This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.
The reading is from the Hebrew Bible, the book of Genesis, chapter 12. In this reading, instead of using the traditional term “the Lord,” I will use the more correct name “Adonai” for the God of Abraham:
“Now Adonai said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
“So Abram went, as Adonai had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then Adonai appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to Adonai, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to Adonai and invoked the name of Adonai.”
[NRSV Genesis 12.1-8]
Sermon — The Covenant of Abraham
If you come regularly to First Unitarian, or if you get the church newsletter, you will know that our church is in the process of creating a mission statement, a set of goals, and a covenant. This process began a couple of years ago with something called the “Seeker’s Task Force” — Ned Lund came up with that name based on the words I usually read just before the worship begins: “…we come together … to seek after truth and goodness…” The Seeker’s Task Force was a group of people who were charged with discerning what direction this congregation might pursue in the future. They talked with members and friends of the congregation to find out what about this church was most important to people. Then the Ministry Committee took the next step, developing a mission statement, a set of goals, and a covenant; all these are based on the final report of the Seeker’s Task Force, aw well as additional conversations with church members and friends.
On February 22, we’ll take the next step in this process. After the worship service on February 22, there will be a special congregational meeting to vote on a mission statement, set of goals, and a covenant; and while everyone is welcome to observe this meeting, it is those of you who have made the commitment to becoming full voting members of the congregation who will actually vote. This Sunday and next, there will be two further meetings after church as a final opportunity for you to talk with members of the Ministry Committee about the draft mission statement, goals, and covenant; in other words, if you have any question or concerns, you have two more Sundays to express them; and after next Sunday, the Ministry Committee will write out the final wording to be voted on at the meeting on February 22.
We all know what goals are, and we all pretty much know what a mission statement is too. But it may not be quite so clear what a covenant is, at least what a religious covenant might be. In order to clarify this concept well before the congregational meeting, I would like to speak to you this morning about covenants in our religious tradition.
1. I will start out by saying that a covenant is the center of our religious tradition. Unitarian Universalists are less concerned about what individuals believe:– we can believe in God or not; we do not require anyone to subscribe to a specific creed or dogma. Instead of being organized around specific beliefs, we are organized around our covenant, that is, we are organized around a set of promises that we make to one another. There is no requirement for us to have a written covenant. Yet in our tradition there is always a covenant at the center of our congregations, whether it happens to be an explicit written covenant, or an implicit unwritten covenant.
When I arrived here three and a half years ago, we had no written covenant for this congregation. I did discover that we had had one during the ministry of John Weiss, that is, until the 1850s. Yet while there was no written covenant, it was clear to me that this congregation had, and has, a strong implicit covenant. I wanted to find out what that covenant was, so I did a little research. Most importantly, I listened hard when members and friends of this church talked about what this church meant to them. I also read through the church bylaws, and many other documents. Based on what I had heard from you, and what I had found that had been written down, I wrote up a rough version of the unwritten, implicit covenant of this church. And I started reading my rough version of this covenant before each worship service each week just at 11 a.m. Over the past three years, you listened to what I read out loud, and you corrected my rough version of this church’s covenant. Three years later, based on what I heard from you, this is what I now read:
Here at First Unitarian, we value our differences of age, gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, and theology. We are bound together, not by some creed or dogma, but by our covenant: We come together in love to seek after truth and goodness, to find spiritual transformation in our lives; and in the spirit of love we care for one another and promote practical goodness in the world.
This is how I tried to articulate the promises that we in this congregation make to one another. Mind you, my version is pretty rough and far from perfect! Based on the Seeker’s Task Force report and further conversations with you, the Ministry Committee has developed a more refined version, which reads like this:
We come together as a religious community upholding freedom of conscience, right relationship, and the inherent worth of all people. We value our diversity, and pledge to care for one another in the spirit of love and to promote justice and kindness in the world.
You can see that this new written version is smoother and more concise. Even so, what’s written down isn’t what’s most important about a covenant. Any written covenant merely puts into writing a set of promises that already exists at the core of who we are as a congregation. A covenant describes our way of being together as a religious community. And in our tradition, the way we make ourselves into a religious community is through our covenant, that is, through a set of promises that we make. It is easier for everyone if we put our covenant into writing — it especially makes it easier for newcomers to figure out who we are — but really what’s important about any covenant is the way we live it out in real life.
I think I can make this clearer to you if I tell you where our idea of covenant comes from.
2. Now the idea of covenant is at the center of three major world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three of these religions trace themselves back to the figure of Abraham in the Hebrew Bible. Abraham, says the Hebrew Bible, made a covenant with the god named YHWH, or Adonai. So let me tell you the story of Abraham and his covenant with Adonai.
