Sacred Promises

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?

3 thoughts on “Sacred Promises

  1. Hey Tony–

    Wow. I am just starting theme based ministry this year at Fourth U; guess what my September theme is? LOL! I would love to share sermons and resources, and learn more from you about how you do it.

    In addition, could you send me contact information for the author of the seven sermons of Unitarian Universalism? We very much want to teach that class this year; we have a lot of new people who love our faith but don’t know our history. Hope you have a wonderful year; see you at GG!


  2. We are the promises that we make. They are as much a part of us as our hands, our feet and everything in between. The integrity of the soul within us is determined by how well we hold to the sacred trusts we form with others, and with our world. Too many people seem to feel that we can change our minds and our path any time it is not expedient or it becomes uncomfortable for us to remain true. What they do not seem to realize is that once those sacred bonds are tossed aside, trodden upon and left for dead that among the broken remnants are pieces of themselves. Without our word and our bond we are much less than whole and the damage reaches not just within ourselves but to those who we have forsaken and those who’s little eyes seek models for their own lives. The consequence is far reaching.

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