Genesis 15: 1-6; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:15-4:1; Luke 13: 31-35
In the current debate over same-sex marriage, the chief mystery to me is why anyone wants to prevent two adults from promising to love and care for one another. Why would we stop two people from pledging deep devotion? How does a till-death-do-you-part vow harm those two people, their community, or their God? All sorts of vows, promises, pledges, pacts, treaties, agreements, contracts, and covenants can be harmful if made through coercion or in bad faith or with bad intentions. But an earnest vow of love holds potential good for all. The grand arc of Christian scripture testifies that the experience of the Holy is activated in committed human relatedness. The biblical concept of covenant starts in the book of Genesis and extends through the New Testament’s witness to the “new covenant” Jesus made in pouring out his life in love, which is remembered each time we come to Christ’s table.
That which is sacred happens in the loving interactions between two lovers, between parent and child, between a human being and a beloved pet, between a people and the land they tend with care. God is there . . . in the inbetweeneness. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say God IS the betweenness.
Oh, I know. We tend to think of God as the object of our adoration and the One who loves us. But what if God is the generative power that forms and exists in relationships and comes out of relationships? Sure, it’s easier to image God as a being—like a super powerful person, a heavenly parent in some distant location. It’s harder for creatures like us, who think and relate visually, to fathom God as the force or power of love itself. You’re probably trying visualize now a physics diagram rather than a person. Let’s take a moment to walk around inside this idea: Picture me . . . and you . . . and flowing invisibly between us is God—not as a third party in our relationship but as the force attracting and connecting us, the glue that bonds us, the creative energy generated by and coming from our relationship -- when we’re in right relationship. Yes, some relationships emit destructiveness. But that which we call God makes possible life-giving and love-producing relationships which produce new life and love. For Christians, Jesus's life gives us that needed visible picture of right relatedness.
A caveat: God-as-right-relatedness may complicate your prayer life at first. It’s easier to pray in traditional ways to a heavenly parent. But certain images of God—as father, warrior, king—might, if used exclusively, limit our growth in God.
Let’s look specifically at relationships based on formal or informal covenants. I find little in scripture to affirm what many today hold up as traditional marriage. The Bible really knows nothing about marriage as it exists in 21st century Western culture. But the biblical word speaks volumes about commitments we make to God and to one another. So in an age when many take too casually the responsibilities we bear one another, the word covenant is worth dusting off again. On this evening I am interested in three specific kinds of covenant relationships: covenants a group makes with another group, covenants we as individuals make with God, and covenants we as individuals make with other individuals and groups.
As Open Table eagerly anticipates becoming a church "in full standing" in the United Church of Christ, we do so aware of covenants that congregations make with other congregations or denominations. Our church will enter into a trustful covenant with all other congregations and expressions of the UCC to “listen, hear and carefully consider their advice, counsel and requests as they listen hear and carefully consider our advice, counsel, and requests.” Although no person and no part of the UCC has authority to require us to affirm any beliefs or behave in any ways, we will be promising one another to try to walk together in God’s ways—in love and mutuality. We will be in a committed and caring relationship.
A more ancient idea of covenant is developed in the book of Genesis. In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, we encounter a chapter has been “judged by many scholars to be the oldest statement of Abrahamic faith, from which the others are derivative.” Although the word translated as covenant does not appear until several verses later, “there is no doubt that this chapter offers crucial resources for the theme . . . of covenant,” says Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis (p. 140 ).
Verse 1:After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
Abram has just had a close call with some foreign armies. His thoughts perhaps turn to his own mortality. Notice that God begins this encounter. God's grace initiates the covenantal relationship. This story clearly says Abram images God in human terms, but in a vision. There are other more literalized encounters with God in scripture, but this is not. Notice, too, the image Abram has of God includes God as a shield—clearly a metaphor. So set your postmodern hearts at ease, my friends, and appreciate this as a nonliteral conversation with the Divine.
Verses 2-3: But Abram said (in this dream or vision), “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3“You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
God is for Abram, something like a feudal lord who promises reward for those who serve him. But God is also Abram’s source of life and legacy. Eternal life for Abram is possible through his descendants since life after death is a concept early Israel had not yet evolved. To Abram, God is the power which brings a child into a human family and offers new and enduring life.