The story as it is told in the book of Genesis begins in most ancient times. There’s that flood, where Noah built the ark; somewhere in there there’s the Tower of Babel; anyway, one of Noah’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandsons was a man named Abram. (If I counted right, that’s ten generations from Noah to Abram; it would be as if Noah was the first European settler here in New Bedford, and Abram was one of his descendants living today.)
As the story opens, Abram is living in a place called Haran with his wife Sarai, and his father Terah. Terah dies, and Abram decides to move into the land of Canaan — he and his family are semi-nomadic, they lived in tents and moved around a lot. But how does Abram decide that it’s time to move into Canaan? Adonai — this is the same god named Adonai who told Noah to build the ark because there was a flood coming — Adonai appears to Abram, and tells him: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In other words, Adonai promises certain things to Abram — blessings, greatness, and so on — if Abram will promise in return to do what Adonai says, beginning with going into the land of Canaan. This is the beginning of Adonai’s covenant, or set of promises, with Abram.
Abram tells everyone to pack up, and they all move into Canaan. When they get there, Adonai appears to Abram and says again, I’m giving this land to you and your descendants. So Abram builds a temple to Adonai, which probably was a platform made out of stones, an altar to offer up burnt offerings.
Then there was a famine in the land, and so Abram had to go to Egypt, and he underwent all kinds of adventures there, but Adonai looked out for him the whole time. And Adonai kept promising Abram that the land of Canaan was going to belong to him and to his descendants. Problem was, Abram had no descendants; he and Sarai were in their nineties, and they didn’t have any children. But Adonai tells Abram not to worry, and promises yet again that all this land will belong to him and to his descendants. And Adonai makes more promises — he adds to the covenant with Abram — as follows: Abram has to change his name to Abraham, and his wife’s name to Sarah; Abraham has to make sure every man in his tribe is circumcised; Abraham has to promise that he and all his kinfolk and all his descendants will keep Adonai as their god, and obey Adonai. In return, Adonai promises that Abraham and Sarah will have a son; they will have lots of descendants, who will make great nations; some of his descendants will be kings; he and his descendants will own the land of Canaan in perpetuity.
To which Abraham responds: “Whaddya mean, Sarah and I are gonna have a son? I’m ninety-nine years old, for Pete’s sake, and Sarah is ninety. How are we gonna have a child?” But Adonai says, Trust me. So Abraham trusts him, goes back, and makes all his male kinfolk and all his male slaves get circumcised. Then Adonai, being all-powerful, makes sure that Sarah gets pregnant. Abraham and Sarah are overjoyed when they have a baby boy, whom they name Isaac.
Then Adonai tests Abraham. Adonai appears to Abraham, and tells him: OK, you have to sacrifice Isaac to me. Sacrifice, as in kill your son, and offer him up as a burnt offering on that altar you made for me. Sacrifice, as in murder your son because Adonai tells you to do so.
(At this point in the story, I can’t resist interjecting a little parenthetical comment: I am glad that the children are up in the Sunday school, and not with us right now to hear this story. I really don’t want to tell one of our children about God telling someone to kill his child; it sends the wrong message to our children. We really want to be careful about the Bible stories we tell to our kids. Now back to the story:)
So Abraham says, Yes, Adonai, whatever you say, and he takes Isaac out to the stone altar, lays Isaac down under a big pile of firewood, and gets ready to kill him and burn his body. At the very last minute, Adonai stops Abraham from killing Isaac, and makes a sheep appear magically, so Abraham kills the sheep and turns it into a burnt offering instead of his son.
If you’re like me, your first reaction will be: What a gruesome story! — how could Adonai test a father in this way? And how could a father actually consent to sacrifice one of his children? And based on that reaction, we might conclude: The whole reason Abraham is willing to kill his own son is because of his covenant with Adonai; because of the promises he has made to his god Adonai. This does not make covenants seem particularly attractive.
But before we jump to conclusions, let’s stop for a moment and do a more considered analysis of the story. If we put aside traditional Christian and Jewish notions of God for just a moment, we realize the story is not quite as simple as we might have though. First of all, it is clear from the Hebrew Bible that Adonai had competition, that there were other gods and goddesses out there. Abraham didn’t have to choose Adonai; he could have chosen another god, or no god at all. Abraham chose Adonai freely, and furthermore it seems to me that Abraham went into the covenant with his eyes wide open; he knew that the benefits Adonai offered would come at a high price.
