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Sermon for October 20, 2013

What is a Covenant?

“Be ready. The time’s coming when I will plant people and animals in Israel and Judah, just as a farmer plants seed. And in the same way that earlier I relentlessly pulled up and tore down, took apart and demolished, so now I am sticking with them as they start over, building and planting. When that time comes you won’t hear the old proverb anymore, 
‘Parents ate the green apples,
their children got the stomachache.’ 
"No, each person will pay for his own sin. You eat green apples, you’re the one who gets sick. That’s right. The time is coming when I will make a brand-new covenant with Israel and Judah. It won’t be a repeat of the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took their hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant even though I did my part as their Master. This is the brand-new covenant that I will make with Israel when the time comes. I will put my law within them—write it on their hearts!—and be their God. And they will be my people. They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about GOD. They’ll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow. I’ll wipe the slate clean for each of them. I’ll forget they ever sinned!” Jeremiah 31:27-34

Today seems like a good day to talk with you a bit about a word that is central to our faith. We hear it a lot, and we use it a lot at CCC, but I think we need to take a moment and think together, as a community, about what it means. The word is covenant. It’s one of those religious jargon words – like creed, or catechism, or charism, or co-substantiation. Why do we use this churchy-sounding word when another word might do just as good? Why not just say contract or promise?

The Jewish and Christian understanding about how God relates to the world is embodied in the word covenant.  God isn’t a distant being who looks down from heaven with a benign but detached gaze, hoping to say at the end of the day, “A good time was had by all.” Nor does God lay down the law and force us into submission. Instead, we affirm a God who chooses to get mixed up with and engaged in the messiness of human life. God enters into a relationship with us based on mutual faithfulness, mutual responsibility, give-and-take, in other words, a covenant. A covenant is a set of enduring and deeply held assurances made between two parties.

The only way we can really grow up and mature as human beings is through engagement with others: relationship with God and relationship with other people. That’s how we learn what it means to be human. That’s the way that we progress beyond self-interest and self-centeredness. Covenant is a way of living life that is invested in the welfare and well-being of a community, and not just self.

But here’s the thing about covenants. The promises are often so intense that it’s impossible to consistently live up to them. We will always falling short of our promises. So, what happens when the covenant is broken? It’s a little different than a contract. In a contract, if one party breaks the agreement, it can be voided. Both sides can be released from obligations. Sometimes the offending party is penalized, but still people are released from their contractual obligations.  Think of the early termination on your mobile phone contract. You can get out of it. You are going to pay big bucks, but once you pay, the contract terms are over. A covenant is different. Covenants go on even when we fail to meet the terms.  With each failure, there is an expectation that the parties will renter the agreement with hope. Covenants are re-established with the intention of living up to them.

This is part of the story behind the reading from Jeremiah this morning. The people of Israel are people of the Covenant. Remember the 10 commandments? The 10 commandments are the summary of the law—the promises and expectations between God and the people. By Jeremiah’s day, the people have not kept their end of the agreement. Jeremiah accuses the religious and political elites of watering down and corrupting the conditions of the covenant. The people of the covenant forget that they have been set apart to fulfill God’s aims. They ignore the fact that God wants them to be an instrument of blessing to the whole earth. They have turned away from their Creator and followed other gods. They ignore justice and mercy. Humility and compassion are gone. Faced with an invasion from the hungry, nation-devouring Babylonian armies, the elite of Judah place their faith in military strategy and political alliances. The people have failed. They have abandoned the covenant. And God will not let it go unnoticed. The people are about to face days of exile. Days of agony. Days where they will wonder why they’ve been abandoned by God.

But that’s not the end of the story.  Jeremiah looks at the people in exile, with all their doubts and discouragement and says to them, “The days are coming. . .” Days of restoration to their homeland and the lives they had left behind. Days of rebuilding homes and families and communities. Days of returning to hope and faith and joy. God will build them up again with a new covenant. “The days are coming” when God will make a whole new arrangement—one that depends upon God’s unfailing love and unshakeable faithfulness. “The days are coming” when all community members will stand on equal ground, in equal righteousness. “The days are coming” when God’s people will build faithful, just structures that help and honor all people.  “The days are coming” when a new covenant will be written on the heart.

Covenants are mutual agreements about ways of being together. Here at CCC, we live a covenantal faith. For those of you who are newer here, let me explain what that means. We do not live by creeds. When you become part of us, there is not a standard set of beliefs you have to sign on to. There is not a statement of faith you must obey. To be part of our church means to agree to a covenant. We don’t care so much about what you believe, but rather how we relate to one another. The most important question is not, “Do you believe what we believe?” but rather, “How do we treat our neighbor, that is, how do we show God’s love to others?” We make enduring, deeply held promises about how we want to treat each other and work together. Our covenants come from the hearts and minds of our people.

We have a church covenant as part of our constitution that explains how we agree to walk in the ways of God’s abiding love. Every Sunday morning, we open worship by reminding each other of our covenant. We affirm that all persons are created in the image of God, by honoring and celebrating people of all races, cultures, ages, abilities, sexual orientations, and gender identities. These words come from our church covenant. They guide our identity and behavior.

We also have three covenants that direct our spiritual activism. Our Just Peace Covenant reminds us of the mutual promises we have made to work for peace and seek justice for all peoples. Our Open and Affirming Covenant speaks to our promise to intentionally welcome and affirms gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons to participate in the full life of our congregation. Our Anti-Racism Covenant acknowledges our ongoing journey to develop and implement strategies that dismantle racism through our adult and children's education, our Sunday services, our mission giving, our business practices and our community action.
Just like any covenant, these represent our ideals. The reality is we don’t always do a great job at living out our promises. Sometimes we allow ourselves to get offended by someone’s behavior and we stop looking for the image of the Divine in the one with whom we disagree. Sometimes we fail to support peace. Sometimes we forget that a covenant, it’s not a policy statement, but a promise about inclusive, loving relationships. Sometimes we are afraid to face our biases and privileges and so we don’t walk in the truth of our anti-racism covenant. But failure doesn’t mean it’s over. God isn’t done with us. We reevaluate. We ask forgiveness, when necessary. We reconcile with each other – in other words, we make it right. We ask God to give us a new heart. And we recommit. We always recommit.

We recommit ourselves to sharing a common human journey, and we covenant to value what is common among us over what separates us.

We recommit ourselves to appreciating our unique dignity and gifts, and we covenant to recognize and celebrate the variety of gifts among us.

We recommit ourselves to creating a better world, and we covenant to support and encourage our individual and common efforts towards its fulfillment.

We recommit ourselves to remembering that our lives are worthy of love, and so we covenant to help each other engage one another with compassion.

In other words, we covenant to value our common journey, to recognize and respect our individual dignity and gifts, to support the attainment of a better world, to praise the mystery, and to engage in the practices of a faith.

My job is to hold you to it. Your job is to hold me to it. Our job, is to keep at it. May it be so.

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