Sunday, July 17, 2016
James Sledge July 17, 2016
We’re celebrating the baptism of Aemon Cashin today, something I love doing. It’s the same sacrament whether for infant or adult, but most baptisms here are young children. Along with the cute factor and joyfulness that goes with such baptisms, they also highlight our covenantal understanding of what it means to be the Church.
Our baptismal covenant mirrors Israel’s covenant with God in the Old Testament. Israel’s treaty or agreement, like other covenants, had expectations of all parties involved. God would be with Israel, help her and protect her. Israel, in turn, would abide by the Law, a gracious gift meant to create true community.
There is similar covenant language in the sacrament of baptism. We make promises to turn from sin and toward Jesus, to follow him as faithful disciples. We recite the Apostles’ Creed and make covenant commitments to one another. Parents “promise to live the Christian faith, and to teach that faith to (their) child?” We as a congregation promise “to guide and nurture Aemon by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging him to know and follow Christ and to be a faithful member of his church?” And God embraces Aemon, making him a brother of Jesus
The biblical notion of covenant with God was rooted in the covenants or treaties common to the ancient Middle East. Larger kingdoms or empires often entered into covenants with less powerful kings or chieftains, promising to come to their aid in exchange for tribute, providing soldiers when the bigger kingdom went to war, and so on. If the smaller kingdom failed in its obligations, the larger likely would punish it, even take it over entirely. If the larger kingdom failed to keep its obligations, the smaller might seek alliances with another.
Israel could describe its relationship with God in such treaty terms, at times sounding almost contractual. Be good and get God’s blessings. Break the rules and get punished. Some Bible verses say just that, and you can find people in our day who say the same. Be good, believe the correct things, and God will bless you and admit you to heaven. Break the rules and God will punish you, maybe eternally.
But Israel does not picture God solely as a powerful king with whom they have a treaty. The covenant is also relational with God seen as spouse, shepherd, or loving parent. This loving God may punish Israel for failing to keep covenant, but it is always in hopes of restoring the covenant, of reconciliation and restored relationship.
It’s helpful to remember that as we see the prophet Amos beside himself at the state of affairs in Israel. Many in Israel claim to be religious but are mostly interested in getting rich. The rich are getting richer while the poor suffer under a system stacked against them, a system not so different from ours. We frown on buying the needy for a pair of sandals – a reference to enslaving the poor over trivial debts – but people who, for all practical purposes, are slaves make many of our cheap consumer goods in other countries. And migrant workers in this country all about some of the things that make Amos so angry.
Amos uses some stereotypical, prophetic scare tactics to describe Israel’s fate if they continue down this path. God won’t be their protector any longer, won’t come to their rescue, and they will perish. But contrary to what modern people often think, prophetic speech in the Bible is rarely about predicting the future any more than a parent’s threat to punish a child is. The point is to change behavior.
What is striking, however, is the ultimate threat Amos employs, the one he saves for last. It’s not a threat of violence or exile or other divine punishments we might expect. Rather it is a famine of God’s word. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it. God will no longer be with them.
As a person of faith, there is nothing more unnerving, more disheartening or frightening to me than the sense that God is not there. If God is not with me in some way, if I am not connected to God’s work in some way, why bother to be a pastor? Why bother to have faith? Why bother to be church?
Those times when I have experienced an extended period of God’s absence, I have felt a bit of what Amos describes: a sense of desperate yet futile wandering and seeking. And I wonder if that isn’t a common experience in our day: anxious looking and seeking, hurried busyness that hopes to find meaning and fulfilment but rarely does.
I suspect that some of the current fascination with spirituality arises from a hunger that is not being met. And the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” cohort has happened, at least in part, because God has not been found at church. There are rituals and sermons and music and lots of talk about God, but, for many, God does not seem to be here, is not encountered here.
It seems strange to speak of church without God’s presence, and I wonder if part of the problem isn’t a failure to stay focused on Jesus him. After all, Jesus is God’s Word made flesh, God with us, who promises to be with us always. He is the one through whom we know God, an earthy, fleshy, found-in-the-messiness-of-life God. But when we tend to speak of God rather than Jesus, is it possible that we end up with a vague, conceptual notion, an abstraction that can be talked about but not really related to?
I ask this partly because of the vague, conceptual, non-relational answers I hear when I ask people, and myself, about our experience of God in worship, in church, in our lives. So I want to change the question a bit. Where, how, in what ways have you experienced Jesus in worship, in church, in your life?
I think that’s a pretty important question for a covenant community that promises God and each other to “turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as (our) Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love…” that promises to “be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love… that promises to guide and nurture Aemon by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging him to know and follow Christ and to be a faithful member of his church ”