And if we pause to give this story even more careful consideration, we would have to ask ourselves why we are taking this story so literally. Is this story any worse than the fairy tales we read to children? Think about the story of Hansel and Gretel, where the witch eats children, which is just as gruesome; think about all those fairy tales where parents kill their children. Yet we don’t take the story of Hansel and Gretel literally; we treat it as a myth, a story which contains psychological truth, but which is not literally true. We can treat story of Abraham and Isaac in the same way.
Considered as a myth containing psychological truth, the story of Abraham and Isaac can tell us something important about covenants. You will recall that a covenant is a set of promises where you promise something, and get something in return. Take the implicit unwritten covenant of our congregation as it exists right now: in our implicit covenant with one another, we promise to come together in love; we promise to seek truth and goodness; we promise to transform ourselves spiritually; we promise to care for one another; and we promise to go out and make the world a better place. We promise those things, and in return we get to be part of a community based on love; we get companions to accompany us on the often unpleasant journey towards truth and goodness; we get other people caring for us; and we get help as we try to change the world into a better place.
When I look at our own unwritten covenant, the first thing that I notice is that these promises are hard to keep. Come together in love? — in every church I’ve been a part of, that has been a promise that has been broken as much as it has been observed: people behave as badly in church as they do out of church! Companions on the journey to truth and goodness? — that means people telling me when I’m being stupid and avoiding the truth, and letting me know when I have done something wrong; it hurts when people let me know that I’m stupid or wrong. Care for one another? — it’s hard to actually care for one another, especially here in New England where often people don’t want to be cared for, and where the general culture is to keep people at arm’s length and neither ask for nor receive help. Change the world into a better place? — that’s hard work, we often disagree on how to accomplish that, and besides it takes time away from doing fun things like watching TV.
These promises we make to one another are idealistic, and difficult to keep. Sometimes I think it would be easier to just swallow the creeds they want you to believe in a fundamentalist church — it might be easier than actually having to live out the promises we make to other people, the promises we make to something greater than our selves.
So we come back to the story where Adonai told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. It is a psychologically impossible act, yet somehow Abraham brought himself to do it — or at least, he started to do it, until Adonai said, Stop! you don’t really have to kill Isaac. Similarly, we make impossible promises to one another as part of our covenant; the promises we make to each other don’t involve any actually killing of our firstborn children. Yet the promises we make to each other are demanding in their own way because we know that some god isn’t going to come along at the last moment and say, “Just fooling! you don’t really have to treat each other with love, or go off together on a search for truth, or care for others (and be cared for!), or make the world a better place.” We know that we will have to follow through on our own promises.
This is why I find the story of Abraham and Isaac so powerful: because it tells me a psychological truth. The story reminds me that it is hard to keep promises; the story reminds me that it is hard to be a part of a caring religious community. We know that even though we make promises to one another, they are promises that are hard to keep; and because we are imperfect human beings, we will occasionally break our promises to one another. And yet, the story tells us another psychological truth: that even though at times it will seem impossible for us to keep our promises to one another, we can find a way to do it; and we can find a way that won’t involve killing anyone.
3. At this point you may well ask: Why not just forget about these old fairy tales? Why not just do away with covenants, and even religion, altogether?
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A person will worship something — have no doubt about that.” When you find out what someone worships, then you will have a measure of that person. In our society, there are lots of things to worship: People worship money and consumer goods (probably most of us do, to a greater or lesser extent); and if someone worships consumer goods, you have the true measure of that person, who worships something impermanent that will wear out as soon as the warranty ends. People worship sports and pop musicians and celebrities; and there you have the true measure of those people, because they worship figures of fantasy who will fade away when they are no longer pretty, or musical, or able to play sports well.
The point of our covenant is that we are worshipping something greater, more permanent, and much more significant. When we establish a covenant, we are saying that we shall worship that which is greater than our selves, which some of us call God and some of us prefer to call the highest and best in humanity. When we establish a covenant, we are saying that our worship is not done on bended knee and with a great show of ritual, but rather it is done is our daily lives, in the way we live out our promises. When we establish a covenant amongst ourselves, we are saying that we want to establish goodness and truth that our children will carry on after us, goodness and truth that will last for generations.
In this way, our covenant lies at the center of our religious community. We can ignore each other’s religious beliefs. But people certainly notice what I do with my life, how I live out my values. The point of a covenant is to establish a community that helps me live out my values; a community that supports me when I am weak or suffering or when I don’t have the strength to live out my values. A covenant provides a community in which I can (and will) transform myself, so that I can in turn go out and transform the world into a better place.
All this goes back to that old, old story about the covenant that Abraham made with Adonai. At first, it seems like a crazy story. But when you think about it, you realize it’s telling us something important: it’s telling us that if we want to live out our highest values in the world, it will not be easy to do so, and we know we won’t be able to do it alone.