A Sermon by Jeffrey P. Carlson
St. Pauls United Church of Christ, Chicago
October 21, 2007
Jeremiah 31:31-34 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. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, 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.
Luke 18:1-8 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Today seems like a good day to talk with you a bit about a word that is central in our faith, but that tends to get neglected in favor of flashier theological words like faith, hope and love. The word is covenant. Covenants are especially prominent in today’s worship service. We have just entered into the covenant of baptism with two babies, Benjamin and Colleen, and covenant also figures in to the Bible reading from Jeremiah.
The lectionary – those scriptures that are used each Sunday – has been going through the book of Jeremiah this fall. Avena noted last week how Jeremiah is addressed to Jews living in exile. The Babylonians have sacked Jerusalem, destroying all that is dear and precious, all that the Jews could call home, and they’ve carted the Jews away into forced exile in Babylon (which today we call Iraq ). The exiles have no power or influence in Babylon. They are irrelevant to the Babylonians, except as workers for the empire.
Jeremiah the prophet helps the Jews interpret what has happened to them. Rather than simply blame the Babylonians as evil-doers, which they had every right to do as an oppressed people, this time of exile becomes a time of introspection. It’s a time of self-assessment for the deported Jews and a re-claiming of who they are. Scholars believe that it’s really in this time of exile that the Jews become Jews in order to survive as God’s people. They don’t want their babies to grow up to be Babylonians. So they remember and re-define themselves – who are we, what do we stand for, how do Jews live?
Israel’s relationship with God had been a relationship based on covenant. God willingly and graciously got bound up together in the lives of these people and the terms of the covenant were this: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” But while in exile, they woke up to the truth about their lives. They had not been faithful partners in their covenant with God. They had relied on other sources of security than the one God who had promised to care for them. They had neglected their obligations to the poor and the weak in their community, to the widows and orphans. They had neglected their covenant, and they knew that it was time to remember and re-claim who they really were.
The Jewish and Christian understanding about how God relates to the world is covenant. God isn’t a distant being who looks down from heaven with a benign gaze, hoping to say at the end of the day, “A good time was had by all.” Nor does God lay down the law and force us into submission. Instead, God chooses to get mixed up with and engaged in human life. God enters into a relationship with us based on mutual faithfulness, mutual responsibility, give-and-take, in other words, a covenant.
And God has made us in such a way that the only way we can really grow up and mature as human beings is through engagement with others: relationship with God and relationship with other people. That’s how we learn what it means to be human. That’s the way that we progress beyond self-interest and self-centeredness. That’s why God called Israel to be Israel and why God calls us to be the church. Covenant is a way of living life that is invested in the welfare and well-being of a community, and not just self.