We practice theme-based ministry in my congregation at Pathways UU Church. Our monthly theme for September will be Covenant. One of my mentors, the Rev. Dr. Thomas D. Wintle defined covenant as “the promises we make to each other, the keeping of which make us who we are.” I like that definition. To break such a promise is to violate one’s self; to betray one’s own soul. Writing about the theology of marriage, Paul Palmer made the following comparisons between covenants and contracts:
“Contracts deal with things, covenants with people…Contracts are made for a stipulated period of time; covenants are forever. Contracts can be broken, with material loss to the contracting parties; covenants cannot be broken, but if violated, they result in personal loss and broken hearts. Contracts are secular affairs and belong to the market place; covenants are sacral affairs and belong to the hearth, the temple or the church. Contracts are best understood by lawyers, civil and ecclesiastical; covenants are better appreciated by poets and theologians. Contracts are witnessed by people with the state as guarantor; covenants are witnessed by God with God as guarantor… (Theological Studies 33, 1972).”
I like Palmer’s comparison here. I’ve also read, and I can’t remember where, that covenants are still in effect even after they are broken, whereas breaking a contract terminates its validity. Covenants are the glue for our Unitarian Universalist congregations. We are not held together by creed or dogma. The Common Cause of belief does not bind us together, rather it is the promises we make to each other about how to be together that keep us together. Covenants are powerful and we make light of them and stray from them at our peril.
I think we see an excellent example of this in the ongoing uproar over the Park 51 Islamic Community Center. The Bill of Rights and the entire Constitution is very much our national covenant. When we abandon it, we abandon not only the letter of our law, but our heart and soul. When we forsake our promise to make no law respecting an establishment of religion and outside the letter of the law, in our relationships with each other, take away the right of others to be and practice various faiths, we have broken covenant. When covenant is broken, we must call each other back to right relationship.
When the voices calling for right relationship to be restored are ignored and drowned out by those voices seeking to banish some from the community, community no longer exists and it is time to form new covenants. So where are we? Are we willing to keep, uphold and struggle to maintain our sacred promises?