I’d like to tell you a story: a story about covenant. It’s a story within a story, a story about a story, and you’ll probably find it familiar.
Once upon a time there was a people who shared among themselves a story. No one knew who first told the story, or how the story might have grown or changed as the elders told it among themselves and as parent passed it on to children, generation after generation. It was simply the people’s story. Eventually, parts of the story were brought together between two covers, and the parts between these covers were called, “the book.” The book was then the people’s story, for the people forgot about the other parts. Sometimes, though, new chapters were added.
The people’s story said that once upon a time there was a rain so hard and so long that the whole world was covered in water. And after the water receded and land appeared again, the sky promised the people that it would not do that to them again. And in return, the people promised they would try harder to be good to each other.
This was called the covenant of Noah.
And many generations passed.
The people noticed that when they were willing to set aside their own benefit, the community flourished. One of them said, “It’s like there’s a promise between us and the universe. If we sacrifice, and show we are willing to endure some pain, the universe will make sure that we have land and many descendants, and our community will always flourish.”
Another added, “Not everything always has to make sense. We need to trust that our community will be OK, even when some of us don’t understand it. Remember: it’s about community. It’s not about whether you think everything makes sense to you right away. Sometimes there’s a bigger sense than what we can see, OK? So as a practice in helping us let go of our urge to insist that everything has to make sense to us, a practice of setting aside our ego-defense reasonings and remembering that there’s something bigger and more significant than our individual comfort, let’s make a practice of doing one thing that no one can see any sense of, and that’s uncomfortable. Let’s, um, let’s see, ah, cut off a piece of skin of all the boys.”
And all the people agreed that, indeed, that didn’t make any utilitarian sense, and it was uncomfortable.
This was called the covenant of Abraham.
And many generations passed.
One day the community was troubled. They were having a hard time getting along. One of the elders went up on a mountain to get away from the fighting and try to get in touch with something true that might help people know how to get along.
When he came back down, he said: “We need to promise not to lie, not to steal, not to kill, not to want what our neighbors have, to keep the love we have for our spouses special, to take good care of our parents when they get old, and we need to get together every week not to do any work but just to do some things together that help us remember our promise.”
The people were skeptical, but the elder was insistent.
“If we follow these rules for being good to each other,” the elder said, “this world will be a better place for us.”
“Oh, yeah?” said the people. “Is that what the world told you when you were up on the mountain?”
The elder thought about how he had stood on ground that felt so strong and secure, among the trees and bushes that had seemed so alive with a fiery wisdom, and how, standing there, he had realized that his people really needed the help of some rules. So he said, “Yes. That’s what the world told me.”
It took a while, but eventually the people promised to follow the rules. They didn’t always keep this promise, but when they failed, they felt bad about it, and tried to do better next time.
This was called the covenant of Moses.
And many generations passed.
There came a time when the people were conquered by another people, and they were ruled over by the other people’s king, who was very mean to them. The people yearned to have their own kingdom back.
There was a beloved teacher, a healer of sad hearts, who told the people, “You want to have your own kingdom? I’ll tell you what. The kingdom you yearn for is right here and right here.” The first time he said “right here” his hand moved out and around, indicating the group of his listeners. The second time he said it, he put his hands flat over the middle of his chest.
“The kingdom of peace and love is among you and within you,” he said. “Never mind that mean king. Love one another, and take care of the poor. Here’s the deal: if you truly know this truth, then that’s what will set you free.”
This was called the new covenant.
And one generation passed.
A few years after that teacher died, certain leaders began telling the people that the deal was all about what you believed, and if you believed the right thing then you got to go to heaven. And many generations passed in which, for many of the people, the covenant was no longer about how we are together on this world. It was about doing something called “believing” in order to get a ticket to another world.
Finally, in the 16th century of the common era, some people began to say, “Well, OK, that was worth a try. I mean, this idea that if we all just agree to think alike then we’ll be happy and live in peace -- I can see how that would have some plausibility. It was worth a try. But we’ve tried it for about a millennium and a half now, and it isn’t working out.
"People arrive at beliefs that are different from what other people believe. It’s just what we do. Evidently, we can’t help ourselves. We see things differently. And if we keep trying to say we have to all see things the same way, then we’re going to keep having terrible fights about what way that is. We’re going to find ourselves feeling like we need to burn at the stake people who disagree with us. But to burn a man is not to defend a doctrine. To burn a man is just to burn a man. What’s the point?”
It was right about then that one of the people said: “We need not think alike to love alike.”
He was called a Unitarian. His name was Francis David. And the people called Unitarians began to say, “Let us be a people of covenant, not of creed, for the covenants of our tradition and our history have helped us and have guided us in the ways of connection and care, but they got off track when they got mixed up with this whole, ‘let’s-all-believe-the-same-thing’ idea.
"The people of old had a shared story. You could say that in some sense they believed it, but believing a narrative is different from believing a specific list of beliefs called a creed. So let’s go back to covenant without creed, and let’s appreciate the stories, but let’s have lots of stories. In fact, we’re getting close to the 17th century now; isn’t it about time for someone to invent the novel?”
And so it was. And the Unitarians delighted in the proliferation of stories that helped people open up their moral imaginations, helped readers understand and empathize with others.
From that day unto this, dear children, the Unitarians, and their friends, the Universalists, have lived happily, and also struggled mightily, to live together the life of covenant.
We draw on stories, and poems, and hearts from all over, promising to help each other see the love that surrounds us and sustains us in a vast network of care and support – an interdependent web of covenant.
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This is part 3 of 3 of "The Interdependent Web of Covenant"
Previous: Part 2: "Come, Yet Again, Come"
Beginning: Part 1: "Covenant Not Creed"
[Note: Recent scholarship reveals that Francis David, apparently, never said, "We need not think alike to love alike" -- though numerous UU publications, including the hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, report that he did. (See UUWORLD ARTICLE HERE.) In any case, this is our story -- even if it isn't strictly our history -- and Francis David represented that sentiment even if he never said exactly those words.]