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We Covenant Together

Khleber150x150In the ancient Near East, a covenant was a promise that defined a relationship. As it has come down to us through the biblical text, such a relationship could be between a king and his subjects, or between a deity and his/her chosen people, or between two humans or groups of regular humans.

Some of those biblical covenants were conditional, i.e., if one of the parties acts in this way, then the other will act in that way. Often, though, ancient covenants were unconditional, in that the signatory to the covenant committed to a certain course of action whether the other kept their word or not.

Ancient covenants bound two entities together for as long as the covenant was in effect, which could be a really long time since biblical covenants often carried no end date. Most were understood to be in effect until the death of the parties, or maybe even forever.

There are a number of covenants both explicit and implicit in the biblical text, but just how many there are depends on whom you ask. Here are three that are widely recognized:

In Genesis 9, after killing most of humanity in a Great Flood and saving only Noah and his family, God promises never again to destroy all life on Earth.
In Genesis 12, God promises to make of Abraham a great nation and to make his name a blessing for all people on earth.

In Exodus and Deuteronomy, God promises to make the Israelites his “chosen people” if they will follow God’s commandments.

The idea of covenant did not end when the last book of the Bible was written. Many religious groups today ask members to sign a covenant that outlines their duties to God and their fellow community members. My own faith, Unitarian Universalism, speaks openly of being covenantal rather than creedal, meaning that rather than promising to all believe the same, we promise to behave in certain ways toward each other and the rest of Creation.

We have a covenant in our congregation that reads in part, “In a climate of joy, goodwill, and trust, this congregation covenants to treat one another with kindness and respect, to listen with openness and acceptance, to solve problems responsibly as we grow and change, and to encourage learning and nurture the growth of diverse human spirits.”

Many of us make promises to behave in certain ways not only religiously but also in our civic, social, and personal lives. We might repeat the civic covenant called the Pledge of Allegiance. We might enter the social covenant called marriage with another person. We might act out an unspoken personal covenant with our families to love and care for them. The idea of covenant is all around once we start looking.

None of us are perfect, however, and so there are times when it feels like our covenants with one another have been broken. If those covenants were conditional, we might simply walk away when they break. If they’re unconditional, then we are still obliged to act in the ways we promised.

In both our civic and our religious lives, we have promised things to one another. As people of conscience, we must translate our values into action, and as people of faith, we are called to stand on the side of love with the most vulnerable among us.

See you in church.

Five Smooth Stones for David

The Book of I Samuel in the Christian Old Testament (simply Samuel in the Hebrew Bible) relates the story of David and Goliath. Back about three thousand years ago, the Philistines sent a well-armed giant named Goliath to threaten the Hebrews with utter destruction. A young shepherd boy named David was the only one among the People of God that day with the courage to stand up to the menace.

In the 17th chapter of Samuel, the text says that David, foregoing any armor, took his staff and his sling and “chose five smooth stones from a stream” and placed them in his pouch. And then he strode out alone to face Goliath.
You probably remember the rest of the story. In the Bible, giants don’t usually win and so it is in this case. Goliath is vanquished by a slingshot and a victorious David lives on to become king another day.

Readers through the centuries have puzzled over those five smooth stones David chose from the stream that day. Why five? Why smooth stones? Or are we thinking too concretely? Is there a deeper metaphor here?

The 20th century theologian, James Luther Adams, loved this story. And back in his day, he knew there were still giants around to fight. He thought about David’s stones and decided there were five attributes that us moderns might use against the encroaching dangers of the contemporary world.

Adams believed that revelation is not closed but rather open and continuous, and therefore we might be saved by Hope. He believed that human relationships should always be consensual and never coerced, and therefore we might be saved by Love. He also knew that, as people of God, we bear an obligation to work toward a just and loving community. Therefore, we might be saved by Justice. Adams denied the immaculate conception of virtue and knew it was up to us to face the struggles of life; therefore, we might be saved by Courage. And as he looked at life, he saw that the resources are already available to us to achieve meaningful changes and thus we have every reason for ultimate optimism. Therefore, we might be saved by Joy.

Some people believe the stories in the Bible to be historically true and to actually have happened way back when. Others treat the Bible more as poetry than as history, and believe that the stories must be considered metaphor for the human condition rather than as newspaper reports.

For instance, one might imagine a metaphorical modern-day David, not as a poor shepherd walking out across a Palestinian field to slay a Philistine giant, but as a billionaire businessman armed with the smooth stones of political power, media savvy, and nuclear codes, striding onto a world stage to do battle against an entrenched globalist elite.

An alternative vision of today’s David might feature, instead of a boy with a slingshot, a young girl wearing a pink knit cap and carrying only a small placard with an anti-oppression slogan scrawled across it. When, as happened last weekend, this vision is replicated around the world and becomes millions of girls and women, the five smooth stones look more like Adams’ stones of Hope, Love, Justice, Courage, and Joy.

Competing metaphors, neither of which could possibly have been foreseen by the authors of the biblical text, but both front and center in our news reports today. If - as some believe is destined to happen - Jesus were to return to this earth sooner rather than later, which metaphor of the new David do you imagine he might embrace?

The Work of Christmas

December can be a huge rush of activity: parties to plan, presents to buy, multiple items to check off the to-do list each day. Lights and tinsel to hang, malls to visit, traffic on 41 or I75 to negotiate. No time to enjoy the season - just rush, rush, rush to get all the work of Christmas done before the big day arrives.

All through Advent, from Black Friday until Christmas Eve, the advertisers are out in full force, vying to capture the attention of harried shoppers who know they haven’t found the perfect gift for Aunt Bess and who are still looking for that one electronic gizmo little Jimmie asked for - the same one millions of other kids across America have asked for because of the media blitz aimed at their young, impressionable minds.

And then at the last minute, that late-night Christmas Eve trip to Walgreens to stand in the aisles with the other (male) souls who procrastinated too long to begin their shopping - I feel their pain, mostly because I’ve been one of those poor wretches.

It can be a stressful time, this month of December, with all the holidays to keep up with, like Solstice and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. But in our culture it’s the Big One that drives most of us over the edge and holds us back from enjoying any real reason for the seas
on; it’s all that work getting ready for Christmas that can ruin the day before it even arrives.

Surely there’s something else. Surely there’s another way. Surely we could shift our priorities and come to a different vision for this time of year when many religious traditions celebrate the coming of the light back into the world yet again.

Howard Thurman knew all about the American obsession with the commercial Christmas. The late author, theologian, and civil rights leader from Daytona Beach knew that the actual work of Christmas begins as the holiday itself is ending.

Rev. Thurman wrote: “
I will light Candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.”

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and a Blessed Solstice to you and all yours.