I recently preached two sermons on the legacy of Love in Unitarian Universalism, not only because Love is our theme for February, but also because of its centrality in our tradition. Thanks to our Universalist forebears, we are heirs to a radical, Love-centered faith, one that refuses to throw anyone away. A tradition rooted in the unsettling vision of a Loving God dragging every last sinner, kicking and screaming, into heaven (thanks to Rev. Mark Morrison Reed for that memorable image!). A tradition that insists that Love, not fear or punishment, has the power to change hearts and minds, to turn us toward the good. A tradition that insists that any salvation worth having is collective. A tradition that commits us to labor together to create the conditions for Love to flourish here on earth.
But sometimes people get a little confused by our calling to a radically inclusive, unconditional Love. Sometimes people think it means that anything goes, that we can’t draw limits or boundaries because the Love we are called to is “boundless.” But that’s a misunderstanding of the Love we are called to make real in the world. Love in the Universalist sense does not “endure all things,” as it says in the oft-quoted Bible passage in 1 Corinthians. On the contrary, it calls us to prioritize truth, equity, accountability and justice. It demands that we take risks, that we put ourselves on the line to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of all people (including ourselves!), that we confront hate and act boldly to repair harm, that we acknowledge our own complicity in systems of oppression. The Universal Love that we are heirs to is unconditional in that it refuses to give up on people, but that doesn’t mean it accepts all forms of behavior. Far from it. It calls us to a high standard of behavior because of our affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of all people and our interdependence. It calls us not just to believe in Love, but to act on it, to make it real in this world.
Many UU social justice campaigns are rooted in the theology of Universal Love that calls us to action in the world. But we aren’t just called to embody our ideal of Universal Love in the public sphere. We’re called to live it out in our congregations as well. And that can be a little more challenging. Because in our spiritual homes, it all gets a little stickier, more personal. Right here at home, it’s harder to proclaim self-righteously, “I’m on the side of love, and you’re not!” We still do that, of course, in our various ways, but boy does it hurt when we do. And we don’t like to admit we do it either. Many of us would much rather avoid and deny conflict than engage it. And that’s exactly why our religious forebears created covenants! So that we have something to guide us in the ways of Love, something to support our faithful efforts to create Beloved Community.
Like all UU communities, UUSM has many covenants. You have a covenant of Right Relations, which you can read HERE. This Covenant of Right Relations was created by UUSM members to support you in living out your mission. It is a beautiful covenant, one that names this kind of relationship tending as a spiritual practice. Note also that it names the spirit of Love but in no way implies that Love endures everything or that Love precludes conflict. On the contrary, this Covenant exists because the Love we are called to is a transforming love, a courageous Love, that addresses harm directly and seeks to heal it, that creates space for engaging conflict with mutual respect and care. This Covenant reminds us that we are messy, imperfect and at times downright nasty, but that we’re never beyond repair. No matter how much we kick and scream, there is always a way back to Love, back to community.
Your ministers also have covenants. Both Reverend Stefanie and I—along with most of the other ministers who have served here over the years—are members of the UU Ministers Association. The UUMA has a robust covenant and code of conduct that holds us accountable to one another in the practice of ministry. The UUMA covenant begins, “United in our call to serve the spirit of love and justice through the vocation of ministry in the liberal religious tradition, we, the members of the UUMA, covenant with one another to…” A list of actions follow, practices that we believe will help us “grow in wholeness, and bring hope and healing to the world.” You can read the UUMA Covenant and Guidelines HERE. Other UU professional associations, like the musicians association that Joel belongs to, have codes of professional conduct as well, if not covenants per se.
In addition to the UUMA covenant, UU ministers often draw up individual covenants to support us when ministering in the same context. Reverend Stefanie and I created a covenant together before I started here, which you can read HERE. Stefanie and I created this covenant together, and we are sharing it with you, because we value our relationship, and because we believe that mutual trust and healthy collegial relationships require transparency, clear boundaries, direct communication, and accountability. We believe that our spiritual practice of covenanting aids us in living out our callings to Love and justice, with you.
