Our Great Covenant

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May 23, 2004

Our Great Covenant

Unitarian Universalism is a religious tradition rooted in love, sustained by common values and propelled by an open search for truth and meaning. Unitarian Universalists gather as an interdependent community of faith and hope, bound by a covenant to love, trust and serve one another and the world. Today, at our last regular service of the year, Eric Severson will help us celebrate this covenant and this community.

Opening Words: “On the Pulse of Morning” by Maya Angelou

Choir Song: “Gloria in Excelsis”

Welcome to Our Fellowship

Chalice Lighting (#473 James Vila Blake’s “Love is the spirit of this church”)

Joys and Sorrows

Choir Song: “How Can I Keep From Singing?”

Community Donations / Offering

(Children may leave for RE)

Responsive Reading: #591 “I Call That Church Free” by James Luther Adams

Congregational Song: #346 “Come, Sing a Song with Me”

Time of Silence, Meditation and Prayer

Our Great Covenant,” Eric Severson

Congregational Response

Closing Song: #354 “We Laugh, We Cry”

Closing Words: “And Now We Take Our Leave” (unison)

Extinguishing of the Chalice


♥ Please join us after the service for refreshments and fellowship!

Please stand as you are able.
Thank you to Keith Belzer and Wendy Mattison for reading, to Becky Post for playing piano, to Norm and Evan Nelson for playing the prelude, and to the expanded choir for singing today.
May 23, 2004

Our Great Covenant

If you have read the fellowship’s annual report, or have been on a committee, or have attended or volunteered frequently, you know that we have been through and done quite a lot in the past year.

Two members of our community, Lucy Malzer and Mary Long, died. I want us to remember them.

We held a dedication ceremony for Lucas and Jacob Johnson.

We moved into this new space.

We gained 9 members.

We hired staff members.

We increased our average and total pledging amounts.

We brought the building fund balance to more than $40,000.

We revised our covenant and mission statements.

We were active with UUs at the district and national levels.

We had covenant and reflection groups, a number of social justice efforts, top-notch Sunday services. …

The list could go on.
These events and accomplishments reflect the strength, richness and vitality of our common life – of this body we have come to call the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse – and they deserve acknowledgment.
But today’s service is less a celebration of these accomplishments, and more a celebration of what brings us together in the first place and what holds us together.
Each of us attends this fellowship for different reasons, often in combination. Among them are these:

  • We find here love and acceptance

  • We like the intellectual stimulation

  • A need for reassurance and consolation

  • A need for redemption, or as Maya Angelou’s poem suggests, a need to find that each new hour holds new chances for a new beginning

  • A need to feel useful

  • Loyalty to someone or to some cause

  • A need to connect with something that transcends our experiences

  • To help us to be in relationship with the ultimate source of existence, that “spirit that bloweth where it listeth … and maketh all things new.”

  • A sense of responsibility to our forebears or to our children

  • A need for companionship and social activity

  • To be reminded that love abides

  • A need for silence in the company of friends

  • A need to sing and dance and laugh together

  • Coffee

For me it’s a combination of responsibility to my child, the transcendence I experience while singing, and loyalty to the ideals of this liberal religious movement called Unitarian Universalism.

For me it’s also something akin to this passage by actress, storyteller, and priestess Luisah Teish, called “Starting a Momentum.” She says,

There are times when I look at what human history has been and I say, oh, okay, there have always been people like us who get a momentum started and then it dies down and nothing becomes of it. And it’s a hundred years or so before those thoughts are resurrected. But there’s a little voice in my ears that insists that I continue. It insists that something really important is happening here, something that is going to have an effect here for years. Something that is going to make a significant change in the world.

