One day not so long ago, a man named McArthur Wheeler robbed a bank. He threw himself fearlessly into it, and there is a reason why. He was fearless because he covered his face with lemon juice which, he believed, would make his face invisible to the surveillance cameras.

Lemon juice makes for invisible ink, right? So lemon juice on the face makes for an invisible face. Right?

Do you think he was successful?

As Unitarian Universalists (with special emphasis today on Universalism), we understand this not as a case of McArthur Wheeler being a fundamentally bad person but as being a fundamentally good person who (lemon juice aside) unwisely imagined his greatest good to lie in the direction of grand theft.

I get it. I, too, am a fundamentally good person who has, at times, imagined my greatest good to lie in certain directions that proved, ultimately, to be unwise.

Like the day I went with my Dad to the Odd Spot. Maybe I was six. The Odd Spot was my favorite store in all of Peace River, and of the five thousand or so souls that lived in that far Northern town of Alberta, the souls I met at the Odd Spot were the best by far. For the Odd Spot was about pop. The Odd Spot was about comics. The Odd Spot was about candy. The Odd Spot was about chewing gum.

I am fifty-two years old and for the life of me I cannot re-enter the actual mind of myself at six years of age. All I can do is vaguely recall a shining good that I imagined for myself as I was surveying all the packages of gum on the shelf, while Dad was elsewhere doing something. Gum sang to me. GUM! And I took a pack and pushed it down into my pants pocket. And my little hand stayed there in my little pocket, holding my GUM!

In that moment, it was the most happifying thing I could imagine for myself. As Universalism teaches, humans always desire happification. And history has shown that we absolutely do rise to the occasion, or we descend, depending on how we envision happification. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., bless his sacred memory, rose to meet his image of happification that was not for himself alone but for a world needing healing from what he called the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism.” But then we had President Richard Nixon, who descended to meet his particular image of happification, which got him impeached.

There is a “best/worst” effect in play here. Humans, seeking happification, are capable of rising to the most courageous, creative, and life-giving acts imaginable; and we are also capable of descending to acts that are the most pernicious, most destructive, most evil.


But we must never lose sight of the motivation that’s underneath all: happification.

The difference between best and worst is simply: what’s your degree of ignorance? What is the rigid socialization and what are the traumas that comprise or reinforce the ignorance? Are you in love with an image of happification that is way too small?

In the check-out line, my Dad noticed my little hand in my little pants pocket. He asked, “What do you have there, Son?” Suddenly I felt trapped. I stalled. He asked again. And I hesitantly drew forth the pack of gum that had been singing to me. GUM!

Dad made me present the gum to the man at the cash register, and he made me explain that I had stolen it, and he made me apologize.

I left the Odd Spot that day wondering why on earth I had done such a thing.

These days, I would say that my Dad helped reduce a bit of my ignorance around what it means to be happy, so that I might pursue better possibilities.

And I will also say this: that I am grateful for the parenting I have received from my Unitarian Universalist faith, which tells me that my truest happification lies in the direction of the prophetism of a Dr. King and his image of Beloved Community. I am grateful for how our Seven Principles outline a transformative path of love and justice that is truly and deeply happifying.

But here’s the thing. Sometimes, in my behavior, McArthur Wheeler with lemon juice on the face shows up. Sometimes, six-year-old Anthony shows up. Sometimes, Richard Nixon shows up. Despite the fact that I am fifty-two and have learned hard lessons and the path of genuine happification has been clearly mapped out for me, I still screw up at times. I still make mistakes.

I promise to obey Love’s call, and, often enough, I fall short.

West Shore, am I alone in this, do you think?

“We are in moments pure and ageless as light,” writes spiritual teacher Mark Nepo, “and with the very next breath, we drop things or bruise the treasures of a lifetime.”

So the question now becomes, what resource does our faith give us to address this aspect of being human?

Universalism certainly helps us understand our motivation in doing things.

It tells us that ignorance is the real cause of evil in the world.

But ignorance is not so easy a thing to extinguish. Personal traumas and socialization establish patterns in us that are like the Energizer Bunny and keep going and going and going. Ignorance persists, even in enlightened Unitarian Universalists who affirm the Seven Principles.

So does this mean that Unitarian Universalism collapses into mere hypocrisy? Is that really what we boil down to, with all our fine words and hopes?

Or is there a way to redeem our failures and to maintain integrity in the venture of being Universalist Unitarian?

