March 1, 2015

Keeping Our Covenants: Covenants of Life


Text: Genesis 9:15: “I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh...”

This season of Lent I propose to use the privilege of the pulpit to look through a variety of lenses at the idea of covenant. You might well wonder what brings this about.

At one level, exploring the substance and significance of covenant is never far from our shared consideration here. Our faith is a covenant. Our history is a history of the people of the covenant. And when we celebrate the Eucharist around the altar, we make the claim that in his passion, death, and resurrection, Jesus has become the author of a new covenant between God and all humanity.

As I have studied the scriptures appointed for this season, I found that I didn’t have to work to hard to find in the readings appointed for each of the Sundays in Lent a little bit of hard ground to stand on in seeing the matter of covenant from a distinct angle.

But most of all, I think, there is a connection between a season of self-examination and a deeper consideration of the idea of covenant for the simple reason that the covenants we make and successfully keep are agreements that involve setting aside something of ourselves. They involve giving something up. They involve sacrifice—the kind of thing Lent is supposed to give us practice at doing.

We tell every couple that comes to get married that covenants are not contracts; they are something more. Contracts are agreements that are subject to a series of agreed conditions. If the conditions somehow stop being true, the contract can’t be enforced.

But covenants aren’t like that. They involve giving up things unconditionally. The idea is that what we get in return for the covenants we make is something of much greater value than we could ever find for ourselves without making the sacrifice needed. To speak for just a moment as an economist and not a theologian, covenants involve an opportunity cost. They impose a choice that can’t be reversed, an either-or proposition.

This is why the business of faith is a business of covenant-making—not least because making a covenant is an act of faith. It is an extension of risk in the absence of immediate or tangible reward. But it is a choice to give up something on the promise that comes to us from the other side of the covenant, the promise of something far more precious and far more valuable than whatever it is we are required to give up.

When we give up things for Lent, what we are doing is practicing what is demanded of us if we are going to be keepers of the covenants we make. Really what we are doing is practicing the basic steps of the dance of faith, the attitudes of heart and the disciplines of will that go into living a faithful life.

The scriptures today relate to us the first of all the covenants in the account of scripture, the covenant made between God and Noah after the flood. That’s enough to make it something worth paying attention to.

But there is something else, something perhaps even more significant about the covenant of the rainbow that is worth our prayerful attention. In the long, long series of covenants God will make with the people of Israel, this first covenant—a covenant made before Abraham, and before even the idea of Israel—stands out for being completely encompassing.

This is not merely a covenant between God and the people of Israel. And it is not a covenant like the covenant Jesus makes, a covenant with all of humanity.

The covenant with Noah is a covenant between God and all creation, a covenant in which we are bound up together with all living things by implication. God speaks of covenant as “between me and you and every living creature of all flesh...”

This is no mere accident. Noah knew a thing or two about every living creature of all flesh. A great many of them ended up on his passenger manifest. In the covenant, Noah’s role from the forty days of passage in the ark is extended forward  and amplified throughout the whole of the future. He, and we, are the protector, the stewards, the caretakers of all other creatures.

In this covenant we are meant to understand that we are deeply woven into the whole created order. We are not somehow separate from it, and it is by no means separate from us. Just as the created order presents dangers to us that we seek to protect ourselves against and mitigate, we can present a danger to the created order—most of all by imagining that we can act with impunity, that our actions as part of creation have no consequences for the rest of creation.

Whatever else you might make of the winter of our discontent, it is hard not to see the evidence of our own lives these past few decades and not be drawn to conclude that fervent, industrious, disruptive work of all humanity has not wrought changes in the fragile balance of the created order that we are only beginning to understand—and can likely never completely repair.

We started by saying that keeping covenants requires giving up something. This covenant of life that we have been made part of, whether we know it, or like it, or not, demands something us. What that specifically might be will differ for each of us. There is no balance sheet that will quickly and simply tell us when we have given up our fair share; remember, covenants are acts of faith, not exercises in calculating cost and benefit.

One example of giving up something in keeping this covenant with creation was the decision of our whole parish to give up part of the treasure accumulated by generations and generations of those who came before us here to convert part of our heating plant into something that would be much more efficient and emit far fewer emissions.

Making that choice was an act of keeping our covenant with life; it was one way in which we have held up our part of the promise once made to Noah.

But it is by no means the only sort of choice we will have to make. Each of us separately, and all of us together, live every day as creatures sharing the wonder of this creation and called to take up our part in it more fully. But doing that means we need to take a new view of ourselves. In a very basic sense, we need to give up our idea of ourselves as the center and purpose of creation, in order to gain perspective on how much more we might have—for ourselves and for the generations that follow us—if we willingly accept the limits by which only we can counter the harm humans have done to God’s handiwork.

Artisan of the universe, open the eyes of all people to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works; that, rejoicing in thy whole creation, we may honor thee with our substance, and be faithful stewards of thy bounty; through Christ our Lord.