Covenant: Never Easy, Always Worth It
A Sermon for the Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Rev. Reebee Girash, Associate Pastor
January 11, 2015
“A central theme of the Bible is covenant, the notion of making commitments and keeping them, of making promises and fulfilling them. God’s self-revelation showed a covenant-keeping God. That is who God is. That is how the Divine Self meets Israel and relates to the church. That is how God defines our world for us as a process of covenant-making and covenant-keeping. And that is the good news of the Gospel: that God is faithful to the covenant.” – Walter Brueggemann
The year that I turned six years old, two major events were marked by one symbolic re-naming. Like Abraham, I received a new name when I was welcomed into covenant. That was the year I was adopted, by grandparents who had been raising me for years but now it was official and forever. And that was the year I was baptized, in our church, kneeling at the Communion rail, and looking up at a very tall minister. On that day I received my middle name: Lois, which was also my mom’s name. My life was changed, and my name was changed, too.
Listen now, for the story of Abram and Sarai receiving their new names.
Listen now, for a piece of the Genesis story. To set it in context: in the first 10 chapters of Genesis we hear a cosmic history, and we hear promises made to all of creation. In the eleventh chapter, we move from the cosmic to the individual, from all of creation to one – seemingly random – man and woman and their children. Yet God’s call to Abram, and God’s covenant, are, we are told, will make them a blessing to all nations, and in them, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The story lasts many chapters but our focus today – and the story our children are working through in Sunday school – is the covenant giving portion of Chapter 17.
So listen, for the word of blessing God has for us, in this scripture passage today.
Scripture: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Now – the covenant that God made with Abraham was a bit more weighty than your average promise. This was a covenant that spanned generations, that extended across nations, a covenant.
But there was no new members’ class before this covenant was made.
Abraham and Sarah did not sit down for pre-covenantal counseling in the pastor’s office.
They did not memorize in advance the responses they would offer when they would kneel with a hand placed on their shoulder.
They did not sign and date the covenant book, nor set up stones to in a pillar to symbolize their part.
No – this was an overarching covenant, initiated by God and fulfilled by God, and done in God’s way.
I boggle at this a bit. If I were picking people with whom to make such a covenant, I am not entirely sure I would have chosen Abram and Sarai. Abraham twice has Sarah pretend to be his sister in order to pull a fast one on a foreign ruler. Sarah co-opts a family slave into bearing Abraham’s child and then casts her and the child out. And neither one of them believes God when God first says: you will have descendents more numerous than the stars or the sand. To put it mildly, Abraham is flawed and Sarah is doubtful. And they are the people God chooses to represent this word of covenant.
God chose Abraham and Sarah, flawed people, to be on the receiving end of a covenant. That says something about God. It says, God can use anyone for good. Sometimes you’ll hear folks talk about the strong faith of Abraham, and he was faithful: but also flawed, and God chose him, anyway. Which is good news for me, at least, as another flawed human being – and maybe good news for you, too? God calls and chooses and covenants with people not based on their worthiness, but based on God’s love. Paul makes this point a few times in his letters.
“5 Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant…” (2 Corinthans 3:5-6a)
God iterates and reiterates covenant with people over and over and over again – that says something about God, too. God is faithful, steadfast, loving.
“All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.” – Psalm 25:10.
It is not the first time God has spoken covenant to human beings and to creation, and it is not the last: Noah heard the rainbow covenant and Jeremiah spoke of God’s covenant to be written on people’s hearts. And after the covenant was written in the sky, and the covenant was shaped by their children, and the covenant was symbolized in the land of Canaan, and the covenant was made with kings, and the covenant was written on their hearts, Jesus said: here is a new way for you to experience the love of God. Here is my body, broken. Do you see God’s covenant in it?
This is good news for us, too, for from the first decades of God’s first covenant words, human beings have have had trouble living up to God’s invitation. But we get closer than we would on our own, for the same reason Abraham was able to be faithful: because God goes with us on the journey. God will not walk away from her children. God will keep on offering us covenant promises.
Now, it might seem that God does not speak covenants so clearly anymore. Maybe we’re not as tuned to hear it; or perhaps it is out turn, to live into and speak our side of our covenant.
