What do you think: can a person, with genuine integrity, make a promise they know they are likely to violate?
But why on earth would I or anyone want to make such a promise anyway?
I speak for myself when I say, Because I can’t help it!
The Universalism in my Unitarian Universalism tells me that God (or nature) has implanted in me an irresistible impulse to aim for the biggest good I can envision at any given time.
And the biggest good I am envisioning right now is for the Spirit of Love to reign in my life and in the world at large.
Do you join me in that? Do you want that for yourself too? For the Spirit of Love to reign in you, and you want everyone to get in on that?
How can we not give ourselves in promise to that, to try as best we can to make it real?
That big promise can be seen at work in so many ways.
Perhaps it’s your wedding day, and you’ve incorporated Paul’s immortal words about love in your wedding vows: “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. […] 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. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” ”And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Through wedding vows you’ve promised to love another person all the days of your life, and this is one particular way you will allow the Spirit of Love to reign in your life.
Same thing when you join a team of folks in some project that helps heal brokenness in the world, like poverty.
Same thing when you are part of a congregation that is welcoming a newborn life, and the minister asks you to remember your excitement about taking on something you’ve always wanted—and then to remember the anxiety that came with it, about how big the task was, how many are the ways things can get tough. The minister asks you to remember times you needed reassurance and a helping hand. And then the minister asks you to promise: Does this congregation dedicate itself to support this child and this family? And you the congregation say WE DO.
They are all promises to allow the Spirit of Love to reign in our lives.
And we just can’t help making them!
And we fail all the time.
Paul says, “Love is patient; love is kind; […] It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” But what about that time in your primary relationship when you asked your partner, Where do you want to go out to dinner, honey? I’m open to anything. And she says A, and you go naaa, so she counters with B, and you go hmmm, so she says C, and you go ugh, so she offers D, and your eyes light up, and it’s also the restaurant you wanted to go to in the first place but you didn’t want to appear pushy, but you are being pushy.
You’ve violated your promise.
Or maybe you yelled at someone on your social justice team, as you were working on that project to help heal poverty, because according to you they weren’t doing it right.
Or maybe you were asked to volunteer in our children’s religious education program, which that child the congregation just dedicated participates in, and which is your opportunity to directly show kindness to him or her; but you don’t volunteer, and you make no effort at all to engage that program or any of the children in the congregation.
You’ve violated your promise.
And still we promise, in 101 ways, to allow the Spirit of Love to reign in our lives.
So by God let this big promise (and all the smaller promises that are its vehicles) not be a contract, because when contracts are broken there is no more contract, and there are also dire consequences. Just think of the contracts in your own life and what happens when they get broken: maybe you are evicted from your home or apartment, maybe you lose your job, maybe you get sued, or something else equally consequential happens.
Let our big promise not be a contract; let it be a COVENANT instead. Let it be an ASPIRATION that is honest and open. Let it be a WAY you hope to travel, and you will stray, but it never fails to call you back. “We can join one another,” says poet Wendell Berry, “only by joining the unknown…. You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way.”
Universalists have historically disbelieved in eternal hellfire and damnation because they believed that humankind’s relationship with God is based not on a contract (which, when you violate, you go to hell) but on a covenant that never gives up on anyone.
Only covenant makes sense when we talk about the largest promises we make to ourselves and to the people we care for and to the earth and to the Sacred Ground of All Being.
That’s what we’re talking about today. What it means for us as Unitarian Universalists to be a people united by covenant as opposed to creed (where everyone believes all the same things, and if you don’t believe, you don’t belong).
I want to build this covenant vision logically, from foundation level to next level to next and then next, all the way to answering the question that started the sermon today, about integrity.
(As a side note, there’s so much history behind what I am about to say, going all the way back to our Pilgrim ancestors who stepped onto American soil in 1630, but l’ll tell that story another time. For now, just the basic vision, with a bit of history salted and peppered in.)
We already know the foundation level. Wanting the Spirit of Love to reign in our lives and in the world.
But then here is what we also know. No one can be a person all by themselves, let alone a deeply moral and spiritual person. My Universalism in particular helps me see that if my natural instinct to aim for the best I can imagine at any given time is not developed and educated, then in my ignorance I’m very likely to fall in love with a vision of the good that is way too small. I, a being primed for what is best, may very possibly do what is worst. So I go in fear of trying to be a moral and spiritual being all by myself. I can’t afford not to humbly acknowledge my predicament of unwisdom and blind spots and not knowing that I don’t know I don’t know!
The need for covenantal community follows from this logically. People promising to walk together in the ways of Love, known and to be known. People coming together to be the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. People singing a hymn like this:
Let love continue long,
and show to us the way,
Go back to 1630. It’s John Winthrop, soon to become the first governor of Massachusetts, and he’s speaking to his fellow Pilgrims as they sail on the ship Arabella towards their destination in New England. The boat is rocking, everyone hears the wind and the ocean waves and the creaking of the ship timbers, and John Winthop says, “Now the only way to avoid . . . shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. . . . [W]e must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. […] So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”
Note how Winthrop pictures the Pilgrim situation as that of a potential shipwreck. But if people pull together and not apart, the resulting community will be a place where the ship of Love sails safely to port.
