Each Sunday I step into the pulpit and call to worship the congregation sitting in the sanctuary of our 1842 New England Meetinghouse. The sanctuary is simple and elegant. Tall windows line each side, reaching up to the high ceiling, with four chandeliers. The clear panes bring nature’s liturgy of the seasons into our services: bright sun, autumn’s colors, soft snow. The pulpit is big and imposing, built for an era when the focus was on the preacher delivering the Word. The people sit in the hard, wooden pews that creak whenever someone tries to find a more comfortable position.
The traditional Protestant formality of the sanctuary belies the informal and eclectic nature of the community that gathers in it now. This congregation, the First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, was founded in 1655 by Puritans in search of religious freedom and new farm land. Ours is the fourth meetinghouse, the previous three having been lost to fires. Looking out the windows, I can see the Forefathers Cemetery where several of my predecessors in the pulpit now rest. I imagine that they would be shocked to see how the congregation has evolved over its 367 years, with a woman preacher only one among many unimaginable changes. Keeping the Sabbath, the law in Puritan times, then a civic expectation, is now optional—competing with sports, sleeping in, or family time. And no parishioner of mine would tolerate a three-hour service in the morning followed by another in the afternoon. They get restless when we run over an hour.
Theologically, our Puritan ancestors would be even more confounded. My congregation is not made up of committed Christians who center their lives on salvation through their experience of God’s grace. Rather, they are both seekers and skeptics. Some are Christians but they are joined by atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, pagans, and the famous nones and dones looking for a place to worship even as they struggle with traditional organized religion. Yet there is a thread, a practice we keep, that our Puritan forbears would recognize. We, like they, gather together in covenant.
My congregation is made up of seekers and skeptics.
“Saints by calling must have a visible political union amongst themselves, or else they are not yet a particular church,” states the Puritans’ 1648 organizing document, The Cambridge Platform. “This form is the visible covenant, agreement, or consent, whereby they give up themselves unto the Lord, to the observing of the ordinances of Christ together in the same society…” Covenant is an ancient practice, traditionally between God and God’s people, found in Genesis, Exodus, and around Jesus’ table at the Last Supper. The Puritans’ earliest covenant was simple: “We covenant with the Lord and one with another; and do bind ourselves in the presence of God to walk together in all his ways, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his blessed word of truth.” To them, nothing less than their eternal salvation was at stake in this binding together as a worshiping community, awaiting God’s continuing revelation of grace.
My congregation’s covenant, which we say together each week, is longer and wordier, as we Unitarian Universalists try to accommodate our theological diversity. We took several years and two congregational retreats to write it. But the echoes are there, particularly in our second promise of five: “We, the Members of First Parish of Chelmsford, covenant together to sustain and strengthen our beloved community by….nurturing all souls in our search for truth and the sacred…” We cherish this practice of freely choosing to bind our lives together, to walk in the ways of truth and love, the holy and the sacred, as they are revealed to us, even if our beliefs about God are different. We don’t always do it well. We fight about the things that most communities (religious and secular) fight about: money, authority, policies and procedures, furniture, keys, music, talking during the prelude, parking, and money (again). But I have witnessed how our covenant helps us walk back toward the community we promise to be when our congregational decisions get bogged down in anxiety and debate. Like when we chose to become a welcoming congregation for LGBTQIA+ individuals and their families, instead of worrying who we might offend in the town. Like when we chose to renovate our old 1842 building to make it handicap accessible instead of worrying about the cost. Like when a member’s betrayal threatened our congregation and we chose the work of repair, listening rather than walking away, setting necessary boundaries while affirming the humanity of all involved.
We cherish this practice of freely choosing to bind our lives together, to walk in the ways of truth and love, the holy and the sacred, as they are revealed to us, even if our beliefs about God are different.
Every time I step into the pulpit, my heart soars as I see the faces before me: some new, most familiar, and some present only in memory and spirit. Pew after pew, I know the stories of these souls I have accompanied over twenty years. On the left side, half way down, I see Deb, full of dynamic energy, joyful at the arrival of her first grandchild. Not long ago, her energy and joy were crushed under the unbearable grief of losing a child. Even this new life is colored by that grief. Life will always be bittersweet.
I see Dave, one of my many devout atheists, here, there, and everywhere, depending on what particular role he is volunteering for on a Sunday. Although he does not believe in God, he finds awe, inspiration, and truth in the beauty of numbers and the infinite universe. He is one of the most faithful people I know: generous in all he offers of his time, talent, and treasure, and true to the ethics of justice, kindness, and humility.
I see Beth in the front row on the right. Her wife died last year of a painful cancer. Eighteen years before that, I stood in front of this same sanctuary as their two young sons walked them down the aisle to exchange their marriage vows for a second time, when Massachusetts passed the equal marriage law. I often sense God’s joyful presence in this place, but it was overflowing on their wedding day. I know that these stories are not unique to our congregation. And many pastors love their people the way I love mine. But when I step into the pulpit and see this particular congregation gather week after week, year after year, generation after generation, in covenant with one another and what they name as holy, they make visible to me God’s love and longing for us to recognize that we belong to one another, to life, and to this world God has given us: the stuff of our salvation.
They make visible to me God’s love and longing for us to recognize that we belong to one another, to life, and to this world God has given us: the stuff of our salvation.
Salvation is not on the mind of most of my parishioners, at least not in terms of their eternal souls. But as politics and the pandemic have estranged us from one another as citizens, as neighbors, even as families, I wonder if we are in need of salvation in the here and now from our own worst tendencies, lest we destroy one another and our planet. Walking with these souls who have freely chosen to bind their lives together in commitment to one another and to this world, I feel I have been entrusted with tiny pearls of grace–God’s love for us imperfectly, achingly, haphazardly embodied by us. I string them on the thread I have inherited, binding us to a salvation we have already been offered but rarely recognize.