Scripture: GENESIS 17:1-7, 15-16
Bob was not the doctor-son his father wanted. An artist at heart, he was determined to be an actor, and, as a result, Bob lived with his father’s constant disapproval. Laurel held onto her sales job, but only just barely. Her boss wanted her to be more aggressive, more outgoing, more pushy. Laurel, quiet, shy, but also a builder of relationships, never measured up. After years of living in a body that didn’t seem like hers, Christine let her parents know that she was really a boy, and that his name was now to be Max. Max’s parents were livid, and disowned him.
For nearly all of us, we get our bearings from significant people in our lives. Sometimes it’s our parents. Sometimes it’s a sibling, or a friend, or an employer. Many of us know ourselves to be honored and adored. We find our bearings as people who are loved no matter what.
A number of us, though, get their sense of just how worthwhile they are from someone who belittles, even despises, them. And they’re left to fend for themselves, lost in a sea of judgment, drowning in an ocean of dismissal. And in almost every case, whether it’s primarily approval or primarily disapproval—and, of course, it’s never just one or the other—in almost every case, these forces have been formative for us. We’re loved only if we do the right things. Or we’re loved on whatever path we take in life.
And for those of us who have been in the position of being parents or grandparents or supervisors or mentors or spouses or caregivers, we have been on the other end of that relationship. And there may always lurk the haunting question about what sort of atmosphere we’ve established. In most or all of those relationships, we have thought it important to convey our expectations, the rules of the game, so to speak. At the same time, though, we have wanted those in our care to know that we valued them.
When Mary and I had young children, I wrestled with this. It took me a while to identify the issue, but I remember saying to Mary at one point that I perceived her as being too lenient with our children, so I was pretty rule-oriented. And she replied that she perceived me as being too strict, and that maybe she bent over backwards to make sure our children knew they were loved. Mary and I came to see that the stricter I became, the more lenient she became. And the more lenient she became, the stricter I became. It reminded me of the time my parents were staying in a hotel and sharing an electric blanket in which the controls had been reversed. The hotter my mother got, the more she turned the blanket down. The colder my father got, the more he turned it up. Mary and I were doing something similar as parents. And once we were able to talk it through and understand it, we could adjust our parenting so that both of us would discipline, and both of us would adore. It was something that enabled both of us to set limits and expectations, and both of us to convey, as best we could, the sheer exuberant joy we took in our children as human beings.
I imagine God knows something of this dilemma. After an incredibly magnanimous creation of a universe of unimaginable beauty, along come the human beings God creates. And what do they do? They mess it up pretty badly. They undo its grandness and beauty by selfishly exploiting the land and each other. They lie and cheat and steal and try to go it alone, making themselves the center of the universe. And we can imagine God disheartened and wracked by despair. We can also, I think, imagine God in a snit, fuming at human betrayal and small-mindedness and hard-heartedness. What’s God supposed to do with that?
And of course one option would be to give up in frustration. ‘Let’s just wipe them out and start over,’ we can imagine God thinking. Or maybe, in a slightly gentler vein, God thinks, ‘Let’s make it abundantly clear to these obtuse, recalcitrant humans what the expectations are. Here are the rules. Play by them, or else. Your choice. But know this: you have precious little rope to work with.’ Who would be surprised if that were God’s reaction?
To our utter shock, though, what does God do? God essentially says to these wayward human beings, ‘It doesn’t really matter what you do—I’m going to love you no matter what.’ It’s enough to make any of us who have ever been a parent or a boss throw up our hands in disgust. ‘Really, God?! That’s the way you handle these defiant children of yours. Get rid of expectations? Let them do whatever they please? Oh, come on! That’s totally inadequate and you know it! Why don’t you just let them get away with murder!’ And yet that’s precisely what God does: love without limits
Covenant: that’s what God establishes with the human race. It’s God’s way of declaring a love that cannot be broken. It starts with Noah and his family at the flood, a promise we heard about last Sunday. After God makes that great and terrible storm flood the earth, God tells Noah that never again will God do such a thing (Genesis 9:8-17).
And then the promise continues with Abram and Sarai. Some of you may remember that, several chapters before today’s episode, God had invited Abram and Sarai into a relationship, as God promised them that they would parent many nations. Abram was seventy-five and Sarai sixty-six at that first promise, though—not particularly auspicious ages for starting a family. Eleven years later, after Sarai is unable to conceive, Abram finally fathers a child with Sarai’s maid, Hagar. That son, Ishmael, appears to be the child who will carry on the line. Not so, though, says God when Ishmael hits adolescence. So at ninety-nine and ninety years of age, Abram and Sarai are still no nearer to having the child they need to carry on their line. Finally, twenty-four years after that first promise, God comes to Abram yet again and reiterates this pledge. “This is my covenant with you,” says God: “You’ll be the father of many nations. Your name will no longer be Abram, but Abraham, meaning that ‘I’m making you the father of many nations.’ I’ll make you a father of fathers—I’ll make nations from you, [rulers] will issue from you. I’m establishing my covenant between me and you, a covenant that includes your descendants, a covenant that goes on and on and on, a covenant that commits me to be your God and the God of your descendants” (Genesis 17:4-7, The Message).