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come.

The words are from the Persian mystic and poet Rumi. Can we say them honestly, with him?

I believe the answer is YES.

An answer that saves us from hypocrisy.

An answer—a resource–that helps us maintains integrity.

The resource is: COVENANT.


That word, “covenant,” needs to be a part of every Unitarian Universalist’s spiritual vocabulary. It is fundamental to who we are. It is as fundamental to us as the Eucharist is to a Catholic, or Communion to a Methodist. We are covenanting all the time. From West Shore’s congregation-wide Care Covenant, to covenants children and youth make in their Sunday School classes, to the Child Dedication ritual we just saw a moment ago, to covenants yet to be created.

Love is the spirit of this church, 
And service is its law.
This is our great COVENANT….

We say these words together every Sunday.

But why?

Bring to mind the quote inscribed upon the beams of Baker Hall: “We need not think alike to love alike.” Because we prize diversity, what unites us cannot be a creed, a sameness of belief about whether God exists, or what God is like, or whether there is such a thing as an immortal soul, and so on and so forth. Common creed does not unite us, but a common commitment to respectful and loving relationship does, as we interact and bring to each other our strengths and our traumas, our folly and our wisdom, our ignorance and our knowledge.

The word that encapsulates the practice of this common commitment is “covenant.”

In our long history as a religious people, there are multiple sources of this insight. The quote in Baker Hall come from Francis David speaking 500 years ago from far away in Transylvania.

And then we have the Pilgrims, closer to home.

Go back to 1630. Go back to John Winthrop, soon to become the first governor of Massachusetts, and he’s speaking to his fellow Pilgrims as they sail on the ship Arabella towards their destination in New England. Imagine hearing the wind whipping past, the crackle of the sails. The boat rocks, the ship timbers creak. You are gathered in a group on deck, and the governor steps up, and he, John Winthrop, says, “Now the only way to avoid . . . shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. . . . [W]e must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. […] So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”

Note how Winthrop pictures the Pilgrim situation as that of a potential shipwreck. He is just being honest, as he looks ahead at the monumental hardships of settling what from his European perspective was a new land.

But there is also in what he says a truth that applies everywhere and in all times. The journey of personhood is fraught with dangers on all sides. Six-year-old Anthony knows. And so Universalism warns us: if my natural instinct to aim for the best I can imagine at any given time is not developed and educated, then in my ignorance I’m very likely to fall in love with a vision of the good that is way too small. I, a being primed for what is best, may very possibly try to rob a bank with lemon juice on my face. So I reject trying to be a person in isolation, all by myself. I reject pride, because that is the way to moral shipwreck.

I just can’t afford not to humbly acknowledge my predicament of unwisdom and the potential shipwreck coming out of my ignorance and the fact that there is so very much I don’t know I don’t know!

For the ship of Love to make it safely to port, a community full of people who are wise in some ways and ignorant in other ways must come to trust each other and to know that there are rules about how we treat each other. No rules, and a people who start out scrappy rapidly devolve into a people who are crappy.

The “s” in the word scrappy falls right off—unless the covenant uniting us is strong enough….

One conversation that can easily become crappy unless there’s a covenant holding things together is about unconscious racism. Explicit and intentional racism is one thing, but what about well-intentioned people whose racism is unconscious? If growing up white is anything, it is growing up in ignorance of what it’s like to be Black or Brown. It’s growing up not really being able to engage conversations about race because white people usually don’t even know that they have a race, or how thoroughly their racialization makes them different from others who aren’t white. There’s no blame meant here. How can you be blamed for something done to you, as part of growing up? The only issue is, what happens now? What can white people do, now, to reclaim a part of themselves that has been long unknown or misunderstood? How can white people show up in their relationships to people of color—individuals of and communities of–and be a positive presence and reliable partner in the larger work of fairness and justice?

Relationship-in-covenant is core to the solution. Covenantal relationship becomes, says activist MickeyScottBey Jones, “the abrasion that agitates enough to make a way forward. Relationship, consistent and ongoing encounters with people and perspectives different than our own—it smooths the way for the sacred, even as it rubs us raw. There is a holy abrasion of the spirit born in deep relational encounters across differences. We, as congregations and as a movement, exist to be instruments of those very encounters.”

