Building a Covenant

The Rev. John Lane. This sermon is based on Ezekiel 18:1-3.

 

It so happens today, October 1, is the exact 10th anniversary of my retirement. I have enjoyed the past 30 years—20 as rector here, and 10 in retirement. God bless Trinity Church and all her members. Thanks be to God for the opportunity our family had in living here, with all three of our kids going all the way through the public school system, and doing well. This morning I want to speak personally. I hope some of what I say about my own experience will stimulate you to reflect on your own—even though it may be very different, even though we may disagree on the details.

The word of the LORD came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.

Where we stay in New Hampshire, there is a pergola filled with grape vines. A friend of ours planted them some years ago pursuing a hobby as a viticulturist—make that your Word of the Day: grape grower. Every year, many of us taste the grapes as they develop a purplish-bluish glow. And every year, they taste awful, and we don’t go back for seconds. We eat sour grapes—you’d think we’d learn after a while—and our teeth are set on edge.

God and Ezekiel are conversing, as it were. It was a common idea in those days—and in ours too—that the sins of the parents are visited upon the children. Not so, God tells Ezekiel. You neither suffer nor benefit in God’s eyes because of your parents’ relationship with God or lack thereof.

Through no fault of my own, I grew up as a male White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, a WASP. Again through no fault of my own, I still am. I am not among the downtrodden of this world. As I look around the room, I see a number of men in the same tenuous condition, along with a number of female WASPs. Despite our best efforts, the Episcopal Church, though vowing to welcome everyone, is not very diverse.

I was accepted at a prestigious all-male liberal arts college, it turned out, mainly because my father was an alumnus. So much for Ezekiel. Of my 300 classmates, two were Black. Today, the same college is co-ed and quite diverse racially and in other ways.

The day I graduated in June 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was given an honorary degree. This was during the height of the Vietnam War, when many of us were trying to come to terms with how best to serve our country. Ten percent of the class walked out when McNamara stood to receive his degree, and many of the rest of us were uneasy. I had told my parents that morning I was considering walking out, and my mother threw a fit. I wasn’t sure what the right thing was, but I knew it wasn’t to upset my mother on this big family day. Two years later as the war progressed, she asked me why I hadn’t walked out. I reminded her. “I was wrong,” she said. A good lesson: it’s okay to change your mind, especially about important things.

Many of you have been watching Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War. I chose not to, repeating to myself the cliché “I’ve already seen this movie.” Now I’m ready to change my mind and pick up the reruns. As the Chinese curse goes, “May you live in interesting times.” The 60’s for me were interesting. I sensed the times they were a changin’.

But I’m here today to talk about today, not the 60’s, not the days of Ezekiel. I won’t venture how we got into the mess we have in so many areas of life, both here at home and in the wider world. My question is what can we do? What can this generation do to be more faithful to God? What can we do to be more responsible for laying a stronger foundation for the future?

An incomplete list of the issues we face includes: Robert E. Lee High School, Civil Rights for African-Americans, Hispanics, women, immigrants, gays, lesbians, and transgendered; ethnic identity, the legacy of Vietnam and the Gulf War, the NFL: Tim Tebow & Colin Kaepernick, the National Anthem, the American Flag & the Confederate Flag, to say nothing of health care, opioid abuse, the environment, disaster relief, inequality, and poverty. Imagine, even Lord Jeffrey Amherst’s genocidal tendencies have been subjected to scrutiny and criticism of late. Lee, meh. Amherst, wait a minute!

I read an article (NYT) over a week ago featuring the Head of Trinity Episcopal School in Manhattan with a letter he wrote to Trinity parents at the beginning of the school year. He mentioned Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, and his book The Home We Build Together. You may have seen the article. Sacks talks about the difference between a contract, the way most of the modern world purports to operate, and a covenant, a concept with its roots in the Hebrew Bible. I quote:

In a contract, what matters is that both gain. In a covenant, what matters is that both give. Contracts are agreements for mutual advantage. They are undertaken by individuals or groups on the basis of self-interest. They have specific purposes and can be terminated by mutual consent.

By contrast, covenants are moral commitments, and they are open-ended. They are sustained not by letter of law or by self-interest, but by loyalty, fidelity, faithfulness … Contract is about entitlement; covenant is about fulfillment.

A friend of mine in Louisiana tells a story from the last campaign in 1960 of Governor Earl Long, Huey’s brother. He was an extremely colorful character. Earl was upstate campaigning and my friend, at that time an over-the-road salesman, happened upon a rally. My friend heard the following:

Everbody runnin’ is in it for what they can git. So I am. The difference between me and them other fellas is I’m gonna git some for you too!

A contract: You elect me governor, and I’m gonna make sure you get some goodies too.

A covenant is about what you and I contribute, what we give, how we serve. An acquaintance of mine who is a Roman Catholic missioner, quotes a rabbi’s story about loving one another, with the punchline, “You say you love me, but how can you love me if you don’t know what hurts me?”

Jesus tells us to love one another, to lose life so we can gain it, to become as uncomplicated as little children, to take up our cross and follow him, to put aside self—the essence of Buddhism as well—and to find ways to serve the poor, the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned, the dying. We are to look for Christ in the faces of those most different from ourselves.

What can this generation do to be more faithful to God? What can we do to be more responsible for laying a stronger foundation for the future? By thinking in terms of covenant, not contract, by a sense of generosity rather than entitlement.

Some wag noted many years ago what separates liberals from conservatives in the Episcopal Church: the Altar Rail. I know which side I stand on, so my views are not necessarily your views. For me, I need to know the hurts and fears making people hateful towards one another. We all do. If we know what hurts them, what scares them, maybe it will mean we can really love them. In the midst of our genuine passion for our own beliefs, empathy and gentleness towards others is a way to stay grounded.

The word of the LORD came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.

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