And once again, just as it was with Noah, the expectation put upon human beings is: absolutely nothing. All the giving, all the self-offering, comes from God toward these puny, compromised human beings. Actually, to be fair, that’s not entirely true. You may have noticed, when we read the passage earlier, that seven verses in the middle of that story were skipped. In those seven omitted verses, we’re told that God does indeed have an expectation—which is that Abraham and his male descendants are to be circumcised. I’m not sure why exactly those verses were omitted from today’s reading. Maybe those who set out the contours of the reading thought our delicate ears were too sensitive to hear about circumcision.
Even as that expectation is laid out, though, it’s clear that circumcision is far from being a demand. Instead, it’s much more like an invitation. Circumcision is to be practiced not as an obligation, but simply as a sign of the acceptance of God’s love. Circumcision has somewhat the same place in Jewish life that baptism has in Christian life. Neither one is a task that must be practiced or else. Rather, both rites are signs of the reception of God’s love. It’s not that you get punished if you don’t get circumcised as a Jew or baptized as a Christian. It’s only that each such act is a sacramental reminder of a divine love that will not let us go.
It is fortuitous, it seems to me, that we hear these words on the day of Federated’s annual meeting. Because in this episode, we are reminded of the heart of what it is to be a person of faith. It is all-too-tempting for a church to misplace its core, all-too-tempting for a congregation to get wrapped up in peripheral matters, all-too-tempting for the people of God to measure their success or failure by their membership numbers or their pledge figures or their busyness or their capital campaign projects or their property decisions.
And in fact we hope for the best in all these dimensions of church life—we do. It’s just that none of those matters is the center of who we are as sacred creations of the Holy One. The very core of our life, the sine qua non of this church’s existence, is the covenant without which we would be nothing at all. Unless and until we live out of that center, we are but paltry mirages of children of God. Every day, as individuals, we would do well to bask in that holy adoration. And every day, as a congregation, we would do well to remind ourselves of that unbreakable promise of God—that hope flourishes, that promise abounds, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). The story of Jesus echoes that same irresistible core we’ve heard about today, when, at his baptism, he hears those ringing words of God: “This is my beloved child, in whom I take delight” (Matthew 3:17). Not only does God take delight in Jesus, but God takes special delight in you and me, and God knows an unbounded joy in Federated Church. That is our center.
If we know that, if we really take that in, how does that knowledge shape our care for each other, our worship, our interactions, our mission? The question that might always lurk in the background and shape our discussion and discernment is this: how is what I’m doing and saying at this moment, how is what the church is doing and studying and deliberating, reflecting the stunning love that will not let us go? If we don’t have to perform for God, if we don’t have to do anything to please God, if we are freed of the onerous burden of endless requirements—if we’re basking in that holy love, in other words, then all that matters—all that matters—is that we convey love and joy and peace to each other and to the larger world. It’s all about joyous, grateful, self-giving love. That’s it.
When Mary and I had young children, one of my favorite books to read to them was Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, a book Munsch wrote, it’s worth noting, after he and his wife had suffered two miscarriages. “A mother held her new baby,” the story begins, “and very slowly rocked him back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And while she held him, she sang: ‘I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.’”
The boy grew and grew. First, he was a toddler and he made a mess and he flushed his mother’s watch down the toilet. And at night, when he was asleep, she came in and picked him up and rocked him in her arms, and she sang to him: “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”
Then he became a nine-year-old and later a teenager. And he never wanted to take a bath and he said bad words in front of his grandmother and he wore strange clothes and he listened to strange music. But at night, if he was really asleep, she would come in and pick him up and rock him in her arms, “back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. While she rocked him she sang: ‘I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.’”
Eventually the boy grew up and bought a house across town. And one day, as his mother got too old to come to her son’s house any more, she asked him to come for a visit. When he arrived, she started the song: “I’ll love your forever, I’ll like you for always . . .” and she was unable to finish, because she was too old and sick. “The son went to his mother. He picked her up and rocked her back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And he sang this song: ‘I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, As long as I’m living, my Mommy you’ll be.’”
“When the son came home that night, he stood for a long time at the top of the stairs. Then he went into the room where his very new baby daughter was sleeping. He picked her up in his arms and very slowly rocked her back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And while he rocked her he sang: ‘I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be’” (Love You Forever, Robert Munsch).
That’s the way God is with you and me. That certainly isn’t the end of the story, of course. God forbid—and I really mean it, God forbid—that we let that be our excuse to be rocked to sleep in the basinet of a church that just sits passively on its hands doing nothing. Too many churches have simply faded into the sunset without the hint of a mission and purpose. God knows that’s not what we want.
No, what we want, what we most need, is to have that abiding love of God be what shapes our every interaction and action. What we want, what we most need, is that, by grace, we will be the vessels of that love in our care for each other, in our devotion to the world beyond us, in our pursuit of the justice that is the societal working out of that holy love.
At the heart of our life together is the radical truth that no matter what we do wrong, how we mess up, what doesn’t go the way we had hoped, God holds us in tender arms and sings us that song. As long as God lives, which, of course, is forever, we are all God’s beloved children. And the only hope is that we will convey that to each person we meet and that, as a church, we will make that our byword. God’s covenant: as long as God or we are living, we belong to God, the one who makes all things possible and never lets us go. May we live a life of love, worthy of that unsurpassed grace.