Broken Covenant

This sermon was preached in the only urban pulpit in St. Louis on the Sunday following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  The service addresses the current events directly with names and instances, for the congregation had been deeply and personally involved in every step of the conflict.



Ancient: The Constitution of Medina, from the Writings of Ali, Cousin of the Prophet Mohammed

  1. The non-Muslims included in the community had the following rights:
  2. -The security of God, equal for all groups,                                                             -The same political and cultural rights as Muslims,                                    

    -Autonomy and freedom of religion.

    Modern: Excerpts from Unitarian Christianity by William Ellery Channing

    In the first place, we believe in the doctrine of God’s UNITY, or that there is one God, and one only. The proposition, that there is one God, seems to us exceedingly plain. We understand by it, that there is one being, one mind, one person, one intelligent agent, and one only, to whom underived and infinite perfection and dominion belong.  We find no intimation, that this language was to be taken in an unusual sense, or that God’s unity was a quite different thing from the oneness of other intelligent beings.


A covenant is a promise about how we are going to be together.  It can be displayed on the walls of a church.  It can be between a parent and a child.  It could be an understanding between a people and their God, or a set of laws.  All of these are covenants that we make to each other about how we are going to treat one another.

And the making of a covenant is a sacred process that we, as Unitarian Universalists, undertake as part of our relationship with the world.  Each time we enter into a new relationship: we name how we want to be accountable to each other.  These covenants are a way for us to be spoken into life, a way for us to pledge our love and dedication and care for one another, a way for us to express our desire to see each other through, and most importantly, our accountability to each other.  And they can be powerful ways of reorganizing our society to better serve the people in our midst.

In fact, covenants are so powerful, that they can change an entire world.  One such covenant has made a big difference to a lot of people in our world.  In the year 622, when Islam was but learning to crawl, Mohammed was called upon to resolve a conflict in Medina.  There were 12 prominent clans who didn’t like the Jewish population.  So, Mohammed drew up a covenant that would give these two groups the opportunity to re-imagine how they could be together.  Mohammed wasn’t jewish, but he saw that there was a group of people in his midst who were being treated in a way that went against his religious beliefs.  For, Mohammed believed in an ultimate oneness.  And so, Mohammed coached these two groups, and they came to a new agreement.  The reason that this new agreement was possible was because each group understood that they were accountable to each other.  These two sides were able to get underneath their differences, he was showing them they were inextricably linked.

The non-Muslims included in the community had the following rights:

    1. The security of God, equal for all groups,
    2. The same political and cultural rights as Muslims,
    3. Autonomy and freedom of religion.

The Muslim ideals of co-existence spread throughout northern Africa, and whole societies was founded upon the idea of God’s ultimate and perfect oneness.  A perfect and ultimate oneness that could trickle down into every aspect of life, including and, most importantly, human interactions: an understanding that we are all accountable to each other as if another person were an extension of one’s self.

So, I’m sure that you can understand how awful it was, when 300 years later, ships began to land in Africa, from Frances, Spain, England and Portugal.  After African people were kidnapped from their families, after they were taken from their land and their country, after their social order was destroyed, they were put onto ships to be brought to the Americas.  The voyage took 1-6 months, and on these slave ships, human beings were kept, for most of the day, in boxes- long flat boxes- like coffins, that were closed, and on only were 18 inches high.  That meant that people on slave ships had 6 inches space for up to 6 months.  In this passage alone, 2,000,000 people died.

And here we have the breaking of a covenant.  Not the muslim covenant, not the African covenant, not the European covenant, but a breaking of the unspoken covenant between humans.  A breaking of that thing, that feeling of connection, the feeling of oneness and family that is possible and right. These intelligent and dignified people were made out to be inhuman.  These people, who came from the place that invented mathematics and astronomy, the area that had the most extensive library and educational system in the world, these people were made out to be savages.

This covenant was broken many years ago, but it continues to this day.  How can the covenant between the United States and African Americans not be broken, if it was broken in it’s very birth? The black community’s voice is rising once again with the cry of, “how can another child be dead in the streets with no justice for his killer?”  This is not a new trouble, this is an old trouble.  This is a familiar trouble.  America’s broken covenant with African American people has never really been dealt with.  This is about the cries of mothers over their sons, despite the promises that have been made. It’s about the man who was buying a BB gun in a walmart, and had sat down, on the phone, and was shot to death by police because it seemed he was threat.  Or, the 12 year old boy who was shot dead in the park, after a woman called and said that there was a child with a fake toy gun.  I am willing to bet, that if your son was in the park with a toy gun, and the cops came and shot him dead, you too, would be crying out, “how can my child be dead in the streets with no justice?”  If your brother were on the phone, and an officer shot him dead, and then a special jury deemed that as “justified,” you too would light fires and break glass.  It’s about the indignities of not being listened to, even though the things you have to say are as true as true can be.

