March 22, 2015

Keeping our Covenants: Covenants of Identity


Text:  Jeremiah 31:33b: “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.”

All throughout Lent I’ve been using the little slice of Sunday morning I get to spend here exploring the idea of covenant. I’ve tried to look at how in the readings for each of the Sundays in Lent we get a different perspective on the notion of covenant, sort of like separate facets of a diamond.

Not surprisingly that has meant that for the most part the texts we’ve been looking at closely have been the texts of the first reading we hear, the Hebrew Scriptures. It is the people of Israel, the children of Abraham, who are God’s first covenanted people.

But our faith teaches us that a covenant has also been extended to us. We are meant to be a covenanted people. We make that covenant in our baptism. And that covenant is not a one way, God-to-us deal. It is a two-way deal; it has as much to do with how we approach God, how we keep up our end of the bargain.

We’ve looked at how the covenant in which we live with God is mean to be a life-giving covenant; we looked at how our covenants give us the ability to invest our belief beyond the certainty of the available evidence. We talked about how covenants bring with them a kind of obligation of obedience, of conforming our will; and we talked about how the covenants we make give us safety, give us protection against dangers we may not even understand, or readily see.

So today I arrive at the last of these little explorations of the idea of covenant. And to help explain what it involves, I want to tell you a little bit about my day yesterday.

At 11:00 o’clock in the morning I arrived at the Colonial Inn in Concord, in order to officiate at a wedding. Now, who it was being married doesn’t really matter for the point I want to make, although I’ll tell you that one member of the couple is a fellow who has become a regular at our 8:00 o’clock service since this past fall.

When I started in the business of officiating weddings I always insisted with the couples who came to me for premarital counseling that I was only interested in talking about the marriage they wanted to have, not the wedding they wanted to have. So I was pretty strict about holding off any conversation about the mechanics of the wedding itself until the rehearsal.

And I observed this rule with considerable rigor. Which meant that there at the rehearsal, after we’d gotten through the procession and the declaration of consent and the readings and the vows and the prayers and the blessing and the benediction, we would come to the moment at which I would be turning them around to face all their gathered friends and present them for the first time as married people.

And of course I would have to ask them: Now, exactly how would you like me to present you? Will you be... John and Jane? Will you be John Doe and Jane Smith? Will you be... Mr. and Mrs. Doe? Mr. Doe and Ms. Smith? Mr. and Ms. Doe-Smith?

I learned pretty quickly that at least eighty percent of the couples had not until that very moment in the rehearsal talked about this pretty basic question. And now, because of my highly principled refusal to talk about the wedding until we got to the rehearsal, I was effectively requiring them to hash it out right then and there. In front of their closest friends, who would be part of the wedding party. And in front of their parents.

I’m not that smart, but at least I figured out that this was a pretty bad idea. And so now we talk about this question as part of the premarital counseling.

I realized after a while that this really wasn’t just a part of the wedding. It’s actually part of something much more important; it’s part of the covenant these two people are making to each other. When two people get married they come into the church with one very specific identity. They have been known by their family and by their friends in a specific way and with a specific identity.

But when they leave the church they literally have a new identity. The fact of the covenant they have made changes who they are, not just to themselves, and not just to each other, but to the whole world.

It isn’t technically part of the liturgy, but the part of the service that signifies this change comes at the every end. Because once the vows have been exchanged and the sacrament has been given, by each party to the other, the new couple is turned around to face the people and formally presented—to them, and to the whole world—in their new state.

It doesn’t really matter how they ask me to say it. It may be that no one has changed their name in the slightest. Their identity has changed; and the sign of that is that the are quite literally re-presented, presented for the first time in their new identity, to the people closest to them.

That is meant to prepare them to re-enter the world under that new identity. The covenant they have made with each other gives them a new set of rights and responsibilities. The world has to regard them differently. They are not the same as they were when they came into the church.

Our baptism is meant to do the same for each one of us. The covenant we have with God is meant to change our very identity. It is meant to make the world regard us differently—and to make us regard the world differently. We are claimed in a way that we cannot, or at least should not, deny. We are God’s.

And here is something more: We are each other’s. If the covenant is between each one of us and the risen Christ, and if the church is the Body of Christ living and working in time and history, then the covenant we have with God binds us not just to God but each one of us to all the rest of us.

This means that there is no such thing as a Christian alone. There is no such thing as a Christian apart from a community. The Christian covenant is a work of community. None of us can do it by ourselves. Sunday morning with the New York Times a third cup of coffee, or a with a long bike ride and a pleasant cooling shower, all that is good; but it isn’t what the Christian covenant is about. We live out this covenant of our baptism by being together.

And it means one thing more. It means you are ours—for better or for worse, the words that are core to any covenant. No matter what happens to you, no matter how lost you get, no matter what darkness or despair or disgust you find yourself in, you are ours—and we will not deny you, because God will not deny you.

If we are God’s people—and we are—then that changes our identity not just vertically but horizontally. It changes not just how God sees us, but how the world knows us. And it changes our identity with respect to each other. We go from being isolated to connected. We go from being strangers to brothers and sisters. And it means that central to our identity is that we have each other—no matter what.

Let us pray:

O gracious God, you have adopted us in baptism as your children; give us grace to live and act as those worthy to be known as your people, and make us ever mindful that you are known to us first in our bonds to each other; through Christ our Lord. Amen.