“Covenant”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

October 23, 2016

Jeremiah 31:27-34

 

When our son started in child care, we were asked to label everything we brought in so that it wouldn’t get mixed up with the other children’s things.  So I got out my trusty Sharpie and got to it.  Packages of diapers, packs of wipes, tubes of ointment, bottles and all the related paraphernalia.  There were a lot of things to label, as you may remember from your own experiences with child care, or camp, or school.  But eventually they all said “Gardner Spencer” in the neatest handwriting I could muster.  And then I thought I was done.

But it turns out that permanent markers are not as permanent as you might think.  After a time or two through the dishwasher, all those carefully-printed letters started to wipe off of the bottles and their caps, leaving partial letters and half-legible names behind.  If you didn’t know what was once spelled out there, you would have no idea what they said.  So now I pull out the Sharpie again every few days to rewrite what’s been worn away by the wear and tear of daily life.

The prophet Jeremiah says that’s what life was like for the people of Israel:  erasing and rewriting, breaking and repairing, failing and trying again, over and over and over.  And I think sometimes life can be like that for us, too.

It goes back to the book of Exodus.  Perhaps you remember the story.  Moses and his people were wandering in the wilderness after escaping from slavery in Egypt.  They had yet to find their way to the Promised Land, the land of Canaan.  As they slogged their way through that long and arduous 40-year journey, they came to Mount Sinai, and Moses went up the mountain to talk with God.  Over the course of these conversations, God gave to Moses the Torah, God’s Instruction, written on tablets of stone, and God formed a covenant with Moses and the Israelites.  The people accepted the Torah and committed themselves to uphold this covenant, but before long, they had broken it by creating for themselves a golden calf and worshiping that idol instead of God.  When he discovered this, Moses was furious.  In his anger, he threw the stone tablets on the ground, and the tablets broke—a symbol of the breaking of that covenant relationship.  God eventually instructed Moses to create a second set, a replica of the original tablets, and God renewed God’s covenant with the people.  Erasing and rewriting, breaking and repairing, failing and trying again, over and over and over.

Covenant-keeping is hard work for us humans.  It has always been so—in Moses’ time, in Jeremiah’s time, in our time.  We are prone to error, susceptible to distraction, likely as not to get tangled up in our efforts to set things straight.  We know God speaks to us, but we fail to hear, or we forget to listen, or we confuse other voices with the voice of the Holy.  God calls us to be God’s people—loving, merciful, compassionate, justice-seeking—but we find it difficult to follow that path.  Fear creeps in where assurance once dwelled, and soon we’re lost and stumbling in the dark, and the tablets are in pieces on the ground again.

Though we intend to dwell together in peace, we hurt the ones we love, sometimes by negligence and sometimes by malice and sometimes out of our own pain or grief.  Though we intend to worship God alone, we find ourselves beholden to idols of wealth or status or politics or power or privilege.  Though we intend to live lives of generosity and abundance, we slide down the slippery slope of fear and scarcity.  Though we intend to follow a path toward reconciliation and unity, we are turned aside by the pervasive walls and chasms by which we divide ourselves.  Though we intend to uphold the covenant, to live in right relationship with God and with one another, that is much easier said than done.  Erasing and rewriting, breaking and repairing, failing and trying again, over and over and over.

I think this is especially true in this season of partisan rancor.  There is discord wherever we turn.  There are voices shouting as loud as they can, seeking to drown out the ones on the other side.  There are such strong emotions and visceral reactions on both sides of the spectrum.  Amidst all this tumult and strife, God’s still, small voice can be very hard to hear.  The name God writes on each of us can be worn away or obscured.  We can forget who we really are, and we can forget that even those with whom we most disagree share our essential identity as God’s children and deserve to be treated as such.

It is so hard to know how to communicate in days like these.  It is so easy to have the wrong words come out of our mouths, words that dig up and pull down, overthrow and destroy and bring harm.  It seems like everyone is eating sour grapes, and all of our tongues are filled with bitterness.  Misunderstanding and misinterpretation are rampant; the benefit of the doubt is hard to come by.  How can we live according as God’s covenant people in this midst of such division and downright nastiness?

Jeremiah has good news for us in such a time as this.  He tells us that a broken covenant can yet be restored.  He promises us that the words of destruction will not be the end of the story, for they will be replaced by words of re-creation, words that build and plant.  God will make a new covenant with God’s people, again and again, as many times as necessary.  And the covenant Jeremiah describes will not be written externally on tablets of stone, but internally, inscribed on our very hearts, where it cannot be broken or erased or washed away.  God’s covenant will be much more permanent than permanent marker, and it will remain with us until the end of our days.

We will all know the Lord, says Jeremiah, from the least among us to the greatest, for God’s living word will dwell within us and speak directly to our hearts.  No more will we be confused, or divided, or beset by misunderstanding.  We will all be, at last, speaking the same language—God’s language.  This does not, of course, mean that we will always agree.  (After all, we Congregationalists are blessed with at least as many opinions as there are people in the room…)  Each of us hears God’s voice through the filter of our own experiences, and each of us has a different piece of the truth to tell.  But as we live into Jeremiah’s promise, whether we agree or disagree, we will do it with love.

This new covenant, this new relationship with God that inaugurates a new relationship with our sisters and brothers, is made possible by one thing:  forgiveness.  Jeremiah promises that God will forgive our wrongdoing and never again remember our sins.  And so, as forgiven people, we will be able in turn to forgive those who have hurt us with their words or their deeds.  For only in relationships marked by mercy and grace can we live the reconciled lives God desires for us.

Yes, the time is coming, says Jeremiah.  The time is coming, says the Lord.  The time is coming when desolate wastelands will flourish, when all life will thrive, when the bitterness of fear and hatred and anger and division will be replaced by the sweetness of God’s love.  God’s covenant will be written on our hearts, embedded in the very center of our being, and it will echo from there into every corner of our lives.

Because we are people who need this promise from Jeremiah, and because we live in a world that surely needs it, too, I invite us in a moment to join together in making a new covenant, a pledge to live into the kind of relationships God desires for us.  As a Congregational church, covenant is what binds us together.  We don’t all believe exactly the same way.  We don’t all agree on exactly how to live a faithful life.  But we pledge ourselves to one another, and then we practice sharing the love God gives us, through life’s ups and downs, through agreements and disagreements, through easy times and hard times and all the times in between.

Perhaps there is someone in this room right now with whom you need to find forgiveness or reconciliation.  Perhaps there is a neighbor or friend or colleague or family member with whom you can share this covenant when you go home this afternoon.  Perhaps you will bring the spirit of this relationship into your conversations in the coming days and weeks.  Even, or especially, when we disagree, I pray that this covenant will bind us together and attune us to God’s word, inscribed on each of our hearts, in the weeks until November 8th and beyond.

So please, if you would, get up and form a large circle in the sanctuary.  Look around and make eye contact with all of your sisters and brothers in this room, all these ones with whom you pledge right relationship through God’s new covenant.  In a spirit of love and blessing, please repeat after me:

God’s word is written on my heart.

God’s word is written on your heart, too.

God calls each of us Beloved.

God calls each of us to speak the truth as we understand it.

I will share what God places in my heart.

I will listen to what God places in your heart.

If we disagree, I will still love you.

If we hurt each other, I will offer and accept forgiveness.

God is our God, and we are God’s people, together.

We will serve God by loving our neighbors

in the self-giving spirit of Christ.

May it always be so.

 


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