Good morning friends. It seems hard to start right in on covenant when a broken covenant is the elephant in the room. This country is reeling from yet one more time we have failed our children. Safety within the borders of the country ought to be a primary function of government and yet once again we weep for children lost to violence in their own school. (Our own Brett Sherman was in Broward County yesterday, witnessing the pain and anger.)
We are so far in this hole of gun violence that it is hard to see a way out yet we pray it is not a lost cause. We pray that common sense will prevail soon, if not from the adults in the room, then from the children and teenagers now making their voices heard in the streets.
Or maybe covenant is just the right lens through which to view our situation because the feeling of devastation must have also been felt on the ark. That destruction was immense. The desolation was almost complete except that Noah’s family had each other. At first, it didn’t seem like the promised, great, big deal. But then it seemed like it would never stop. Would everything that they knew and loved be lost? Would anything ever be the same?
It was only forty days, though it must have felt like 150. Then the waters begin to recede, then blue sky. Noah sends out a dove and when it returns with an olive leaf there is great rejoicing. The impossible is now possible – dry land. And just as God covered everything with water that destroys, now God covers everything with blessing and promise and covenant. Is God trying to convince them that this will never happen again? Can God even make that kind of promise?
In this passage from Genesis 9, the covenant is repeated again and again. In these few verses, we hear five variations on the covenant: “I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.” It’s as if the writer imagines if the covenant is repeated often enough maybe it will sink into the human brain. If Noah hears it, if the reader hears it, if all creation hears it often enough, maybe it will become real. Maybe it will be believed and received. With all this repetition, it seems like is God also trying to remind Godself of the dangers of destruction, the promise of the rainbow, the everlasting covenant.
Juxtapose this covenant from Genesis with the story from the gospel of Mark. Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism and sees the Spirit coming as a dove toward him. Does Jesus remember Noah’s flood waters and that dove of hope? Does Jesus remember the “covenant between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.” Jesus’ own covenant is sealed when he hears “You are my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
After the baptism and the dove and the voice, surely the best is yet to come. Instead the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness, away from that beautiful promise, that “well-pleased” voice. What kind of covenant is this? Has God had a change of mind? Has God forgotten who Jesus the Beloved, is? Has God forgotten who God is?
It may look like Jesus is sent into the wilderness to be tempted, to fend for himself. But Jesus is not alone. God has not forgotten the covenant. Mark tells us the wild beasts are there, creatures that are also part of God’s covenant. Angels are there: an extra gift to Jesus, not even mentioned in the covenant with Noah. It may sound like abandonment but Jesus is not alone. Does he remember the promise to Noah…“the covenant between me and you and every living creature…, for all future generations.” Surely the covenant remains.
Followers of Jesus are invited to live in and live into this covenant as well: God and us and every living creature. What might that mean for how we live with each other?
It is kind of mundane but it is worth noting that the employment agreements this congregation has with its pastors are called “covenants.” Sometimes it feels pretentious to call it that but most of the time I appreciate that our commitments to each other are more significant than a simple contract. We commit ourselves to be your pastors in the best ways we know how. (There is specific language around that of course.) And since it is a covenant, you as a congregation commit yourselves as well: not only to pay us but to pray for us, to accept that we too are growing in faith, to give us time with our families and not expect special services from our families to the church. I am grateful for this covenant with you and grateful for the ways we live it out together.
As a congregation, we have a covenant with Allegheny Mennonite Conference. Admittedly, it has not always been easy to live into this covenant. There were some very difficult years of alienation and anger when our LGBTQ members were not welcome in conference. But friends, that time in the wilderness when we felt alone is coming to an end. (And we should remember that we were not alone; there were companions with us, some from the Philippi congregation who stood with us from the beginning and others who gradually came alongside.)
This week I had a new experience as I prepared for a meeting with the pastors of Allegheny Conference. To my astonishment, I found that I was looking forward to being at the meeting. These pastor meetings are no longer a desert place. Now I enjoy the time of sharing, support, challenge and growing together.
This week, when it was my turn to share, I told the pastors that I think we need, as a congregation and conference, to be deliberate about healing the wounds of the past so that we do not continue carrying them into the future. This suggestion was recognized and affirmed. People even stepped up to help make something concrete happen. It is kind of messy since most of the people we had difficulty with have moved on – left the conference. The new pastors in the conference do not have much – if any – experience of those trouble years. And yet they are willing, because of their covenant with God and their covenant with conference, to help bring healing to our congregation and the conference. That is an amazing gift of covenant and I am glad we are still here to receive it.
Living into this kind of covenant of care and companionship is a gift for which I am truly grateful. And if we rest in it too comfortably, if we stop here within our cozy congregation and conference, we are in danger of becoming like Noah. Noah received the beautiful rainbow covenant from God, and as soon as he got off the ark, he planted a vineyard, waited for the grapes to ripen and made wine. And then he got drunk, alone. (It gets worse, you’ll have to read the rest yourself.)
The gift of covenant is not for a solitary person; it comes along with the gift of companionship. God offers the gift of being with God and each other and the creatures. This is a gift to share, not to hoard, alone, in drunkenness.
And so because we here know companionship with God and each other (and are working on the creatures and creation part) our congregation is not a closed community. We partner with various other people to bring healing and hope into the world. Today we are glad to be joined by students and families from Christian Family Montessori School. Ten children from the school have spent the last two months preparing themselves for first communion. Seven of the children celebrated last weekend at St. James Catholic Church. Today Marguerite, Willa and Mary share communion here with us.
You have heard Joy and David talk about the sanctuary committee’s work with San Mateo congregation. This past Thursday, we hosted a meeting of Sanctuary DMV churches in the fellowship hall. Representatives from six different congregations in Prince George’s County were here, ready to learn, ready to work together with those who feel alone in these days of threats and increased ICE raids, arrests and deportations.
You see the bulletin insert about helping our recently resettled refugee neighbors. You see the announcement about serving and providing a meal for neighbors at Community Cafe. These are all part of our response to God’s covenant, of God’s promise of companionship. Our covenant with God and with each other compels us to extend and expand our own lives in companionship with those who might imagine themselves alone – in a flood or a wilderness. Thank you for the many ways you extend love, that we expand love, together.
During this season of Lent we are invited to be deliberate in another way as we practice our faith. The worship committee invites us into deliberate awareness by carrying a rock. In the bible, when people want to remember that they have met God at a particular time or place, they gather rocks and stones into a pile or pillar as an ebenezer: “Here I raise my ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come.”
In a few moments, when you come forward for communion, or at the offering time, you are invited to pick up a rock to carry with you during Lent. You might think of a word of covenant you want to live into for the next forty days, something you want to hold tight and have written on your rock and on your heart: kindness or presence or encouragement or… Or perhaps you hold something in your heart that you would like to release – impatience, anger, fear… You can write that on the rock. Either way, we will bring our rocks back on Easter to create an ebenezer.
God creates covenant with you and me and the creatures. We are invited to respond by creating covenant with God and each other and all of creation. May God walk with us on this Lenten journey of covenant and companionship.