Promises to Community

”Promises to Community” third of a series of sermons on Promises.

Rev. Brian J. Kiely    September 17, 2017

In the first two sermons in this series I looked at the promises we make to ourselves and then the promises we make to other people in our lives.  This week and next Sunday in a youth led service we will talk about the promises we make together as people in community.  Whenever people gather, it is natural to have a set of understandings, expectations and even rules.  As individuals we need to know what kinds of behaviours and attitudes are okay, and what kinds aren’t.  Knowing the culture gives us some confidence to move round with a higher degree of freedom.  We know the lay of the land.

I expect you know what I mean, for every one of us has on many occasions gone into a new situation carrying a fair amount of anxiety exactly because we do not know what’s expected. Perhaps it’s the first day on a new job, or walking into a church for the first time.

Maybe it was going to dinner with people you don’t know, or the first time you met the family of your sweetheart, or your child’s sweetheart.  Nothing causes a rise in anxiety like being the stranger in the crowd, the new kid in the school.  Perhaps you have had the good fortune to travel to very unfamiliar cultures for s short time or even long enough to say you have lived there.  What are the customs?  What are the taboos?  Am I offending someone inadvertently?  During WWII the US Army used to furnish it’s invasion troops with small booklets that included the local customs of the places they were landing, a few basic phrases and reminders that the army should act with courtesy and good manners!

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if someone could hand you a sheet of customs and expectations any time you went into a new situation?

The structures formal and informal that shape our cultures and communities can be quite complex or quite relaxed.  Each understood agreement can suffice for huge populations or for very small groups.

In cities, provinces and nations we might call the governing ethos of behaviour a social contract.  It can come with an attendant set of laws designed to protect us from those who would violate that contract.

And sometimes we need to be reminded of the values in that social contract.  Since the last US presidential election, one of the great concerns is that their social contract is being changed dramatically.  Racism exists – as it does everywhere- but was not officially sanctioned.  Increasingly in presidential tweets and court cases regarding police use of force,  racial equality seems to be threatened if not actually changing.  It is very disturbing to the point of rioting.

In Canada, by contrast, we are trying to come to terms with the racism against First Nations people that was an unspoken part of our social construct. We have sought to address our problem history through the Truth and Reconciliation work.  We are trying to bring our behaviours and policies into line with our public statements that celebrate our diversities.  It will take a very long trying time, but I see small progressive steps.

Perhaps the best example I can cite comes from a most unlikely source: the Canadian Football League.  That body had been planning a campaign celebrating diversity.  When the US President seemingly endorsed neo-nazi rallies, or at least failed to condemn them, the CFL rushed their Diversity T-shirts for coaches and staff to wear to the sidelines and arranged for this PSA to air the very next day after the riots:  The shirts list names of 26 players and coaches (A-Z) from diverse racial, ethnic and national background.  The ad does much the same ending with the tagline “Diversity Is Strength.”

This simple ad was designed to reinforce a basic premise of our Canadian social contract:  We are a welcoming nation that holds that all people have the same rights and freedoms here.  It takes it a step further in suggesting that we all have equal opportunity to prove ourselves.  This is our contract, our covenant.

But, of course, as a society we often fail. But failure should be  reason to reaffirm the covenant and start again.  Failure is NOT a reason to dismiss our aspirations and give up.

You have several times heard me to refer to the Hebrew Bible as a collection of stories about covenants made, broken and remade between Yahweh and the Hebrew people.  The key word is ‘remade’. That’s the way covenant works.  It starts with a goal, like we will all get along for mutual prosperity.  A set of customs are developed in support of that goal.  Some we manage to keep, others get tested by tempers, by greed, by some people feeling trapped in that particular social structure.  The covenant must be remade and reconsidered regularly. It must be a living thing.

The Unitarian Universalist Association in the US describes the term thusly, “Covenant” is Latin for ‘come together’ and means a ‘solemn agreement’ or ‘promise from the heart’ regarding a course of action between parties.”

“A promise from the heart”.  That should be big stuff. And we all know that heart promises have to be reaffirmed often.

In truth, these days, covenants are falling out of favour.  We live in a rather individualistic society.  As I mentioned last week, a new dimension of that individualism is the widespread acceptance of easily dismissed promises.  There is a growing habit of saying “Sure I will show up” to all kinds of events and then blowing it off if something better comes along seemingly guilt-free.

