Together in Covenant

What’s the weirdest thing you ever ate?

Did you enjoy it?

When I was 16-years old I entered into a very basic, rather profane covenant with some of my high school buddies. (And I do think this story will help us to get at some of the basic features of living in covenant together with sort of a Lord of the Flies twist.) When I was 16-years old, planning a camping trip with some friends and our fathers, my buddies and I swore a sacred oath that while on the trip we would hunt, butcher, and eat—a frog.

I’m not exactly sure why we decided we needed to do this, but the decision was made. The original plan was to catch enough frogs for everyone to have one for dinner one night. We told our fathers and they said no thank you. We thought that was weird. We’d caught fish on camping trips and eaten them for dinner. But our fathers still expressly forbade us from eating frogs on the trip, sighting questionable health concerns.

So, to prepare for the trip we had to disguise our frog-hunting sticks as hiking sticks—a frog-hunting stick is just a hiking stick with one very pointy end. After all, we had made a sacred vow, and somehow it seemed our very identity depended on doing this thing together—what we promised one another we were going to do.

We woke up early one morning, before our fathers were up, and went down to the lake shore with our sticks. Catching a frog turned out to be quite challenging, which gave us a great deal of motivation. But once we finally made the kill, and we had a dead bullfrog twitching on the end of a stick, none of us really wanted to go through with it anymore. It wasn’t particularly appetizing. But this wasn’t really about appetite, was it? No. It was about our relationship to one another, and to our own selves. We had a teenage sense that this “meal” would bring us together—stretching us and defining our character. And so we ate. (It tasted like a greasy chicken.)

Speaking of greasy and unappetizing—have you all been following politics lately? Corruption, obstruction, foreign interference, constitutional crises, bashing immigrants, bashing Muslims, bashing refuges, bashing the press, bashing the constitution, and bashing women, their equality, and their rights to autonomy over their bodies and reproductive choice.

It’s been said that politics is the art of compromise, the art of attaining together not the best thing, but hopefully the next best thing. But we’ve watched as our political system has been transformed from the art of the possible into the violence of the bash, the attack ad, the great wall, the tweet storm. If you’re anything like me, it’s hurting you, frightening you, and making you feel awfully weary and awfully pessimistic about being able to achieve anything together as a nation aside from scapegoating, fearmongering, and greater division. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been wondering, “What is actually going to hold us together as a people?” Where’s the frog that no one wants to eat, but damn it we caught it together and we’re all going to eat it anyway?

None of us, I’m sure, likes what’s been happening in our national dialogue, but what can we little people do? Yes, of course, we can cast our vote, donate to our favorite 2020 candidate, attend the next Women’s March. But what can we do to try to stop the unraveling of the social contract that holds us all together as a society? How can we stand up against hate speech and hate politics without widening the social gap between ourselves and our political opponents?

A covenant is like a big box. In order to join the covenant, each of us takes their most important values and their greatest hopes and places them inside the box. If you’re teenage boys, your covenant box might contain nothing more than EAT FROG. But if you’re a mature and growing faith community in transition that box could contain considerably more. What are our deepest values and our greatest hopes? We arrange them all in there, in the box—snug, tight, and safe—and promise one another to honor them.

When you joined the covenant of membership here at Broadway, what were the values and hopes you laid inside that box? If you’re not yet a member, can you imagine the values and hopes you would lay in the box if you were to join the covenant today?

God is the mediator of all of our covenants, and this makes a covenant very different from a contract. A court mediates a contract and it’s the job of the court to keep everything very stable and fair. When a contract becomes disputed, the contract is broken, the relationship devolves, and we end up in court for a ruling. A decision will be rendered according to the original language of the original contract.

A covenant, on the other hand, a covenant mediated by the Living God, is a living, breathing, growing thing. Unlike the court which desires to remain impartial and stable, sometimes God will come along and seize our covenant box, with all the things most important to us sealed up tight within it! We’ve printed “FRAGILE! HANDLE WITH CARE!” on the outside, but God doesn’t care, God shakes the box, spins it, drop kicks it off the back of the delivery truck, and spills its perfectly packed contents out onto the ground. And there we are all spattered and mixed up with one another. Your values and my hopes and his dreams and her faith all rubbing up and battered against one another. And God says, “All the things you value most are still here, but you’re going to need to work to see them differently. You all start working it out and I’ll be back in a little while—with a bigger box.”

This is what happened to Peter. Poor Peter. He thought he knew exactly who he was—what his identity was within the safe confines of God’s covenant. But sometimes God shakes the box. God shook the box for Peter by dropping down a smorgasbord of animals on a sheet from heaven right in front of his face. There they all were—all the animals Peter had never really wanted to ever eat—vultures and flamingos, pigs and unicorns, snakes and, yes, even frogs.

Like many of you who have eaten one or two weird things, but don’t care to make a habit of it, Peter was dismayed by the repeated command to eat these gross things. It was important to Peter not to eat unclean, profane, and, for him, wholly unappetizing animals, but God was shaking the box of Peter’s covenant and the covenant of the whole Church, and what would spill out onto the ground would be a new understanding of the Gospel.

It’s healthy to be shaken up from time to time. It’s healthy to have our values and our hopes dragged out of their dark boxes into the light of the present moment. It’s healthy to be confronted with what we say is important to us and what we say we value and who we really are—when you lay it all out on the table.

In some ways, I think that this is what covenants are for. Covenants are there to make sacred the act and the art of being in relationship to one another. Covenants are not comprised of shared opinions or policy proposals. They are comprised out of our shared humanity, out of our shared relationship to God. That means that covenants are agents of change. We invest in them the things that are most precious to us, and God, in community, transforms them all.

And for all of you Beloved Vegetarians, there is hope. Because when Peter picks up the pieces of his shaken covenant from up off the ground and begins to reorder and reunderstand them, he sees that his vision of animals he had no interest in eating was not really about having to eat those animals. It was about people. Peter understood that his lifelong sacred desire to not eat frogs and his new sacred desire to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ had been shaken together by God and what he picked back up off the ground was a new value, a new understanding given to him through the Holy Spirit and through his visit to Cornelius’ house—that from now on he would not let anything that had formerly kept him away from people to stand in the way of sharing the most intimate and sacred covenant relationship with them.

This isn’t always easy. It wasn’t just that Cornelius ate pork. Remember, Cornelius was a Roman Centurion, a military man from Italy. You remember who crucified Jesus, right? You remember who scourged him, paraded him through the streets, crucified, and mocked him, right? It was Roman Centurions just like Cornelius. Peter remembered. If only the separation between Peter and Cornelius was just about what was for dinner. I’m sure that Cornelius and Peter would have had more to disagree about than agree about when it came to talking politics—what the role of the Roman Empire should be in Jerusalem and Israel, what its policies should be, how it should police and tax the people. Maybe Peter thought Cornelius was a loser. Or the first-century equivalent of a gun nut. You want me, Peter, to come to your house, to share with you my most sacred values and story? To eat your food at your table?

But in that sheet from heaven was every kind of unappetizing animal that Peter had never wanted to eat. Animals we would all rather avoid. And Peter knew it wasn’t about what he was willing to eat, but who he was willing to eat with—who he was willing to be in relationship with, who he was willing to share the Gospel with.

Who are you willing to be in relationship with? Who are you willing to spread your values and your faith to by sitting as guests at their table and first listening to them? Who are you willing to risk getting into a covenant with?

Peter visited Cornelius’ house, sat at the table, and shared God’s Holy Spirit with all of them. Amen.