This sermon was given for the people of First Parish, Newbury Massachusetts.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our creator and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let’s take some time this morning to puzzle over the idea of covenant. Jesus sent his disciples –that’s us – into the world with the advice to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. What does that mean in practice? How can we live that way? Prayer helps. Community helps. Living in covenant helps.
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
“It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt– a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. “
Ouch. Broken covenant.
What is a covenant?
Let’s start with what it’s not. If I work in a food pantry, and I say to a farmer down the road, “bring six dozen fresh eggs by noon each Friday, and I will pay you $20” is that a covenant? No. It’s a contract. It’s a deal. “You do this for me, I do that for you, and we’ll both be happy.”
Other contracts are more complex. I know some people who live in public housing in Newburyport. They have contracts – leases – with the housing authority.
Now, leases can be simple: you let me live in your apartment for a year, and I pay you this much rent at the beginning of each month. After a year, we can renew the agreement, or not. If you raise the rent too much, I move out. If your maintenance crew did a bad job, I move out. If I threw too many rowdy parties, you don’t let me stay. It’s a contract. It is “fair”, superficially. It assumes a balance of power. If power were balanced, these contracts could be as life-giving as the farmer’s egg deal.
But power isn’t balanced. The people I know in housing are afraid to complain about intrusive or incompetent maintenance people. They’re afraid of being forced out. To move costs more money than they have. Their contracts are life-giving—they get shelter—but are not sources of joy in their lives. They are still contracts.
Contracts are full of words about what to do when things go. A few years ago, a boss at the housing authority told me this: the only way they have to get the attention of a misbehaving tenant was to start the process of evicting them.
From my perspective, that’s strange and painful: you can’t talk honestly to somebody without threatening them with loss of their shelter? Really? That’s how the fairness in contracts gets perverted by power. In business it’s called “lose-lose.” In the Gospel it’s symbolized the unjust judge, the judge who won’t do his job with integrity, but only when he’s harassed.
Some clause in leases mention a “grace period.” Seeing that kind of language in a contract always catches me up short. Grace, God’s grace, is the opposite of “contract.” Grace is not, and cannot be, part of a deal. When we talk about grace, we start moving away from contracts and towards covenants.
Could the farmer and the food pantry have a covenant with each other as well as their contract? It’s something to hope for. If the farmer shows up on a Friday with only two dozen eggs and says, “some of my chickens stopped laying,” the food pantry person might pay the whole $20 anyway, saying “you need this money as much as we do.” That’s a covenant act. If the food pantry worker says, “can I pay you next week? We’re short of money this week,” the farmer might say “take the eggs, they’re my gift.” That’s a covenant act. These acts of grace exist in the conversations of mutual support as much as they do in the material gifts. They point toward the truth of covenant: relationships are more important than transactions.
We have formal covenants in our world. “For better, for worse, in sickness, in health, until death parts us” is a well-known covenant. It’s a contract, but it’s more than a contract.
Covenant cuts both way. It’s sometimes hard and painful to live in covenant. A farmer bringing tainted eggs gets another chance under covenant, even though the food pantry might be wise to stop buying from him. A sick spouse can’t get “fired.” A people – the house of Israel and the house of Judah – get another chance even when they didn’t keep up their side of the covenant with the Lord.
The covenant doesn’t magically erase the tainted eggs, or the spouse’s illness, or the unfaithfulness of God’s people. Those evils remain. Covenant means that the relationships, the mutual caring, is stronger than those evils.
Covenants get misused sometimes. They can be used to trap people. Covenants can sometimes prove to be life-denying. They sometimes break. Marriages sometimes must end because of mistreatment. Even God saw the need to start over with a new covenant with God’s people.
In public housing situations, we see lots of little injustices in the daily relationships. Eviction threats, shoddy maintenance, noisy neighbors and so forth. We see people exploiting fear in their interactions with each other. And all those things make it harder to see people caring for each other. The maintenance man doesn’t say “the part for your furnace is still on order” because the tenant is yelling at him that he never fixes stuff on time. The manager won’t say “please don’t let teenagers play music and smoke weed on your steps after ten pm, because your neighbor just got an early shift job and might have a ticket out of here if he can keep it.” Instead, people just threaten each other. We lament: why can’t they have mutually supportive relationships? We’re good at the “wise as serpents” part. Can’t we get better at the “innocent as doves” part?
In the book of Ruth, she told Naomi, “where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” Now there’s a formal covenant promise. It doesn’t demand anything, it only offers. It’s full of grace.
If you haven’t read the book of Ruth lately, I suggest you do so. It’s short. You’ll see how Naomi responded to Ruth’s graceful promise, by accepting the promise, caring for her, and persuading (using some wily ways) her relative Boaz to marry her. You’ll see that Ruth found refuge under the generous wings of the Lord. You’ll see how grace was heaped upon grace, beginning with Ruth’s promises.
Stories like this are helpful to our walk of faith together. God’s grace surpasses all understanding. Still, when we hear stories of people receiving covenant grace from one another, we can begin to imagine what it’s like to live in God’s grace. We too can make a practice of receiving and giving grace.
Covenants are, like it or not, a big part of our lives.
A friend recently told me she was asked to accept certain responsibilities in a local social service agency. She doesn’t want to do it; she told me it’s because she doesn’t want to have covenant responsibilities to that agency. Now, I understand that somebody might turn down an assignment – a contract – because they aren’t sure they can do their part. It’s wisdom to say “no” when someone asks you to do something you can’t do.
But a covenant relationship isn’t a contract. A covenant relationship is one where the parties always have each others’ best interests at heart. My friend’s agency is promising to care for my friend just as much as she might be promising to care for them. In a perfect covenant relationship, if you get sick and can’t make it one day, that does not damage the relationship. Everybody is willing to give so the other may have life and have it abundantly.
The lazy judge and the relentless widow in the Gospel reading have a covenant relationship with each other. Notice that the widow doesn’t give up on the judge, or go around him, to get what she needs. She stays faithful to him, even when he doesn’t deserve it.
“But this is [my] covenant …, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
Eternal covenant. Internalized covenant.
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you and for many.”
Covenant founded on the self-giving love of Jesus for us all.
It’s my prayer that we can all notice the covenants in which we live and move and have our being. It’s my prayer that, when we act like the Gospel’s unjust judge, people will stay faithful to us. It’s my prayer that we can share the covenant stubbornness of the Gospel’s widow. Let us respond to Jesus’s giving of everything he has and everything he is so we may have life. Let us go forth innocent as doves and wise as serpents to make known the realm of God.