Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
Confirmation and Pentecost Sunday
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
We have all made a lot of promises in our lives. Some of them are easily kept. Some of them are not very significant. All of us, I’m certain of this, have broken a promise, only to realize later how genuinely significant the promise had been to the other person and our reactions were predictable. We either apologized, taking full responsibility for the wrong, or we ignored the damage done, making excuses to others and to ourselves. It’s possible, that in trying to correct the mistake, we made another promise.
If you worship with us on Sunday mornings, and you recite, with us, the words of our church’s covenant at the end of the service, you make a weekly promise. Your covenant promise partners are your fellow worshippers, and, of course, God. We do not employ covenant police. No one tracks your movements to see if you are reconciling yourselves to one another in love or if you are giving yourself freely and without reserve to the ministry of this church. The fulfillment of the covenant promise we make when we recite our church covenant is a fairly confidential, one might even say covert, experience. You can make a covenant promise week after week after week and never keep a single one of those promises and no one will know - except you, of course, and God.
Isn’t it interesting and troubling, that the easiest covenant partner to betray is God? By that I mean, suppose you make a promise to God to stop being judgmental of others, or you make a promise to God to finally forgive that person who hurt you. Who will know if you don’t meet your end of the promise? Only God, and if you can slide out from under whatever layer of guilt your childhood religious experience or parental expectations were laid upon you, well, there aren’t really any repercussions for breaking that promise, are there?
If I could identify the single most important characteristic of our congregation’s life together, it would be that we are a covenantal church, a people who live in covenant with one another and with God. In many ways, it would be easier for us to be a church dependent upon creeds and doctrines. When you move from this community, you could easily slip into another UCC church someplace and hardly miss a beat. You could just slip in and out the door, never really connecting with another human being.
It would be easier for our soon-to-be new members to have memorized some creeds – even our denomination’s statement of faith, than to struggle with figuring out what they genuinely want to promise one another and God at the beginning of their life’s faith journey. But that is true of all of us. If I asked you to write down someplace, perhaps in the margin of your bulletins, two or three basic faith statements, I don’t think you’d have a difficult time doing that, especially if I told you that your faith statements could begin with the phrase “I don’t believe…” I don’t believe Mary was a virgin when she had Jesus. I don’t believe Jesus’ physical body rose into the sky, before or after death. I don’t believe creation was created in seven 24 hour days. Good for you. So what. It’s like saying I don’t believe angels dance on the heads of pins or four leaf cloves bring you luck.
Talk to me, instead, about who you are, what you care about, your ability to accept responsibility, your kindness. Tell me, that even though it’s hard, you’re determined to be generous in all things. Admit to me that while there are lots of people in the world you don’t like, there’s not one single person in the world undeserving of love. Help me recognize that you not only know your shortcomings, your callous and hurtful words and actions, you know that the responsibility for making amends and doing better the next time, is yours and yours alone. Acknowledge that seeking God’s will for your life is fairly low on the list of things to do today, but you’re trying to move it up a line or two. Tell me what you’re going to try to do to be a disciple. Then you will have begun to make the kind of covenant our confirmands wrote:
Almighty God, you call us together to learn more about you;
To give up our time to worship in your house and determine what we believe;
You guide us to a point where our beliefs are kindled in your name;
You teach us to open your church to anyone who honestly wants and wishes to join;
You teach us to accept people not because of their origin and beliefs,
but because of who they are;
Your words describe to us how Jesus taught and healed everyone, not just his own people; and dies for everyone so that we may have a chance to continue his teachings;
With your help, we promise to follow in your ways
to donate time and focus energy to worship;
to give care and love for the less fortunate;
to try and make our world one of social justice and peace;
to continue our own journey of faith;
to spread your grace.
God cares for all life, God helps all people.
A covenant is, first and foremost, a relationship that the covenant partners promise not to sever. The rest are details. So when God promised to Noah and his descendants never again to destroy the earth, the covenant within that promise was that God and creation will never again be separated by vengeful destruction. When we say our church’s covenant at the close of every worship service, we are promising to work at the relationships that are all around us, and we are promising to do that work, beginning with our relationship with God. When our soon-to-be new members wrote their covenant, they told us that this is where they begin, on these promises to us, to one another, to themselves, and to God.
When I was talking to Rob Grabill, our confirmation teacher and Director of Religious Education, about today’s sermon, I made the observation to him that in all covenants in which God is one of the covenant partners, God is the easiest partner to betray. Yes, he said, and the first to forgive. Rob’s words have stayed in my mind all this week. They point to the essential truth about covenant promises with God. They are the easiest promises to break. There are no visible, immediate repercussions to betraying our covenant with God – except this one – God forgives us right at that very moment when we have broken our promise. Right at that second, God renews the covenant we make, and break, and make again, and break again, and make again.
We are so fortunate in this congregation, to welcome these six new covenant-makers into our community. They’re way ahead of us, in so many ways. They know what promises they are making today, the promises they intend to keep. And they, like all of us, trust that God is renewing the covenant made between us this day. Amen.