Also as members of a society fewer and fewer of us are making lasting commitments.  Jobs and careers are not for life any more for lots of different reasons.  The idea of loyalty is on the wane.  It has been replaced by dedication to immediate interest.  An idea or a group captures our imagination and we get involved, sometimes quite deeply and passionately.  But today few envision staying with that commitment for a lifetime.  Very few wedding vows include, “as long as you both shall live,” anymore.  It’s been largely replaced by, “As long as you both shall love”.

Once, people joined churches, clubs and other organizations and remained with them for years, often lifetimes.  Not so anymore.  And everywhere you look whether it’s church, school, or park-based sports, finding volunteers who will stay for even a whole season is terribly difficult.  We live in a society of busy people who want to keep their free-time options open.  Fewer and fewer are willing to make a steady continuing commitment.  To be clear, I offer that as an observation, not a lament.  Longtime organizations are having to adapt and change their covenants and the ways they operate.  Well, that’s nothing new either.  Social change is constant.

One of the ways our congregational culture is changing is that we are moving away from, or shrinking standing committees and instead inviting volunteers to do short term tasks and work.  Of course we do need some people to work over the longer term so that we look like we have a plan and a direction.  It can’t be all ad hoc.

Some people like the change, some people don’t.  This can lead to conflict now and then both small and large.  Badly managed conflict can damage a community very quickly. Who comes to church to get into a fight?  So far we have been lucky about that at UCE.  More on that later.

An increasing number of congregations like ours are creating ‘covenants of right relations’, and in fact that is what our youth group is discussing today and will be presenting next week.  I believe that’s where the idea got its start, in church schools.  The rules that govern the classroom are often created collectively and include simple things like no hitting, let each person have their say and share the crayons when asked. We can all predict what those rules will be, but teachers have found that they are more likely to be respected when the children name them.

When I first entered the ministry we occasionally heard of congregations developing such covenants, but it was rare and usually followed a very destructive conflict that had torn things apart.

Sometimes it was over the minister, sometimes it was because of a difficult personality or clique

causing great disruptions.  As you can imagine such conflicts had a tendency to drive people away rather rapidly.  Like I said, who comes to church to get into fights?

A few years later covenants started turning up in congregations experiencing rapid growth.  Growth creates tension.  Heck, pretty much any change creates some tension. The longer term members were suddenly dealing with a startling influx of new people.  This required a change in programming, perhaps hiring more staff, getting a bigger building and often most difficult of all, sharing the power of decision in the church with newcomers.  You heard a description of that kind of change in our reading.  As a church grows or shrinks it’s culture changes.  New agreements are needed.

Numbers wise we are pretty solid, declining, but only slightly as our number of non-member friends grows.  To the best of my knowledge, the Unitarian Church of Edmonton has never had a covenant of right relations.  If we ever did it is lost in the mists of archival time.  Then again, the last time this congregation had a major fight was back around 1972.

Or maybe we do have a covenant…but it’s an unspoken one.  If it exists, I believe it is based on the neighbourly principles of respect and welcome.  It’s also based on our seven Principles.

But mostly it seems to be built on people who try to introduce newer attenders to the culture of this place.  It’s not explicit, but it can be gleaned from the kinds of formal and informal welcomes newcomers experience coming through the door.  It can be sussed out a little by the way we do the rituals of Sunday morning: shared candles, announcements, coffee hour.  It can be discovered by people asking questions or being helped to address their issues or being invited to an event, an activity, or to help with a task.

That seems to be how it works in my observation.  The problem is that an unspoken set of rules and customs is vague and unclear.  You sort of have to have a feel for this kind of culture to understand it, or you have to be brave enough to ask about it. This means we tend to attract people who are culturally like us.  That probably spills over into race and nationality to a degree.

Perhaps it’s time for our congregation to look a little more openly at the promises we make to this community and the promises we expect others to make when they join.  We might find new needs to address or unseen roadblocks we had not noticed.

Covenants of right relations are not easy things to pop out.  You can’t just go an download one, print it up nice and pretty and say “Done!”  It has to be a living document, generated organically by and within a community.  It takes time and requires broad participation and buy in.

It has to be something referenced regularly and honoured in word and deed.  Next week, listen to the voices of our youth, the people we hope will inherit this church.  Hear what they have done and what they expect from the adult community here.  Will we undertake a covenant process?  I don’t know.  That’s for you all to decide in concert with the Board.  But whether we do or not, it’s good to consider it. For even in this simple way do we renew our covenant.