Scripture: Genesis 15:1-21
Rev. Bill Maury-Holmes
October 11, 2015
‘Tis the beginning of the covenant season here at Redlands United Church of Christ, that time of the year when we challenge ourselves to reflect upon our own commitments to God, our church community and whatever new works of service may be stirring in our souls. In a few weeks, before the start of the Advent season when we celebrate and consider again the coming of God into our world, we will together offer our personal covenants with all due seriousness and even some formality. It’s probably the closest thing we do around here to appearing that we’re in some funky religious cult.
This church, unlike most, has practiced covenant membership from its beginning. As I understand it, the founders desired to be a congregation where members took seriously their individual commitments to a common life and ministry. This came from a number of good impulses, among them a healthy concern that the church should be guided and governed by those who were committed stakeholders. We also picked up some cues from the prophetic model of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C., where to be a member literally means that you are practically committed to a particular ministry of service. People don’t really float around at the Church of the Savior. Some of us would say that this a more consistent way of doing things with historical and biblical practice, a gathered body which functions as the sum of its unique parts.
Enough high-mindedness, already. Let’s ask a more basic question: what the heck is a covenant? Simply put, it’s a formal and binding agreement between two parties. Yet, when I say the word, what comes to mind? Free associate for us folks…
Weddings. Right. Any others?
Given that the most common usage of the word “covenant” today has to do with weddings and marriage, it does possess a quasi-religious meaning for most of us. We don’t talk about business “covenants.” We speak of business deals. We don’t obtain driver’s “covenants.” We get driver’s licenses. We don’t negotiate international military “covenants.” We pursue treaties. Some athlete gets a gob of money and he or she signed a huge “contract,” not a covenant.
But we rarely speak of wedding contracts. Sure, there is a license to be signed somewhere and it can be used for certain practical things. But for the most part marriage is understood as a relational enterprise. We have made the notion of marriage a matter of freedom to choose, enact and live with all of the rights and responsibilities of committed love. We’ve made a very big deal about that in our church life and for good reasons. Covenants matter.
We get this idea of covenant from the Hebrew scriptures. The Hebrew scriptures drew from their age and place a variety of covenants from surrounding cultures in the Ancient Near East, today’s Middle East. There were many different kinds of covenants available to them. The Bible reflects this. In the early Hebrew scriptures, a number of such agreements are visible as parts of the stories of God’s dealings, God’s relationships with the people. Caan, Lamech, Noah all get them. Later, the covenant with Moses is quite a bit more extensive.
Ah, but Abram. With Abram and his wife Sarai the matter of covenant is demonstrated both as high art and also as a key understanding of human/divine relationship with the Israelites. This likewise informs both the Christian and Islamic traditions. Put short, most of the world’s monotheists get their notions of relationship with God from the Abram story whether they/we know it or not.
(By the way, Abram was an Iraqi who wandered around in northern Syria for a spell. Ponder that for a minute…)
Abram had left Syria and his family because the Lord God told him to. Kind of strange in a patriarchal society. We don’t know what kind of dynamics were at play, but Abram (already old), his wife Sarai and nephew Lot readily split for a journey to who-knows-where with some generalized promises of greatness, blessings, stuff and kiddos. This is notable because our couple is childless. The journey starts well enough and there seems to be a pleasant relationship of sorts developing between Abram and this Lord. There are altars and pledges made in a land that the original Jewish audience would recognize as Israel, the center of their world.
Alas, as so many nice religious plans go awry then and now, a famine hits and the next thing the reader discovers Abram has packed up the troop and headed down to Egypt. Troubling. God is out of the picture, no mention at all for a while. And Egypt has some bad taste to the Jewish audience. It gets juicier. In no time Abram is pandering and procuring his wife off to Pharaoh to save his own skin. That’s the dry legal definition. Rappers call this pimping. Apparently Sarai is quite hot and the scheme works, rather profitably: “And for her sake he (Pharaoh) dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves and camels” (Gen. 12.16) and also silver and gold. We find all this within the same chapter as the call to go in the first place! It doesn’t take long for relationship to go south…
It is very dark humor. The audience is supposed to squirm. (“The mother of our faith getting schtupped by Pharaoh!?!”) There are elements of the Abram and Sarai story that are disturbing, deliberately offensive and yet comical and we find ourselves unable to suppress a giggle or five. Mel Brooks could turn this into a movie. After all, only a good Jew could take the Spanish Inquisition and turn into a cheery musical number. What it does establish is that people in relationship with God are far from perfect, yet capable of what we might call “considerable creativity.” God remains committed to them even if they go freelancing.
The journey continues. Sometimes God is in the picture, sometimes not. There are family squabbles and inadvertent military skirmishes. Some years later and there is still no kid, which is kind of a big problem getting bigger. Old age doesn’t increase fertility.
This is where we find Abram in our reading. Back from battle.
I can’t help but see this passage as a theater piece. One man in a black box, not much lighting, enters and sits on a stool. A voice and a flash of fire. The voice is clearly human. The voice is not an abstraction, not an “it.” For our purposes I’ll call the voice “her.”
That’s all. It’s all a vision.
The voice of the Lord comes in: “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Don’t worry. ‘Bout a thing. ‘Cuz everything little thing, it’s going to be alright.” It’s a pleasant little ditty. While Bob Marley did it well, many church songs are too of this vein. Happy, hopeful praise songs. “Our God is an awesome God.” “You have been a shelter, Lord.” There are plenty where that came from. But for Abram, at this point, it’s completely wrong.