It was 1995 and we called ourselves The Committee Of Ten. There were ten of us, and we met Often. The UCC church I had started attending was in the midst of a Situation (did you hear the capital S?) and wanted a Committee that would represent the full spectrum of the congregation. I was the only college student in history to say yes to serving on a church committee that met every Saturday at 8 am. We prayed. We surveyed. We prayed. We researched. We sought counsel. We prayed. Finally, we recommended. The congregation discerned, prayed, and yes voted. And came through, stronger. It was never easy – but we felt God’s presence and guidance in the middle of our early Saturday sessions.
What held us together, as a community, was covenant. And God, sitting in the center of that covenant, strengthened us. It was in that Committee Of Ten that I found, in my heart of hearts, I am UCC.
It is not that the UCC is unique in its emphasis on covenant – its just that we put more of our eggs in this basket than other churches. We do not rely upon hierarchy, nor do we have a system in which decisions are made externally. We do not rely on creed, in which only certain beliefs and practices are orthodox. Instead, we put Jesus in the center of our life together and we proclaim that covenant will hold us together, no matter how different we are. That sense of covenant binds us, within the congregation, and binds our congregation to the wider UCC. (For a great read on this: http://www.ucc.org/vitality_what-matters_we-are-a-people-of-covenant )
When Ann, Emma, and I joined this church, said we would ‘covenant to join this community in a spirit of tolerance and respect…we would find ways to share ourselves as an offering of God through the life of the church.’ And you said to us: ‘we welcome you into the common life of this church, we promise you our continuing friendship and prayers as we share the hopes and labors of the Church. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we would continue to grow together in God’s knowledge and love, and truly be witness to the power of God in the healing of our world.’ In covenant, we became entertwined, one with each other, and with all of you.
We are called to take God’s covenant into our heart and live faithful lives expressed in love and justice. (http://www.ucc.org/vitality_what-matters_we-are-a-people-of-covenant ) It is a mystery, and a wonder, that this works, that covenant really does glue us together. But it does, when you trust God. Amy Bently Lamborn puts it this way: “Covenantal signs abound all around us. Whenever love persists, in spite of all those powers and principalities that would otherwise destroy it, whenever words of blessing and acts of courage triumph over loss and sorrow and fear, there is the living promise of a power larger than life, and stronger than death.” (Living Pulpit, July-September 2005, page 23)
The call came, as it does these days, not by burning bush but by email: will you give him a ride to church? And, even new to this community, they said yes.
The call came, as it does these days, not by thunderous voice, not by three angels appearing at the door, but over email. It was just after the decision not to indict the officer responsible for Eric Garner’s death on Staten Island. “I need the Eliot family to respond…” the email read. And because we are a community in covenant with each other, we heard the call from one of our sisters and began to act.
The call came, as it does these days, not in a whirlwind, but by website: join the CROP Hunger Walk – and we did, 50 of us from several different churches, we walked joyfully together.
The call came, as it does these days, not by trumpet but very very last minute: will you teach Sunday School. And the memory came of the baptisms and the covenant of membership and the joy in learning with those young people, and you said yes.
The call came, by phone: we have missed you. You are one of us.
The call came, to celebrate with this family.
The call came, to wrestle with conflict.
And in covenant, came the faithful response.
We are a covenant community, bound together, strengthened by God, greater than the sum of our parts.
God is in the center of our covenant community, calling us to notice, when one of us is in need, calling us to celebrate, calling us to discern, calling us to live justice, calling us to faithfulness, calling us to do more than we can alone. “It is very different to be God’s people as brothers and sisters in Christ, than to be members of a club.” (Parish Life and Leadership, 2005)
I was six years old. Two people covenanted with me to be my family. A church covenanted with me to be my community. I received a new name. The strength of those sacred covenants was greater than human beings could make it – and the strength of those covenants gave me strength.
This is what I want our children, at Eliot, to know:
God’s steadfast love endures forever.
And our covenant community is strong enough to love them, always.
This is what I want you to know:
God’s steadfast love endures forever.
And our covenant community is strong enough to love you, always.