Sermon – February 21, 2016

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyThe One Way Covenant

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“On that day Yahweh, God, made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,….’” — Genesis 15:18.

Many of you know this about me but some might not. I love puns. I love making them up. I love telling them. In fact, at the Children’s Moment earlier it took all my strength to say, “Gee! Songs about ducks that drives me quackers.” [1]

This week anyone who is my Facebook friend and who did not know about me and puns found out about it. Not once, not twice but three times someone wrote on my Facebook page and labeled me a punster.

Well, at first I maintained my self control. I did nothing in response. But then, after I was accused in public of being a punster three times, and I am guilty, I simply could not take it any longer. In retaliation I let forth, I responded with a torrent of puns on Facebook. These are some but not all of the puns I posted. (Slight pause.)

How does Moses make tea? Hebrews it. Venison for dinner again? Oh deer! I used to be a banker, but I lost interest.

England has no kidney bank, but I hear it does have a Liverpool. I tried to catch some fog, but I mist. They told me I had type-A blood, but it was a typ-o.

Jokes about German sausage are the wurst. I know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid but he says he can stop any time. I stayed up all night to see where the sun went, and then it dawned on me.

I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. I just can’t put it down. I wrote a play filled with puns. It was a play on words.

I didn’t like my beard at first but then it grew on me. Broken pencils are pointless. What do you call a dinosaur with an extensive vocabulary? A thesaurus. [2]

I dropped out of communism class because of lousy Marx. I got a job at a bakery. I kneaded dough. Velcro— what a rip off. [3] (Slight pause.)

Well, I’m glad I got those out of me. They were causing indigestion. That were probably causing indigestion for you too. I hope you were not too offended. (Slight pause.)

I think those of us who are fond of puns love language and what language can do. I’m guilty— I love language and what language can do. On the topic of what language can do— language, by its nature, will always have some degree of ambiguity about it.

In any language there will be many words whose meaning cannot be pinned down, whose definitions cannot be stated with totally certainty. In any language words which sound the same will have multiple meanings.

Indeed, one of the greatest punsters in the English language was William Shakespeare. In Romeo and Juliet the character Tybalt is pictured as a punster extraordinaire. And when this character is accidently stabbed and is dying, he says, “ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.” (Slight pause.) Shakespeare— he loved language.

Those of us who love language are also very aware of the limitations with which language confronts us. English has many limitations when it come to a very important word: love. We pretty much use that one word to describe a number of things.

Greek, on the other hand, has at least six words which describe different aspects of love. There is, of course, the obvious word— eros, named after the Greek god of fertility.

Another word for love in Greek is philia or friendship, which the Greeks valued far more than eros. Philia was about showing loyalty to your friends, sacrificing for them, as well as sharing your emotions with them.

Perhaps we should all ask ourselves how much comradery, how much philia we have in our lives. That might, indeed, be an important question in an age when we attempt to amass “friends” on Facebook or “followers” on Twitter— achievements which would have hardly impressed the Greeks given the depth of emotion intended by the word philia.

The word ludus, another Greek words for love, meant playful love. It referred to affection between children or young lovers. Perhaps the closest comparison in English would be puppy love.

On the other hand, there are times we all live out the idea of love expressed by the word ludus. This happens when we sit around bantering and laughing with friends or maybe spending an evening playing a board game with friends.

If you’ve been around Christianity for any amount of time it’s likely you’ve heard another Greek word for love: agape. Agape love is perhaps the most radical and most formidable type of love. Agape is selfless love, a love that you extended to everyone, to all people, even love for distant strangers.

Christian apologist C. S. Lewis referred to agape as “gift love,” love offered with no expectation of getting anything in return, and also described it as the highest form of Christian love. To be clear, agape is also known in other religious traditions.

Another word for love in Greek is pragma. This is longstanding love, mature love, love which has, for instance, developed between a couple over an extensive period of time.

By definition, pragma is also about making compromises to help a relationship work over time. It is, therefore, not just about love relying on patience. It recognizes this love counts on patience.

In English we often talk about falling in love. But pragma is about how to “stand in constant love” and how to make an effort to give love rather than receive it.

The sixth and last word in Greek for love is philautia, or love of self. The Greeks were clever. They realized there were two types of philautia.

One was an unhealthy variety associated with narcissism, self-obsession, a focus on personal fame and fortune. A healthy version of philautia enhanced one’s wider capacity to love, a self love which enabled love of neighbor— a self love which enabled love of neighbor. [4] (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as Genesis: “On that day Yahweh, God, made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,….’” (Slight pause.)

Passages like this one can illustrate the limitations of our language, any language. First, the story contained therein is a theophany, a description of the real presence of God. No language yet invented is adequate to describe the real presence of God. So we tell stories and hope that will suffice.

This story contains countless stars, the experience of a trance, darkness, a smoking barrier, a fire pot, a flaming torch. It is an amazing story, meant to take us to another way of thinking, another realm, and still it’s likely we all know this story is inadequate in its efforts to speak about the presence of God.

It is, hence, imperative to realize these words also have a clear theological outlook. We call that outlook covenant. Here again, our language falls short. When we hear the word covenant we think in terms of transaction, a give and take situation.

But that is not what the words say nor what they mean. There is no transaction here, no contract, no give and take. The covenant God makes is not transactional.

(Quote:) “Fear not, Abram! I am your shield.” Theological translation: you don’t have to do anything.

(Quote:) “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can! As many as that— so shall your descendants be.” Theological translation: you don’t have to do anything.

(Quote:) “I am God who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land as a possession.” Theological translation: you don’t have to do anything.

(Quote:) “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,….” Theological translation: you don’t have to do anything. (Slight pause.)

This is the theology expressed: God is the prime mover. God has made the covenant. We do not need to offer something in return. We may want to offer something in return. That is not the issue.

Perhaps this is why the Greek word agape is considered so important for us. As I said earlier, C. S. Lewis referred to agape as “gift love,” love offered with no expectation of getting anything in return.

All that brings us back to the various words for love in Greek and this strange problem of language being inadequate. The word covenant, you see, has a similar problem: inadequacy. There are many facets, many aspects to covenant.

When I last preached on this passage I tried to illuminate some of what covenant might mean by offering a list of words. These are the words I used.

Covenant— trust, growth, peace, respect, longing, joy, wisdom, freedom, hope, knowledge, understanding… and yes— love. Love with all its meanings. And therefore, what God offers us should be quite clear. God offers us covenant— covenant fraught with incredible, multiple, perhaps infinite meanings. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Theologian Walter Brueggemann has said this: ‘Covenant (and, therefore, true spirituality), consists on learning the skills and sensitivities that include both the courage to assert self and the grace to abandon self to another.’ In short, covenant is not possible unless you recognize the needs of others. I would suggest God covenants with us and recognizes our needs. Perhaps our call us to covenant with one another.”

BENEDICTION: Let our hearts take courage. Our God meets us where our needs rest. God is our shelter and shield. God’s blessings outnumber the stars. Let us go on our way with Christ as our companion. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.

[1] At the children’s time a song about ducks— Five Little Ducks— was used.

[2] A parishioner called out “Tell us when it’s over!”

[3] It is an understatement to say the Congregation responded with laughter.

[4] This information is well known but you may want to reference this fairly current article, as I did.

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