February 18 Sermon

“First Things First: Covenant”                                                                           Genesis 9:8-17
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL                                      Mark 1:9-15
Transfiguration Sunday
Rev. Sean Weston

I don’t know if a relationship could be any more strained. As the story goes, God got so enraged with the violence and evil of humankind that God sent a flood to destroy the whole earth. To start over again. Only those God found righteous – Noah and his family and some animals – survived. I can hardly think of a worse thing to happen in a relationship than the utter destruction of one party by another.

Of course, you and I may not send floods upon one another, but there are many ways in relationships that we hurt each other. There are smaller floods that we set upon others, smaller ruptures in our bonds, harsh words and deeds, deep anger and hurt. A relationship with God is still a relationship: with its ups and downs, anger and misunderstandings, sometimes feeling amazingly close but other times feeling hopelessly alienated.

Many ancient cultures have flood stories: stories of broken relationship between gods and human beings, relationships that can only be mended by a great flood – the divine use of a big reset button. In the biblical flood story, something remarkable happens. God regrets sending the flood: “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and head, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

God doesn’t say “hey, my work is done here, this next crop of humans is going to be better so I don’t have to do this again.” No, God recognizes that people are still going to do evil, people will continue to disappoint God time and time again. The relationship will keep having its ups and downs. God seems to accept this, and decides to change. To seek a closer relationship with human beings. To be a God of patience, mercy, and steadfast love.

So God begins on a different note, a new note. God establishes a covenant, not just with Noah and his family, not just with the people of Israel, not just all humankind. God establishes a covenant with every creature on the earth. God promises to never destroy the earth again, in exchange for absolutely nothing. The promise is unconditional. The people will be reminded of this promise in the rainbow, a sign of God’s love and mercy.

Throughout the Bible there will be many more covenants – covenants between God and people, and between people and one another. The common thread in all of them is that for their relationship to go well, they need to know what to expect from one another, how they will treat each other, and what behavior is off limits. In the covenant Doug read for us this morning, God limits God’s own self by promising not to send a flood again. For the sake of a better relationship with God’s creatures, God chooses to make some behavior off limits.

If you’ve ever had a boss that’s prone to angry blowups, you have an entry point to understanding why this is so important. Let’s say you make a mistake at work that you couldn’t fix on your own. Who doesn’t make mistakes? The best way to handle it – in theory – would probably be to tell your boss and then work together with them to figure out a way forward. But if you know the chance is high that your boss will blow up at you, how likely are you to share this? You may well spend 2 or 3x more effort hiding the mistake, looking for ways to cover it up, to shirk responsibility and protect yourself. Chances are the original mistake won’t be corrected very well, chances are you’ll be jumpy around your boss, and you clearly don’t have a good relationship with them. Not only are you more emotionally distressed, but the whole system is unhealthy. People are scared at each other, less good work gets done.

It may seem like a silly example, but so often people spend so much time hiding things from God out of fear that God will punish them for their misdeeds. We become secretive, deceptive. When we hide things we develop shame around them, which takes us even further from God, even further from one another. The cycle continues. But God has promised not to destroy us for our misdeeds. When we remember us, it becomes easier to live transparently, to speak honestly, to make mistakes and ask forgiveness.

Without covenants, without shared expectations and limits on behavior, invisible and unspoken rules carry the day. Bad behavior is tolerated. People get hurt. I have watched this happen time and time again, especially in church. It’s remarkable: God has chosen to limit God’s own behavior for the sake of healthy relationships with us. If God needs some limits, some guidelines, some expectations to live by don’t we?

Last month when I was preparing to move, my partner David and I (and, I’m sharing this with his permission) knew that the distance would be a huge change to our relationship. So we had a series of conversations about what to expect from one another. We didn’t use the word covenant, but that’s what we were doing: making a covenant, clarifying how we will relate, how we’ll handle when something goes wrong, and reminding ourselves of our commitment to each other. It was hard. But all relationships – whether going through intense change or not – are most healthy when expectations are clear, misbehavior is off limits, and commitments are affirmed. Covenants of some sort are essential for the health of our individual relationships.

Covenants are also important for communities. Lyonsville Church has a covenant. I haven’t heard anyone here talk about it yet, so I’m not sure how important it is to you. It’s in our bylaws.

“We covenant with one another to seek and respond to the Word and the Will of God.  We purpose to walk together in the ways of the Lord, made known and to be made known to us.  We hold it to be the mission of the Church to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all the world, while worshiping God, and striving for truth, justice and peace.  As did our ancestors, we depend on the Holy Spirit to lead and empower us.  We pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God, and we look with faith toward the triumph of righteousness and eternal life.”

This is a good covenant. It says what we want our life together to be about. I think it’s a good foundation for asking some important questions, questions that matter here at Lyonsville and in all of the relationships in our lives:

  • What is expected of each of us?
  • What values guide our life together?
  • How will we handle disagreement and conflict – it’s bound to happen?
  • What behavior is off limits?
  • What will we do when people have been hurt? How will we seek healing, accountability, and transformation?

I am committed to asking these questions and helping you answer them, both in the life of this church and in your individual lives. Here at Lyonsville, these questions will be front and center. The Leadership Council and I have agreed on several goals for the coming year, including bylaw revisions, safe church policies, personnel policies, and financial policies. None of this is about making more paper to ignore. It’s building on our covenant: how our relationships will look, how decisions are made, how we treat each other. It’s being clear about who we are, what matters to us, and what we have to offer our community.

This Lent, we will explore what it means to build what we might call “right relationships”: relationships that are healthy, loving, live-giving. Relationships that honor God, each other, and all creation. As we walk down this Lenten path together, I invite you to consider the relationships in your life: those relationships that bring you more joy you could imagine, and those that bring more heartache you can bear. I invite you to allow God nearer to you, to grow in your love for God and neighbor.

As we walk this road together, know that from the days of Noah God has wanted nothing more than to be with us in loving relationship. God wants nothing more than to walk the path of life with us, so much so that God came to us in Jesus Christ to live our lives and walk in our shoes. God’s covenant with us is everlasting, no matter how badly we mess up, no matter what we have done. God’s love for us is never-ending, no matter how hateful we ourselves have been. God expects a lot from us, but is patient with our failures and shortcomings. God will always be there, waiting to embrace us in love and in grace.

This Lent, let us draw nearer to God, to one another, and to the world God loves so very much.