No Turning Back
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018
Second Sunday in Lent/B • February 25, 2018
Click below to hear the sermon preached
Chopped is one of my favorite television shows. It works like this: four cooks are given a basket of various ingredients and compete to make a dish out of them. The problem is that the ingredients are sometimes strange: liverwurst and jelly beans have appeared in baskets along with things I’ve never heard about before.
I wonder if God feels like that sometimes: making something out of ingredients that don’t always work together. Think about the stories of Genesis. God makes a person, notes that the person is lonely and makes a partner. But faced with a choice about their own desires and God’s command, they choose themselves. So they lose their special place in God’s garden; God stitches them up some winter clothes and send them out. Pretty soon things degenerate into violence when one of their sons kills the other. The violence spreads until God has to start over.
There is the flood; God chooses Noah and his family, as we read last week, and makes a covenant with creation, a promise, to sustain it forever. But human beings soon go their own way again; pretty soon we read about people trying to be god-like again and God scatters them. So God starts over, not with a flood but with a family: Abram and Sarai. This is the story of how God started saving us; this is the story of God starting over with a covenant.
What is a covenant? It started as a mutual promise. One guy was bigger and tougher than another but at the same time big tough guys can’t constantly look over their shoulder. So as cities and kingdoms developed, agreements began to be made. All kingdoms, after all, are a kind of protection racket. Covenants began as promises between stronger and weaker kings where the weaker one promised to faithfully serve the stronger and the stronger promised to protect the weaker one.
Now, Torah imagines God doing something similar. Look, the story says—imagine the unimaginable powerful God starting over again, but this time with a particular family, this time not with mythic strides and swirling water, but with history itself. God reaches into history and chooses a particular person, a particular family a particular people. You: Abram! Sarai—you and your family, because no one then or now is alone—I choose you, and here’s the choice: I make a covenant with you.
What does it feel like to be chosen? It’s a mix, isn’t it? I’ve mentioned before I think what a bad baseball player I was growing up when the New York Yankees shone like the heavenly court over the lives of little boys in New Jersey. Still, I did get chosen, usually last. And I remember walking out to the inevitable outfield position worrying, hoping I wouldn’t mess up again.
Later on, as a minister, I’ve gone through the process several times of having a church choose me. That, after all, is how I came to be here, this morning: you chose me to be the pastor of this church. For better or worse, you said, “Come here and preach, come here and care for us, come here and lead our church.” And we covenanted together, pastor and people, church and minister.
Look at the covenant God makes with Abram and Sarai.
You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.
I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. [Genesis 17:5-7]
It’s all about the future. Here is the problem of human life: what’s coming next? What’s tomorrow and the day after and the week and month and year after that? Covenants are a way to look into the future and tame it. Here is God saying, “This is your future: you’re going to have descendants and they’re going to be communities, nations; you’re going to have a future that will include kings.” And most important of all, I’m going to be your God and their God forever.
Let that word just echo in you for a moment: forever. It’s scary, isn’t it? I think there is some moment in the lives of most of us when it dawns on us that we have some time but we don’t have forever. Maybe it’s when you read about the guy from high school you didn’t know too well but was always in your homeroom who suddenly died. Maybe it’s when you start paying attention to all the ads about aging. Maybe it’s something physical or spiritual or emotional. I call it the obituary moment. When we’re young, none of us read the obituaries; when we are seniors, we all read them, sometimes first.
Forever: it’s the question mark that hangs over us and we have lots of ways of dealing with it. I suppose the most common is to pile up a lot of stuff, whether we call it money or property or something else. Our church building is full of memorials: most of the pews have brass plaques and they are scattered all over. We name rooms: Palmer Hall, Hampton Lounge. But honestly? I suspect most of this is useless. We move on. Most of the newer members in this church have no idea who Ray Palmer was.
But here’s God offering another answer: forever is assured because of this covenant, not because of anything any of these people can do or will do. In fact, Abram and Sarai are not particularly exemplary people; Abram’s already had some shady dealings with the Pharaoh in Egypt and there’s the whole business of Hagar and his son Ishmael. But the covenant doesn’t depend on Abram; it depends on God. And God’s covenant is so overwhelming, so important that it changes anything, even his name, even Sarai’s name. From now on, they will be Abraham and Sarah.
Simone Weil, a writer who began life as a Jew and converted to Christianity, said,
If there is a God, it not an insignificant fact, but something that requires radical rethinking of every little thing. Your knowledge of God can’t be considered as one fact among many. You have to bring all the other facts into line with the fact of God.
Now I want you to notice another thing about this covenant: there are no particular guarantees. God doesn’t say, “I’m going to make you rich, or help the arthritis in your hands, or prevent you from being hurt or humbled.” God simply says: I”m always going to be your God—forever.
This covenant, this guarantee of the future, is behind Jesus’ life. Just before the section we read today, he explains to his disciples for the first time what it means to be the Christ: not the acclaim and world power of a prince but the cross of a man suffering as an outcast. Now he invites his followers to the same life: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is the new covenant he offers, and he offers it in the most profound way possible, with his very life itself. Later he will say, “This is the new covenant in my blood.” He walks a way that sheds everything, even the claim of connection to God—on the cross, he will cry out, feeling forsaken even by God. But God is faithful to the covenant and raises him on Easter.
This is what Jesus is trying to tell people. “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Years after Jesus’ earthly ministry, the church is looking back and imagining him saying this, years later when people have turned back, when people have turned away, when people have refused to listen. But the answer he offers to the ultimate problem of life itself and its limitation is still there Our lives are meant to be lived with God at the center, God’s covenant firmly in mind, faith in God’s presence and providence as constant as our breath.
The covenant God makes with Abraham and Sarah changes their lives. It sets them in motion. Whether in the right direction or wrong, whether doing the right thing or wrong, they are never the same. There is no turning back for them. To walk in the rainbow path of covenant is the same for us: there is no turning back, there is no reason to fear the future. We can’t assure the future with our stuff, we can’t assure the future with our accomplishments, we can’t assure the future with our fame. Only God’s everlasting covenant can assure future and we can only walk in that assurance when it becomes the guiding faith of our lives.
Martin Luther King, Jr., grew up as a young prince of the church in Atlanta. His father was a renowned preacher, seldom remembered today. He went to seminary in Pennsylvania and got his doctorate at the Boston University School of Theology. Almost by accident, he became a leader in the Civil Rights Movement but that movement became not only the greatest moral lens of the last century but his own legacy. Today we often forget that the movement and the man had their ups and downs. In April 1968, King was in Memphis, Tennesee, leading a struggle for justice for sanitation workers. He said at the conclusion of his speech one night,
…we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end…I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.
The next day he was murdered. And yet who wouldn’t say that his life has gone on, who does justice today and doesn’t feel his spirit? He knew who controlled his future: his faith was in that God who is everlasting. So for him, there was no turning back.
This is the call of Christ: knowing God as the ultimate foundation of our future, no turning back. Knowing God as the ultimate light of love, no turning back. Knowing God as the ultimate faithful one, no turning back. Covenanted in Christ, forward in faith, no turning back.