I believe that most of us are fundamentally dissatisfied with the state of the world today – just read the headlines in any newspaper. The world seems to be full of brokenness, poverty and despair. But we also hold the conviction that a better world is possible. We look to Unitarian Universalism – its guiding principles and its litany of famous people: Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Horace Mann, Albert Schweitzer, Laurel Clark. We are immersed in a river of reformers and change agents.
Most of us look to this forward-leaning liberal religious tradition as a means to an end, and the end is what Luisah Teish suggested: making a significant change in the world.
These are the things that bring us together, I think. To help describe what holds us together, I could go into a long history of theological, social and organizational changes that have taken place over the centuries, but I will be brief.
One important strand of our tradition, Universalism, was the Christian belief that God loves us too much to punish anyone for eternity – that there is universal salvation. We continue today to affirm the saving, transforming power of love, and we strive to put it into action.
In 1963, not long after the merger of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association, six study commissions produced a report, called “The Free Church in a Changing World.” This report outlined three things that make Unitarian Universalism distinctive.
They are: Our attitude toward tradition, our belief in the free spirit, and our democratic system of governance, congregational polity.
How many of you are former Catholics? Then you especially know how important tradition is. Part of Christian tradition holds that Jesus Christ died to save us from eternal punishment for not only our personal sins but the inherent depravity and sinfulness of humanity. Today, we UUs hold instead that each person is inherently worthy of dignity and respect – indeed, in early Universalist language, is worthy of the love of God. And each person is ultimately responsible for his or her own conduct.
Our UU tradition says that our passage into heaven has been paid, not because of a historical figure’s vicarious atonement, but because all people are welcome there. To paraphrase an old joke, Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and Unitarians believe that people are all too good to be damned.
We neither embrace nor reject tradition completely. We keep whatever in the past has proven valid and try to let go of whatever has not. For example, holding the Sunday service at 10:00 has proven valuable, so we went back to it from our test of 9:30. But sharing a historical UU minute during the service did not prove valuable, so we let that go. I’m sure you have many more examples in your personal or family life.
Many of you know that I work for a Catholic publisher. I occasionally hear grumbling from some of my co-workers about the pope’s or the bishops’ council’s latest edict. I feel sympathy for these friends, struggling to live their faith but knowing that their consciences are at odds with church teaching. It, frankly, makes me glad I’m a Unitarian Universalist.
And there is a lot of pride in this fellowship around our being free spirits. We are quick to defend the right of conscience over the dictates of dogma. While it’s not true that we can believe anything we want, Unitarian Universalism is distinctive in being noncreedal. Questions of belief or theology are deliberately left open for individual interpretation.
As the “Free Church in a Changing World” report says, “We formulate our convictions as clearly as we can, but we regard our formulation as neither closed nor complete.” In other words, new truths may be revealed to us at any time, and we are free to change our beliefs based on our experiences. The revelation of truth is an open and ongoing process. And it is within this religious community that we test our beliefs against other people’s experiences.
For example, I could be a dyed-in-the-wool humanist with no patience for ritual or reliance on metaphor, but that pagan lady might say something to me today that might make me stop and think and adjust my beliefs – might make me appreciate the everyday rituals I do, like walking the dog or saying hello to the office receptionist where I work.
Changing our beliefs is not something we necessarily look forward to. But I would suggest that we do it more often than we might think. For example, as an introvert, I tend to keep my opinions to myself. But after a few conversations with people about how racist or sexist jokes hurt all of us by perpetuating prejudice, I learned that I have an obligation to speak up. I changed my beliefs about my influence on the world around me. So, we are free to believe what we wish and are responsible for testing those beliefs against experience.
Our democratic system of governance – congregational polity – we inherited it from our 17th century forebears, the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock. Essentially it is this: the local congregation has all the powers of a complete church; its existence and power rest in the free, deliberate consent of individual members; and all business shall be conducted in accordance with accepted rules of order. We take it for granted today, but it was revolutionary 350 years ago.
We UUs are not governed by a presbytery, a bishop, or a pope. As a congregation, we are free to define and fill our membership as we see fit. We are free to choose our own leaders. We are free to control our own property. And we are free to enter into association with other churches. We could merge with the local Quakers or Buddhists, for example.
In principle, we are not governed by the Unitarian Universalist Association. We are an independent, autonomous congregation voluntarily in community with thousands of other congregations. In practice, however, it is difficult to practice full autonomy when, for example, committees of the UUA determine who is and is not fit for ministerial fellowship, an issue I struggle with personally as I work toward ordination.
But the congregational form of governance allows for, as the report states, “a stable universe in which every unit is free, and yet moves in harmonious relationship with all the others.” We see this both as individual people within this congregation and as an individual congregation within the association. We are both free and responsible to one another.
When we deal with church government, we’re dealing with how people relate to one another. This is where the idea of covenant comes in.
A covenant is simply an agreement or promise.
I officiate at a lot of weddings. I find great fulfillment in doing so, and I take them quite seriously, because at their heart are the vows that people make to one another. Wedding vows are a type of covenant. In fact, history is full of agreements, promises, and other covenants.
In 1648, the Puritans of Massachusetts crafted a covenant that has come to be called the Cambridge Platform. They did so as a way to settle differences between local congregations and to persuade the Church of England that congregational polity was the best form of governance. The Cambridge Platform influenced both the Unitarians and Universalists through the centuries.
It influenced the association’s covenant between congregations, which we refer to as the seven principles and purposes. This is the covenant our congregation holds with other congregations.
We also have developed a covenant for how we as individuals will be together within this congregation. It is located on the back of your order of service. This covenant is the promise we make to one another. These are the ways we will be together. I would paraphrase our covenant like this:

  • We will love and care for one another.

