This Lent we’re exploring the idea of covenant. One source defines covenant as: a formal agreement…between two parties that establishes a relationship and in which… mutual responsibilities may be enacted. Like marriage. That’s a “formal agreement where mutual responsibilities are enacted,” right? Or neighborhood covenants where we promise to keep our hedges trimmed and the HOA promises to keep the pool clean.
Or the UCC. We love the word covenant in the UCC. That’s because ours is not a hierarchical church system. We stay connected to each other because we choose to stay connected, not because some bishop has told us to do so. We promise to make contributions of money, service, and fellowship to the denomination and the denomination, in return, keeps us connected with other UCC congregations. It’s all by choice, not by command.
Did you know that Pilgrimage has a covenant? Can you quote it? Have you ever seen it? On your way out today, take a look at the framed document above the Narthex table. And no, we didn’t just put it up this week. It’s been there forever.
Covenant is a strong theme in Scripture. Last week, we looked at the covenant God made with Noah, the one where God promised never again to destroy all flesh by flood. Today, we get the covenant God makes with Abram. I’m going to read it again. This time, though, when I point, you say, “Abram was 99 years old.” Got it?
“When Abram was 99 years old, God appeared to Abram, and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. I 2will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous. Abram was 99 years old. Right. Abram was 99 years old and God promised to make him “exceedingly numerous.” 3Then Abram fell on his face.” Laughing, perhaps? Or maybe he was just tired. After all, Abram was 99 years old.
Nah. I’m joking. Abram probably fell on his face out of awe and gratitude. Remember–the cultures around Abram believed there were lots of gods, all of whom acted arbitrarily. For a single God to come, invite a human being into mutual relationship, and then make promises to him? Yeah. That would be pretty awesome. And overwhelming. So, Abram falls on his face to show his respect to God.
As great as all that is, God’s not done yet. The promises keep coming. 4“As for me,” God says, “this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. …56I will make you exceedingly fruitful. Abram was 99 years old. 7I 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.”
Isn’t that just the coolest? God wasn’t out there doing God’s thing, unconcerned about what was happening to human beings. No. God was choosing to be in mutual relationship with us. God was choosing to be claimed us. “I will be your God.” God made an everlasting covenant, an eternal promise to stay in relationship with us. See what I mean? Very cool.
But back to Abram. How old was he again? Abram was 99 years old. The reason I’ve had you repeat that phrase so many times is to emphasize just how fragile the promise is. Last week, we heard a novel character question the wisdom of a God who would put all the divine eggs into one ark-shaped basket. This week, the promise comes in an even more fragile container: God chooses to entrust the promise of exceedingly numerous descendants to a 99 year old man—one who was, as Paul later writes, “as good as dead”—and his young whippersnapper of a wife, 90 year old Sarai.
If you read through the book of Genesis, you’ll see that it’s full of threats to the promise. Time and again, God tells our ancestors that the next offspring will be birthed by the woman who is barren, or in the land decimated by famine, or to a near-criminal. You read these stories and you think, “What was God thinking?” Why do things so far outside the box? Why choose to keep God’s promises in such risky ways?
But…I don’t know…I wonder if God sends us promises in risky packaging because God wants to show us how seriously God takes the covenant.
Think about it. If the promise is sure and comes through righteous people of proper child-bearing years in a land of plenty, how inclined will we be to nurture that promise? If it comes all neatly-wrapped and fully-formed, how much time will we spend with God, working to fulfil the promise? Not much, I’m guessing. “Another gift from God? Oh, just put it over there with all the others.” (Yawn.) If God’s gifts came as expected, we wouldn’t be awed; we wouldn’t be overwhelmed. We might not even be thankful. But when a gift arrives against which all the odds are stacked? That is a gift we appreciate. That is a gift that overwhelms us. That is a gift for which we offer our thanks again and again and again.
So, maybe God chooses to present divine promises in fragile containers because it keeps us in constant contact with God. It keeps us thinking about what God might be hoping for the world. It keeps us working with God for the best possible world there can be. Maybe God’s offering the divine promise in so fragile a container—Abram was 99 years old —isn’t the sign of God’s foolhardiness, but rather is a sign of divine genius. A risky promise will keep us working at it, nurturing it, doing what we can to keep it alive and help it thrive.
