Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Every morning during this season of Lent, I am receiving an email from the United Methodist Church in the U.S. The email reminds me of the word of the day, inviting me to reflect on a word and take a photograph some time before day’s end. The email also includes a short reflection on the word, usually some scripture, and sometimes a picture as well. It’s not a very onerous Lenten discipline, but it is reminding me every day that this is not ordinary time.
On Monday the word of the day was “covenant” – perfect timing for preachers like me who were beginning to reflect on the readings for today’s worship in which “covenant” is the major theme. I spent part of Monday in the library, studying journal articles from the 1970s and 1980s on interchurch marriage – what happens when Protestants and Catholics who are both actively engaged in their faith and their churches marry one another and have to work out what that will look like.
Although there are some differences in Catholic and Protestant emphases in the theology of marriage, one of the understandings that is definitely shared is the idea of marriage as a covenant. Two people make sacred promises, before God and in the presence of the community, of love and faithfulness to each other for the rest of their lives.
On Monday afternoon, I had a meeting with a couple about their wedding this summer. We talked about how they met and what they meant to each other. We talked about why they wanted to get married, and how they thought their lives might change because of the promises they were making to each other. We talked about the significance of getting married in the church, in the presence of God, and with the blessing of their families, friends, and church community.
After talking about marriage as a covenant that is modelled on God’s covenant with God’s People, and going over the wedding liturgy with them, they went on their way to keep planning the details. Alone in the church again, I pulled out my phone and took a picture of my left hand – the one with the wedding ring – as I remembered my own wedding vows:
You are bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,
and I will always love you.
Before God, our families, and our friends,
I promise and covenant with you
that I will always be faithful to you
and always walk together with you
wherever our lives should lead us
as long as we both shall live.
Did you notice how general those promises were? Sometimes we joke about our vows: Wasn’t there something in your vows about cleaning the bathroom and taking out the garbage? Wasn’t there something in your vows about rubbing my feet and letting me pick the movies we’re going to watch together?
But, of course, those details weren’t in there because covenants are not quite the same as contracts. Contracts spell out the details. They make it clear that if you fulfill these responsibilities, accomplish these tasks, and complete these assignments, then I will pay you this amount. They delineate who is responsible for what, and under what circumstances the agreement can be broken. They specify a time frame, and anticipate a renewal only if both parties agree to sign on the dotted line a second time.
Christian marriage is not a contract filled with “if – then” statements. “If you do this, then I’ll do that…” But Christian marriage is a covenant shaped by words like, “I promise to love you. I promise to be faithful to you. I promise to stay with you…” And although, as human beings, none of us will fulfill those promises perfectly, marriage involves making and renewing those promises again and again, and ultimately trusting our partners to do the same.
Our inspiration and model for our promises comes from God and God’s faithful covenants with us, and this morning’s text gives us the wonderful example of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah. God appears to Abraham and tells him that he will be the father of a multitude of nations, and God will be the God of Abraham. God does not say, “If you do this, then I’ll do that.” God promises Abraham and Sarah land, blessing, and descendants, and God simply tells them, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.”
The amazing thing about the story is not so much THAT God managed to fulfill the promises, giving them descendants, and watching over them and us to this day, but I marvel at the fact that Abraham trusted the promise. Even though it seemed so terribly unlikely: How will God get us a land of our own when we are currently living as nomads with no real place to call home? How will God bless us and use us to bless the whole world when we are a People of very little importance or power? How will God give us many descendants when we’re nearing a hundred years old and don’t yet have any children together?
Abraham and Sarah were not perfect. At times they were faithful, and at times they were flawed. Sometimes they trusted God’s promise that God would give them many descendants, but at other times they laughed, and they looked for their own strategies for building their family. But the Apostle Paul holds up Abraham as an example of faith. He says that Abraham “was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised.”
You probably remember the story in which Abraham is willing to take his miracle son, Isaac, and because he believes it to be God’s will, he’s ready to kill him – to sacrifice him for God. Abraham trusts that somehow – even if it seems impossible – God will fulfill God’s promises.
Of course, that’s the trouble in today’s Gospel passage from Mark. Peter isn’t trusting Jesus the way Abraham trusted God. Jesus is telling his disciples that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
And this doesn’t make any sense to Peter. If Jesus is rejected, how is he going to gain followers? If Jesus dies, how will he accomplish his purpose of building the Kingdom of God on earth? Peter may have missed the part about rising again, but this plan just doesn’t sound like it will lead to victory, and Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to argue with him.
Jesus’ words to Peter are harsh, and he says them out loud to the whole group of disciples, probably aware that the others may be thinking the same thing. “You’ve got to trust me!” I can imagine Jesus telling them. “I know it feels like you’re jumping off a cliff without a safety net, but that’s how love works. That’s what I’m trying to show you.”
And he did tell them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
In the covenant of Christian marriage, couples don’t just promise to do certain things, but they give themselves to each other. There’s a reason why so many brides and grooms feel nervous or get “cold feet” before their weddings, because what they are doing is an amazing leap of faith. They are giving up their individual, independent lives, trusting their partners, and trusting that God will help them with the seemingly impossible call to lifelong love and faithfulness to one other person.
But the marriage example is just one example. As followers of Jesus, we are all called at various times and in various ways to trust God and give ourselves away for the sake of the gospel. Jesus calls it, “taking up our crosses,” not a minor adjustment in our daily or weekly routine, but a radical decision give our lives completely to God’s purposes and trust that God will take care of us.
And I think the same thing is true for us as a congregation. Most of you know that today after worship we will have lunch together downstairs, followed by the Annual Financial Meeting. And some of you, I hope, even picked up a financial report last Sunday and looked through it before today.
If you did, or if you looked at the insert in today’s bulletin from the Stewardship Committee, you may have noticed that we ended up with a deficit for the General Fund in 2014. Fortunately, we have had a few years in the past where we had significant surpluses, so we are not running out of money yet.
This is the second year in a row that we’ve had a deficit, and some of the good news is that our offerings to the General Fund were higher in 2014 than they were the year before, and our deficit was about $7000 less as well.
But the even better news is that St. Andrew’s giving to mission in 2014 was extremely generous. We made significant contributions to Presbyterian World Service and Development. We gave more than ever to other missions including the Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry, special projects for Camp Christopher, and many other local missions. And for the first time ever, I think, we surpassed our allocation for Presbyterians Sharing.
Of course, the Stewardship Committee will be reminding us to consider our offerings for 2015 because we really want to make this a year with no deficit for the General Fund, and we also don’t want to have to make difficult decisions about cutting programs or projects here in our congregation.
But I, for one, am very encouraged by St. Andrew’s giving. I have read about other congregations in which many individuals make generous and selfless decisions about giving to the church’s ministry, but when it’s time to decide about how to spend that money, the congregations tend to make stingy and selfish decisions – always giving priority to the ministry at home and giving only the leftovers to mission beyond their doors.
But don’t Jesus’ words apply to us as a congregation also? “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
Let us remember, today, God’s covenant love for us in Jesus Christ. And may we learn to trust God more and more, as we give ourselves away in loving and faithful relationships, as we give our lives over to daily discipleship, and as we continue to give generously to mission beyond our congregation as well as ministry here at home.