  • We will encourage respect.

  • We will encourage open questioning.

  • We will explore and celebrate mystery and relationship.

  • We will nurture and teach our children history, tradition and values.

  • We will trust in the collective wisdom and covenant of all UUA congregations.

  • We will act to improve ourselves and our world.

Our covenant reflects what we value together: love, respect, trust, exploration, freedom to question, celebration, mystery, relationships, children, history, tradition, action and more.

Unitarian Universalism is a movement – a religious tradition – rooted in love, sustained by our common values and propelled by an open search for truth and meaning. We come together in an interdependent community – a group we love and treat with care – with a collective faith in and hope for peace, democracy, human development, the power of love, and much more.
We are bound by our covenant, as James Blake’s chalice lighting words said, to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another. (And I’ll bring you hope, a song of love, and a rose in the wintertime.)
This covenant, this movement, this community are things to cherish and to celebrate, but let’s not stop there. The world needs us! This vibrant, living tradition that we have chosen has so much to offer to help heal brokenness, eliminate poverty, end oppression, enrich lives and give people hope.
We are not about sin and damnation. As our closing song suggests, we are about life and love and being together – sharing, growing, questioning and believing. And we have a responsibility to use our religious freedom to improve the human condition.
So spread the news! Invite people to celebrate with us! Tell them why you are a UU. Follow the advice of UU minister Tracy Robinson-Harris, at last month’s district conference: “Talk to people you know; talk to people you don’t know; talk to people you never talk to.” And heed the words of 18th century Universalist preacher John Murray: (#704)
So, may we be generous, receptive, curious and thoughtful in living out our faith and in changing the world.
And Now We Take Our Leave

(our chalice extinguishing words)

Barbara Chatham

Before we gather here again--

May each of us bring happiness into another’s life;

May we each be surprised by the gifts that surround us;

May each of us be enlivened by constant curiosity;

And may we remain together in spirit ’til the hour we meet again.


Delivered at the presidential inauguration ceremony, January 20, 1993
A Rock, A River, A Tree

Hosts to species long since departed,

Marked the mastodon,

The dinosaur, who left dried tokens

Of their sojourn here

On our planet floor,

Any broad alarm of their hastening doom

Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,

Come, you may stand upon my

Back and face your distant destiny,

But seek no haven in my shadow

I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than

The angels, have crouched too long in

The bruising darkness,

Have lain too long

Facedown in ignorance,

Your mouths spilling words

Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out to us today,

You may stand upon me,

But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,

A River sings a beautiful song. It says,

Come, rest here by my side.
Each of you, a bordered country,

Delicate and strangely made proud,

Yet thrusting perpetually under siege

Your armed struggles for profit

Have left collars of waste upon

My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.

Yet today I call you to my riverside,

If you will study war no more.

Come, clad in peace,

And I will sing the songs

The Creator gave to me when I and the

Tree and the Rock were one.

Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow

And when you yet knew you still knew nothing.

The River sang and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to

The singing River and the wise Rock.

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew

The African, the Native American, the Sioux,

The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,

The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,

The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,

The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.

They hear. They all hear

The speaking of the Tree.

They hear the first and last of every Tree

Speak to humankind today.

Come to me,

Here beside the River.

Plant yourself beside the River.
Each of you, descendant of some passed-

On traveler, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name, you,

Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you,

Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then

Forced on bloody feet,

Left me to the employment of

Other seekers--desperate for gain,

Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede,

The German, the Eskimo, the Scot,

The Italian, the Hungarian, the Pole,

You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,

Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare,

Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am that Tree planted by the River,

Which will not be moved.

I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree,

I am yours--your passages have been paid.

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need

For this bright morning dawning for you.

History, despite its wrenching pain,

Cannot be unlived, but if faced

With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes

Upon this day breaking for you.

Give birth again

To the dream.

Women, children, men,

Take it into the palms of your hands,

Mold it into the shape of your most

Private need. Sculpt it into

The image of your most public self.

Lift up your hearts.

Each new hour holds new chances

For a new beginning.

Do not be wedded forever

To fear, yoked eternally

To brutishness.
The horizon leans forward,

Offering you space

To place new steps of change.

Here, on the pulse of this fine day,

You may have the courage

To look up and out and upon me,

The Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day,

You may have the grace to look up and out

And into your sister’s eyes,

And into your brother’s face,

Your country,

And say simply

Very simply

With hope--

Good morning.

“Our Great Covenant,” May 23, 2004, Eric Severson

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