Among the suggestions you made in our last Town Hall Meeting last Fall was to regularly repeat a creed or the UCC Statement of Faith in worship. Because we come from so many denominations and because we create such a wide space for people to wrestle with their faith, sometimes it seems like, as one person said in Sunday School recently, “We don’t stand for anything.”
The truth is that we do stand for something. A lot, actually. (Happily, the naysayer later recanted.) And not only do we stand for something, we stand on something: a deep and rich tradition of Christian faith. Regularly repeating a Statement of Faith in worship would remind us of what we believe as a Christian community of faith. It also could be a way of nurturing the faith that is within us, fragile containers that we are.
Before we get into this Creed/Statement of Faith business, though, it’s important to acknowledge that we come from diverse religious traditions, some of which use creeds all the time, others of which stay as far away from them as they can.
In creedal traditions—think Catholic, Episcopal, Reformed—creeds have been a means of connecting worshipers to the basic tenets of Christian faith. That said, they also have been used as tests of faith: Believe this and you’re part of us; don’t believe it and you’re excluded. Some of us—like Baptists–come from traditions where our ancestors in faith were the very people excluded by creeds. For that reason, we—understandably—avoid creeds.
Being raised in a non-creedal tradition, I’d like to share how I’ve made my peace with repeating creeds or statements of faith in worship. I now think of statements of faith as testimonies of faith rather than tests of faith. If I read something as a testimony of faith, it doesn’t mean I understand everything I’m saying. It only means that I’m trying the best I can to live up to the Christian ideal. In reading those words, I am trying the best I know how to keep my end of my covenant with God….and I’m doing so by repeating words that the faithful have spoken—in some cases—for hundreds of years.
One more word about Statements of Faith. Saying them by ourselves in the quiet of our own homes—that’s okay, but it’s a pretty lonely way to testify to our faith. I’ve tried it on my cats. I don’t think they find my testimony of faith in God very convincing.
Statements of faith are meant to be read in community. When read together, they remind us that we don’t have to go this faith thing alone. For instance, say you’re reading through the Apostles’ Creed in worship. You might be able to confess some parts of the Creed with confidence, while other parts just baffle you. The cool thing is that, for every phrase you speak aloud with uncertainty, there likely is another person who is speaking the same phrase with confidence…and, by the same token, what might baffle them is something you can declare confidently. That’s the beauty of repeating statements of faith together: It reminds us that we’re working out our faith together. Where faith is concerned, we don’t have to go it alone.
So, why am I saying all this? I’m saying it to explain why we’ll be repeating more Statements of Faith in worship in the coming weeks. We will do so because it is good regularly to remind ourselves of what we believe and also because it is vital (and helpful) that we do so in community.
Because we’re looking at covenant today and because we just happen to have a covenant for our community right here (hold up bulletin), I invite us to read the Pilgrimage Covenant together. As you read, think about the words. Do they resonate with your experience as a person of Christian faith? Are you trying to fulfil these words in your life as a member of this community? Do you find comfort in speaking these words with others?
Let us stand and testify to the covenant we make with each other and with God and in so doing, nurture the fragile faith that is in us. And let us do it together.
We covenant in love with God
and with one another in our pilgrimage,
seeking to respond to the will of God.
We recognize and accept our individuality
and diverse backgrounds;
we rejoice in our commonality that
urges us to follow the Christ life,
as it is revealed to us through Jesus.
We affirm that the church’s mission includes
concern for growth and personal faith
and for social responsibility in an ever-changing world.
We will work for justice, peace, and truth
both now and in the years ahead.
In our humility we depend upon the Holy Spirit
to challenge, lead, and empower us.
We look with faith toward the triumph of God’s righteousness
and hope for eternal life in God’s presence.
While we acknowledge other faith expressions, we affirm this covenant.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan (c) 2012
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
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. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3Then 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. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
7I 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.
15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I 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.”