“A Community that Covenants”

+In the Name of God who was, and is, and is to come.

God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  Genesis 9:12-13

Good morning! Today, following this service, Atrium III will host the 21st Annual Africa Bake Auction. This is a remarkable thing to be able to say in and of itself – to announce that anything has been going on in any church for twenty-one years. And then to be able to say in the next breath that, in less than an hour, the Bake Auction will raises thousands of dollars to support significant work in South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and other East African countries – it’s phenomenal!

Bake Auction Sunday last year was my first Sunday at All Saints’. What a way to start!  I had driven from Granville on the previous Sunday, settled my office on Monday, attended a Vestry meeting on Tuesday, and then, elbowed my way into the crowded Parish Hall on Sunday where auctioneers Jack Garland and John Williams stood on the stage trying to make themselves heard over the din and confusion of the huge crowd in the room. Remember huge crowds? Me neither!

And the baked goods! Cakes and pies and scones and lemon bars everywhere. Let’s not forget the children circulating through the crowd who sold us cookies for $2, took our $5 or $10 bills without making change, and thanked us for our donations before moving on to their next victim. Terry felt very special to have the fluffernutter cake she made selected to be included in the live auction. You could not have found a better way to welcome her to All Saints’.

Some of the best cakes went for astronomical prices as people ratcheted up their bids – because, as we all know, All Saints’ can turn anything into a competition.  Somehow the auction ended close to the starting time for the 11 o’clock service. Since the starting time for services at All Saints’ is merely a serving suggestion, nobody seemed to mind very much when the procession that morning started a few minutes late.

This morning, we’ll do it all again. It will be different this year, of course. I don’t know who came up with this year’s slogan, but it is a perfect description of the difference: “The auction will be virtual, but the cakes will be actual.” When I last looked, more than 70 people had signed up to bake. What we need now is bidders who will enter their bids on a computer, phone or some other device at 32auctions.com. Information for how to register and find the Bake Auction was sent via email to parish households earlier this week. The event always involves happy chaos, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

So be patient. In true Chicago style, bid early and often. And remember that Sundays don’t count in the 40 days of Lent, so you can still eat sweets on Sundays even if you gave them up this year.

Giving something up for Lent has deep roots and is one way to participate in one of the traditional practices of the season: the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. As I thought about this sermon, I wondered how I was going to talk about the inconsistency of our buying and eating cakes at the same time that Jesus is fasting in the wilderness. There’s really no way to square that circle no matter how hard one tries or how many years of experience a preacher happens to have, so I’m going to throw in the towel and turn instead to our theme for Lent 2021 – the theme of covenant.

Each of our Old Testament lessons this Lenten season is about one of the covenants God made with the people of Israel. Today’s lesson is the story of the covenant God made with Noah after it had rained for forty days and forty nights – and the rainbow as the familiar sign of that covenant. Although we often think of the story of ’s Ark as a children’s story, it turns out that it’s much more than that. Isaiah referenced the story when he heard God speak these words to the people imprisoned in Babylon who wondered how long God would continue to be angry with them:

“For this [situation is] to me is like the waters of Noah: As I swore that the waters of Noah nevermore would flood the earth, so I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you. . . My loyalty shall never move from you, nor my covenant of friendship be shaken – says the Lord, who takes you back in love.”

In next week’s story, God will make another covenant – this time with Abraham promising that Abraham and Sarah will produce descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky. There’ll be another covenant story after that and another after that – right through to end of Lent.

We’ve changed the format of the services a little. After we read a covenant story for the first lesson each Sunday, we’ll feature a midrash – or commentary – on the covenant story in place of a second lesson. Each midrash will be a modern commentary, written by a parishioner who, after prayerful reflection, has let the Holy Spirit inspire what is, in every case, a deeply personal response. We hope that the midrashes will break open the stories from Holy Scripture, deepening and enriching their meaning for each of us. Let me express my gratitude to those people who have given of their time and creativity to create works of art that will enhance our weekly worship. And let me start today by thanking Paula Stevens-Contey for her poem, “The Ark & the Covenant”.

