Sermon: “Re-Covenanting” (Mark 8:27-38)

Welcome Mat

Our denomination, the United Church of Christ, makes a lot of room for questions in the life of faith.

Don’t get me wrong: it makes a lot of room for the answers, too.

But for us, in the United Church of Christ, so much of what it is to be faithful seems to flow from the “question” side of the equation.

We’ve always seen something very important in our willingness to question…to wonder…to explore…to seek ways of understanding that aren’t simply received wisdom, however compelling it might be.

For us, the challenge is to understand the truth as God has placed it on each of our hearts—and to build a community around that searching, and then on the living out of that truth in the deepest ways we can.

It’s a wonderful way to be a Christian, but it puts a lot of responsibility back on each of us to be serious: to be serious about asking the big questions, and serious about living out the implications of the truth as God chooses to reveal it to us.

It reminds us that we have to be serious about loving each other and working together if anything like the Kingdom of God is to take root in our world.

In practical terms, that has meant that our denomination has been at the forefront of a lot of the great social movements of American history—Independence from Great Britain, Abolition, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights, Marriage Equality.

Because, of course, those are movements that emerged from a willingness to question…a willingness to embrace a deeper vision of human flourishing, and a call to undertake the hard work of making the world a more welcoming place.

But of course, it isn’t always quite so sublime.

So I was not particularly surprised this week to see on some of the UCC’s online forums that there was a roiling debate about what we ought to call this weekend.

“We used to call it ‘Homecoming Weekend’” said one of my colleagues out west. “But then we felt like that would be awkward for newcomers. What if it’s not your home? Should you come?”

There was a lot of back and forth on that.

“We call it ‘Parish Feast Day,’” said someone else. “Some people find that a little Catholic…” she admitted.

Nobody much liked calling it “Rally Day,” anymore. That used to be a pretty standard term. One person said: “Unless I’m bringing Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump to church, I don’t think people would get it.”

And someone else added, “To me, ‘Rally Day’ says checkered flags and race cars, not church.”

This went on all day yesterday at great length. But you get the idea.

Until finally, somebody said that in their church, they’d started calling it “Re-Covenanting Sunday.”

And my thought was that, well, it’s probably tricky to get that printed on the balloons, but the spirit of that is really quite important.

Because if you read much of our history, you’ll see very quickly that we talk a lot about covenants in our tradition, and the Bible talks a lot about covenants.

We say one whenever we receive new members—and at our Annual Meeting: we say the Salem Covenant of 1629, with its wonderful language of binding ourselves “in the presence of God to walk together in his ways”….

From Scripture, the most famous example is probably in the Book of Exodus, at the receiving of the Ten Commandments —this sense of a permanent, binding kind of obligation that unites God with God’s people.

There are other moments of covenant in the Bible, too.

Covenant is how we understand our responsibility to God, and also to one another.

In those moments when we are so full of questions, or when challenges come up that nobody ever imagined possible, it’s the covenants that we are supposed to refer back to, and to use so that we can get our bearings…and remember who God is, and who it is that God has called us to be.

The Bible has a lot of laws, too, of course—613 in the Old Testament alone, according to Jewish tradition.

But covenants are different than laws because they don’t simply speak to the micro-expectations of “…if this, then that…”

Covenants speak more broadly than that. And they speak to the idea of relationship with God. When God speaks in the context of covenant, God says, “Well, you may do this or you may do that…but if what you want is to honor your relationship with me, well, then these are the terms.”

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that our tradition understands marriage and baptism as ceremonies of covenant.

They are moments when we promise things to God and to one another…and not just into the air, or out of a sense of vague hope for the future.

They are promises we make within the context of relationship. A promise to hang in there with one another and with God, under the umbrella of certain terms and conditions.

So I sort of like the idea of “Re-covenanting Sunday,” even though it is a bit of a mouthful to say.

Because I think it’s important for us to do something more than simply re-convene in this beautiful place we love so well.

We’re invited to re-commit to one another and to God, and to think about this whole notion of living within the context of relationships: most immediately, our relationships with each other here, and with our neighbors, and with the world.

Not too long ago, I heard of a church that doesn’t publish its membership directory until a couple of weeks after Homecoming Sunday, because it sees membership as more of a year-to-year thing…as something that needs to be particularly reaffirmed, and not just some sort of general thing you do once and forget about.

Now, clearly, they don’t have as many snowbirds as we do. But I get it.

A marriage wouldn’t be much of a marriage if it were just a short series of promises we made at some point and then promptly forgot all about. And the same goes for a baptism.

These are lovely in their way, but are only the beginning.

And so is our life together as God’s church, gathered in this place.

Our great promise and our great challenge is to understand what it means that we are here now…today…in this moment…and here among these other folks, in the grand pursuit of seeking ways to be faithful to our promises.

According to Mark’s Gospel, it was on the road to the villages of Caesarea Philippi that Jesus asked his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?”

And it’s then that Peter says, “You are the Messiah.”

It’s a wonderful moment, but, of course, it’s not the end of the story at all—far from it.

Because what it means that he’s the Messiah—what it means for him, and what it means for each of those who followed him—that isn’t something that is obvious at all right then, even in the wake of Peter’s crucial moment of recognition.

Jesus points to that. He doesn’t deny the recognition, but he seems to say that following him involves a lot more than just that one moment of insight.

Mark says, “Jesus called the crowd with his disciples and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

“For 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.”

“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’” (Mark 8:34-36).

Jesus is saying that it isn’t enough just to know the truth of who he is—it doesn’t stop there.

He’s saying that to be his disciple is to follow him in a much fuller, much more challenging way.

It is to risk true relationship with him, and to be committed to the work he lays before us.

It is to follow the road wherever it might lead, even as it leads us into places we would never have expected.

Of course, each of sees that work a little differently.

Each of us understands what needs to be done, and the skills we might offer, in particular ways.

Each of us brings our own questions to the work.

That’s a good thing.

Jesus asked a lot of questions, too.

I’ve mentioned before that a UCC colleague of mine wrote a book last year, called “Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the Three He Answered.”

It’s a very UCC kind of book.

But it reminds us that being the Church is never about simply reciting the answers of the past.

Being the Church is about asking new questions, and about finding fresh wisdom, and sources of new life for ourselves and for all the world.

We find that not only in the great traditions of our faith, but in our deep knowledge that the Holy Spirit blows through God’s people, making all things new.

Being the Church is about re-covenanting ourselves to another season of asking those questions and seeking God’s answers in a new day.

And so, welcome home, Church.

Let’s get to work.    Amen.

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