What does the word covenant mean to you? A promise? I think of Covenant Hills, a summer camp near this area. What other thoughts come to you when hearing this? We hear this world throughout many sacred texts, but have you ever thought to stop and think about what it means to you? Are you in a covenant of marriage, maybe?
When a child gets baptized, the church makes a covenant to be with this new chidl of God. Last week, was the covenant and story of Noah and the flood, a classic text of covenant. This week, we hear the words of God promising to Abram and Sarai to be in covenant with them, making them the ‘ancestors of a multitude of nations,’ changing their names, and promising them a child. Now put yourself in Abraham and Sarah’s shoes for a moment. God appears to you at 99 years old, says that your name is no longer abram, but abraham, your wife sarai is now sarah, and she will bear a child at 90 years old. What would your reaction be? Would you go with the flow? Later in this Genesis chapter, Abraham falls on his face, laughing, asking God how his wife at 90 years old can bear a child. Sarah laughs too, denies that she laughed, and has put herself in a bit of a predicament. But God is worthy in this covenant, forgiving them for their doubt and imperfections and promising to them anyways a child and that God will be God to them and their multitude of nations.
This is an everlasting covenant that God makes with Abraham and Sarah. Despite our imperfections, God promises to Abraham and Sarah that God will be God to them and their children forever, passing on the love and promise in each new generation. In the three monotheistic faiths, judaism, christianity, and islam, it is considered to be an Abrahamic faith, sharing a family tree and all roots leading back to this couple, Abraham and Sarah. We can thank this couple for their grace and imperfections and providing us with comfort in being imperfect people.
As we are in the season of Lent, it tends to be a time that people give something up or set an intention for the 40 day season in preparation of Easter. Did any of you give something up? When I was little, I would give up candy, chocolate, or soda. Something that didn’t really challenge me. I have people that I know have given up beer or Facebook. How do we choose these intentions, and why are we choosing these? How does giving up beer or chocolate teach us to be in the wilderness with Jesus on this road?
I work as a field guide at a wilderness therapy program, spending 8 days at a time in the woods of Vermont with teenagers who are struggling with emotional and behavioral challenges- often related back to lack of love and acceptance from those closest to them. In the 4 phase program they work through over the course of 3 months, in the 2nd phase they receive a therapeutic goal. To be ready for the next phase, they must actively live out the goal they created. These goals are challenging. As a guide, I have also created a goal and practice it while working. My goal is to be gracious with myself, forgiving and letting go of negative self talk, while allowing myself the space to grow. I live this goal, but only sometimes. Only those 8 days when I’m working do I notice that I’m actively living it. Each morning I find time to stand with open arms feeling the spirit and allowing the presence of God to be with me, asking for guidance in living my goal. When thinking about living in covenant, God made this covenant with Abraham and Sarah saying, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring.” This covenant is not just for 40 days, or for the lifespan of Abraham and Sarah, but for eternity- an everlasting covenant to you and your offspring. A covenant of love, unconditional forgiveness, and prevenient grace. In this month’s Homiletics, a resource magazine for preachers, the author discusses prevenient grace and what that means. They describe saying, “In his book, The Silver Chair by CS Lewis, he tells the story of a lion named Aslan, who can be thought of as a symbol for Jesus Christ. In the book, Aslan hears two children calling to him for help, and after rescuing them he says, ‘you would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you.’ That’s prevenient grace, the grace that comes before.’” Because God offers healing and forgiveness, we ask for healing and forgiveness. In the covenant with Abraham, God offers it first, “I will make my covenant between me and you.” God initiates this covenant, offering us all prevenient grace.