So, you have covenants with one another, and your ministers have covenants with each other in addition to our contracts with you, and there are still more! As a member congregation of the UUA, this community also has a covenant with the other 1000+ UU congregations in our Association, who together “covenant to affirm and promote” principles and purposes that we agree upon and periodically revise in our collective effort to live out shared values in the world.
So you see, we are held in networks of covenant. Covenants make explicit the connections that exist between us, the webs of relationship that hold us together in this faith. The Congregational Life Staff of the UUA writes: “Covenant is the silk that joins UU congregations, communities and individuals together in a web of interconnection.” None of us can do what Love calls us to do alone. Love is by definition relational, and so is our covenantal faith tradition.
The covenantal nature of our UU tradition is perhaps our most defining feature. That we are held together in community first by choice and second by the promises we make to one another was radical in the 17th century—and in some ways still is. Alice Blair Wesley writes this:
“We UUs are a liberal people over on the ‘left’ of the free church tradition. The root idea of our entire tradition is covenant. A covenanted free church is a body of individuals who have freely made a profoundly simple promise, a covenant: We pledge to walk together in the spirit of mutual love. The spirit of love is alone worthy of our ultimate [concern], our religious loyalty. So, we shall meet often to take counsel concerning the ways of love, and we will yield religious authority solely to our own understanding of what these ways are, as best we can figure them out or learn to remember them, together.” (From “The Lay and Liberal Doctrine of the Church: The Spirit and the Promise of Our Covenant,” Minns Lecture Series 2000-01, Lecture 5.)
UUSM is a current manifestation of the once novel idea that a church community could be freely gathered and self-governing. Not as a place where anything goes, but as a community organized around mutually agreed upon promises to collectively discern and practice the ways of Love.
I used to find historical sermons boring, so why do I keep referring to UU history in my sermons on Love? Because history shapes us. We need to know what brought us to this moment so we can choose what to keep and what to let go of. If we want to play a role in shaping what is to come, we have to know our history, and we have to be transparent about it even if it makes us uncomfortable.
Right now, this community has a choice about how to relate to recent painful events that strain if not break your covenants. These events will shape your future. You can’t prevent that from happening, but you absolutely can shape how they shape you. I am here because you do not have a settled minister. We don’t need to know the details to know there is deep pain around that fact and how it came to be. How you relate to the pain of these events—the conflict—matters, my friends. It matters so much. Love is as love does, says the psychologist Scott Peck. So what would Love do right now, at this moment in your history as a community? What would the Love that changes hearts and minds, that points us toward collective salvation, do now at UUSM?
I don’t have the answers to that question, nor is it my role to offer them if I did. It’s up to you to discern together the answers. To lean into your covenants, to draw on your shared values, to embrace your mission. It’s up to you to love yourselves and one another unconditionally so that you can do the uncomfortable, brave and necessary work of Love that needs to be done now. Work that needs to be done not because some denominational authority is telling you to do it. But because it matters to you and what you are trying to co-create here together. Work that matters because of the people who came before you and built this community. Work that matters for those who will inherit this community after you, and for those who are just now arriving with their yearnings and their gifts.
My friends, I am new in this role, but I am not new here. I love this community. As an intern, this community shaped me into the minister I am today and is still shaping me still. And I know that you can do the work that Love requires of you now. To have the difficult conversations, to name the pain, to listen to one another with unconditional love and good boundaries. You can do this because you are not alone. You are held in webs of mutuality and relationship, made visible in your covenants here at UUSM and with the larger UU movement of which you are part.
These webs of relationship, like the web of life itself, can be torn but not severed. No matter how much we kick and scream, we cannot be separated from the Web of Life and Love that we are called to orient toward as UUs, that we are called to manifest in our living, together. Trusting this, may we draw strength and hope and joy from our faith and from this evolving beloved community.
May it be so.