Dear Friends of Second Church,
David Brooks had a wonderful column in yesterday’s New York Times, titled “How Covenants Make Us.”
The key observation is that there’s a difference between a contract, which is a legal concept, and a covenant, which is a theological one.
As Brooks explains: “When we go out and do a deal, we make a contract. When we are situated within something it is because we have made a covenant. A contract protects interests…but a covenant protects relationships. A covenant exists between people who understand they are a part of one another. It involves a vow to serve the relationship that is sealed by love: Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people.”
Let me finish his understated quotation there at the end, which comes from the Book of Ruth. The final line properly reads: “Your people shall be your people…and your God, my God.”
If you know the story of Ruth and Naomi, it’s easy to see why Brooks goes there. It’s a powerful example of covenant.
But even if you don’t know the story, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that, historically speaking, the Congregational churches of New England have had a rich tradition of covenant. Our tradition teaches us very clearly that a life, properly lived, is not about each person doing his or her own thing. It argues that our freedom is the freedom that comes only in and through loving. It says that, paradoxically perhaps, we can only finally become who we are called to be only by living our days with a profound sense of “the ties that bind” (to quote an old Congregationalist hymn). To this way of thinking, a proper life—in fact, the only kind of proper life—is the “bound” one, a life of close relationship to God and neighbor.
More generally, covenant reminds us that, whether it’s getting married or establishing a colony in the New World, it is relationships that are most in need of protecting. The opposite is a false, even diabolical option. If all we’re out for is to protect our interests, we are living life far too narrowly, and far below the vision that God has for us and for Creation. Covenants teach us to make commitments and to cherish them.
In a small way, our own church continues to live out this history today at every Annual Meeting, where we recite the “Salem Covenant” of 1629.
But I’m sure you’ll see that, if our only connection to covenant is a short prayer we say once a year, we are in deep trouble.
These weeks after Easter offer a particularly important time to think and pray about the covenants we’ve made, and to ask ourselves how we are protecting and nurturing our relationships. Let me be clear: we’re called to look, not our interests within those relationships, but to the relationships themselves—to how “well bound” we feel to those we love, and to the broader community of those among whom we live.
After all, it was in the days following Easter that the disciples felt the call, not only to remain together, but to grow into something bigger and new, which they called the church. They continued to follow Jesus after his death, not because they were jockeying for their own interests, but because they felt his ongoing presence, and they continued to feel bound by his call to go and make disciples of all nations. They were living out a sense of covenant to him and to each other, and this meant attending to a circle that was ever-expanding, even as the ties that bound them strained at times.
This is what it is to be the church. But it is also what it is to be a good spouse, a good parent, a good sibling, volunteer, coworker, or neighbor. We are called to care for our relationships, even as they make new claims upon us or take us into uncharted territory.
God’s promise is that, with the guidance of the Spirit, that uncharted territory will be a place where we encounter Him.
See you in church,