covenant groups

1 Feb

We Covenant Together

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, January 30, 2011

Each week, as we gather for our Celebration of Life, we recite our covenant – something this congregation has done for many, many years. The covenant that we use is, in fact, held dear by many Unitarian Universalist congregations and was first adopted by the Church of All Souls, in Evanston, IL in 1894. The words were written by James Vila Blake, a Unitarian Minister. Not only has the Blake Covenant stood the test of time, but one could argue that it’s appeal continues to spread. I believe that this spread is due, at least in part, to our deepening understanding of Unitarian Universalism as a covenantal faith, as opposed to a creedal faith.

If you have been here for a while, you have hopefully heard before that we are not creedal – that there is no test of belief that you must pass in order to be a Unitarian Universalist, or to join this church. Indeed, we believe many different things about the meaning of life, the universe, why we die and how to live. This is one of the aspects of our faith that has so much appeal to many of us – that our beliefs can grow and change as we grow and change.

Instead of being creedal, we are a covenantal faith. It is not our beliefs that bring us together, but instead is our agreement to be in relationship with each other as we search for truth and meaning together. That is what a covenant means – it is a relationship based contract. For instance, marriage is a covenant, in which each participant promises to treat and support the other person in particular ways.

Most religions make covenant an important part of their faith. But there is still confusion around what it means to be a covenantal religion, and what it means to be in covenant with one another. Since today is the kickoff for signing up for our brand-new small group ministry program called “Covenant Groups” – I thought it would be a good idea to take a few moments to talk about what Covenant means, and what it means when we say that we covenant together….

The Rev. Lisa Ward writes that “A covenant is not a definition of a relationship; it is the framework for our relating. A covenant leaves room for chance and change…It claims: ‘I will abide with you in this common endeavor, be present as best as I can in our becoming.’ This calls for a level of trust, courage and sacrifice that needs to be nurtured, renewed and affirmed on a regular basis.” This is the main thrust of many of the homilies that I give at weddings – that the vows said at the wedding are not meant as a one-time deal, but instead much be chosen each day.

A covenant must be chosen, renewed and affirmed on a regular basis – this is why we recite our covenant each week: to remind ourselves that we strive to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another. Each week, we re-choose it and renew our commitments to each other and to this church.

The Rev. Grace Simmons points out that, in contrast to a creedal faith, Unitarian Universalists “don’t need agreement about such things as the meaning of life, the existence of God, the possibility of an afterlife or other topics usually included in creedal statements….[Instead, being in covenant together] involves companioning, offering support and challenge, and nurturing relationships that are respectful and caring. We want to support each other theologically, emotionally, and practically – and to challenge each other in these same areas.” Going back to our Story for All Ages, Swimmy and the little red fish had to trust and respect that each would do their part. They had to work together, in relationship with each other, in order to make their big fish illusion work.

When we are in a healthy covenantal relationship, we can find the trust, safety, and encouragement to grow as individuals. Rev. Susan Fredrick Gray: “It is covenant that brings us out of isolation, out of selfish concerns, out of individualism to join ourselves to something greater, to become a part of a community that is working to practice love, to dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge and wisdom together, to find better ways to live our lives and live in the world. This, even without creed, even without shared beliefs, is sacred, religious work. … our covenants call us, not just into relationship with one another, but into relationship with a larger calling. Our covenant in not just an agreement of how we will try to live together, it is also a essential statement of what we hope to do together. It is also an expression of why it matters that our community is here, how it will change our lives and how it will make a difference in the world.”

Being in covenant changes lives. It is that simple, and that difficult. To open ourselves to another, to trust, to challenge, to grow. These are not easy things, but when we make a commitment to covenant with another, we grow as individuals and, too, we create something new, something that did not exist previously. Something that changes us, and can change the world.

Think of the song we sang just a few minutes ago – May I be filled with loving kindness. When I choose to enter into a relationship, it is usually because I want something out of it. But as I grow in understanding and commitment, I realize that I can do something for you, as well. And then we realize that together, we have made something that wasn’t there before. May I be filled with loving kindness, peaceful, at ease, and whole. May you be filled with loving kindness, peaceful, at ease, and whole. May we be filled with loving kindness, peaceful, at ease, whole.

This is the goal of the covenant group program we are starting – to create something that wasn’t there before, that fills participants with loving kindness, and gives you a way to grow in your search for truth and meaning.

These small groups of 6 to 10 people commit to each other to meet monthly for two hours, between March and September of this year. Groups are led by trained facilitators and will be using a format and topic that I will provide – all groups will be doing the same curriculum and I hope to tie the Covenant Group topic into at least one sermon each month.

The members of each individual group agree on how they will be together, how they will treat each other, and what the group expectations are. Groups offer a safe environment in which to know and be known, to care for each other, and to search for truth and meaning.

Many congregations have found that this type of small group ministry program has been transformative for their churches. It has fed the members in ways that previously, they were spiritually hungry. Sunday morning Celebrations of Life are very, very important, but are not enough to nourish us at a personal, intimate level. Covenant Groups have revitalized the ministry of a church by encouraging deep relationships that inspire growth. It is an honor and a pleasure to be starting our own covenant group program here at First Unitarian, and I hope that you will be able to participate.

Everyone aged 15 and older is invited to sign up for a Covenant Group. It does not matter if this is your first time here, or if you have been attending for decades. The only requirement is your willingness to commit to being in a covenantal relationship with the group.

We have tried to remove any barriers to participation, by offering childcare for some time slots and for scheduling some at times where a meal is available. If there is some reason you are thinking you just can‘t sign up, please don’t hesitate to let me know and we will work to remove any other barriers that we identify.

It is as our opening words said – words that are printed on the covenant group brochure you should all have found on your seats as you came in: we gather in covenant groups in “an attitude of openness, not knowing quite what will happen, yet daring to receive a new idea, a new experience, sustenance for our minds and our hearts.” I encourage you, if you are looking for a way to grow in your own faith or spirituality, if you are looking for a way to deepen your connection with this congregation and others in it, if you are looking for a place to express your love and to receive love in return, I encourage you to sign up for a Covenant Group. Something wonderful just might happen.

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