From the service on January 23, Presented by the Pastoral Relations Committee And Doug Couchon
I’ll bet many of us find the idea of covenant to be at least a bit mysterious. We just can’t put our finger on the elusive concept. Our goals here are to remove the mystery and to understand what covenant means in church life and in our life as The Park Church.
The primary resource for my comments this morning is the book Covenant by Jane Fisler Hoffman. Hoffman describes covenant “as the tie that binds us together as community.”
So, why do we covenant?
In Through the Looking Glass, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me please which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to, said the cat.” “I don’t much care where....” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” the cat replied.
In covenant, we work together to draw a map on how we relate to one another, where we want to go, and how we will get there. We covenant with God and each other to ensure that we fulfill our expectations, achieve our purpose, meet our needs and meet community needs.
Covenant is about relationships - God with us, us with each other and our pastor, and our church with the UCC. Let’s take a brief look at the history of covenant to learn how it has matured through the ages. There are numerous references to covenant in the Old Testament. The first occurs in Genesis 6 when God promises Noah an “everlasting covenant never again to flood the earth.” Note that this covenant is initiated by God. And that God is the only one with a commitment. It is a one-way promise. Nothing is demanded of Noah. Also note that God yields some of his power. He promises never to create another apocalyptic flood. Lucky us! Later, God covenants with Abraham in Genesis 17. God’s part: “I will establish between me and you, and your descendants, an everlasting covenant to be God to you....”Abraham’s part: Says God, “...You and your descendants shall keep my covenant.... Every male among you shall be circumcised. Any male who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
Do you notice the changes here? Although God is still the shot caller, both God and Abraham and Abraham’s descendants have actions to take. Also, there are consequences for humans who break covenants. Don’t worry, today’s covenants seem to be easy going by comparison Though God is faithful in covenants, his human partners are consistently unfaithful. Repeatedly, God pleads with us to uphold our part: to live up to our promises and live justly.
Let’s move forward to the New Testament era.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says to his friends at the Last Supper: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood....” The new covenant is about Jesus giving up his life so we may have everlasting life with God.
Covenant making transforms some of our old ideas about who God is. UCC scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us that “in the ancient world and in many churches today god-ness is described only by “omni-” words such as omnipotence and omniscience, etc.” And that, “such gods are all about using that omni-power over others,” without caring about what the others want and need. Brueggemann continues by describing a change, “God is not marked by power but by faithfulness and vulnerability. This God resolves to be with and stay with and depend upon the resources, judgments, and capacities of God’s new covenant partner. Covenant means to locate the power for life, not in self, but in the commitment [to],...and caring [for others].”
Author Hoffman adds, that “to be God’s people carries...weight and expectation as well. Our part is to have no other Gods – not wealth, not comfort, not... [power over others].” And we are to demonstrate that we are God’s people by modeling love, justice and peace.
Forward to the present day.
We human partners now initiate covenants. Our covenants give us hope and challenge us to be the very best we can be. We can see covenant as a wheel. At the center is God, and we are the spokes. Within the rim are the relationships where we create mission together. And the surface of the tire is where the rubber meets the road, where we bring our mission to the greater community.
Though The Park Church doesn’t have a church covenant per se (some churches do, others don’t), we have several elements of covenant that bind us. Let’s listen closely to our own words as they represent who we say we are as a congregation.
From our mission statement: “Our purpose is to build and nurture our faith by worshipping God together.”
From our vision statement: “The Park Church works for social justice with a progressive pulpit and a caring congregation in a landmark structure, an active and hopeful partner in Elmira’s renaissance.”
From our Open and Affirming Statement: “We recognize and affirm the worth and dignity of every child, woman and man.” “We welcome in worship, membership, leadership, friendship and employment all who covenant with us to seek God’s truth and to follow Christ’s example.”
From our Climate Justice Covenant: “As a Climate Justice Congregation, we seek to respect God’s creation by focusing on the connection between climate change, planetary health, and human rights.”
And the guiding words of Micah 6, now hanging in Beecher Hall, selected by us during a summer workshop in 2019: “...to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.”
In all these statements God is in the middle.
Covenant is also about commitment to our promises. For example, to give generously of our time and resources, even though it might be inconvenient. Or it might mean collaborating or compromising to fulfill our purpose.
Covenants today offer flexibility within a structure as an alternative to rigidity. We can review our covenantal statements and change them as needed. We do this by asking ourselves, “What do we expect of one another as The Park Church?”
We should probably review and revise our covenantal statements often enough to stay energized and relevant in our mission and ministry.
To further understand covenant, let’s consider a couple more thoughts:
Brueggemann writes, “I understand covenant...to be a radical alternative to consumer autonomy, which is the governing ideology of our society, and which invades the life of the church in debilitating ways. In consumer autonomy everything is about me, and mine,” while covenant brings us together in service to others.
Brueggemann also thinks of a covenant as a way of being committed to, accountable to and responsible for each other.”
”A covenant relates the partners as whole persons (or communities) to each other and makes them sisters and brothers of each other. It is a flexible relationship where trust and faithfulness to each other determine the action of the partners.” The idea of whole persons in flexible relationships sounds a lot like The Park Church.
Let’s take a peek into the future. Change is on the horizon for The Park Church.
We are at the beginning of developing a fresh look at the future of our ministry together. Change is essential for The Park Church to survive and thrive during the next ten years. We need to create ideas outside of our usual way of thinking. And we need to reach outside of the church walls. We will need to be bold, but loving. A behavioral covenant can help us walk hand in hand even when we disagree.
Christian librarian Norman Bendroth says, "A behavioral covenant is the conversation before the conversation. It is the conversation about how we are going to have the conversation...so the conversation ends up being civil [and] compassionate....”
We have an event coming up that requires our attention - Gary’s installation as our pastor and teacher sometime this spring. This event is a moment of joyous celebration. It is the moment when Gary’s covenant with us, and ours with him, is made official. I recently asked Gary, “What does it look like for you to be in covenant with The Park Church?
Gary replied, “To me, it’s like a sports team... I’m the coach, helping the congregation organize itself for its mission in the world, believing in you and calling out your best selves, serving as a catalyst at times, sometime bringing ideas to the table, and serving as a resource around how we bring scripture and our tradition to bear on the challenges in today’s world. The congregation brings ideas, decades of experience, diverse backgrounds, and loads of passion all into the same mix.”
He continues, “If embodying progressive Christianity in our own lives and in the life of our community is our real purpose, then we are not only resilient, we thrive... thriving because we are changing lives... helping those bound in aimlessness and sin find direction and purpose, helping those broken and afraid find courage and healing.
“In the end though, covenant is committed relationship. People are messy. Covenant requires a generous helping of grace, and an absolute belief in the goodness of God as lived in this gathered people.” Such a loving response.
To conclude, let’s consider creating a covenant detailing how we achieve a vital future together, one that amplifies the love of our Creator in serving those less fortunate than ourselves. One that takes an active stance against injustice of all kinds.