It might be that the verdict concerning Michael Brown hits home for you, or, you might be standing in solidarity with people who are crying out, or you might be inundated with feelings and emotions that conflict.  But no matter your relationship to this event, we all know the pain of assuming that we were safe, and loved, but, instead, we have been betrayed or forgotten.  This is something we all know.  Perhaps your family has betrayed you, your partner, or an institution and has made you unseen.  And, perhaps you remain unseen.  And, probably, the most hurtful thing about what happened, was that no one cared about you.  And then, probably, no one was held accountable for their actions, and no one said they were sorry.

The good news is, we can mend broken covenants.  But, because covenants are made communally, the only way to mend one is for everyone who was part of the breaking to show up at the table.  You can’t just have the people who’ve been wronged at the table. Because in order to mend a broken covenant, the people who have been wronged need to be shown that someone is accountable for that wrong.  The people who did the wrong need to be held accountable for their actions, and say they’re sorry.

Can you imagine if Darren wilson had run to the body of Michael Brown and reckoned, in public, with his own anguish about killing another human being?  What if he had the dignity to say, I’m sorry.  Don’t you think that this would have changed the conversation?  Don’t you think any acknowledgement of wrong-doing could change this conversation?  At the very base-line, to say, I’m so sorry for killing someone.  To, in some way, express an understanding that he took another’s life. Because the way it is now, no one has said that they’re sorry to this family.  No one has admitted a wrong.

And that’s because it’s not easy to pin fault. Because it’s really not clear who is at fault here. This is a big, messy, complicated system that is made up of humans, and it’s really an incredibly painful experience of trying to figure out how to talk about whose fault this is.

But someone has to be accountable to a group of people that is suffering. So we will be. Because it is the right thing to do.

So WE will do it

In place of a healthy system, we will be healthy. In place of police departments that have good patterns and practices, we will make good patterns. In place of school systems and economic health, we will show our accountability, in whatever way we can. Accountability doesn’t mean we go in an “save” anyone, it just means that we show up. It means that when our institutions and systems do not do so, we will uphold the unspoken covenant between humans.  We will let tears well in our eyes when we see tears in another’s eyes.  We will let ourselves feel the despair of losing a child or a husband or a brother.  We will be enraged at injustice, and we will feel the urgency with which people are struggling to survive. We will engage in radical accountability. We will be accountable to the people in this city.

This is a powerful group of people. You know it, and I know it. This church is full of intelligent, connected, and loving people, so we could actually have a real affect on St. Louis. If we put our mind, collectively, to deepening our engagement with people in St. Louis who are struggling, we could do some amazing work.

Mohammed affected throughout the entire arab world, but he didn’t do it one fell swoop.  He saw that there were people in his midst who were being treated in a way that went against his religious beliefs.  And so he called upon his religious beliefs to lead him to where the work needed to be done. And he used his religious beliefs to carry him through the tense and difficult work of creating a new covenant.

And we are going to do the same thing.  We cannot change the climate of this country in one fell swoop, but we are in this community.  This is happening in this town.  This is national news, but for you, this is your town.  These are the people who you live with. So, what we will do, is to try to create a new covenant amongst people right here, amongst people in this neighborhood, in this city. Because we are a religious people, so…

when we see a group of people in our midst who were being treated in a way that goes against our religious beliefs, we will use our religion to guide us.   For we are Unitarians, so we have historically preached a divine oneness…a perfect and ultimate oneness that trickles down into an accountability to each other as if another person were an extension of one’s self. So we, too have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: That “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”   This is not easy. Changing a city and a system is not easy work, but we are called to do it.

Because we are universalists, so we believe that all humans deserve decency and dignity and accountability.

And we are covenant builders. So we believe that everyone needs to be inside a beloved community.  We believe that everyone needs to love across boundaries, that everyone needs to be seen through.  We all need mutual and loving relationships, we all need others to be accountable us.