Saturday, February 23, 2013

“Continually Becoming a Covenant People” (Sermon from Feb. 24)

This is my sermon from February 24th.  I'm sharing it a day early because we don't yet have a lot (any?) other members of the congregation actively online on this site and Facebook.  If you're coming tomorrow, this is a spoiler alert: don't keep reading if you want to be surprised!

Sisters and brothers of the downtown Toronto congregation, I come before you this morning as a herald of good news. This is news that I've wanted to bring for quite a long time. A long time whose duration has stretched from months to years and more again. Most recently, on three successive occasions, our date was pushed back due to snow. But last Wednesday, February 20, Mike and I finally crossed the border with our moving truck filled with objects meticulously itemized for Immigration Canada, and officially “landed,” becoming legal Canadian residents.

In some ways, our movement from the States to Canada has paralleled our congregation's movement from this historic building to a new location. It's loomed ahead of us for many years — overlapping years — the very first time we attended this congregation a little over four years ago, there happened to be a meeting after the worship service about whether or not the building should be sold to a developer. Feelings at that meeting were running deep and strong. In part, these were connected to memory and past disagreement over previous congregational amalgamation in the GTA — something that, at the time, I had no awareness of and even now only share second-hand. But my ignorance of the specifics met my passion head on — and passion won out. I'd really enjoyed my first service here, encountering all of you, and I was worried it would be lost before I could become a part of it. I remember — that first meeting — speaking up and saying that, as a denomination, Community of Christ can't be continually closing churches; rather, we need to be continually refilling empty pews.

That was my introduction to all of you. Experience has helped cure my ignorance and in the intervening years, I've come to see how burdensome a wrong-sized building can be to our community, as we sacrifice all our efforts and inheritance into simply maintaining and heating it. As, I believe, most all of you, I've come to look upon the move as an opportunity and a potential blessing.

And yet, this future — while ever more inevitable — has remained filled with uncertainties. For years the exact date of my move was completely uncertain and out of my hands. We had all our paperwork filled out and submitted. We had gone and done everything from getting new copies of birth certificates and college diplomas to getting fingerprinted for our FBI background checks. We had the immigration points and knew our applications would be approved, and yet for nearly two years we had no way of knowing when they would be approved. The approval could come at any time “like a thief in the night.” (And even after the first approval came, and we were asked to provide health records and have final medical checks and new fingerprinting and new FBI background checks, we put back into another period of waiting for a final approval that might come at any time).

The congregation has found itself in remarkably similar circumstances since approving the developer's offer to purchase the building. We have a future idea that we will be leaving this building, but we don't know when precisely. We only know that at sometime in a future, on a date outside of our control, the developer will be ready to take possession of the building and will give us 90 days notice to vacate. Meanwhile, while we're trying to plan for the future, we're obliged to live in the present. And in the present we do have this building along with its many expenses — and simultaneously we lack the principal from the sale of this building, which has prevented us from finding and making a new home for ourselves.

As I had been with my immigration status, so have we all been — as a congregation  — in limbo. We have a vision or an idea of where we're going, we aren't sure when we will get there. Nor is the “when” entirely in our hands.

Although this has, perhaps, seemed like a lengthy digression, I think our story is connected with our theme this Sunday and our scripture reading. Our theme is “Become a Covenant People” and our reading is taken from chapter 15 of Genesis.

In this story we read that:
...the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”

But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.”

[The Lord] brought [Abram] outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them... So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then [the Lord] said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.”

But [Abram] said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

[The Lord] said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” [Abram] brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other...

[And] as the sun was going down, a slumber had come over Abram, and a deep, dark terror descended upon him... and there was darkness [and] a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the parted bodies [of the offering]. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land from the [border] of Egypt to... the river Euphrates.”

The Lord made a Covenant with Abram whose name was changed to Abraham. This particular text comes from one of the oldest parts of the Bible. The author's writings are interspersed through Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus, and they have a distinct language, voice, and narrative agenda. However, the name of the ancient prophet who composed the text is long lost. Scholars have labeled this author the “J-source” because of the way he (or she) consistently uses the name Jehovah (or Yahweh) to refer to God. In our reading this was rendered “the Lord.” I say “he or she” because the case can be — and has been — made that J-source was a woman. We'll almost certainly never know either way, but the J-source's interest in women and the many, many female characters — Eve, Sarah and Hagar, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah, Tamar to name just a few — may indicate the ancient prophet who wrote their stories was a woman, perhaps a noble woman in the Davidic court in the Kingdom of Judea in the 7th century BC.

