“People of the Covenant,” “People of Our Word” and “People of The Word” by Anna Strickland

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Listen to the three-part sermon from February 16, 2020, titled “People of the Covenant,” “People of Our Word” and “People of The Word” by Anna Strickland. 

PEOPLE OF THE COVENANT

You may have noticed already that you’ll be hearing from me three different times this morning. Don’t be alarmed – it’s really one sermon broken into three parts because it was really difficult to choose just one of today’s lectionary texts to preach on. They all have different things to say about following God’s laws and obeying the covenant.

To tell you the truth, I am not a rule person. This may come as a surprise, since I’ve always been a rule follower, but it’s not because I unquestioningly believe in the rules. I usually follow rules because it’s the path of least resistance, because it makes people happy, or because I don’t want to be unfair to others. As a young woman, I follow the rules because I must be above reproach if I am to be taken seriously in a world that discounts my abilities and point of view. But “just follow the rules” has been a tool of oppression against so many. Robert’s Rules of Order prevents authentic dialogue. Not even all of God’s laws as recorded in the Torah are rules I can agree to. So, I am not a rule person. But I’m also not an anarchist.

We’re naturally communal animals. We form communities for safety. We form communities because it’s easier to share the load. It’s easier to walk a difficult path when you have others to help you. And so, if we’re going to live in community, we have to take care of it. We have to make sure it doesn’t break down, and that’s why we have rules. At the origin of every rule is a desire for the safety and health of the community.

Here in Deuteronomy, Moses is once again reminding the people of Israel of their covenant with God and the rules that they’ve agreed to follow as a community. This is not a new covenant. This is a covenant that was passed down to the “benei yisrael” – the children of Israel – by Jacob, who received it from Isaac, who received it from Abraham, who received it from God.

This is not even the first time they’ve had the codified law as people recently freed from Egypt. They’ve known the law, and they’ve abandoned the law several times by now because community is actually really hard. You can see this in our culture that’s hyper-individualistic and says, “I’m gonna take care of me, and you take care of you, and we’ll all be fine.” But that’s not the kind of community God calls us into. Sure, it’s easier to take care of me and not worry about you. But it also means we face the world on our own.

So one last time, Moses presents them with a choice: 

You can follow God’s commandments and live together by the covenant, and that way leads to life and prosperity; or you can reject the covenant, choose not to live in community with one another, and that way will certainly lead to death and adversity.

I’m sure Moses is exhausted by now, as he nears the end of his life, of reminding people of the covenant they have made and the rules they have agreed to follow. But he has done so again and again because living in community with each other is something we have to choose again and again.

This passage reminds me of all the times in our history at UBC when we’ve had a rocky patch, some big decision to make. There’s been some upset, some discord, some confusion or fear or grief, and we have to decide whether we will stay in community or not. This is one of those times.

Beth Kennett helped us pull together some rules for being in community, and many of us signed this covenant. If you haven’t yet, you’ll be given an opportunity to sign it later on in worship. And I’m not a rule person, but even I have to admit that these are good rules. We agree to abide by this covenant because we know that living together in community requires kindness, trust, faith, and love. Without this foundation, we might be in proximity, but we won’t be in community.

And so once again, we are presented with a choice. We can choose to be in community, or not. See, I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Will we choose life?

 

PEOPLE OF OUR WORD

Thomas Jefferson famously speculated that the Constitution should be rewritten by each new generation. I think he understood our propensity to allow our laws to become an object we worship. We follow them too strictly. We take them as beyond questioning. And we forget to critically examine why we had those rules in the first place.

This is usually where Jesus starts butting heads with the Pharisees. The Pharisees are religious leaders who love God so much that they want to follow all the rules that have been handed down to them. But with too narrow of a focus they tend to forget why the laws were written in the first place. And see, this is why I love Jesus. Because Jesus asks the hard questions that poke holes in our rules. “What’s the point of Sabbath? Can we remember why we have these laws? It’s not to prevent healing, it’s to promote healing!” I love it when Jesus breaks the rules.

So Matthew 5 takes a turn after the Beatitudes that I usually try to ignore. Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” And then he actually makes the rules even stricter. But it’s just the other side of the same coin. Jesus is again pointing out how people have been following the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law. In each of these three movements, Jesus speaks to one of the ten commandments and explains even further what that covers.

So for example, the first movement says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder.’” But, Jesus says, it’s not enough to just refrain from murdering people. You have to not want to murder people. And that’s a lot harder. Jesus says when you are angry with someone, when you refuse to reconcile with them, when you curse them or talk bad about them, you might as well be murdering them in your heart.

