Pastor Dave Clark’s Sermon: The God Who Covenants
Exodus 19:1-8 September 28, 2014
The candle flickered in the dark basement as my buddy Frank sterilized the razor knife in the flame. We mustered up an eerie solemnity, sixth graders terrified at the prospect of slicing into our own flesh to become blood brothers. Soon Frank, Clint and I smeared tiny droplets of our own blood into each other’s palms swearing ourselves to stand up for one another against all odds. It was the thing to do back then–for goodness sakes, I pray that kids don’t still do that.
Sometimes I wonder if without some ritual, some pledge to one another if our friendship would have lasted through all these years and accumulated gray hairs. We are scattered across the country, as well as the political and theological spectrum; I cannot think of a single topic of consequence on which all three of us would agree–including whether in 7th grade, the beautiful Marcia Christensen walked up our street because she had a secret crush on me or Frank, or as Clint insists, for him. Although we disagree on just about everything, we’ve been there for each other, best men at each other’s weddings, godparents for each other’s kids. We just show up, through thick and thin, right or wrong, brothers in spirit, part of each other’s lives. What holds us together has to be more than similar thoughts, values or even personality compatibility.
It’s a covenant. When I first learned about how making annual covenants are the lifeblood of this congregation, I thought about my buddies, blood brothers against the odds. To me covenants are more substantial than the usual stuff that keeps things together in our society. Covenant is an old timey word that is worth reclaiming. It’s better than the prevailing what’s-in-it-for-me mentality that doesn’t have a chance to produce things that last and produce dependable relationships.
It would be difficult to overstate the role of covenants in scripture; after all the words for Old and New Testament are more precisely translated Old and New Covenants. I’m eager to see what happens on Covenant Sunday next week because I know that in the Hebrew Scriptures when a covenant was made, each participant was bound into unbreakable agreements. Instead of merely giving their word, or shaking hands, the Israelites pierced their forearms and co-mingled their blood as a symbol of becoming one with each other so if you break your side of the covenant, you aren’t just doing harm to the other person, you are damaging yourself. They celebrated covenants with by sacrificing an animal and cutting it in half and both parties of the covenant would walk in between the two halves of the animal and then they’d eat salt together.
Of course we won’t do all of that. The only blood would be the symbolic blood of Christ at the communion table and we might have some salty snacks afterword. But for those who choose to participate, we will celebrate the bond between you and God and the bond you have with one another.
Covenant with God
In our sermon series, we’ve been learning about the character and nature of God as revealed in the story of Exodus. One of the most important things we learn is that Yahweh is a God who makes covenants with people. The Divine Spirit chooses to create a covenantal relationship, making unbreakable promises with human beings.
In our lesson God establishes a covenant to always be there for the Israelites, to give them blessings and a sense of mission and purpose. Yahweh wants to work through these folks to bring blessings to all the world and when they are at their best they remember that and act upon it; showing mercy and forgiveness to one another and love for those beyond their own circles. But when they are at their worst, they take God’s care for granted and even delude themselves into thinking that the Divine Mystery is their personal servant at their beck and call instead of a spirit that pushes them to greater love and service for their neighbors.
The promises of God for you are for a loving presence, daily bread, salvation, spiritual peace, inspiration, community, a listening and encouraging spirit and the tools or abilities to do what needs to be done to make the world a more user-friendly place.
The big TV preachers, smiley Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer and the rest stopped talking about taking up one’s cross in service long ago. What they are into today is looking at God’s promises and covenants and concluding that if if you covenant with God, you will have the unbreakable favor of God in your life. And they are absolutely right about that. Yeah! However, they interpret “favor” in a shallow way. They are selling the notion that God’s favor means that you are God’s favorite, somehow more deserving of material possessions, miracles, health, and financial gain than people who don’t believe like you do. You enter into covenant with God, you’ll get a job promotion, you’ll suddenly be able to get pregnant if you haven’t been able to before, you will even get the best parking spots. There is no end to the selfish visionings of what God’s favor implies to them.
But I don’t that’s what scripture has in mind. The people are chosen not just to receive and bask in the blessings, they are chosen to serve. Sometimes God comes along and doesn’t give us comfort, but a kick in the seat of the pants and says, “Keep moving. Do something hard. Take a step of faith. Get out of your own isolation and misery and do something to spread loving-kindness to others.”
Covenants with Your Brothers and Sisters
When we make covenants, we don’t only pledge ourselves to God, we pledge ourselves to one another against all odds, to know that we can count on each other no matter how much we may disagree and fuss with each other. At the end of the day when any of us is up against it we’ll know that we don’t have to go it alone, God will be there for us working through the people around you right here, right now.
Pastor Dave Clark’s Eulogy for “They”
One significant loss in our congregation that I did not mention during joys and concerns is that today we are called to mourn and eulogize “They and Them” as a concept, after many years of faithful service have died. That’s right, at RUCC, there is no more “they.” I know this comes as a big loss. We could always count on They to do what needed done, to decide what needed decided–even if They often made decisions with which you disagreed. Maybe you’ve heard how people talk about They and Them. “I don’t have time and energy to get involved They will take care of it;” or “Did you hear about what They decided to do at the last meeting and where they are trying to take the church?” Despite their faults, They and Them got a lot done and we can be thankful for all their years of service. They built us a wonderful church, led us to have a fantastic art show, vital programs, a distinctive role in Redlands for social justice. But They and Them just wore out. It was difficult, but the most merciful thing was to pull the plug, and let They and Them as a concept, an attitude (not literal people) meet their eternal reward and rest in peace.
I feel your pain, I can hear your thoughts: “O no! How will we survive this loss? What will we do without them and they to pick up the slack, to blame things on, to organize everything, to make sure the bills are paid and we are spiritually engaged and growing?”
The good news is that God has already given this church all it needs to have a fantastic future. Now there is no more “they.” Thank God! There is only us, working and playing and praying and dreaming together and we are the ones that God has equipped and called to get things done here. The way it gets done is the way it’s always been done–for each one of us to step up, for each one of us to do our part. This church was founded on the notion that there wouldn’t be some mysterious they out there doing the work of the church. It’s supposed to be everyone chipping in, no one sitting out there in the bleachers as if church is a spectator sport.
There are plenty of entertainment churches out there; but RUCC isn’t one of them. This is about being the church together, working through things together, and welcoming the stranger together, responding to hurt and need together. The changes and new vitality you are hoping for aren’t in the next settled pastor, they are in you as a body.
You’re covenant is a way of saying, “I’m stepping up; I’m engaged, I “get it” that it’s not just about what I get out of it, because I know that I won’t get much out of it if I don’t put much of myself into it. Making a covenant is a way of remembering that what we are about here isn’t about preserving an institution, but about the continual creation of a place of grace where lives are transformed, where people who’ve felt beat up by church can find sanctuary, where people seeking direction can get back on the right track, where people who feel unlovely can experience real love. It’s about the stuff that is really important and needed in the world. It’s not a game, it’s an opportunity to make a difference.
May this be a holy week for you as you consider your covenant, what you promise to God, how you’ll challenge yourself to grow, how you’ll commit to this wonderful body filled with so much grace and love. Amen.
Pastor Dave Clark sermon.
Originally from Iowa Pastor Dave Clark is now pastor of Redlands United Church of Christ, Redlands, CA.