Verses 4-6 4But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir. Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
The first explicit covenant in Genesis was the one in which God promised never again to flood the earth—a covenant made with Noah and all creation. In this next covenant God promises not only to withhold destruction but actually to make a way for ongoing life and relatedness. God promises descendants and, a few verses later, land where they may dwell and multiply. What we learn about Abram’s God here is that God opens up the possibilities of relatedness and, through relatedness, life itself: the creation and continuation of life. Now I’ll admit that Abram has a tribal notion about how life ought to continue—with his seed, with favoritism toward a particular line of the human family. But the text still holds out a larger view: “Look at the stars, Abram,” says God. “That’s the vast picture we’re ultimately aiming for. The cosmos is your family. The vastness of what God is is way above your head and all human thought. But you are nevertheless connected to all that—through me.”
God through science has more recently been teaching us that we are the stuff of stars. The materials that make up all life on our planet came from the stars of the wider universe. To alter the Ash Wednesday formula: It’s “stars to stars” rather than “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I wonder how human history might have changed if the human race had focused a little less on gaining territory and more on appreciating the beauty and vastness of God’s full progeny.
Still, Abram was a man of faith. And the God of Genesis said that counted for much. God works through trust, through trusting, committed relationships. The covenant God continues to make, metaphorically, with those who inhabit any part of our planet is this: if you can trust and be trusted, you make serve the vast and enduring enterprise of love and life.
A third type of covenant, implied in the verses Jerry read from Philippians, is found in a covenanted community where individuals have pledged their commitment to that particular faith community. Paul calls the church at Philippi to “hold fast” to their commitments. This is a communal call to remain brothers and sisters—even though some “think differently” than others in that church. Can you imagine that? Folks in a church who have different and potentially divisive thoughts?! The “mature” brothers and sisters have the responsibility for “being of the same mind,” which Paul elsewhere says is “the mind of Christ,” which is different from saying they have to all share the same opinions. Instead, this complex relationship of diverse members of unequal maturity and divergent opinion are equalized by their relatedness as sisters and brothers in Christ. Their community is rooted in the love of Christ, a love Paul effusively professes and models. It is this same love that brings us together—another group of diverse Jesus followers--to Christ’s Open Table. We may not agree on how to think about God, but we share the theological premise that the life of God is always about relationship and relatedness. Our congregation’s central metaphor is that of table fellowship, where relationship is based on and supported by the most elemental of human connection—a shared meal.
The verbal covenant of membership we at Open Table make with each new member addresses them as our sisters and brothers and includes these words:
“Today we formalize a covenant that we hope has been implicit in all our dealings with you: that we will try to bear one another’s burdens, hear one another’s stories, support one another in spiritual growth, and serve God by serving one another and our world. In our congregation and in our denomination, we will together strive for unity without seeking uniformity.”
But the covenant of love we make with God and with our church family is not a tit-for-tat contract. In our culture we’re used to getting out of our contracts—with Verizon or AT&T—if we can get a better deal elsewhere. The church’s covenant of love is not contingent on how happy everyone else here is making us. In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus is warned that the epicenter of his religion’s life, Jerusalem, sometimes kills prophets—yet Jesus weeps with compassion for those within that religious system and commits himself to “finish [his] work.” Jesus expresses God’s desire to cover Jerusalem protectively as a mother hen would protect her chicks. But Jerusalem was “not willing.” Covenant works only when both parties earnestly give and receive the challenges and blessings of church life. Sometimes we are not willing, to use Jesus’s words about those in Jerusalem. We are not willing to extend ourselves, to trust, to listen, to risk being hurt.
The image of Jesus as a mother hen spreading her wings protectively over her chicks might have more sacrificial connotations than we've assumed. Some have reported after a barnyard fire picking up the charred bodies of mother hens only to find living chicks beneath. Love in general and life in a faith community in particular can call for sacrifice, more give than take at times. We aim for equality but rarely achieve it completely. Our life together requires sincere commitments from all with recognition that God’s forgiving grace will be needed by all.
Making covenants is risky. The biblical word says covenants bring us closer to relatedness at the heart of the life of God.
Friends, I thank God for our life together in a covenant of love and care.
Friends, I thank God for our life together in a covenant of love and care.
In silent prayer, let’s consider vows we would renew in our hearts as part of our Lenten journey: relationships that deserve greater attention, commitments grown dull.
May the God who calls us into a fresh future lead us into responsible relationships with individuals, with groups, with creation. Amen.