A sermon preached on February 21, 2021 by the Rev. Teri Daily…
A theologian reflected on marriage one day, and what he said struck me as both practical and profound. He said: “If you get to the point in a marriage where you’re calculating who gets the better end of the deal or you’re negotiating tit for tat, then you’re already in trouble.” Most people who have tried to carefully measure out benefits in a relationship can bear witness to the truth of this statement. It is hard to ensure that each person receives the same amount of emotional support, the exact same number of nights out with friends, or an equal distribution of chores based on time required, level of difficulty involved, and amount of fatigue that will result. Marriage is not a tit for tat endeavor, because marriage is not a contract with specified services and transactions. Marriage is a covenant; the well-being of one becomes inextricably linked with the well-being of the other. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks put it beautifully years ago when he spoke at a Lambeth Conference: Contracts are about transactions, covenants are about relationships.
We experience many covenantal relationships – not just marriage. Some covenants are spoken, many are unspoken. There’s the covenant between a parent and a child, between siblings, or between friends. And there’s the covenant we make with one another in the Church – our baptism into the Body of Christ linking us together in a bond that’s as indissoluble as our bond with God.
In our reading from Genesis, we hear about the first biblical covenant. Humanity, and indeed all of creation, has become violent and chaotic. The peaceful purpose for which God created the world seems like a lost dream. So a heartbroken God determines to wipe the slate clean with a flood, to start creation over. This restart, however, doesn’t erase evil and sin from the earth, and God knows this. If God wants to stay in relationship with humankind, it can’t be on the terms that we will change and become more like the creatures we were created to be, that we’ll live harmoniously with one another and with God. Any relationship between humanity and God must begin with God’s goodness, not ours.
And so it is. God is the one who changes in this story, not humanity. The covenant established is a unilateral one – “as for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you…never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Only God makes promises in this covenant. And, instead of being a sign to us of God’s faithfulness, the rainbow is really a sign to God: “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.” God takes God’s bow and hangs the weapon in the sky.
This covenantal relationship between God and humanity will become more specific in the calling of Abraham and the election of Israel as God’s people. The image of a God bound tightly to humanity persists – in fact, this covenantal faithfulness of God becomes the lens through which Israel views her relationship with God. Despite exile, foreign domination, and the dispersion of her people, Israel sees herself as belonging to God. This would become the lens of the early Church as well.
The First Letter of Peter is believed to have been written to a congregation of Gentile Christians being persecuted for their faith. During this difficult time, the author of this letter reminds the Christian congregation of their baptism and the covenantal faithfulness expressed in and through it. It is as if the author is saying, “Even in the midst of your suffering, remember you belong to God.” And in the gospel reading Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness surrounded by wild beasts and being tempted by Satan. But this occurs only after Jesus hears to whom he belongs, only after his baptism and a voice from heaven affirms: “You are my Son, the Beloved.” All of today’s readings portray a God who has bound Godself tightly to humanity. These aren’t the impersonal transactions of an impersonal God, but of a God deeply invested in the fate of humanity. As we follow Jesus to the cross this Lent, we’ll come to see just how deeply.
As our lives become busier and busier, there’s a tendency to see the observance of Lent as old-fashioned, irrelevant, or something we squeeze into our busy schedule the best we can. But the truth is that in this fast-paced, media-soaked world we need the season of Lent more than ever. I’m reminded of this passage from A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer:
There was a time when farmers on the Great Plains, at the first sign of a blizzard, would run a rope from the back door out to the barn. They all knew stories of people who had wandered off and been frozen to death, having lost sight of home in a whiteout while still in their own backyards.
Today we live in a blizzard of another sort. It swirls around us as economic injustice, ecological ruin, physical and spiritual violence, and their inevitable outcome, war. It swirls within us as fear and frenzy, greed and deceit, and indifference to the suffering of others. We all know people who have wandered off into this madness and been separated from their own souls, losing their moral bearings and even their mortal lives….
I think Lent is the time when we find our way back to that rope, or maybe when we make an intentional decision to string a rope from the back door to the barn in the first place. It’s a time to re-center, a time to re-order our lives, a time to let our lives become grounded once again in the faith that we hold dear, a time to remember who and whose we are. It’s a time to reflect on the ways we fall short of who God calls us to be.
Where do we begin this self-reflection? How do we go about it? One way is by placing our lives – our actions, our hopes, our dreams – side-by-side with scripture. You may begin by choosing a gospel. You might choose the gospel of Mark, since that is the primary one that we are reading in our lectionary this year. Or choose Matthew, Luke, or John. Each day during Lent read from the gospel and ask yourself: What are these verses saying? And how do they speak to my life?
I recognize that finding time each day to read, even for a few minutes, is difficult for some of us – especially those working long hours and arriving home exhausted, those caring for their parents or other loved ones, people with small children, or those who are ill. So as a wise person once said: Do what you can, not what you can’t. Some days you may read two verses; other days it may be twenty. Some days you may not feel moved by what you read; some days might leave you profoundly affected. Put in a sincere effort, and let God do the rest. The Holy Spirit can work through the tiniest of openings.
And so in the weeks ahead, may we recognize those places in our lives where we have wandered off into the blizzard, may we find our way back to the rope that is our spiritual center, and may we do this work through the lens of God’s faithfulness, knowing that the one to whom we belong is the one who loves us most of all.
 Parker J. Palmer. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004, 1.
 Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recommended this approach at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 2015: A Good Lent with the Archbishop of Canterbury (Short Version) – YouTube.