October 17, 2010
We’ve seen this hundreds of times in movies and on TV. The suspect is in the interrogation room and the bad cop is haranguing him about life in prison if he doesn’t ‘fess up. He’s been at it for hours and the suspect is starting to wear down. Then the good cop comes in and motions for the bad cop to leave. The good cop has a cup of hot coffee and a donut and sets it in front of the recalcitrant suspect. The cop sits down at the table with him and says that he knows that at heart he’s a decent person who wants to do the right thing. “We’re offering you a deal here.” Then the cop promises that the system will go easy on him if he just cooperates. His jail term will be reduced and eventually he’ll be able to put his life back together.
That’s exactly what Jeremiah spends 52 chapters doing…except that he plays the good cop and the bad cop. Jeremiah began to serve as God’s prophet in 627 BC when he was a young man. He was the bad cop warning Israel’s kings and people about the whirlwind they were about tp reap due to their faithless ways. He continued until shortly after the Babylonians captured Judah’s capital city of Jerusalem in 586 BC. But Judah’s defeat was not God’s last word. In the passage we read this morning, good cop Jeremiah sends a message of comfort and hope to those who went into exile. “God promises to make a new agreement, a new covenant with you in the future.”
The prophet Jeremiah is gently reminding the people of Israel what they have forgotten. They forgot to uphold their end of the covenant agreement. That covenant agreement can be summed up with the powerfully eloquent sentence, “I will be their God and they will be my people.” God remembered his part, the people forgot their part. The long arc of Hebrew history, much like the rest of history is an unbroken pattern of covenant fulfilled, covenant broken. If one traces the high and low points of Hebrew history, the high points happen when the people of God are obeying God, and the low points happen when the people of God are disobeying God.
We can define covenant as a promise that serves as the foundation for a relationship between two parties. It might be binding on one party alone, or both parties. It might have conditions, or it might be unconditional. Covenant is a synonym for testament, and it is just as correct to refer to the Old and New Testament as the Old and New Covenant.
We trace the development of covenant from Genesis 9:9-13 and the Noachic promise in which God promises to never again destroy the earth with a flood…and then offers the rainbow as a sign of the covenant. Abraham was the instrument by which God continued the covenant in a more explicit way…with the promise of land, descendents, and that Abraham would be the father of a great nation. In Exodus, through Moses God ramps up the covenant by adding this element: The Israelites will be a chosen people favored by God. Then the arc of covenant takes a broader turn in Jeremiah 31: 31-34. God stopped knocking at the door of our hardened hearts, and instead moved right in .
The relationship is based on trust, not legal contract. To understand this better we can examine the difference between the covenant of marriage in which promises are made, and the agreement represented by a mortgage. The homeowner and the bank do not trust each other sufficiently to just make oral promises…it is sealed in a legally binding contract. The vows of marriage can be upheld without a legal contract, they can also be broken without legal penalty. So it is with God and God’s people…we are held together in an agreement based on trust, not law.
The polity and structure of the UCC has as its basis covenant. It is how pastors, churches, and the wider church are all held together within the Body of Christ. In a sense covenant is the tendons, ligaments, and muscles that hold the body together. Without covenant, the body can’t go anywhere—it’s just a big floppy mess.
I serve on the Church & Ministry committee as does our member Nancy Hendricks. Basically on this committee we function as the monitors of the covenant relationships between pastors, churches, and the wider church. (Here are examples of the types of situations in which we may become involved.)
- A pastor is experiencing financial, marital, health, or family problems that diminish the pastor’s ability to lead his or her church. This may become a violation of covenant if left unaddressed.
- Certain church members are extremely critical of a pastor’s performance. That criticism is not constructive and takes the form of back biting and subterfuge. The whole church is suffering as a result. This is a violation of covenant.
- A church is unhappy with policies of the national church and is threatening to leave the denomination. This would be a violation of covenant.
- A candidate for the ministry steps forward and is shepherded through seminary and the process leading to ordination. This is a blessing and obligation of covenant.
- A pastor ordained in another denomination moves into the area and is seeking standing to serve one of our local UCC churches. The committee determines his or her ability to operate within our polity. This is a blessing and obligation of covenant.
In a sense the committee is both good cop and bad cop except that within the polity of the United Church of Christ, the local church is autonomous. We can’t require a church to do anything, and we can’t remove ordained status from a pastor. We can let them know that they are operating outside of the covenant relationship and thus jeopardizing the health of the whole body. In this denomination, we stake everything on covenant.
Here at Zion we fulfill our covenant obligations in so many ways and at a variety of levels: between God and church, pastor and people, church and community, and church and wider church. Paying our fair share of OCWM is part of covenant. Passing a fair and equitable church budget is part of covenant. Mission is part of covenant. Think about the name plate outside the kitchen and one of the bedrooms at the homeless shelter. “Sponsored by Zion UCC” is written there as testamony to a promise fulfilled. Covenant is both blessing and obligation. And it is written on our hearts because we are the temple of the living God.
The psalmist understood the power and beauty of life lived in covenant. “I understand more than the aged for I keep your precepts. I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. I do not turn away from your ordinances, for you have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.”