Covenanted Beings – The Rev. Michelle Meech
February 28, 2021
A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Lent, February 28, 2021, to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY. Listen along by clicking the play button above.
We talk a lot about covenant in the church. And, as we saw in our reading from the Hebrew scriptures last week, it all started w Noah. That story tells us God said, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that is with you…” and God promised Noah and his descendants and every living creature, that they would never again be cut off from God. God said that the sign of the covenant would be a rainbow.
This week, the story of covenant continues. This week we have Abram. God said to Abram, “As for me, this is my covenant with you…” and God promised to make Abram and Sarai the ancestors of many nations and to be the god of those nations in an “everlasting covenant.” God changed their names, giving them new identities – Abraham and Sarah. It seems from these stories that God’s covenants are about promise, and about hope. They are about God saving us from ourselves – from annihilation and from obscurity.
They are the stories we tell as Christians, to remind us of what we believe God wants for us. They are where we find courage and a sense of confidence in our inherent goodness because we believe the Creator God has named us precious. Worthy. Beloved.
From Noah’s story, we come to believe our Creator has offered us salvation as abundance, giving us land to live on and blessing us with skill and ingenuity to save, not only ourselves, but all the creatures of the earth too. If only we believed in our skill now. If only we loved God that much now. From Abraham’s story, we come to believe our Creator loves us so much that She desires and blesses our continued and endless presence, growing into entire civilizations that belong to God, so that we will continue to know God and know ourselves and one another more completely through our mutual love for God and His blessings.
In both of these covenants, we are given a glimpse of our preciousness, our belovedness, as well as our responsibility to God and to one another. These stories are a part of our larger story of salvation. We belong to God. And we belong to one another. We are covenanted beings. Given breath. Given life. Given to one another because we are all precious beloved creatures of God.
I’ve seen this quote posted on Facebook over the past couple of days: “God, forgive me for the times I’ve desired a seat at the table you would’ve flipped.” It’s a sentiment that reflects what happens when we lose track of our beloved nature. When we lose track of being covenanted beings.
Because we know the story – Jesus flips the table in the temple where people of privilege sit at the expense of the most vulnerable, taking advantage of the poor and the exploited. The table at which people are not acting as their brother’s and sister’s keepers, not acting as covenanted beings.
But, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have desired a seat at that table of privilege. We have wanted to listen to the voices of our lesser angels, to take the easy way rather than the hard way. We’ve wanted to listen to Peter who rebukes us for giving ourselves in service to God. Peter, who tells us to keep our heads down. Peter, who tells us to walk away. To forget the covenant we made by taking our first breath.
It is this desire that drives greed, that creates privilege… and gossips and complains and whispers in our ear like some grotesque figures in an Hieronymous Bosch painting (check out today’s cover). It is this desire to be at the table of privilege that wants to enact standards by which others should be measured in order to be given the right to have the most basic things – like healthcare, shelter, clean water, and food.
“God, forgive me for the times I’ve desired a seat at the table you would’ve flipped.”
Because every time I have, I have lost my covenant. I have forgotten you – the God of Life, the God who is Love, whose property is always to have mercy.
Today’s collect: “O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy…” The glory of God is not privilege: opulence and trumpets and whirlwinds and palaces. The glory of God is mercy. Mercy.
We do get lost sometimes. When we allow pain to own us, believing in it more than we believe in God. And we lose hope. This is what happened to Peter. In today’s gospel, after Jesus explains the task of the messiah, the task of suffering, rejection, and, most especially, a truly despicable death… after Jesus explains this, Peter gets angry and starts to scold Jesus. He scolds Jesus, not because he’s scared for his friend and wants to protect him. No. Peter yells at Jesus because Peter believes the messiah is supposed to wage a war and conquer the enemy. The messiah Peter wants is supposed to exact revenge.
Peter doesn’t want this wimpy messiah – one who will allow himself to be humiliated and rejected, one who will surrender to such a despicable death on the cross, the most shameful death imaginable. Peter wants what HE wants. He wants a messiah who will bring a worldly triumph to bear upon the oppressors of Rome. And Peter rebukes Jesus because Jesus won’t give him what he wants – victory over Rome so that Jews will triumph and the enemy will suffer.
Because Peter desires a place at the table of privilege. Or, at least, he wants to create his own table of privilege. Peter has forgotten his own beloved nature and believes, in this instant, that the temptation to use one’s privilege to walk away, is what Jesus needs to do.
And so Jesus responds with his own reprimand of Peter. “Get behind me Satan,” he says. For you are setting your mind not on God’s will but on your own. You are setting your mind on human things. You are setting your mind on your own desires, rather than on the flourishing of all life. You are focusing on your fear, rather than on God’s plan. And in doing so, demonstrating no faith in God, no faith in God’s promise. And you are not living into God’s covenant with you.
God’s covenant calls us to have faith in God, to believe that God’s abundance is the truth and God’s justice is our future. And we are called to act in ways that demonstrate this belief. To walk before God… blameless because we know we have done and are doing all we can to act in accordance with God’s will. God’s will that life will beget life. That life, all of life, is of supreme importance. And that justice is a form of Love. Because life should flourish, not at the expense of other life, but in cooperation with other life.
This is what mercy is about and, more importantly, is the very essence of reconciliation – the Table of Reconciliation that we have as a central Christian practice. Jesus offered himself so that reconciliation might be possible rather than the endless cycle of warring privilege. So that we might learn that the most important thing is to know our own beloved nature so we may remember that we are covenanted beings.
And that covenant is a covenant of life, the flourishing of all life that comes from faith in God’s abundance, rather than our own perceived abundance of privilege, and trust in God’s future, rather than our own imagined one.
Because what matters is life, not preferences or inclinations. And because of that, sometimes we need to lay down what we believe is our individual salvation so that the whole of God’s creation may flourish. And in the flourishing of God’s whole creation is our own salvation because our salvation is bound up with the salvation of all creation. In other words, we realize that the privilege of being able to walk away from the suffering of others is not only an insult to them, but it undermines our own salvation.
This is what a covenant is about – a promise to support life and take responsibility for the flourishing of the common life.
When Jesus instructs us to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him, he’s talking about sacrificing our privilege. Jesus is calling us to deny the parts of ourselves that get in the way of our life, which is directly connected to the lives of everyone else. So that God’s covenant with us may be honored once more.