So in many ways the project of Reservoir Church – or at least the preaching of Reservoir – is to communicate profound spiritual perspective and truth and stories in practical language that’s at home in our culture. We used to have a little marketing tagline – Practical. Spiritual. Fun. And we used to belong to a group of churches in this country that liked to use the phrase “naturally supernatural.” Connected to the divine, experiencing God and transcendence and the mystical and all that without being freakishly out of this world or something. This church makes a promise to our members and our community to be resolutely Jesus-centered and spiritually vibrant in ways that are really accessible to our not very churchgoing, not very religious city. And this means a lot of things, including not using super-preachy, old school religious language in our teaching. Even for those of us like me that have been churchgoers now for decades, this has been fresh and helpful. And we plan on keeping up with this habit.
The thing is, though, to be spiritual, to try to connect more and more with an unseen God is these days a little weird. And to talk about that experience sometimes requires ideas and words we don’t use a lot anymore. The journalist Jonathan Merritt published a book about this a couple of years ago. It’s called Learning to Speak God from Scratch. It’s about how a lot of religious language in the Christian tradition has become out of date or even kind of toxic. So a word like “gospel” is kind of unknown culturally and other words like “sin” are laden with a lot of distracting and frankly off-putting associations. And Merritt wonders, like I do, what words need keeping and what ideas can find expression in new words. Another author I like, sadly dead now, tried this out a bit. His name was Frederick Beuchner, and in the 70s, he wrote a book where he muses on important, old words to do with God and the spiritual life. He wrote: “All the great religious words point to ways in which we variously experience the Holy – such as faith and grace – or hold it at arms’ length – such as sin. These words … have grown musty and shopworn over the centuries, but the experiences to which they point are as basic to the human condition as they ever were.”
I like that. And in that spirit, I want today to end our Christmas season talking about an experience that is basic to the human condition – how we find and remain in a sense of God in the world, a sense of God with us. And to help us out today, I’m going to do that by talking about two very religious words in our tradition that we don’t use a lot these days. Those words being “covenant” and “sacrament.”
Next week we’ll go back to normal, using our everyday language to get at deep and important things. I’ll start a winter series where we’ll look at six of the not so great stories we use to organize our lives and world and thinking and with each, ask how Jesus’ story of reconciliation and liberation can be really good news. But today, we’ll look at these two old-school religious words that I think are worth saving.
We’ll be in the beginning and end of the New Testament’s first book, the good news of Jesus according to Matthew. And these two words – covenant and sacrament – help us understand some of what’s going on in this little book, and some of how it can help us connect with and experience a living God.
Matthew starts with a family history, a genealogy. Which is pretty boring for most of us, except when it isn’t, like here. It starts:
Matthew 1:1, 5-6 (CEB)
1A record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham:
And then in the middle of the list, there’s this really important and surprising bit:
5 Salmon was the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab.
Boaz was the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth.
Obed was the father of Jesse.
6 Jesse was the father of David the king.
David was the father of Solomon,
whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.
So Matthew is positioning Jesus as the peak of ancient Judaism, the culmination of that culture and that faith’s story to that point in time. There was Abraham and then David and then Jesus. And just as he’s getting to the really important part in the family history – the part around the great king David – these three women are mentioned: Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (here not mentioned by name but called the ex-wife of Uriah.) Lots that’s interesting here. All three of these women are to some degree associated with questionable sexual behavior – by them, or more likely, by men with them. And in a culture that associated questionable sexual history – particularly women’s questionable sexual history – with shame or disgrace, Matthew centering these women is really radical stuff. No matter what your parents say, no matter what your culture says, there is nothing in any of your lives, or in any of your pasts, that disqualifies you from a big and beautiful part in God’s story.
But it’s not just that. More to our point today, in the middle of this very male, very Jewish family history, these three women aren’t just men, they also aren’t Jewish. They’re all outsiders.
It’s like Matthew is committed to telling this family history, but he can’t help but start hinting from the very beginning that the story is bigger than this family. To use one of our big words of the day, Jesus is the center of a particular covenant, which I’ll define more in a minute, but at the same time, there’s also a bigger covenant going on.
This continues in the next chapter when we meet the Magi, who we usually call the three wise men, even though in Matthew, they’re not called wise or men, and there may have been more than three. Whatever.
