“COVENANT” - Deuteronomy 6:10 - 19; Matthew 5:13 - 20
A Sermon by Alex W. Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
From Sunday, October 20, 2019
Texts: Deuteronomy 6:10-19; Matthew 5:13-20
As you may know, fall is the time when it is best to tend to the grass in your yard. We have a very small plot of grass in our backyard, but the heat of the summer and the aridness of the fall makes our backyard look more like a wasteland. We have big patches where the grass is really struggling, and other areas where the grass has disappeared. So we gave the yard some attention this week – aerating and putting out new grass seed in hopes that the yard might regenerate itself by springtime. We did this on Tuesday. On Wednesday we had so much rain that everything we did was washed away. And today with all the rain, maybe it is washing away again.
New grass seed is really not that important. But what happened this week just reminds me again that life is often a never ending struggle – pushing back, fighting against the destructive forces - working for beauty, peace, serenity, and calm. It is ongoing.
My former professor and renowned Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, speaks often about how "the world comes at us in destructive and pathological ways.”
Brueggeman is certainly NOT talking about the struggle to keep grass growing well in the yard. He is referring to the more problematic issues that confront us.
Where has the destruction, where have the deep threats and real challenges confronted you recently?
Every week, and in preparation for Sunday, I look across this congregation and wonder, prayerfully, what is going on – and how the destructiveness of the world is hitting your life. I know most of you pretty well; but there is much I do not know.
Some of us are carrying deep loss and continue to adjust to life without a loved one. The wounds of grief can be so complicated; finding our way forward is often filled with new challenges, tears, and heartache.
Some of us are dealing with significant pain, debilitating pain, striving to adjust to some new situation, recovering from surgery; these are issues of body, mind, and spirit.
Some of us have regular battles – seeking to overcome anxieties, . . . . worries about children, or parents, . . . . lingering uncertainties, . . . . navigating life transitions.
Then, all of us ought to be concerned about some larger issues that feel destructive and pathological: the warming of the planet, . . . . the chaos of political life both in our city, . . . in our nation, . . . the violence that touches so many near and far, . . . and more.
We started our worship today with a lovely hymn – Come, Worship God. We get used to starting our worship with a hymn. But this singing intends to be intentional, formative for our worship and our life. That hymn comes from Psalm 95, which wants to center our life in God. Since the world comes at us in destructive and pathological ways, what else can we do but center our life in God!
Here is what Walter Brueggemann says as so many things bombard us, and focus us away from God and the reign of God. And I quote: “as we sing our life out toward God, who is our shepherd and king, we sing the center of our life away from ourselves. As we sing life toward God and away from ourselves, we sing away from the fear and anxiety that cause us to act in selfish and inhumane ways. For which of you, by turning to self, can add a cubit to your life? As we sing life toward God, we announce that the selfish, greedy ways of our culture are false. We announce to the world that (armaments, and bombs, and wars) – the ways of the world toward security, is a lie, because it will never make us safe. We declare that consumerism is a lie, because we can never eat enough or have enough to make us safe. We receive well-being only from this Other One to whom we turn in praise.” (Brueggemann, A Gospel of Hope, 13-14) I love that.
Our word for today is COVENANT. This is a beautiful word – a very important word from the Bible, a very important word for faith.
COVENANT means essentially “contract.” In the Bible, God makes COVENANTS with lots of people – Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and many others. It can be summarized generally in this phrase – a phrase that echoed through that first hymn today: God says, “I will be your God – you will be my people.” God shows: “I will watch over you and provide for you – you will live as faithful community.” God promises: “I will bless you – you will live as a blessing to the world.”
The emphasis on COVENANT is the relationship, much more than the equal participation in the contract. The emphasis on COVENANT was and is less about the legalities of the deal, but more about the bond.
COVENANT actually comes from two Latin words, “con” and “venire,” pairing the words “coming” and “together.” We see in the Scriptures over and over how God bonds Godself to the world – steadfast faithfulness, love, care – and to humanity. God keeps affirming and reminding – “I am your God – you are my people.” Yet the people, including us, as you may know, constantly fail at keeping our end of the deal. But God keeps the bond, keeps re-establishing the relationship – “I am your God – you are my people.” This is where we get all the emphasis on GRACE. God preserves the COVENANT. God keeps COVENANT. God never lets go of the COVENANT or of the people. God’s grace makes it all happen.
In our first lesson, we get a heavy dose of this COVENANT. These words from Deuteronomy 6 come just following some of the most familiar words of the Old Testament: “the Shema.” The Shema says: “Listen Israel, our God is the Lord, the only Lord! Love the Lord your God, therefore, with heart soul, and strength. Recite this to your children. Talk about this when you are sitting around the house, when you are out and about, when you are lying down and getting up. Tie these words to your hand, put them on your forehead, write them on the doorposts of your house.”