Although Abraham and Sarah react poorly, while honestly, ultimately they believe God, knowing they will bear a son in their old age. They have faith. Isn’t that what this journey of Lent, and life, is all about? Having faith? So, how do we have faith? How do we have faith in this everlasting covenant when we live in a broken world? I hear this phrase often in hard times, ‘Keep the faith,’ ‘just keep the faith, it’ll all work out.’ In a world where thoughts and prayers are no longer enough, how do we keep the faith when turning on the TV, or picking up the newspaper breaks our hearts over and over again? How do we keep the faith knowing that 17 beautiful lives were taken too soon in the halls of learning and laughter? How do we keep the faith in the hard realization that violent criminals are beloved children of God, as well? I wish that I had an answer for how we can ‘keep the faith.’ But, I don’t know how to do it. All I know is that in my 8 days disconnected from the world, sleeping in a sleeping bag, being present to teenagers, biting my tongue in occasional disagreement, that I constantly lean toward My Creator, inviting the presence into my life to live a life that is pleasing to God. and full of faith. I have faith that God loves me. I have faith that God loves you. I have faith that God lived in the halls of the 18 schools that lost students due to gun violence, this year alone. I have faith that God lives in the wildflowers and the trees. I have faith that God is at the heart of activism, the fire underneath people speaking out. I have faith that God loves the shooter, even though I certainly do not. I think that is what makes faith and covenant and God such a mystery to us. The amount of love and commitment God can give to us is unimaginable, incomprehensible to our human minds. I have faith in the teenagers using their voices for change, I have faith in their actions and that they feel heard.
Having faith is hard. Showing your faith, can be hard. I am 23. When I was in college, I could name all the people under 30 who went to church with me, on 1 hand, it was me and occasionally one other college student I became friends with. My journey of faith has been significant and I have gotten to a place where I am unashamed of my faith- most of the time. There are the occasional times where I share my faith and immediate disclaimer myself saying “I go to church and believe in God but I’m not like fox news christian, or westboro baptist christian.” And then I get angry with myself for giving myself a disclaimer on my strongest value. I’m currently struggling with my work because we are told to not discuss politics or religion with the students we work with. I understand this rule, however, I feel like in order to be my authentic self, which we are promoted to be, I need to share parts of myself that are true to who I am. Last week, I was connecting with a student who has been struggling with depression, low self-worth, and therefore a lack of motivation. His assignment is to ask others how they motivate themselves. While we were chatting, I resonated with his story, as I, too, have struggled with depression and motivation. When he asked me how I motivate myself on days when I don’t want to do something, or worse, when I want to do something, but still cannot get out of bed to do it, my reaction was to tell him that I pray- but I couldn’t say that to him, and it hurt me. I felt sad that I couldn’t share the constant way that I found strength in the darkest days. And although I knew I couldn’t share my faith with him, I have faith that he will find the ways that will work for him, knowing that he will find his way to light in his darkness. I have faith that the work that I am choosing to do, although hard, is guiding me forward in a way that God finds pleasing. Just like Abraham and Sarah, we may not know what the future holds- but we know that God’s love is unconditional and never ending.
We are in Lent, a season of anticipation, of waiting, of discerning the journey that Jesus took to the cross. Jesus was a radical man, a man of love, of healing, of being in community with those others deemed ‘less than.’ How are we, as christians, living out the word of God, and the legacy that Jesus left for us. I have faith that Jesus saw the good in every person. I have faith that Zaccheus and the woman who should have been stoned to death learned from Jesus’ love and changed their ways. I have faith God loves despite our darkest thoughts. I have faith in the church and that it will continue to be a place where people can go to find the faith needed to love one another and to know that God is with them, just like God was with Abraham and Sarah for a very long time before a covenant was made.
One of my favorite Christian rock bands is coming to barre in a few weeks, Sidewalk Prophets, and while I don’t always agree with their theology, their music is full of beauty. One of my favorite songs by them is called, “you love me anyway.’ The lyrics go as this “But you love me anyway, it’s like nothing in life that I’ve ever known.” The words come back to the phrase ‘you love me anyway’ over and over again. On days when it is hard to get up, on days when I am heartbroken on seeing too many black boys killed on TV, too many women’s voices unheard, immigrants turned away from this country, and the lives of students taken, I cry out to God wondering where the love and faith is in this world. But I know that there is faith somewhere, somewhere where I can’t see it yet or feel it yet, but God is delivering it to us in an everlasting covenant of prevenient grace and unconditional love.
God loves us no matter what, even when we are acting “like rebellious teenagers, God loves us unconditionally, just as God has loved humans throughout history. The everlasting covenant started with Abraham, and it continues with everyone who is a member of God’s family.” May the rest of this lenten journey- and our lives- be filled with asking the question, where is the faith? In hopes of searching deeper, to crack the surface of the unimaginable love that is given to us without any disclaimers, to seek the further faith that we cannot always see. Will this be part of your Lenten journey? I’d like to keep the faith that it will be. Amen.