In the traditional church calendar, this Sunday is called Epiphany – the revelation of God in Christ to the Gentiles. In many Latino cultures, it’s Three Kings Day. And we’re encouraged to remember the story of these Magi, these Persian astrologers who visit the baby or toddler Jesus and bring gifts. One little excerpt from that bit:
Matthew 2:1-2,10-11 (CEB)
2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Same thing going on here. It’s a story about the king of the Jews. And yet these non-Jews are here to celebrate and worship. The Magi aren’t just outsiders to this story, you could argue they represent enemies. Then and in our context, now. They’re Persian – that’s modern day Iran and the border areas of Iraq and Iran. This is a region which for decades in American politics and it looks like now for decades more to come has been defined by our hostility to them, and them to us. In the Jesus story, though, it’s a region defined by friendship, by shared humanity. Please keep that in your minds and prayers.
In the Bible’s backstory, there’s a mixed record. On the one hand, a Persian king had given Jews blessing to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. It’s a story of religious tolerance, religious pluralism in the Bible. But Magi in particular are kind of reminiscent of these characters in the Bible’s book of Daniel – the Persian court magicians and bureaucrats who were hostile to the Jewish heroes of the story.
But here the Magi come to worship, to be part of the story of Jesus, the newborn king of the Jews, as they call him.
Here’s what I see going on?
Matthew celebrates what he sees as a covenant between God and the Jewish people. But other people are getting in on the story, because it’s actually a covenant between God and all people, in disguise.
What’s this word covenant I keep using?
A covenant is like a contract, but deeper and less legal, more personal. A promise is made, and the other party welcomes it or not, doesn’t really negotiate it. If you hear this word still, it might be in contract law. A landlord promises to make repairs – this might be called a covenant the landlord makes. More commonly, though, you hear this at a wedding. I officiated a wedding most recently last month. It was a Christmas wedding, in all the ways. Lots of red, a big Christmas tree behind us, the newly wed couple being taken away in a sleigh. Really fun.
And the old school word we used in the ceremony to describe what was happening was covenant. A set of promises were being made by each person to the other. They weren’t negotiating the terms. They were promising love and faithfulness, no matter what. Making a covenant.
And I think that to experience and connect with God in the world, it helps to consider the covenant we might be part of.
The story in the Bible begins with God in covenant to all people. God makes a good earth for us, with more than enough for everyone. God makes this world with more than enough food, with people to be in relationship with. God makes a world that has room for good, hard, satisfying work, and for delightful, restorative rest. There’s this sense that people are made for relationship and for work and for rest and for worship, and this earth has everything we need for all of this. God says the earth will do what it’s supposed to. God makes people — all people — in God’s image.
And God says, you’re part of the deal, your responsibility in this covenant is to live as if you’re all made in God’s image. Love and honor the God you look like. Treat each other well – don’t hurt each other. And take care of this earth. Cultivate it, fill it up. Enjoy it and treat the earth well too.
The Bible says that’s the covenant we’re all under. All people. We’re all children of this promise, this relationship, this covenant. And to be honest, this is the covenant that’s sort of most important to us. It’s the first one. That we’re all part of one human family. We’re all related. Prisoners, free. Iranians, Americans. Documented, not. Straight, gay, other. Professor, custodian, CEO, security guard. Or as the Bible puts it – Jew, Gentile, man, woman, slave, free. There’s no less valuable person, or class of people. And good work, good relationships, good rest, good worship is everyone’s birthright. There’s a lifetime to keep finding all this. And the earth is ours to cultivate and fill, but also to take care of – a message our generation better take seriously.
These are God’s promises and responsibilities for all of us in the human family.
But then in Matthew, and in the whole New Testament, there’s a particular covenant we can be part of as well. It’s what Jesus calls the new covenant, in which the human family is invited into a particular relationship with God and with one another, a relationship that is mediated, that is brought together through Jesus Christ.
This covenant, this promise from God, is more particular than the covenant with the whole human family. In this new covenant, we’re promised much by God. We’re promised the unconditional acceptance Jesus offered people. We’re promised the forgiveness that Jesus announced to people – our worst qualities and worst actions not defining us, not disqualifying us. We’re promised the personal presence of God with us – in all times, in all places. We’re promised that the life and vitality of God will become part of us, in this life and for new life beyond our deaths. And in all this kindness, all this grace, we’re asked to shape our lives according to the teaching and life of Jesus – radical non-violence, radical love and inclusion, radical trust in God, radical hospitality and peace and generosity.
I mentioned that God’s covenant with the whole human family is in some ways the most important thing we teach and practice at Reservoir. But I rather like this particular covenant with God in Christ. It’s been good news to me, and it’s at the heart of who we are and what we teach here too.
