From ”Antiphonal Readings for Free Worship” arranged by L. Griswold Williams
Love is the doctrine of this church. The quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve human need to the end that all souls shall grow in harmony with the divine – Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.
From No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu
The concept of “Ubuntu” is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, “Yu, u nobuntu;” “Hey, so-and-so has Ubuntu.” Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.”
We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons.” It is not, “I think therefore I am.” It says rather: “I am human because I belong. I participate, I share.” A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.
We begin our fall worship season by raising up and celebrating one of the foundation stones for us as a congregation and for our religious movement. What is it that gathers as people of hope and faith? Covenant.
Now, there is a document that we call the covenant of this congregation, a document that lays out in some detail how we agree to be with each other here, the disciplines we agree to bring to our lives together: sharing, caring, welcoming the diversity of both people and perspectives that we find here, and offering healing and support where we differ.
It’s a good document and it serves us well. But today I want to explore a different dimension of that word: covenant, not as a noun but as a verb; covenant as practice. To do this, I want to begin by taking us way back to the Puritans, who founded some of the earliest churches in New England, a number of which later became and remain Unitarian.
The Puritans had a stern and forbidding reputation, and for good reason. Their Calvinist theology held that only a select elite preordained by God before the creation of the Universe were truly saved.
But as the writer, Sarah Vowell points out, beneath their harsh theology, these “wordy shipmates,” in her phrasing, perceived that something else must prevail if this community of their making was to endure. She quotes the founding governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, to that end:
We must delight in each other, he says,
and make each other’s conditions our own,
rejoice together, mourn together,
labor and suffer together,
always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work,
our community as members of the same body.”
It was not enough that they shared similar beliefs: the only way that this small band of settlers was going endure was if they made each other’s conditions their own. And not just that either: they needed to “delight in each other,” to find joy, each in the others. It’s not our conventional image of the staid Puritans, but it gives us a window into our topic today
Sarah Vowell says it was Winthrop’s words that gave her comfort in the days after the 9-11 attacks. She was living in New York at the time, she says. “When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what (Winthrop) said and finally understood what he meant.”
She says, “I watched citizens happily, patiently standing in a very long line,” and she marveled, having already experienced New Yorkers’ impatience at being kept waiting for anything. But in this line, she says, “they were giving blood.”
“We were breathing sooty air,” Vowell recalls. “The soot was composed of incinerated glass and steel, but also, we, knew, incinerated human flesh.” So, all the people there truly were, she says, “members of the same body.”
She and her friends were aching for some way to contribute, so when the TV news announced that rescuers needed toothpaste, they took off for the neighborhood deli. By the time she got there, Vowell said, most of the popular brands had been cleared out, so “at the rescue workers’ headquarters I sheepishly dropped off 14 tubes of Sensodyne, the tooth paste for sensitive teeth. “We were members of the same body, breathing the cremated lungs of the dead and hoping to clean the teeth of the living.”
Vowell was right: In important ways, those volunteers and first responders and everyone engaged in the rescue and recovery from that shattering loss were reliving a vision of mutual care and concern that first arrived on our shores nearly 400 years ago: they were engaged in the practice of covenant.
And the covenant the 9-11 rescuers were practicing was not an agreement that was enshrined anywhere. It was instead covenant of being that those people discerned in the moment before them. It was nothing that they needed to invent because they were already a part of it in the fullness of the world. They simply needed to recognize what called to them from the center of their own natures.
A similar point is made in the covenant I read earlier: Love is the doctrine of this church; the quest of truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. This was offered up by people not as a theological proposal but as a confession of how they understood the world and their relation to it. Love is the response that the world calls from us; the quest of truth is how we advance it; and service is how it is realized.
Desmond Tutu wrote the book you heard quoted earlier after serving on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission provided a forum for leaders of the deposed Apartheid state to confess the wrongs they had done and seek reconciliation. Its work was centered on the premise declared in the title of Tutu’s book: No Future Without Forgiveness.
