The Crossroads of Covenant

Delivered at University Unitarian Church on Sunday, August 8th, 2021 at 9:30am. Video from the service can be found HERE.

Good morning siblings in faith! It feels good to be back in our sanctuary this morning. This is my first time in our pulpit since my ordination in March. Once again, I want to say “thank you” for your love and support in my work and ministry. It is an honor and privilege to serve University Unitarian Church, our Seattle community, and our larger faith, as a chaplain and spiritual care provider. It is filled with good and holy work. Work that has been difficult, and needed, in the time of pandemic. As chaplains fill an important role in meeting the psychospiritual needs of patients and staff.

We don PPE (personal protective equipment) and go into patient rooms to deliver the rites and rituals of death. We hold iPads up for families to see and maybe speak with their loved ones, since they cannot be at bedside due to quarantine restrictions. We gather clinicians together to hold space and decompress from long and costly shifts. We sit with parents and caregivers, children and friends, in parking lots and waiting rooms, buffering the shock of tragic news. We are not therapists or psychologists; though we are trained in those techniques. We are more like psychospiritual paramedics, stabilizing the mind and spirit in the midst of trauma. Getting human beings through sometimes the most difficult day of their lives.

Over the last 18 months I have seen hospital policies change back and forth, sometimes on the same day, responding to new data coming in from executives and medical professionals. Before the pandemic, the only time we wore masks was when patients had the risk of airborne infection. Now, we all wear them. Patients used to be able to receive visitors at bedside. Now, they must be cleared ahead of time. At their best, the policies and culture of the hospital systems I work in encourage the health and healing of our patients.

Except when they don’t. Because they’re not perfect. In my experience, one of the more difficult and morally injurious tasks I’ve had to do, is tell a spouse, partner, child, friend, that they can not be there when their loved one is dying. Because the risk of exposure is too great. And I’ve been cursed at. Pleaded with. Almost physically assaulted. An experience many clinicians can speak to. We WANT to say yes. And yet, we can’t; except sometimes, for those rare occasions because every case is different, we have broken policy because we could not say no. Like when a 40 year old mother of two sons, 10 and 13, was dying, and we snuck in their partner and children, because we HAD to. We had to weigh the letter of the law against the spirit of the law. We did our due diligence. And we got lucky. The infection didn’t spread.

18 months later, many of us are challenging some of these policies, as new information has come in. We know more about the risks. And I’ve learned that blanket policies without room for exception quickly become harmful, because human life and death is messy and complex. At best, the policies serve as a structure to make the best decisions we can in our mission; to help and heal. At worst, they are wielded like a club to force compliance regardless of the injury, to self and soul.

I’ve noticed that many institutions of human culture function in the same way as the hospital. We have our rules and laws, mores and unspoken expectations about how we will be together. The greatest of which, in my opinion, are the covenants we create which inspire us more fully into our humanity. One of which is our own Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

As much as its quoted, this is not a law. This is a faith statement. I don’t think it is an accident that the United States and its Federal Government in many ways functions like a church. The Declaration is also a covenant, for community and accountability. Because we all know the framers could to do better. At the time, many in the colonies did not have a right to life, liberty or happiness. Many were slaves. Many in power were slave owners. Still, they wrote the words and made the promise.

They formed a new nation, not so much in law or treaty, but in covenant. Because the final line in the Declaration is this: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” This is not the quid-pro-quo of many legal document. These words carried the weight of human connection; a promise that would be challenged through war and peace. And like many great works of humanity, would chafe and challenge all who encountered it. Because it reached for greater ideals than was reality, and uncovered the shortcomings and hypocrisy of its authors.

The Declaration was not enough. The Articles of Confederation were not enough. Our nation in its diversity and complexity needed something that would hold us together. Therefore the Constitution was drafted. And it too begins with a covenant:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

At the time of its ordination, “We the People” excluded many. Slaves. Servants. Women. Indigenous peoples. “Justice” excluded many of the same. “Tranquility” perhaps for the powerful. “Common Defense” which would seek to strip the land and culture from those who were here before “the white man came.” “Welfare” for who? Did those Blessings of Liberty trickle down like voodoo economics? No, they did not.

          Yet, our nation’s Constitution, like the Declaration and other similar documents; the Ten Commandments, the Eightfold Path, the Beatitudes, the Five Pillars; became more than what was just written. A living document with words that would always break out of the containers in which they were placed. “We the People”, “Order”, “Union”, “Justice”, “Tranquility”, “Welfare”, “Liberty”, “Posterity”. These are transcendental subjects of human being that cannot be controlled or held by a minority of interpreters. They are not signs; they are symbols, for what could be.

          Signs are static. “Stop” with its red octagon and bold white letters, is not a suggestion. And while I have been known to perpetrate a “California Stop,” slowing down and making sure no police are looking on, its command is clear. For a good reason. In the Emergency Department at Harborview Medical Center, I have first hand knowledge of the danger in not following signs. “Yield”, “Warning”, “Do Not Enter”, “Wrong Way”, “No Left Turn”, our world is full of signs helping with navigation and structure; law and regulation. There is no room for interpretation; there is room for challenge. “Whites Only” is a sign which was challenged by the symbols contained in our Constitution.