Why this emphasis on covenants this year? Here’s the reason: Basic to the religion of the Old Testament – and of the New Testament, for that matter – is the idea that the relation of God to God’s people is founded upon a covenant. The very name we give to the two parts of the Bible underscores the importance of this idea. Although we call them the Old and New Testaments, the word translated “testament” really means covenant. The edition I have of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible puts it this way on the title page of one of the sections: “The New Covenant,” it says, “Commonly Call the New Testament of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  A covenant it its original sense meant a solemn agreement and was used by the Hebrew people for different kinds of agreements which people entered into to regulate their life together. Treaties, contracts, partnerships – all relationships that involved mutual privileges and responsibilities – were embodied in covenants.

We have copies of treaties used by the Hittites in the late second millennium BCE between sovereigns and their vassals that clearly are the model for the covenant God entered into with the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. God promised to be their God. The people promised to trust in God and to live in accordance with the just and holy laws God had given them. God’s part was to protect the people and deliver them from trouble. The people promised not to enter into covenants with other gods. One of the Ten Commandments makes this explicit: “Thou shalt have none other Gods but me!” 

We tend to think of covenants in a narrowly legal fashion, maybe because St. Paul made such a big deal about the difference between law and grace. This is a mistake. And it perpetuates the old heresy that the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of Jesus. It is more accurate to say that the Hebrews used the word covenant for any kind of formal agreement AND also used it for all kinds of relationships where there was no thought of bargaining or entering into an explicit legal contract. In Hebrew thought there was a covenant implicit in every special relationship – between spouses, between friends, between a nation and its king. The basic connotation was not so much that of a legal responsibility as of a personal and affectionate relationship.

So, when God chose Israel to be God’s people, the very nature of the relationship involved the establishment of a covenant – a covenant that was of the wonderful love of a God who wanted to enter into such a personal relationship with them – an expression of God’s mercy and a pledge of God’s grace. This is clearly the God Jesus knew – the God Jesus talked about – the God Jesus prayed to.

As Christians, we are also in a covenant relationship with God through our baptisms. God has promised grace and help, and we have promised obedience. This is another way of saying that, from our side, our relationship with God is a moral relationship. The idea of religion as a covenant relationship to God removes it entirely from sentimentality and mushiness and sets it firmly in the domain of moral obedience. God makes the first move to establish the relationship and who, thank God, ultimately sustains it, but we must sustain it too by loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Which brings me back to today’s Bake Auction. It’s been such fun to watch the video announcements that Atrium III has produced the last several weeks. And I’m excited to see how the auction goes this morning. Knowing how grace-filled and good-humored the people of All Saints’ are, I’m sure it will be a success no matter what happens or how many technical glitches we might have. And I have no doubt that we will raise thousands of dollars in less than an hour, because we’ll bid against one another to win one of the cakes. There are several that fit this past year to a “T” – Rob Lentz’s Chicago Teachers Cake, Diane Doran’s Dumpster Fire Cake, or Polly Tangora’s Dr. Fauci Covid Cake. And it will be successful because many of us will chip in $5 – $10 online to pay for cookies the children will not be able to circulate to sell and for which they will not make change again this year.

It will be successful because Atrium III will meet in the next few weeks on Zoom to share the proceeds with the important ministries our partners are doing in some of the poorest places in the world. The work of our young people reminds us that being in a covenantal relationship with God involves responsibilities along with some extraordinary privileges.

Let me end with a quote about covenant from the great Old Testament scholar, Walter Bruggeman. Bruggeman is now in his late 80’s and is retired from teaching and lecturing after a career spanning five decades. In 1980, he wrote an article in The Christian Century entitled “Covenant as a Subversive Paradigm.” His thesis was this:

“A new covenant which recharacterizes the nature of God, church and world is not simply a restatement of conventional Western assumptions; it requires drastically new affirmations.” We’ve printed a brief excerpt from the article at the end of the service leaflet. Throughout this Lent, it will be there as a reminder of who we are called to be and what our mission is as a community. It is, I think, especially appropriate on this morning of the Africa Bake Auction. Here’s what Bruggeman says, “the world is intended by God to be a community that covenants, that distributes its produce equally, that values all its members, and that brings the strong and the weak together in common work and common joy. Though it is not yet that kind of community, we are assured that soon or late it will be (cf. Revelation 11:15). And the mission of the believing community is to articulate, anticipate and practice that transformation which is sure to come.”

Amen.