Sermon – February 22, 2015

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyCovenant, Part I: Presence

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“God said, ‘Here is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for ageless generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.’” — Genesis 9:12-13

It is likely most of you know or have heard about Dr. Anthony Cicoria. He specializes in orthopedic medicine. One reason it’s likely you know about him or have heard of him is because a number of us, myself included, have been operated on by Tony.

As you may also be aware, some years ago Dr. Cicoria was struck by lightning while standing next to a public telephone. Tony had just hung up the phone and was about a foot away from it when a rogue bolt of lightning struck the instrument.

One major consequence of that is quite unusual. After recovering from burn injuries, the good doctor had an insatiable desire to listen to piano music.

Not only did he listen but he acquired a piano and started to teach himself to play. His head seemed to be flooded with music. Although prior to this accident he had no particular interest in music, within three months of being struck by lightning Cicoria had started to spend much of his free time playing and even composing music.

Given this phenomena, Tony’s notoriety spread beyond the confines of Chenango County. Indeed, he was profiled in a book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain written by the neurologist and famous author, Dr. Oliver Sacks. [1]

Dr. Sacks is, of course, quite well known. In fact, he was portrayed by Robin Williams in the film Awakenings, based on one of his books. This week Dr. Sacks published an essay in the NY Times. The essay addressed his impending death. What follows is some of what Dr. Sacks had to say in that article. (Slight pause.)

A month ago I was in good, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out. A few weeks ago I learned I have multiple growths in my liver.

Nine years ago I had a rare tumor of the eye. Radiation and a laser removed the tumor and left me blind in that eye. But only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the 2 percent.

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive. I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, say farewell to those I love, write more, travel if I have the strength, achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity, plain speaking;…. There will also be time for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work, my friends. I shall no longer look at the PBS “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or silly arguments.

Then Dr. Sacks says this: I rejoice when I meet gifted young people— even the one who took the biopsy and then told be about me the diagnosis I did not want to hear. Gifted young people help me feel the future is in good hands. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as Genesis: “God said, ‘Here is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for ageless generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.’” (Slight pause.)

The readings for Lent in year ‘B’ of the common lectionary largely look at covenant. Indeed, you may have noticed the sermon title is Covenant, Part I: Presence. The implication of that is you will hear more about covenant soon.

Now, contrary to populist belief, covenant— especially the covenant entered into by God in Scripture— is not a contract. A contract is an agreement between two parties which implies both are benefitting in some way. A contract is, therefore, a transaction.

The covenant of God is in no way a transaction. Why? God is receiving nothing from humanity in return. Further, God expects nothing from humanity in return. The covenant is a gift from God.

Noah and the family of Noah have no part in this covenant, no role to play, no obligation. The usual verb for covenant-making uses the Hebrew word for “cut,” which, indeed, implies a two sided deal. But there is no mutuality or reciprocity expressed here. The word “cut” is not used. The covenant is all the doing of God, the responsibility of God, an act of amazing graciousness, the very self-giving of God.

Additionally, in the covenant proclaimed in these words God is asserting a presence. Again, this is not a transaction. This is simply a statement about a reality. At its roots, the statement is simplicity itself: God is. Indeed, this is a statement God makes in Scripture many times. God is. God is present. God is real. God is active.

Then God takes a second step in this covenant, a step beyond a statement about the reality of being, the reality of being present, the reality of being active, the truth of being real. (Quote:) “When my bow is in the clouds, I will look at it and call to mind the everlasting covenant between God and all living beings— all flesh that is on the earth.”

Put another way, this is a promise not just to be present and to be a presence. God promises to be faithful.

That brings us to the Gospel reading. This is the Good News proclaimed by Jesus. (Quote:) “The time is fulfilled, and the dominion of God has come near, the reign of God is at hand.” The time is fulfilled… (Slight pause.)

I do not see the Word proclaimed by Jesus as being an apocalyptic message as some do. Jesus is not saying the world will end. Jesus us saying God is here. Jesus is saying God is real. Jesus is saying God is with us now. Jesus is saying God is present. Jesus is saying God walks with us. Jesus is saying God is at our side.

Further, this presence of God— God at our side— does not demand anything from us. Rather it poses a question to us. This is the question. “Do we love God?” (Slight pause.)

You see, if God is not real, if God is some far off, phantasmagoric concept, then it becomes pretty hard to say we love God. It is hard to love someone who is not real to us. It is hard to love someone who is not real for us. But if God is real to us and for us, then we need to ask ourselves what are we to do with that? (Slight pause.)

This is the very question which brings us back to Dr. Oliver Sacks. At the end of the essay the doctor says this.

When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled. It is the fate— the genetic and neural fate— of every human being to be a unique individual, to find their own path, to live their own life, to die their own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return;… [2] (Slight pause.)

I think the message of the covenant is simple. God makes no demand on us. But God is present. God is real. God walks with us.

Put another way, God is ever present, no matter what our circumstances, no matter what our life situation, no matter what happens. God is faithful. God loves all of us. God loves each of us. That is the covenant claimed by Scripture— the real presence of God with us now and throughout eternity. Amen.

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: “Shalom— peace— the real presence of God. Is the real presence of God real for us, as real as this stone? Or, better yet, is the real presence of God like the presence of someone we love— a parent, a life partner, a child?” [3]

BENEDICTION: We are children of God, beloved and blessed. Let us be renewed in this season which holds the promise of resurrection at its close. And yes, hear and believe the Good News: God reigns now. Let us depart in confidence and joy knowing that God is with us and let us carry Christ in our hearts. Amen.

[1] Needless to say, the practice of Dr. Cicoria is in Norwich.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Cicoria

[2] Both of the sections about and by Sacks are from the same article. These words have been slightly edited for this medium. Any shift in meaning is unintentional. I have not placed quotation marks around the text from the article below for this reason. I encourage you to look the article up.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer.html

[3] The pastor holds up a stone used during the Children’s Sermon that has the word Shalom in Hebrew etched in it. The pastor explained that Shalom— peace— speaks to the presence of God.

Author: admin