Right now I want to acknowledge the entire Justice-pa-LUUza event of this weekend, here at West Shore, led by our Rev. Chris and the Undoing Oppressions group and Carmen Lane and Dr. Rideout and all the various volunteers involved, all the folks who came and participated. This has been an opportunity for “holy abrasion” that can get deep exactly because it is covenant-based in nature. No “gotcha” is being played here. We know the journey to racial justice is tough.

When the only way out is through, resilience requires mutual loving support in covenant.

But now let’s go back to the Pilgrims for one more piece of the puzzle, the piece that is especially important to redeeming our failures and maintaining integrity in the venture of being Unitarian Universalist.

The Rev. Alice Blair Wesley, preeminent historian and theologian of covenant in our faith tradition, tells us that our Pilgrim ancestors believed in “discipline.” She says, “If any member’s actions, or their attitude – ‘carriage,’ our ancestors called it- – if any member’s ‘carriage’ seemed scornful or sarcastic or sullen or ungenerous, he or she would likely be called upon the next afternoon by the Elder to ‘cleer’ things. Members of the free church discipline one another by reasoning together in love, whenever any members see it as needed.”

In other words, there can be no covenant unless there is also accountability to it. Some Elder who takes you aside when you did something contrary to the Golden Rule, and they say, kindly but clearly, “I’m noticing how, through your “carriage,” you are doing unto others in a way that you would never want others to do unto you. Let us reason together in love, to restore a broken covenant.”

The spiritual Elders among us must do this. Spiritual Elders interrupt harm when it happens.

And all of us must be open to being held accountable. How else are we ever going to conquer ignorance? How else are we ever going to realize all the things that we don’t know we don’t know?

How else are we going to see that our idea about lemon juice on the face making us invisible is dead wrong?

If you are willing to tell me that I have a piece of broccoli in my teeth and I should do something about that, how can you not also let me know when I have inadvertently done something to hurt the spirit of a fellow soul in this place?

There can be no integrity if there is no humility to accept honest feedback, and to change accordingly.

Like the incomparable Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Now, some folks think that Unitarian Universalism actually supports their sense of entitlement to never being called in. They like to quote the Fourth Principle (“a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”) or the Fifth Principle (“the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process”) and this becomes their justification for behaviors that are downright abusive and bullying. But abuse and bullying can never be justified in a space that is sacred. The “holy abrasion of the spirit” is helpful, not hurtful.

There is no integrity to the effort of twisting our Fourth and Fifth Principles so as to serve mere selfishness.

I would say, in fact, that a crucial dimension of the “inherent worth and dignity” our First Principle talks about is a person’s capacity to take responsibility for their hurtful actions and to make amends, if possible. I know this can be hard. People don’t necessarily know how to do this—as with many aspects of being human, it’s something that has to be learned. Which is exactly why we need church. Church may be one of the only places around where people can learn clear and compassionate guidelines and practices for calling people in and for taking responsibility and making amends.

But how terrible for any church community, when the spirit of love is replaced by the spirit of fear, because the repeatedly abusive behavior of one or several people create consistent, hurtful drama that takes center stage.

Church is supposed to be about people growing in their capacity to live the Golden Rule, not shrinking and shivering in fear because the community won’t discipline one or several who are doing to others in a way that they’d never want done to themselves.

God knows, we are dealing with this on a national stage, with the bullying leader of the Free World: our President. You just can’t enlist a foreign power to interfere in an American election on your behalf and get away with it! But still, people are afraid of the can of worms impeachment will open.

And yet it must be done. No one ever said being America was easy. And no one ever said that being religious with integrity is easy. Avoiding a collapse into hypocrisy requires humility and courage.

America aside, let us here at West Shore stay committed to the way of covenant, so that our audacious promise to allow Love to reign in our lives and to be genuinely happified has integrity.

389 years ago, when John Winthrop was deep in his anxiety about the whole Pilgrim venture shipwrecking, he put forward a clear vision of discipline: “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ 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.”

The language is old but precious. “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities.” In other words: We must be willing to give up what we merely prefer, for what is truly in the moment needed.

And then there is what Paul says in the Christian scriptures—his immortal words–“Love is patient; love is kind; […] It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.”

Again and again, we fall short. But:

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come.

This makes sense only in a context of covenant, and accountability to it.

Covenant helps us transcend hypocrisy, and achieve integrity.

Covenant keeps the “s” in the word “scrappy.”

Love is the spirit of this church, 
And service is its law.
This is our great COVENANT

For Unitarian Universalists—for we with our all-too-human imperfections–there can be no complete happification outside of Covenant.