Male or female, covenant is at the core of this, the earliest Biblical author's text. The central theme of the J-Source is the belief that the Lord has made a covenant with the House of David and the Kingdom of Judea. And in writing scripture, this prophet has told or retold and interconnected stories of covenants the Lord made with humanity throughout time: the covenant with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, and ultimately with David.

In our reading, the Lord gives Abram a vision of his posterity, as numberless as the stars. Abram and his wife Sarai have no children of their own and are already advanced in age beyond childbearing years. Later on, when she first hears the idea, Sarai laughs aloud. However, when he first is shown the vision of his posterity as numberless as the stars, we are told that Abram “believed the Lord.”

Abram had a vision of would be — if he covenanted with the Lord. The vision led him forward, even though he did not know when or even how that vision would ever be accomplished.

Like Abram, we are called to enter into covenants with the Lord and “Become a Covenant People.” But, unlike the ancient prophet who authored the J-text of the Bible, we aren't fixated on the “promised land” of the Kingdom of Judea and its borders nor on the geometric expansion of our own posterity.

As a denomination, we have felt the call to covenant with God to become a “Community of Christ.” This is not mere rhetoric. Our new Mission Initiatives call upon us to make our mission real:

• By Inviting people to Christ
• By Abolishing poverty and ending suffering
• By Pursuing Peace on Earth
• By Developing Disciples to Serve
• and By Experiencing Mission in our own congregation

These are enormous tasks — as seemingly impossible as the vision given to Abram. But we can achieve them by keeping the vision before us and remembering we are not called to do everything, but everyone is called to do something.

As a congregation, we have likewise sought to discern a vision of what will be. In our “What Matters Most” workshops, in our conversations, and in our own prayers, we sought to listen to the call of the Lord. We have felt called to maintain a dowtown presence and we long for the congregation to live on and be renewed. But believe that vision, but like Abram and Sarai before the birth of Isaac — and like Mike and myself before our landing — we are uncertain about When and, indeed, How it shall be.

As I said when I began, I come before you as a herald of good news. In our immigration process, we crossed a finish line. Last year at this time, the line was just a distant vision for me. Today, I'm speaking to you from the other side of the finish line.

But now that I'm here on the other side, I see it much more clearly. But I also see that it's not a “finish line” at all. It was simply a threshold — an important threshold, surely, but a threshold nonetheless. There were many steps that preceded the threshold, and I now see that there are many steps in the path that lies beyond. There are small steps like unpacking, getting our social insurance numbers, and there are bigger steps like going back, liquidating everything we left behind in the house in Michigan, renting it out, selling it, returning here and figuring out every new thing like how to file tax forms in Canada, to a future threshold a few years in the future of dual-citizenship. We didn't just become Canadian last Wednesday. We crossed an important threshold in a much longer process of becoming Canadian.

When our church had its origins nearly two centuries ago, the men and women who came together to become the “Church of Christ” hoped to “Restore” the primitive Christian church as it had existed at the time of Jesus and the apostles. But we have come to learn that the process of the Restoration is not something that is ever complete. The Restoration is renewed by the act of continually “restoring” the primitive church in our own lives as we walk forward.

Likewise, we did not simple become — past tense — Community of Christ when we changed the name of our church in 2001. We “become” Community of Christ by continually “becoming” a Community of Christ in an ongoing sense.

In our own congregation, we have before us a vision — perhaps many visions — of our future community after we leave behind this historic, sacred space. But although the line before us is daunting and of crucial import, it is not a finish line. It is a threshold we cross, as we envision and continually re-envision our community in response to the call of the Lord.

And so, I would like to suggest that a Covenant People is not something we can simply become and be done with in the past tense. Rather a Covenant People is something we must be perpetually becoming.

1 comment:

  1. I think both "covenant" and "community" are at the core of the gospel. This sermon links the two together very effectively.