OUR COVENANT MAKING GOD
Jeremiah 31:31-34; 1Corinthians 11: 23-25
As our nation ends its official holiday of Thanksgiving, and we look around the corner of November to the promises of December, hear these words from Douglas Stivison regarding one of our nation’s most precious documents: “The framers of the Declaration of Independence believed passionately that covenants were the foundation for all facets of their lives—in private and in public, in the home and in the church, in the marketplace, and in the political forum….The Declaration of Independence, one of history’s most political documents, is inextricably grounded in an unshakable belief in humanity’s covenantal relationship with a loving God…. They were determined to align their political covenants with their understanding of the divine covenant. This reflected a profound understand that our lives are shaped by multiple covenants, and that we need to reconcile, order, prioritize, and align them all.” [LIVING PULPIT, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2005, p. 1] I have told my Confirmation Classes that a covenant is “a promise between God and people, or between people and people. We make covenants all the time: there are sacred ones such as ordination vows, or marriage vows, or baptismal vows, or membership vows. They are meant to be kept. When Presidents of the United States have been sworn into office, they swear, that is make a vow or promise, to uphold the Constitution of our land with a right hand raised and a left hand on the Holy Bible. But before we leave the idea of sacred promises, or covenants, do you know people who still count their business and personal promises as sacred, that is, that their word is their bond? Do you still know people on whose word you can count? There were supposed “good old days,” before our world became so litigious, when a verbal promise or a handshake sealed a deal. It still does with many with whom I associate, how about you? Alas, most often now we lean on contracts, which are also covenants of a sort, with paper backing up the promises. We have contracts on homes, contracts on our purchases (if we kept the receipt), contracts on lawn service, pest control, cell phone minutes, and on repair work. These contracts have paperwork that guarantee something. The paper could be worthless without laws; but promises are worthless without someone’s word or reputation. Reputation is one of the great things that have built businesses, and with broken promises, have made them crumble. It is not a bad idea to trust but verify in most of our initial contacts. How many people fall for scams that come over the internet, or at our front doors, or through the mail because people who pretend to be truthful are really lying or irresponsible? How many, back in the 1920s, a time of general delight in the financial markets in the midst of a carefree society, trusted banks to be able to produce their savings on demand, then with an unforeseen stock market crash, people tried to pull out their money and couldn’t. Frank Capra’s holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” depicted situations that occurred during that period of our nation’s glorious faith in itself without a safety net. From that decade of darkness called the 30s, which made some of you eternally frugal, made others of you never trust the stock market, and made still others never able to really trust again, President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was offered, along with other safeguards, to help bring our nation out of the depression. From dark times, times of failure, and times of broken trust, we come to forks in the road that can weaken us or make us stronger; the choices we make matter.
Ages ago, God offered promises that were sacred and that were sealed in special ways. Just as the times when you put trust in someone who broke it, God had choices to make when people broke their promises: God could either wipe out planet earth and try for another more faithful civilization, or God could mold and make over and begin to forgive humans so that they could see that forgiveness was divine. When the whole world was acting like it was the roaring 20s and worse (in Genesis chapter 6,) God experienced what you may have felt again this week, this month, or this year: regret and disappointment. People disappointed God; don’t people disappoint you? Didn’t you regret being vulnerable with your heart or your body or your secrets when someone betrayed or harmed you? Writers through the ages, from Shakespeare’s classic line of Julius Caesar, “Et tu Brute?’ to modern novelists remind us of the human angst of betrayal. But there is divine angst too. What is usually the healthiest step to take? For many, they decide not to associate with the one who has wronged them and pour themselves into someone else who hasn’t. Many among us survive and thrive today because they have removed themselves from toxic and corrupting people who used to influence them. God once decided to do something like that! God decided not to be associated with those who blatantly and defiantly lived in harmful ways; God said, (in so many words) “I will pour my efforts into relationships that, while not perfect, includes good values, good hearts, and willing spirits at the center.” God chose Noah and let his “seed” as it was called, along with his wife and children, repopulate the world, so the story goes. Therefore one way of dealing with broken promises, according to this story, is to remove ourselves from those who have hurt us, and move on. Trusting again after broken trust either never happens, or it happens differently.
