for better, for worse.”

I told my friend what I knew, laying before him the mystery of what was happening and the weight of it all. He listened patiently. When I was done sharing, a few tears were rolling down my cheeks. Silence hung in the room.

And then he spoke with the voice of a grandfather, which he was. He spoke with the perspective of a man who had lived through his own broken marriage, his own disappointments, his own reflections on what life had brought through circumstances he had chosen and those he had not. He spoke with well-earned confidence that he had something to say that I needed to hear.

“Mark,” he said. “You have to be strong.” More silence.

And that was basically it.

I know we chatted some more that night, but neither of us really needed to say much more. I had put my burdens before him and he had reminded me not only that I could carry them, but that I should. Or at least, that the covenant I had made with my spouse required that I try.

He didn’t say, “Mark, you have to be rigid.” He didn’t say you have to be angry. Or you have to be happy. Or you have to be vengeful, or oblivious, or passive aggressive, or forlorn, or committed to pretending that all is well even when it is not.

“Mark, he said, “You have to be strong.” Still, to this day, his words are the best marriage advice I have ever received.

Several years later, I was preparing to officiate a wedding for a couple not affiliated with our church. They asked me to preach a homily as part of the ceremony. This was a surprising request, considering that I didn’t know them all that well, and given that most couples I marry just want the ceremony and nothing but the ceremony. Nevertheless, I agreed. And I knew the homily I had to preach.

Theirs was an extravagant wedding. Held outside in downtown Des Moines, it involved dancers and antique automobiles and stringed instruments. When the time came for my homily, I closed the book from which I had been reading the words of the ceremony and spoke from the heart. I told the story of the early days of my own marriage, and how my wise friend had offered me guidance that had served me well ever since, guidance that I thought worth sharing with them.

“When things get tough,” I told the couple, “as they most certainly will, you have to be strong. That is the covenant you are making today…to be strong together.”

I sensed by the look in the bride’s face as I spoke that maybe I had not offered the homily for which she had hoped. In fact, I thought she looked a little angry standing there in her beautiful dress. I couldn’t blame her. Why would I, the hired help, distract from the fairy tale with the truth? I felt bad for raining a bit on this lovely parade, at least until after the service.

As I walked away from the revelry, the parents of both the bride and groom went out of their way to pull me aside and offer their gratitude for the words I had spoken. The dads offered me firm handshakes, the moms big hugs. They knew I had told the truth. And they knew that the truth matters. Having kept their covenants for many years, through what I have to imagine had been their own challenging times, they knew the rewards of being strong. They knew that being strong is what keeping a covenant is all about.

As parents wanting the best for their children, they wouldn’t want to inflict a narrow understanding of “being strong” on this couple, and neither would I. We wouldn’t want any married couple to commit to undying confidence in their covenant despite all evidence to the contrary. I wouldn’t want them to think being strong means uncritically accepting abuse or tolerating bad behavior without naming it and calling each other back to the covenant.

“Being strong” does not mean resignation to being trapped in an unhealthy or unsafe situation. The “being strong” I describe includes a willingness to honestly assess how the covenant is being lived and whether room exists for the health and growth of those bound in it. The “being strong” I suggest is the very means to the freedom we all deserve, a freedom that comes when we hold ourselves accountable with others to be the kind of people we want to be and to live the kind of lives we yearn to live.

When we are in covenant, being strong requires that together we hold the responsibility to remember, to celebrate, and even—when necessary—to mourn. Being strong means being willing to return, in our memory and in the moment, to the covenant we have made, to the shared vow to travel together to the very best of our ability, through all of the ambiguities, disappointments, and yes, the mistakes, of our lives together.

Being strong in covenant is not being certain of the destination toward which we are traveling or even the path that will take us there. Being strong in covenant is choosing to travel together despite all the uncertainties and maybe even because of them, unsure of where we are headed but knowing how much it matters that we are willing to move in directions we might not yet understand or predict.

We who have made a home in Unitarian Universalism understand covenant, too, for ours is a covenantal faith, a religion not bound in creed. We are not bound by shared understandings of the holy or of our final destination. We are united in our covenant to travel together, to hold ourselves and each other accountable to preserving the precious freedom for each of us to discern the ultimate as our hearts and minds allow.

We are bound in a covenant to the journey of unending revelation and discovery that unfolds when we open ourselves to the possibilities of creative interchange in community. We are bound in covenant to the journey itself, to a way of being.

When people ask me what the point of our religion is if we don’t all believe in God, I explain that we do not share a creed, but we do share a covenant, and that covenant to travel together through our differences is where our religion finds its meaning and its power.

We don’t always do it well, but the promise we keep with one another asks that we try. The point of our religion, I say, is our commitment to covenant, to a way of being together.

“We…covenant to affirm and promote” the principles of our Unitarian Universalist Association, “promising to one another our mutual care and support.” Many UU congregations recite covenants as a part of their services. The members of my internship congregation, the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois, still say together as part of their weekly worship a covenant their minister (James Villa Blake) crafted in 1894:

Love is the spirit of this church and service is its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

In my congregation’s weekly services, we share covenantal statements as well. We have a chalice lighting reading in which we call upon our “reason and our passion” to “lead us to be true to ourselves, true to each other and true to what we can together become.” We don’t name that truth, but we express our intention to pursue it, for the good and growth of all.

When we extinguish the chalice we say that we will “go from this place open to life, expecting to love, and prepared to serve.” We do not list specific promises of what our life, love and service will entail, knowing that they will mean different things to each person. And yet, I believe, these words are a covenantal statement, because when we say them and we strive to live them, we are agreeing that there is a larger purpose to our time together and that we are each responsible to carry that purpose forward.

When we welcome new members we affirm together the importance of this “workshop of common endeavor—a place of comfort and challenge,” promising to combine our “strength and talents” to “better shape the meaning of our lives” than we could alone.

When we dedicate children we promise to offer these young people our “caring, wisdom and trust,” and our dedication to “building a world worthy” of their “gifts of life and hope.”

Through these shared covenants we invite each other to be strong, to see that our unmet expectations and disappointments are less important than the promises we keep and renew with each other to help build and sustain the community we yearn to inhabit. We practice leaving space for the individuality of our companions even as we hold ourselves and each other accountable to the larger goals of our union—a nurturing of the compassion, humility and intimate justice so desperately needed in our world today.

In this faith, just as in marriage, we know that we may be disappointed. We know that things will not always go as we expect. We know that we have the right (and sometimes the responsibility) to leave. But my hope is that through our commitment to be strong in the face of adversity, through our discipline of being disappointed and staying anyway, through our practice of pursuing right relationship with our companions, we will do our part to nurture the peace, freedom and justice befitting the kind of people we most want to be and the kind of world we most yearn to see.

It is a world where more of us can more often be “true to ourselves, true to each other and true to what we can together become.”

 

HYMN #108 My Life Flows on in Endless Song (How Can I Keep from Singing)

 

BENEDICTION

Go out into this world,

Offering the promise

Of the love you've known here.

Carry it out generously,

Boldly, and Freely,

Joining your efforts with others,

Until all are united in love.

Go in peace.