Yesterday's Covenant; What's It Mean for Today?, Sermon 03.04.12.

Yesterday's Covenant; What's It Mean for Today?, Sermon 03.04.12.

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Mark 8:31-38

This week’s Hebrew Scripture places us in the second of God’s great covenants.

Last week, we attended to what tradition considers the first– after the flood, God’s covenant God with Noah, and thereby all humanity, or all creation– the rainbow as a sign of God’s foreswearing destruction… no matter how frustrating we humans get.

Considering how the Bible’s covenants get successively more focused– each one seems to be a more specific covenant with a more demographically delineated group— I’ve always thought it sort of funny that tradition doesn’t consider God’s original set–up with Adam and Eve as, at least implicitly, the first covenant between humans and God…

But here we are at the deal God strikes with Abram and Sarai. Promising, hope against hope, an ancient childless couple a baby, and therein a future. Not only will they have descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky. They are also to become the progenitors of nations (plural!).

Somewhat hard to swallow, I imagine: past 90 years old, together they had yet to have one child, and now God’s talking an extended family, a tribe, multiple nations..

Later, at Sinai, we come to the third covenant, God creating a holy, sacred purpose for the Jews.

My question this morning is basic for followers to any faith tradition with an ancient lineage: “Yesterday’s Covenant; What’s It Mean for us Today?”

Let’s begin by remembering how this story got written down. The Book of Genesis, scholars generally agree, brings together various ancient narrative strands. It’s the work of several writers or redactors– commonly named as J, E and P… or the Yahwist, the Elohist and the Priestly sources — who brought together ancient traditions about the origins of the world, humanity and the people of God. We see this “florilegium” most clearly in some details and some stories being repeated, although usually not in exactly the same terms.

Scholars trace today’s story back to the Priestly source, from the time during the exile in Babylon. This dating becomes almost revelatory for my understanding the story:

In the 6th century before Christ, the people of Israel are devastated by the destruction of their city and its temple as the center and symbol of their political and religious life. Their leaders are carted off to Babylon, and the nation’s prospects seem dim at best. Maybe the promise of their society is just past.

Understandably they were left wondering just what happened to the promises God made so long ago? They didn’t pan out, at least not as expected. Were they still valid? Did they still count? Did they still have any punch?

Do you ever wonder about God’s promises? Worry whether or not they hold for you? Or somehow have they over the years lost the power of their promise?

Beloved, the Priestly Writer recounted this already ancient story to recast the great originating promise — AN EVER-LASTING COVENANT!, no matter what… No matter how impossible the present circumstances might make that look!

What do we do when we we feel like strangers in a strange land, uprooted, aliens in a not so brave world all around us, lost in a country or society that has in many ways become unfamiliar to us, or in the wilderness that our own lives have become?

Our lesson today suggests in disorienting, dislocating experiences like those, we remember, rehearse, remind themselves of the faithfulness of the One who has created and called us.

The depth of our predicament is not so much in whatever uncertainty or trouble we find ourselves in. Our deeper reality is not to be had in passing sorts and conditions of our earthly and human lives. All these too, even our lives shall pass. But lasting is the reality of the faithfulness of God.

Beloved, yes, we have troubles.
Children we worry about.
Parents we struggle with and families we can’t quite get along with.
And there are illnesses and fear of illness and death.
And in a little more than a month, our taxes are due.
More immediately, there are job troubles, and economic uncertainty, even if we have work at all.
And there are all the ways others let us down, and those ways we know we fall short too.

But do all or any of these mean that God has abandoned us? Or can even the worst of them change the smallest bit of what God has asked of us?

Beloved, God is still at work in the story. It’s God’s initiative, and God’s plan in motion. God is shaping a family, and each of us. You see, even in just looking around this sanctuary this morning, it’s possible for there to be a family, gathered not by our similarities or accomplishments, but rather by the promises of God? God has committed to stay at the heart of the story, to travel with us even when we wander and to dwell with us whether we are at home or not. Faith is a matter of the heart, not simply some set of rational or rationalized understandings in the head.

The covenant we’re talking about, and its blessings, aren’t just for the sake of Israel. Or the church. Or you and me. Because God intends, through all these sundry servant people, to restore all of humanity and all of creation.

But it starts right here, with an individual or two who are daring enough to leave “home” and all that is familiar, including its security and and the lesser gods we people and comfort our daily lives with, to set out in response to some crazy, but somehow irresistible call of this “God Almighty.”

The different writers used different names for God throughout the Book of Genesis. In today’s passage, God is “El Shaddai,” which we just translated as “God Almighty.” Certainly more literally it translates “God of the mountains.’

I think one of the ways we make the ancient covenant our own is to figure out how we can meaningfully call on God’s name. Are there new names that would be more in keeping with the life experiences of people in new times and places?

Think of Hagar, for example, in the chapter immediately before this one, lost out there in the wilderness with a child she cannot keep alive and feeling completely forsaken. Hagar dares to name God “the One who sees me” (Genesis 16:13).

I sometimes think my best name for God would be “the One who understands even when I can’t understand myself or my world.”

In a minute we will sing “Precious Lord” a name James Dorsey coined while he was grieving the death of his beloved wife.

What is the name for God by which your experience of foreign places and strange times is recognized and appreciated?

Just as God renamed Sarah and Abraham, in this relationship, maybe you need to work on your new name for God. Because, therein, in the intimacy and connection of offering an other a name that says as much about the relationship as anything else… thus begins, thus develops, thus sustains a relationship, at times beautiful and at times troubled, between real people just like us– faithful, backsliding, heroic, runaways, wise, clueless– and their one God, who has promised to be with them and us always.

Walter Brueggemann lifts up what is happening here with elegance and clarity when he claims that “God’s good self, God’s name, God’s identity” are “enough to override the body-given despair of this old couple.”

For any of you who came to church feeling tired in your bodies this morning, or tired in your lives, or if there is some illness in you that you just don’t know how you are going to bear, much less survive, hear the promise Brueggemann identifies: God’s good self is enough to override the body-given despair of this old, and I might add odd, couple.

Beloved, no matter how far you feel from God’s promises, God’s future still embraces you:
Those barren at the beginning are fruitful at the end.
The abandoned become cared for.
The displaced become central.
The alone come to covenant.

If Abraham and Sarah feel like people we know, that’s because they are. A covenant that our present situations seem to call into doubt can still live in our hearts too. Beloved, every time the covenant is remembered, lifted up, upheld, uttered we do our part to renew its promise.

In a minute we will stand and affirm our faith. Some people aren’t sure about the function of this part of our service. It’s not a creed, because we are a non-creedal church. And yet, we all stand up and say it together…

Usually, I think it of the Affirmation as what the church is trying to teach us. But maybe today you might think of that as our side of renewing the promise of the covenant. Our mouthing the words, hoping against hope that they are so. And mysteriously, graciously, in so doing, we participating in there becoming so.

What unseen possibilities, beneath all appearances to the contrary, can God use to produce marvelous and amazing results, a multitude of blessings for the entire human family? In what ways is God, by whatever name we call the Divine, still acting and initiating wonderful things, including surprising and seemingly impossible ones, in our lives and in our world today?