Lutheran pastor Roger R. Gustafson described one scene this way: “They sit across the coffee table from me in my office, in pieces. She, weary and bleary-eyed with crying, staring at her folded hands; he, guilty and gazing into space, ashamed to even glance at me, his pastor and friend. He is beyond hoping that there are words to make this better. It had been a routine business trip, complete with routine dinner clients, a routine round of drinks before retiring for the night, [then] a knock on the door from a young lady …. [on a night when the faithful husband and father failed to form the word ‘no’ on his lips.] He came home unwittingly transmitting [that incriminating kind of disease] to his wife. It wasn’t long before the scene in their kitchen. The icy dagger of betrayal had pierced her innocent heart. He had broken their covenant. “Ibid, p. 19] Flashback to Exodus 32, far beyond God’s covenant to Abraham to always be his God and the God of his people; after God’s Covenant with Moses and the Israelites, offered if they promised to keep the Ten Commandments. God had thrown every lifeline of faithfulness that holy scribes could create, and in spite of them all, at the foot of the Holy Mountain Sinai, God was betrayed. God felt like you when you have been betrayed, only thousands of times over. Exodus 32 has the dreadful story of a broken covenant, of promises broken to the one who gave them life. The holy stomach was tied in knots, and the holy heart was broken. Certainly by the end of Exodus there was a renewal of vows of sorts recorded in the 34th chapter, but God’s trust of people had taken yet another beating. People in general, God learned, would always disappoint and always make mistakes. Parents learn that about their children; children learn that about their parents; husbands learn that about their wives and wives about their husbands. And in our day, the last 30 years or so, many workers have been socked in their stomachs by corporations that refused to honor promises for pensions or health care. We are part of a bitter world. But like our nation, God had a new deal to present; Jeremiah was one of the first to get the good news, and he told it to a nation that had been ravaged by another because God had lowered holy protection on them since they had chosen other gods. So God tried again; God tried to build a new bridge where the first one was burned by human unfaithfulness. And that bridge was a new covenant, a new promise, foretold by Jeremiah, and embodied in Jesus Christ, and instituted at the Last Supper, and described simply in his new commandment to love one another. Our loving God would abide in Heaven, but also abide on earth in one we would call the Son, one who would pay the price for our betrayals, and sins, and heartaches, one who would look at Jerusalem one day and weep over it as his Father was weeping in Heaven. God had shown two vastly different ways of dealing with broken covenants.
Friends, if it is ever our hope to grow closer to God, then human actions most readily will mirror divine actions. The popular cliché is “What Would Jesus Do?” but the question is broader than that: “What did God do, as recorded in the Bible, the written record of God’s actions in history?” Today we have found two ways to handle broken covenants: The first way is to keep our promises, asking God to give us the strength to do so. And when there are those who break their promises to us, some choose to cut off those relationships and find their joy in others. You may choose to take that route with those who have broken their promises to you- to drop toxic relationships and build new ones. It is not without tears and pain; God has felt those as well. But there is another way that God chose to handle broken promises besides cutting people off: it was an extraordinary choice: when men or women burned the first bridge of their relationship by their broken promises, God chose to build a new bridge, not one built on naïve thoughts, but one built on a cautious willingness to try to stay in relationship differently. That path involved both forgiveness and grace. Some in our world make that extraordinary choice too. Like the man in the pastor’s office, knowing there were no words to say to make things better, his relationship could start to be mended only by his broken and hurt wife, and then only by grace and forgiveness. There are couples, and business relationships, and friendships that are restored even today because of grace and forgiveness. It is a costly path on the part of the forgiver. And those fortunate enough to be offered forgiveness are wise to straighten up and fly right. Some of the best relationships I know were built again by this second path, demonstrated by God in Christ, the one who forgives you, to give you the power and example for forgiving others. Two choices God made and still makes; one of two choices we also can make so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Choose wisely.
Jeffrey A. Sumner November 25, 2007