Covenant and Cross
 — Dawn Christenson

March 22, 2015

Disclaimer: This will not be my typical sermon filled with comfort and consolation. I know that’s where I tend to gravitate in my preaching. But if I reflect on our Gospel reading appropriately, I need to step out of my comfort zone and challenge you, perhaps even make you squirm a little bit. If nothing more, I hope that I will stimulate you to think seriously about your role in this broken world of ours.

Let’s ease into this gently, by first looking at Jeremiah. This was written following the Babylonian exile. After years in exile, the Israelites were finally able to return to their homeland. There is tremendous consolation to be found here! Beginning in the preceding chapter, Jeremiah tried to impart a message of renewal, restoration and hope. How could they and we not find hope in this new covenant? “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:34c) Of course, viewed through our Christian lens, we interpret this passage as prophesy about salvation through Jesus Christ. Hallelujah! Now, we could stop there, feeling all warm and fuzzy, and loved. But the forgiveness in this covenant does not imply a “get out of jail free card”, especially not in the shadow of the cross.

I can just imagine what you’re thinking … ‘Dawn, are you nuts? Were you asleep in your seminary classes when they talked about the power of the resurrection and the forgiveness of sin?’ Oh, I assure you, I have not slept through class. And I do understand the meaning and power of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. I was completely honest a little while ago during the assurance of pardon … You are loved! You are forgiven! As Paul said, there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus! But that love and forgiveness do not preclude our responsibility in covenant with God.

What kind of responsibility? Well, let’s start with the Law (that’s Law with a capital “L”) … the Law handed down from Moses to the Israelites and emphasized in Jesus’ ministry; the Law that through the new covenant was to be written in the hearts of God’s people. You see, there was no content change with this covenant, just a location change. The people would no longer need to be taught the Law, because it would be written in their hearts. And the crux of that Law is: to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Simple…love of God and love of neighbor.

If we are to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, as his servants spoken of in today’s Gospel reading, we need to love even the unlovable. Yes, we need to love even our enemies with that unconditional love of Christ. What did Jesus say?: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” (Mt 5:46-47) We are called to do more. We are called to love and to greet the stranger, the outcast, and our adversaries. And for those we love and care deeply about, we are called to give them reality-checks when they need it. Sometimes it takes a little ‘tough-love’, to get them to stop self-destructive or hurtful behaviors. Owning up to the Law and answering the call to love, comes naturally if we place God central in our hearts and lives. If we love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, our love of neighbor will follow.

Yet, our love and responsibility do not end there. The Law found in the Torah and emphasized by Jesus, includes service – to the “least of these” (widows and orphans, in biblical terms). That means giving to the poor, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, embracing the outcasts, ministering to the sick and down-hearted, etc. Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40) You see, the hinge-pin of today’s Gospel message is found in Jesus’ statement: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it.” You know, this is the only portion of today’s reading that is found in all four Gospels. I think it is most clearly written in Mark: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” That means losing it in service. Service with compassion, generosity and love is something that this congregation and this church have excelled at. We see the face of Jesus in the faces of those we serve and we serve them with glad hearts. Our kindness, compassion and benevolence are important and to be commended. Yet, they are not enough.

Jesus calls us to do more. You see, if we merely serve the ‘least of these’ but do not advocate for them and speak out against the powers of injustice that oppress them and that perpetuate poverty, hunger and the like, we are doing nothing more than placing a Bandaid on a very large and hemorrhaging wound. We need to stop the hemorrhage! Jesus said in today’s reading: “Whoever serves me must follow me.” Following Jesus means that we have to cry out and be the voice of the voiceless. Is that not what Jesus did through much of his ministry? He stood up against injustice! He stood up for those who were too weak and too powerless to stand up for themselves. That’s why he said that he did not “come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mt 10:34b) – a sword to battle injustice and to transform society. Maybe for us that sword means we stand up against the bully, on behalf of the abused. Maybe it means stopping someone who just made a bigoted comment and saying: “No. Stop it. That’s inappropriate and this is why …” If we ignore injustice we are complicit in it.

Folks, next Sunday is Palm Sunday. In the week that follows, we will plunge ourselves headlong into remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal, abandonment, passion and death. I ask you: where is the value in his profound suffering, and his humiliating and agonizing death on that cross, if we do not follow him fully in service of others? How can we think to celebrate and give thanks for his sacrifice and glorious resurrection, if we do not stand up against injustice as he did? Truly, his supreme sacrifice was in vain, if we do not live up to his call to serve AND in service to be the voice for the voiceless. What if YOUR VOICE is the ONE VOICE that can be heard to make a difference? What if YOUR VOICE is the ONE VOICE that can initiate the ripples of transformation? Each of us needs to ask ourselves: What is it that I am being called to say and do in the interest of change?

Perhaps you’re like me. I’m no political activist. I am certainly no prophet. So often when I look at all of the troubles of our broken world – from ecologic disaster that endangers all life on this planet, to hunger and poverty, to racism and other forms of bigotry, to terrorism and war – I feel overwhelmed. And I think: who am I? … who am I and what can I possibly do to change the world? But then I hear God’s still speaking small voice rise within me and it tells me that I don’t need to change the world, just my little corner of the world. If every one of us strives to change our little corners of the world, collectively we CAN change the world and make it a better place for all. In the UCC devotional Friday, Rev. Emily Heath said: “The church thrives when it is being called to the messy and painful work of transforming the world. Why? Because that’s when we are witnessing to the One who transcends all the injustice of the world, and who gives us strength to teach a new way.” We are the Church.

As the Church, each of us is called to serve, as we are uniquely able. And remember, God does not call the able, God enables the called. God has uniquely gifted each and every one of us for service and we are obligated to use those gifts with great love. That is our responsibility in this covenant. And our perspective of the covenant lies in the shadow of the cross. So, as you journey through the remainder of Lent and beyond; certainly the next time you partake in communion, I ask you to listen and to really reflect on the words of institution, when we remember Jesus taking the cup and saying: “This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sin. Do this in remembrance of me.” He was speaking of his supreme sacrifice for us. That is a gift of grace that we cannot repay. All we can do is remember and pay it forward for the sake of others, as loving servants and advocates. May God give us the courage to answer that call.

Thanks be to God. Amen.