COVENANT life means affirming that God is Lord, and we love God and grow in God’s ways, always.
Then just after those words, we have the words that Jack read today. Don’t forget the Lord. Revere the Lord; serve the Lord; do what is right and good. It is all about the COVENANT – God is God; therefore live as God’s people. These words run all through the book of Deuteronomy. Moses has led the people out of slavery and through the wilderness with lots of changes and challenges. And just when they are to go into the Land, he gives them a sermon – maybe the longest sermon ever – the book of Deuteronomy. 34 chapters! It is all rooted in COVENANT.
This is the essential message: God is God. You are God’s people. Live like it. Do not forget. God loves you, provides for you, cares for you, covers you with blessing. Revere God. Serve God. Do what is right and good in God’s sight and you will prosper in life, in the land. COVENANT. We do not choose this – God chose us. This is what life looks like – COVENANT – so we are to live a certain way. When we understand all of this – we really have no choice. God is God and we are God’s people. It is beautiful. It is life-giving. It is salvation. It is the gospel. This shapes us!
So, . . . . when the world comes at us in destructive and pathological ways, we do well to remember the COVENANT. God is God. God provides and cares, assures and re-assures. We are to remember – and not forget (and it is really easy to forget when the destructive forces cover us). No, remember God is God. Revere God, do what is right, serve God. This is what life is meant to look like.
Our second lesson today recalls for us some familiar words of Jesus. Listen:
13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The whole premise of these words from Jesus – his whole Sermon on the Mount – all his teachings – are also rooted in COVENANT – the COVENANT that goes back to the beginning, that reminds us we are always connected to God, who blesses us, and calls us to be a blessing. We live as a blessing as we are salt and light in the world. Jesus is really echoing Moses: when you go forth, do not forget who you are, who you belong to. You are God’s people. You are salt. You are light. Do not think the law does not apply – be righteous, revere God, serve God. This is who you are. This is what you do.
Eugene Peterson often said that he was worried in these days about Christians, especially American Christians. Americans are covered up with consumerism. And if we are not careful, American Christianity begins to fall into the same consumer-minded tendency – we get away from following Jesus and we are more inclined to look for what we can get from Jesus. We ask what Jesus might offer to make our lives better. We look for churches and communities that help us feel better, suit our needs, feed our politics, calm our fears, answer our questions in the ways we agree, put us in a position to be more happy, more successful. It is all about what we get from Jesus, like our consumer culture.
Peterson even says that many of us are wanting to pull God in as a part-time assistant in our lives, usually low paid, if at all. But we pretty much want to stay in charge, not let God be in charge; we are not good are letting God be in charge. (Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch. . ., p. 246)
But this always runs against COVENANT – God is God and we are God’s people. God covers us with love and blessings, care and even eternal life through Jesus Christ. We are to live as God’s people – as salt and light. It is NOT fundamentally about what we can get from Jesus. It is about giving our lives to Jesus. It is about living and loving in the world as God’s people.
Here is the simple truth: SALT does not exist for itself. Salt exists to purify, preserve, and flavor things. The essence of salt is in how it affects other things. By itself, salt has no purpose. As it interacts with other things, salt has very significant results.
Light also exists to brighten the world. Light reveal beauty and colors, to point to justice and what is right. Light by itself, is not so meaningful – but shining in the world – everything changes, becomes better, more beautiful, more hopeful.
This is the way we, as disciples, are called to function. It is all part of COVENANT. We do not exist for ourselves. We exist to purify and preserve the world with God’s emerging plans of peace and hope for all. We exist to enhance and flavor all of life with God’s love.
We are moving into Stewardship Season – another occasion to reflect on our blessings and our call to be a blessing. May the truth and promises of God – in COVENANT with us – deepen our generosity, increase our commitments, remind us we are salt and light in the world. This is how we live.
Whoever has received God’s blessings and love, whoever is under God’s Spirit, whoever is filled with God’s presence and has a glimpse of what God intends in the world – love, inclusion, justice, peace – then those people are to take on the character of salt and light, and make a difference in the world. This is our calling. And the world needs us.
Jesus does not offer an invitation – “come and be like salt.” It is not a command – “you are to be like salt.” It is NOT a “should be, ought to be, or must be.” Jesus says, “You ARE.” “You are the salt of the earth.” “You are light.”
What Jesus wants from us is to “be who we ARE.”
Our COVENANT life with God intends to shape everything about us: our living, our giving, our trusting, our serving. May it be so. AMEN
Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is the rise; to live as salt and light – in covenant – that is to abide forever. We seek that way following Jesus. Amen
Alex W. Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on October 20, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.