April – From the Minister

Our theme this month is Promise: the practice of creating the world. A promise is a kind of pact, a vow, a spoken symbol of intention—a giving of your word. We live in cynical and jaded times, when vows spoken and heard are easily retracted, pledges (on the campaign trail especially) are easily denied, and promises carelessly dismissed. The world we inhabit really is created and defined by promises honored and broken, silent and spoken. A promise is an act of faith, for everyone involved. Long ago, and in congregations still, a promise was a covenant.

A covenant is not a contract. It is not made and signed and sealed once and for all, sent to the attorneys for safekeeping or guarded under glass in a museum. A covenant is not a static artifact and it is not a sworn oath: Whereas, whereas, whereas…. Therefore I will do this, or I’ll die, so help me God. A covenant is a living, breathing, aspiration, made new every day. It can’t be enforced by consequences but it may be reinforced by forgiveness and by grace, when we stumble, when we forget, when we mess up. Every Sunday here we repeat in unison the affirmation of James Vila Blake, “Love is the spirit of this church… ” Each week, quietly, aloud, I promise that I will “dwell in peace, ” and then I don’t live peacefully at all: by Monday afternoon or Tuesday at the latest, I’m living fearfully again, or acting meanly or self-servingly. I say that I will “seek the truth in love,” and then proceed to act quite otherwise, closing my ears and shutting down my open mind and heart, seeking instead the validation of my own narrow, safe opinion. I say, “our great covenant is to help one another,” and then I forget to do it. I’ve “broken my vows a thousand times,” as Rumi’s line from the old hymn reminds me, and yet, because I am held in and hold to a covenant, with the people in my church and with others whom I love, with convictions I cherish and principles I mean to practice, I turn to a different page in the same hymnal. I sing the line, “We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love, ” and I remember: a covenant is a promise, it is an aspiration, to go deeper in relation to ourselves, to our best intention, to our God, and to each another. A member of our congregation told me once, “Covenant is a promise I keep to myself, about the kind of person I want to be, the kind of life I mean to have, together with other people, and with all other living things.”

When we welcome babies in our church, when we welcome new members into the community, when we celebrate the love of beaming couples, when we ordain new ministers, we speak not in the binding language of contract, but in the life-sustaining fluency of promise, of covenant, from co-venir, to travel together. We will go together with you, child; we will travel together with you, friend; we will move together with each other toward the lives we mean to lead, toward the world we mean to have a hand in shaping, the world of compassion, equity, freedom, joy and gratitude. Covenant is the work of intimate justice, and we come to church to help each other keep the promises we’re proud of.