I was explaining the other day to a friend of mine.
I worked out all last year at a tiny little gym, where you spend a lot of time on these rowing machines. A guy that went to my high school owns the place, and it’s that connection – and how I appreciate so much of what he’s about – that was why I was working out there.
And one day last month, it was just the two of us, and knowing I was involved with this church as a pastor, my friend asked me more about this place, which got us talking about what we think about faith and religion.
And we were talking about people like my friend that don’t really practice any particular faith tradition, but just try to live well and to cultivate a respect for all human diversity.
And my friend was like: you could do worse than that, couldn’t you? And I was like absolutely. This is that big covenant with God and the whole human family I was talking about. And we should always respect people and communities trying to live well by that covenant.
But I told him, yeah, that would be good enough for me, but I love Jesus too much. The teaching and practice of Jesus has reshaped my life. It’s made me a bigger hearted and better and happier person. So I pastor a church that’s not just about God or the good life in general but about Jesus in particular.
And he asked, where did that start for you?
And I’m pulling on the erg in my workout, going harder and harder, and so I’m breathing heavier and thinking: where do I start this story?
Because I’m thinking about the church my parents were going to that I skipped to watch TV and drink sodas with my nana and popop, but where a pastor led a class for high school kids and convinced me smart people could believe in God.
And I’m thinking about the story I told you all a few weeks ago when I did this horrible thing to a friend of mine, and my friend called me out on it, but with this crazy acceptance and forgiveness I was not expecting, and how I knew that’s what Jesus was like and that’s the kind of God I wanted to know, and that’s the kind of person I wanted to be.
Then I’m thinking about this hoaky, older couple that taught a middle school Sunday school class my parents made me go to for a while. And how I didn’t like the other kids, and I thought the songs they sang were horribly corny. But I remembered them saying every week that if you invite Jesus into your life, Jesus will always accept you and always love you and always be with you.
I was terribly lonely as a young teenager, and ashamed of myself a lot of the time. And I was broken up inside, and I was thinking about how if God wanted to love me and like me and be with me, that seemed like really, really good news.
All of this was important enough to me that I asked to be baptized when my church was offering it. I stood in front of the whole church on a Sunday morning during worship, a pastor poured water over my head, and I said I welcome this washing, and I welcome this presence of Jesus with me by the Holy Spirit being poured over and into me like this water. And I welcome a life in this covenant God has with people in Jesus.
And I’m thinking about how I didn’t really know what to do next, but I was told that I could read the Bible and pray every day and that would help me follow Jesus. And so every night before I went to bed, I listened to the high five at 9 on the pop station on the radio – the top five songs of the day. And around 9:30 or so, when that was over, I’d read a chapter or two of the Bible and say a few things to God. And that was kind of confusing, but pretty interesting too.
And I’m thinking about this one night in room, after I’d watched the third Indiana Jones movie that came out when I was a teenager. And there was this scene where the agnostic Indiana Jones has to make a literal leap of faith across this canyon, and he remembers his devout, God-loving father’s words about walking by faith, not by sight, and he closes his eyes, and trusts God, and then things are miraculously OK. And something about that scene got to me, and I wanted to live that way – less afraid, more trusting – and so one night in my prayer time, I stood up and closed my eyes and started walking across the room, telling God I wanted to learn to trust God in everything. And I didn’t really know what I was talking about, but it felt like something important was happening. Like I was making an important promise to God, and it seemed kind of intense, and it seemed like God was with me, and was always going to be with me, and that was going to matter.
I know I didn’t tell my friend all these things because I was rowing and out of breath, and there wasn’t time, but I told him a little bit of this. And I said, sorry, it’s weird and it probably sounds corny.
And he was like: don’t worry about it. You’re talking to someone who sold all his possessions to start a rowing gym. That’s pretty corny. Corny and weird I can appreciate.
That felt good to hear. I guess most of the things in life that are really big and important, that involve our whole selves, that are whole-hearted – most of those things have something weird, something corny about them.
I guess what all that story of my teenage years adds up to for me, though, is that I found my way into not just a general approach to being a more spiritual person and living a better life – part of the whole human family. Which would’ve been great.
But I found myself into a more particular version of that, into the family of Christ, into the new covenant, God’s connection with people in and through Jesus Christ. All the particulars of that are what spoke to me, and what speak to me still.
More and more, Jesus seems to me the wisest and most beautiful and most compelling person who ever lived, a person I want to know and want to be like.