          A symbol, theologically, is an object which directs the human gaze to something greater than its reality. Its meaning can be debated, contested. It can not be pinned down or captured through a sole interpretation. This, is a symbol: our flaming chalice. It was created for a particular moment in time, to help provide documentation for those fleeing Nazi persecution. However, it has become more than a passport stamp. It is the light of faith. The flame of wisdom. The fire of commitment. The container of spirit. It transcends the static. This, too, is a symbol: (hold fist in the air), which would overcome the limits of the signs of the time.

          Our Declaration and our Constitution are symbols which transcend their original meaning and intentions. Their words can be challenged and new ways interpreted. And when the old words are not enough, new words can be added with the consent of governed. Slavery can be abolished. People of color and women can have suffrage. Prohibitions against discrimination can be enacted. One of the reasons we say our Constitution is a living document, is because it can grow and change along with its society and culture. Symbols never expire their capacity of interpretation; will always overflow the narrow containers of belief.

          Our own Unitarian Universalist faith follows the covenantal tradition, replacing doctrine and dogma with seven principles and six sources which help guide us in our relationship with each other and the world. And like most living documents, as symbols of faith, our principles were not perfect nor enough when they were first drafted. Here is there original wording as adopted in 1961:

In accordance with these corporate purposes, the members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, dedicated to the principles of a free faith, unite in seeking:

1. To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship;

2. To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man;

3. To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships;

4. To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice and peace;

5. To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion;

6. To encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land.

How much has changed in our faith, and in our world, from 1961 to 2021? Movements from within our faith, led by women and other groups, sought greater inclusion and openness. “Man” was made gender neutral. Indigenous and Earth centered traditions were included. Revised in 1985 and amended in 1995, adding a principal: “covenanting to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” Brings us to its current form. Fifty years have passed since the merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists. Both Christian denominations that have since gone beyond their original creeds to form a more perfect union of pluralistic faith. We are truly come a long way in a short time.

Once again, our denomination is considering adding to our principles because for many, the demands of the world rub up against our covenant and lay bare imperfections and shortcomings. An 8th principle has emerged to meet these challenges, covenanting to affirm and promote “journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

          Like in the past, we struggle as a community and as a faith on why and how to do this. There was tremendous pushback in 1980 when women fought to be included as equals in the wording of our faith. It took five years and numerous meetings and conversations to remove the word “Man”, “men” and “brotherhood” as a placeholder for all human beings. Therefore it does not surprise me that we are having difficult and turbulent conversations around adopting the 8th principle. My hope and prayer is that our current principles and sources can hold us in tension and relationship through the process.

           As I reflect on the 8th principle and the events preceding its creation, I see it as a natural evolution of our liberal living faith. Like other living traditions, the crises of the moment have caused our symbols to transcend their old meanings and take on new interpretations. Because the old meanings were not getting the job done; they had become signs to point at, rather than symbols pointing to. And when religion becomes about signs, it loses its connection to the human spirit; to the source of Life and Love which calls us to transcendence. It becomes like a red octagon with white letters: “STOP!” It becomes literal. Fundamentalist. A rule to follow rather than a road to freedom.

I wonder how our own principles have become like stop signs? Stifling creativity. Are they still opening us to something new in the world? To me, our principles call me to reflect on how I may be a better partner and lover, sibling and parent, colleague and friend, minister and chaplain. When I hear the proposed 8th principle, I feel a fire inside of me, challenging me to dig deeper into my spirit and show up with powerful love in a new way. At the end of the day, I feel accountable to myself in how I have loved, working through the oppressions in myself and my institution.

In this pandemic, I have been called to minister to all people; including the angry white conservative Christian with the MAGA hat. The neo-Nazi with white nationalist tattoos up and down their chest and arms. The gun lover. The border wall builder. The racist. The homophobe. The COVID denier. And what helps me through those moments comes out of our principles. And through them, I build relationship as I’m able. To the point where a dying man with a very different ideology from myself trusts me enough to ask: “Will you stay and pray with me?” And I can reply, “We are in this together.” And we move on into that “field beyond right-doing and wrong-doing, where ideas, language, even the phrase each-other don’t make any sense.” (Rumi)

Siblings in faith, at this time and place, we are being asked to consider how we may better live into our Unitarian Universalist values. Because our seven principles have not been enough to bend the arc of justice to the point where all people of good-will are welcome and included in our congregations, communities and world. Events have exposed spiritual and moral cracks in our personal and institutional foundations. We are called to respond.

Like with many covenants I’ve known in the past, I am being asked to consider something new. My hospital needed new policies to respond to COVID. Our Declaration needed a Constitution to respond to the failure of the Articles of Confederation. Our Constitution needed further amendments to respond to abolition and suffrage. And our Unitarian Universalist principles are now tasked to respond to the challenges of climate crisis, prejudice, and systemic oppression. All of which are linked through intersectionality. To deal with one means to deal with them all.

And I believe the 8th principle makes explicit what the first seven principles say implicitly about our covenant with each other and the world. That we are interwoven in a garment of human destiny. (King) That what affects one directly affects all indirectly. That we cannot do this alone. That we need one another. We remember that our principles and sources are not signs; they are transcendental symbols that overflow with meaning and love into the world. Pointing the way to beloved community. And when the powers and principalities of the world hold up their sign saying “STOP!” we answer with a symbol of our own. (Our Flaming Chalice)

May our conversations and confrontations around the 8th principle be fruitful and lead to a deepening of relationship and understanding of each other. May our symbols lead us to deeper humanity and connection with the source of Life and Love. And may we remember that every day is a new gift to love and serve. May it be so. Amen.

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