Cue the sarcasm: “Hey Honey, cut the crap. What about the kid? At this rate a slave’s kid is going to inherit all of this splendor.” “But wait; allow me to clarify. YOU HAVE GIVEN ME NO BABY!”
This is not how it’s supposed to be. My family has long been in San Diego and some in the family have served in the Navy. I’ve seen the pictures in the Union-Tribune countless times. A ship comes in from a long deployment, maybe one of those six month stints at sea. There are flags, a fire boat shooting a water gun leading the parade into the harbor. The ship arrives at the dock and families are re-united. Kisses are exchanged. Toddlers leap into arms. New babies are held, maybe for the first time. It’s captured on film and put in the paper. It’s heart-warming. Life’s dangers are done and domestic life resumes.
For Abram, there is no child, no photo-opportunity. The Lord’s promises ring pretty hollow. “Listen bucko, where’s the kid!?!”
So the Lord shifts and immediately. She responds, “There will be a child, your child. Let’s go outside. There’s no light pollution. See the stars? That rich, layered cosmos? Billions and billions? So shall your descendants be.”
To which Abe responds, “Okay.” “And it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” It’s one of the most significant moments in the entire Bible. “Righteousness” is a term that originated in economic transactions. To be “righteous” means that accounts are square and evened up, no debts remain to be paid, that there is equity between parties. God says she will come through and is committed to Abe. Abe believes. All is well.
That’s the context for the first big part of the covenant with Abram. The promise is God’s, a divine gift given when nothing else is working. She literally changes her tune. She shifts to address the point of human need, the point of human anguish. This is born out of deep care for the other, a love that expresses itself in commitment to put one’s own existence on the line for the other’s well-being. We all like this and can affirm it. Relationships only work when there is mutual commitment.
But there is a remaining part of the covenant ritual that is perhaps more provocative to us. It’s that part that seems a bit barbaric to our sensibilities. The Lord tells Abram to go and get five animals – a young cow, a goat, a ram and a couple of birds – and to sacrifice them. The sacrifice of valuable animals is something in itself, an economic token of worth, but also symbolic of something more striking. Later, when it is night, the vision continues and the Lord’s voice returns promising Abram future children and a long life himself. It will not be easy, but it will good. Then, absolutely unilaterally, the fire and light pass between the animal carcasses, formalizing the covenant with a personal commitment, a signature on the agreement if you will. Nowhere does Abram sign anything, nor does he pass through the sacrificed animals. It’s only God.
What this says is that, for God, covenants are consequential. What happens here is that the Lord is essentially stating that if she fails to fulfill her promises to Abram may she too go the way of these sacrificed animals. God is so committed to Abram’s future that she will take the fall if it doesn’t work out.
God’s covenant making and keeping becomes the template for our own. It is all about committed love for the benefits of others, often in their places of greatest need. And if this is true then maybe there are consequences when we don’t make and/or keep sacrificial covenants ourselves.
Now it’s normal amongst liberal, progressive Christians to try not to judge much, which is good and consistent with Jesus’ teachings. But maybe we don’t hold each other accountable much either, which wouldn’t be good and consistent with Jesus’ teachings.
The most powerful and clear example I’ve had of the consequences of broken covenants came from a friend outside the church world, one who is rather irreligious. It happened about eleven or twelve years ago a couple of blocks from here, at Brookside Park. It was a Saturday morning and a bunch of our kids were small and playing on the playground equipment. I knew her from story time at the Frugal Frigate bookstore, her child the same age as one of our three. She was obviously in pain and when I asked her what was up she shared of how her marriage was in the process of ending, her husband having cheated on her repeatedly. I remember her rocking on a bench, sobbing and repeating over and over, “He made a covenant. He made a covenant. He made a covenant.”
Her husband wasn’t going to be sliced in half like those animals anymore than any of us are when we fail our commitments. Moreover, I rarely think of my place in this church as having anywhere near that kind of impact, for good or ill. But perhaps we do. Perhaps the ways that we commit or don’t commit have more consequences than we often think. Perhaps we take our commitments lightly and little come of them. Perhaps we get distracted from what is most important and squander our time and resources in fruitless ways. Perhaps we rest easy upon past commitments and don’t do the hard work – personally and communally – to make and follow through with new and renewed pledges that will share God’s love beyond what we have shared to this point. Abram and Sarai’s journey forth into the unknown future is a call to be blessings to the nations near and far, often despite themselves.
We humans will screw up of course. All you have to do is read the beginning of the next chapter in Genesis to find out how quickly commitments can go astray when a little anxiety is injected into the system. But the Abram/Sarai story tells is that divine covenant remains true and does indeed come to pass, eventually. That’s why we make covenants. We do this together in hope that our personal and congregational commitments will shine forth the divine love even as we experience it ourselves. As Peruvian priest and liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez puts it:
Once, however, we accept that belief in God is something communal, we are constantly open to the new, the unlimited, the unpredictable. Others will realize, and experience, new demands made by faith in God – demands that would have not occurred to us as isolated individuals. The community, which possesses a variety of charisms [gifts] and functions, will regulate the faith of its individuals and will, in its turn, be enriched by the varied experiences of the persons making it up.
-Gustavo Gutierrez, The God of Life, 34
It is in covenant that God is revealed as “one who is near to us and faithful.”