In our time, one important call for covenantal community comes from activist MickeyScottBey Jones. Explicit and intentional racism is one thing, but what about well-intentioned people whose racism is unconscious? The solution is relationship. Relationship becomes “the abrasion that agitates enough to make a way forward. Relationship, consistent and ongoing encounters with people and perspectives different than our own—it smooths the way for the sacred, even as it rubs us raw. There is a holy abrasion of the spirit born in deep relational encounters across differences. We, as congregations and as a movement, exist to be instruments of those very encounters.”
This is a spiritual-beings-having-a-human-experience kind of journey we are talking about, lived through relationships in covenantal community, and now comes another layer to the vision: the need for reason. The Rev. Alice Blair Wesley, a delightful authority on covenantal theology, puts it like this: “Loyalty to the spirit of love simultaneously commits members of the free church to the best understanding of truth we can attain, and that means reasoning. Precisely because they loved, the laypeople of New England wanted to reason well about truth and about facts. That is why a learned ministry was so important to them.”
And not just them. Us too. When Love stirs in our midst, and it’s calling us to be agents of Love in the here and now, and we want to heal both conscious and unconscious racism, we want to heal poverty, we want to do these and other hard things, we better be willing to study and discuss and dispute and conference and talk and talk and talk. We must know the history. We must know the science. We must know the facts. Our action must be informed because we care, and we want to minimize wasted energy and effort.
This directly leads to yet another level of the vision of covenantal community. The technical term it’s given in Unitarian Universalist circles is “congregational polity,” which means that each individual Unitarian Universalist congregation governs itself. This congregation now and forever has the power and the right to call its own minister, to elect Board leaders, to decide how to spend its money, to decide whether or not to purchase or sell a piece of property. Nothing beyond us has any right or authority to make such decisions for us. But the all-important thing to know is that this way of organizing expresses a theological rationale: that we are a people in earnest discernment about what Love is calling us to be and to do here in Atlanta, Georgia, and we know best about that because … we’re here! We’re in it! But when folks elsewhere and at-a-distance impose their views on us and tamper with us, we’re not able to authentically respond to the movement of Love in our midst. Someone else’s agenda gets in the way. Our polity is congregational exactly because our theology is covenantal.
Because our reason for being is hearing clearly Love’s call to us right in the thick of Atlanta.
Our only reason for being.
And now, the last level to the vision of covenantal community, and coming home to the question that started the whole sermon, about integrity. Can a person, with genuine integrity, make a promise that they know they are likely to violate?
Yes they can, if they are humbly willing to allow themselves to be brought back to the path when they stray.
“Herein lies,” says Alice Blair Wesley, “the free church concept of discipline. If any member’s actions, or their attitude – ‘carriage,’ our ancestors called it- – If any member’s ‘carriage’ seemed scornful or sarcastic or sullen or ungenerous, he or she would likely be called upon the next afternoon by the Elder to ‘cleer’ things. Members of the free church discipline one another by reasoning together in love, whenever any members see it as needed.”
There can be no integrity if there is no humility to accept discipline.
Now some folks like to quote the Fourth Principle (“a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”) or the Fifth Principle (“the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process”) and this becomes their justification for doing whatever they want and seeing themselves as exempt from discipline. Note, by the way, how they conveniently skip over the “responsible” part in the “free and responsible search.”
There is no integrity to this line of argument.
Someone shared something with me recently. She said, “While I love the family I have crafted at UUCA, the current disharmony over Project Phoenix is substantially interfering with the feeling of family and camaraderie that has brought such comfort at UUCA. I wish as we discuss the current issues around moving to our permanent home, we could practice our first principle as much as the 5th one. Treating each other with kindness and respect seems to me to be the basic standard of any communication we have with each other, regardless of the topic.
“The current disharmony and acrimony that has recently been spewed on The City makes me wonder, to a degree, why I bother trying to re-find my place at UUCA, makes me want to refrain from coming to Sunday service, and makes me a bit nervous about what size of check to write each month. I hope whatever takes the place of The City will be a kinder, better place.”
I hope so too.
There’s nothing wrong about things being tough, and the road ahead uncertain. Listen to Wendell Berry again: “We can join one another only by joining the unknown…. You do not know the road; you have committed your life to a way.”
We don’t know the road, and we don’t have to.
We just need to stay committed to the way of covenant, so that our audacious promise to allow Love to reign in our lives has integrity.
389 years ago, when John Winthrop was deep in his anxiety about the whole Pilgrim venture shipwrecking, he put forward a clear vision of discipline: “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.” The language is old but precious. “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities.” In other words, what do you insist on, even as you may know it’s not absolutely necessary, and you might even be hurting another by doing it?
Again and again, we will break our covenant.
Again and again, let us be called back to it.
Love’s reign in the heart and in the world relies upon our integrity.
Let us be people of integrity.