And more and more, Jesus shows to me a more beautiful and more compelling picture of God than anything I hear about or can imagine, and that’s one that seems to draw something out of me, seems to keep tugging at me.
This is kind of what it means to be part of a covenant community with God in Christ – it’s a really beautiful thing.
And the way we find our way into that covenant, and the way we keep it going, that it stays potent and fresh for us is through something called sacrament. Sacrament us our second word of the day.
A sacrament is a sign or symbol that points us to something sacred. It’s an embodied, physical experience that speaks to something profoundly spiritual. A visible form of an invisible spiritual experience. An outward sign of an inward grace.
Sacraments are part of the way in to a covenantal life with God, and they are part of the way to keep going in that life as well.
Some people say there are seven sacraments, other people just two, other people say these two, or these seven are just the beginnings of experiencing all of our physical life as sacrament.
But everyone agrees on the first two. Baptism as an experience where water is poured on you or where you’re immersed in water, as a sign of union with Jesus, and the pouring out of God’s love and presence into you. And communion – the little meal of bread and wine that represents Jesus’ body and blood, and is an opportunity to come to God as we are and be filled with God as God is.
Both of these sacraments are important in Matthew. Jesus announces the new covenant during the communion meal before his death, and when he’s saying goodbye to his closest students, he commissions them to help others be part of the Jesus covenant, and to baptize them as a way of welcoming them in.
Matthew 28:18-20 (CEB)
18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19 Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
Teach other people to be my students, Jesus says. Baptize them into this covenant God has for them. Teach them to do what I’ve said. And I’ll always be with y’all.
The baptism is a central way, maybe the central way that people from the human family will join into this particular covenant family God has in Christ.
That was true for me. Baptism was part of that season where I got started with Jesus – intrigued by Jesus, wanting to be like Jesus, thinking Jesus showed me who God is, trying to learn to do what Jesus says and see how good that could be. The pouring of the waters on me, the profession of faith I made was part of how I became part of this community of promise.
But it didn’t end there. Things like baptism and communion pointed me to other ways to see and experience the invisible Christ in the world as well. I saw the invisible Jesus in the face of my friend’s love and grief and forgiveness. I saw Jesus in the pages of my Bible as I read the gospels and the letters that talk about Jesus. I started to hear and see and feel things that seemed like Jesus all over the place, and even inside myself.
Holiness, presence of God, images of Jesus Christ everywhere. The whole world becoming sign and symbol that points to the sacred. Spiritual experience, outward signs of invisible grace all over the place.
So we can look back and see the prostitute Rahab – great, great, great, great grandmother of Jesus made sacrament when she welcomed the Hebrew spies into her home and her homeland. The Magi made sacrament when they gave their gifts to Jesus, who never treasured money or wealth, but saw these kind of gifts when he grew up as marks of people’s beautiful faith – outward signs of inward works of God. Holy and beautiful gestures everywhere.
I’m saying a whole bunch of things in this sermon, so let me make just a few of them specific.
One is to look for:
Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing
Covenant and sacrament – sacred promises and sacred symbols: honor them wherever you find them, and watch life grow deeper.
Notice ordinary things that move you, that evoke something holy like God’s presence. Notice the people and places and practices that stir that in you. Notice, honor covenants – generous promises made in good faith. And keep them, honor them.
One that’s not in the program is be aware that God has extended to all of us this amazing opportunity to be part of a covenant in Christ – to know God in and through the person of Jesus, and be part of all the amazing stuff that comes with that. And if that’s for you, treasure this community that is your covenant community home. Give yourself to it. And give yourself to the faith. Learn to do all the things that Jesus says. Say I will follow Jesus whole-heartedly this year.
But know that’s also not God’s only covenant. Respect all your friends and neighbors – near and far – that aren’t part of the Christ-centered covenant but are part of God’s covenantal family of all people. Respect friends and neighbors who are part of other religious traditions. Honor their dignity and their faith and their rights. Respect, pray for, love your Iranian cousins in the family of God who you have never met, the whole human family.
And one more thing:
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Take communion and remember your baptism each week. Let a pastor know if you haven’t been baptized and would like to consider it.
Communion is this amazing weekly opportunity to remember your connection to Jesus Christ – God’s love poured out to you in Jesus and your part of the family learning to follow Jesus.
And we’ll be offering baptisms this spring likely just after Easter – to both children and adults. More info to come on that this winter, but it’s never too soon to late a one of us know you’re interested.