The process, he writes, was seen as a “third way” between the prospects of trials for war crimes and blanket amnesty. It was a way, he wrote, that sought “to rehabilitate and affirm the dignity and personhood of those who had so long been silenced.”
And what made it possible, Tutu says, was the African practice of Ubuntu. Earlier, you heard his description of Ubuntu: Not simply being caring, or generous, or compassionate but living in a way, he says, that sees “my humanity caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours. We belong in a bundle of life.” It is, he said, “the very essence of being human.”
A couple of decades ago when South Africa’s transition was in the news and Ubuntu was trending in news reports there was much speculation about whether there was an equivalent term in the West to describe this deep connection among peoples. Some suggested that perhaps “community spirit” would do. But really “covenant” is a closer match.
Like Ubuntu the practice of covenant draws us to one another in a way that points to our nature and our destiny: we are meant for each other, and we are completed through each other. This state of affairs is not something we choose; it is something we affirm and that the world invites us to give ourselves to.
There is something painfully ironic about observing such a close parallel at the heart of these two cultures – African & American – given our sad histories. But what we share, and that we share reinforces the notion that something universal is at play here.
At the same time, in our separate perspectives we each are in a position to offer wisdom to the other. The African offers an American culture riven with divisions of race and class a notion that kinship is a rock-bottom truth. Social harmony, Tutu says, is the heart of it all. “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another,” he says, whereas the truth is that “you are connected and what you do affects the whole world.” Anger, lust for revenge, resentment are corrosive to both social and individual happiness, since whatever I do to dehumanize another inexorably dehumanizes me.
Covenant, on the other hand, calls us to remember that our lives together are centered in promises. We are, as Martin Buber put it, the promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing creature, and it is woven throughout our interactions with each other.
It can be as simple as when you and I make appointment – promise-making, I put it on my calendar – promise keeping, but then I space out and miss the appointment – promise-breaking. But I don’t blow it off. Our relationship calls me to get back in touch with you, offer my apology, seek to make amends and perhaps set a new date – promise-renewing.
The ways in which we fall out of covenant with each other, though, are not always as obvious. We affirm that every person has inherent worth and dignity and feel called to treat them with respect and care. It is a promise, of sorts, that undergirds our lives.
Yet, we come to learn that the privilege we have gained simply by virtue of an accident of birth serves to keep other people oppressed, feeling little sense of worth and dignity, of respect and care. It is a state of affairs that we had no hand in, and yet it is plain that our advantage comes at the expense of another.
Now, we can say that that’s just the way the world works: Some get and some don’t. And while that may be so, this situation also puts us deeply and irrevocably out of covenant with one another.
And that’s not a small thing. If it is true that we are meant for each other, that each of us is a person through other people, this imbalance, this broken promise will weigh on us until it is repaired.
There is no saying what that repair might look like, but for the sake of peace, our own and the world’s, we had best be about it. That is how it is in our lives together. We struggle, we stumble, we err, and still, we return. Covenant continually calls us back again and again to the day-to-day work that reminds us of and calls us to dedicate ourselves to the small disciplines that enact the truth of our wholeness and unity.
I read recently that 15 years after the 9-11 attacks a whole raft of books on the subject are coming out for young readers. Many authors apparently were reluctant at first to treat such a difficult subject, but now many of their readers have no personal memory of the event since they weren’t born yet.
So, what do they say? For those of us whose memories of that day are still quite sharp, there is a similar quandary. What learning can we take from that event, what wisdom can we offer from our experience? Mulling over this, it occurred to me that covenant might offer a lens to organize our thoughts.
As Sarah Vowell noted, for all the horrific images that were broadcast during that time, there were also heartening ones: blood donors, sandwich makers, clean-up crews. They couldn’t erase the damage done to our society or to our psyches by those assaults.
But each in her and his own way was living into the practice of covenant, the affirmation of a common bond into which each of us is born and which all of us are called to serve. Confronted with suffering, they looked into another’s eyes and said, “I see you.” “Sawubona.”
You matter. You are part of me, and I am part of you. You are important to me. I need you to survive.