Actions are important. Don’t hear me say that they’re not. But Jesus is saying that feelings matter, too. It’s not enough to stay faithful to your spouse, you have to actually want to be with them. It’s not enough to tell the truth when you’re put under oath, your word should be good enough without swearing. You see, Jesus is explaining that it’s not just our physical actions that matter, but our attitudes as well. And I think he’s onto something here.

I can be kind to your face and unkind when we’re apart. I can show up but do so begrudgingly. I can be polite on Sunday morning and vent the whole way home. But those feelings affect our common life. You know when someone is angry. You know when someone says they’re fine and they definitely aren’t. We pick up on each other’s energies. When I’m in a space where I can feel the negativity and the anger, I start to be negative and angry too, which only perpetuates the problem. It’s not just that we have to treat each other right on the outside, we have to work on ourselves to make sure we’re treating each other right even when we’re not physically present with one another.

That also means addressing things head on when we mess up. We’re gonna make each other angry. We’re gonna disappoint each other. We’re gonna step on each other’s toes. We’re not always going to do this community thing exactly right. And so that’s why there’s so much in this passage about reconciliation.

In the same afternoon that Beth gave us this covenant to sign, she also had us participate in a powerful exercise practicing confession and forgiveness. She had us write a confession saying “I’m sorry for…”, an apology to someone we had wronged, and saying “I forgive you for…” and releasing someone. 

Forgiveness is one thing. Reconciliation is another. We can forgive another person without their apology because when we forgive, we’re really releasing ourselves from the bondage of anger and the cycle of retaliation. For reconciliation to be possible, there also has to be confession, and most importantly, trust. There has to be trust that the person who committed the wrong wants to do better in the future, and trust that they’ll forgive us next time we mess up. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

It’s not enough to be people of the covenant who follow the letter of the law. We have to also be people of our word, upholding the spirit of the law. We have to be humble and honest enough to admit when we screw up. We have to be trustworthy enough to be forgiven. And we have to be trusting enough to forgive.

 

PEOPLE OF THE WORD

Oh, the Corinthians. I am so glad that screwy, bickering church existed, because the letters Paul wrote to them are a reminder to every screwy, bickering church through the ages of what’s really important. This was the church that needed to hear Paul’s message of the importance of love, the diversity of gifts for a singular purpose, and the necessity of each member of the body of Christ. Some of our best-loved passages come from these letters.

Paul frequently likes to speak on a grand scale, which makes it seem as though he is speaking through the centuries directly to us. But here is one of those places where we peek into the life of a specific group of people, not really all that unlike this group of people. Apparently, there’s been a breakdown in the church at Corinth. Paul already started off this letter by saying,

“Now I appeal to you, siblings, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my siblings. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided?”

Later, in chapter 12, Paul will walk this back some and say yes, Christ is divided… in the same way my fingers and lungs and ears are divided. He extols the many and varied gifts of each person in the church, understanding that our differences hold our strength. We aren’t going to agree on everything, just as my brain, my tongue, and my gut don’t agree on what to eat. It doesn’t mean there’s a breakdown… yet.

The breakdown happens when the different members of the body stop communicating. Can you imagine? The tongue goes limp, the brain misses out on key information from the gut, everything goes haywire. We can disagree, but we can’t disengage if we are to be functioning. We have to recognize that we are all connected.

Our differences only help to make us stronger when we recognize that the answer usually lies in the in-between, where our egos melt and our spirits blend. Ecologists know that there is an “edge effect” where two different biomes meet that makes that liminal space abounding in life. Where forest meets meadow, where I meet you, that’s where life emerges.

And we can only see the in-between spaces if we engage with one another, especially those with whom we disagree. Separation is where the breakdown happens. So once again, we are invited back into community and reminded of our covenant.

Nothing here says we have to agree. Nothing here says a majority vote wins. Nothing here says to pick sides or campaign for our position. What does it say?

Be kind. Be in community.
Be trustworthy. Trust others.
Rooted in faith.
Progressive in action.
Be guided by Christ.
Build relationships.
LOVE.

“LOVE is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. LOVE bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Friends, we are not Paulines or Apollonians, we are Christians. We belong to no one but Christ. We are not just people of our word, we are people of THE Word, the Word that became flesh and dwelled among us, who brought tax collectors and fishermen and zealots and religious leaders around one table because he knew that the Spirit lives in the in-between that happens when we are in community.

So here’s your chance. As we sing our hymn of response, I invite you to consider this covenant. If you haven’t signed it already, you are welcome to come add your name. If your name is already here, let this hymn be a recommitment to the community. If you’re looking for a community to call home, and you want to join University Baptist Church, I’ll be at the front to welcome you in that decision.

Now let us stand and sing our proclamation that we are one in the Spirit.

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