In or Out?
One of the most beautiful words in the English language is “belong.” Psychologist Alfred Adler says that the basic human drive is to belong, to find a place, to connect. We first belong to a family, and blessed are those whose family is healthy. What a struggle children have if their family is dysfunctional. What a crisis for a gay child whose family doesn't accept him/her, and whose church turns its back. Where does the gay child belong?
In all of our lives, there comes a time when we need to move beyond the family circle to find where we belong. We join clubs. In Rossmoor, the retirement community in Walnut Creek where we spend the summers, there are over 200 clubs, plus a United Methodist Church! People need to belong, to find a place, to make friends, to share hobbies. We all need community. Look how important it is for some youths to belong to gangs. When positive relationships are not available, bad choices abound.
What I am learning is that folks of Japanese ancestry have a strong sense of belonging to the Japanese community and to one another, a sense of belonging that is very impressive. I observe that this sense of belonging carries over into our church, and our church is stronger for it. I also observe that Japanese families are more stable than the general population, with fewer divorces, and all the children above average!
But, the need to belong is also at a deeper level than family or community. What too many people don’t realize is that we were created to belong to God. St. Augustine wrote that our hearts are restless until they find rest in God. We were made to be in relationship with God. There is a yearning, a longing, a deep drive to have a relationship with God. We call this relationship salvation, redemption. The relationship with God is possible because God makes a covenant with us. Covenant means pact or agreement. Covenant is at the center of the Bible and our faith.
When Jeremiah, the prophet and preacher, was alive, Jerusalem was in turmoil. Babylon, now called Iraq, was attacking Judah. Jerusalem was under siege. Jeremiah had predicted, had prophesied, that Judah would fall. The country was weak, the king was weak. There was a lack of faith, morality and devotion to God. King Zedekiah was disturbed by Jeremiah’s preaching, and Jeremiah was confined to the court, imprisoned.
Nobody listened or wanted to listen to Jeremiah. But, he was right. Jerusalem fell. The beloved temple was destroyed. Many of the population were taken in captivity to Babylon. The days were dark indeed, and the future looked hopeless. They found themselves in Babylon, a land to which they did not belong. It is difficult for us to understand and appreciate how Jews belong to the land, how important Jerusalem and the temple was to them. Throughout history, the desire to return to and to claim Jerusalem as their land has been a burning drive within them.
What Jeremiah and Isaiah discovered about God, making our faith distinctive from many other religions, is that God suffered with them. God suffers, further evidenced by the suffering of Jesus for our salvation. God is not just out there somewhere watching us from above, God is in the midst-- involved, suffering, leading, guiding. In response to their desolation in Babylon--weeping, loss of belonging, God initiated a new covenant. “I will be their God and they shall be my people. I will write my law within them. I will write it in their hearts. They shall all know me, from the least to the greatest. I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
Thursday evening in San Francisco, we saw a world premiere of the brand new opera, “Appomattox.” What a masterpiece-- a moving, sad, poignant, inspiring portrayal of the end of the Civil War, when Generals Grant and Lee met at Appomattox to determine the terms of surrender. They were gentlemen who respected one another. The terms were fair and compassionate. The surrender amicable. The opera begins with their wives and Mary Todd Lincoln singing about the terrible war, the bloodshed, and the promise of their husbands, the generals and the president, that this is the last time. Let it be the last time for terrible bloodshed.
But, not to be. The generals barely left the house before out-of-control soldiers ransacked it, stealing the furniture, vandalizing. Hope for a new day was short-lived. Throughout the negotiating and signing of the treaty, there were vignettes of the future. On the 100th anniversary of the signing, of the emancipation of the slaves, Jimmy Lee Jackson was shot during a civil rights protest. The crowd over and over poignantly sang, “Jimmy Lee, we still ain’t free. We’re marching to Montgomery.” In the final vignette, Edgar Ray Killen, a minister for 50 years and Ku Klux Klan organizer, now in jail, gloated how he engineered the killing of three civil rights workers.
God’s work is not yet accomplished. Since the Civil War, there have been and still are terrible wars and unjust treatment. How God must have wept when thousands of Japanese Americans were uprooted from where they belonged, torn from their homes and neighborhoods, and thrown into barracks. How God must have wept! How God suffers today in Iraq where violence, destruction and killing prevail.
And the solution? Jeremiah was hopeful. He prophesied that the days were coming when they would return to Judah. The days were coming when their nation would be restored. And, Jeremiah 31.31, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” A new covenant, a covenant where “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”
Listen to what belonging to the new covenant meant to them. No longer will they live in a strange land, looking for roots, looking for a sense of belonging. Jeremiah 31.12-13, “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”
How desperately the world today needs to hear the message, needs to hear how God is suffering with them, and how God wants to save the world by entering into covenant. How do they hear? Who will tell them? You and I. God calls the church to tell them, and we are the church. The covenant begins with us. God seeks to enter into a covenant with you, where God will be your God, and you will belong to God. Your life will become radiant over the goodness of the Lord. You will know the Lord in a personal way. Jesus will walk with you as your friend. Your life will become like a watered garden, filled with beautiful flowers, luscious fruits and vegetables. You will dance and be merry. Your grieving will be turned into joy. How God wants to be in covenant with you. “I will be your God and you shall be my people. I will write my law in your hearts. You shall know me and I will forgive your iniquity, and remember your sin no more.”
Are you in or out of the covenant? What I’m talking about this morning is what it means to be a Christian. Being a Christian, belonging to God in covenant, begins with a conscious decision. To be a Christian is not automatic. It is not something you inherit from your parents. They can’t make the decision for you. Being a Christian is more than being nice and doing your best. Entrance into heaven, entrance into the kingdom of God, entrance into the covenant is God’s act. Jesus bought your ticket. What you have to do is claim the ticket, receive it.
Are you in or out? How you get in begins with the decision to want to get in, to want to be included in the covenant, to want to belong to God. Then, take inventory and give to God whatever is blocking your way into the covenant. We call the blocks, the obstacles, “sin”. Jesus calls us to repent of our sin, which means confessing it, and turning from it. Renounce whatever you love more than God; renounce whatever is of higher priority than God. ABC.
A: acknowledge your sin, your human condition. Acknowledge that your best is not good enough.
B: believe. Believe that God loves you, accepts you, reaches out and invites you into the covenant.
C: commit. Commit your life to Jesus. Commit all you are and all you have.
ABC: acknowledge, believe and commit.
This morning we are going to pray the Covenant Prayer, written by Charles Wesley, and prayed by Methodists for over 200 years. I invite you to pray the prayer with me. Pray it with your heart, not just words. If you wonder if you are a Christian, if you don’t know for sure if you are in the covenant, then pray this prayer. And, if anyone asks you when you became a Christian, you can say, “October 21, 2007” I made a covenant with God.
A COVENANT PRAYER IN THE WESLEYAN TRADITION
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by you or laid aside for you,
Exalted for you or brought low by you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
You are mine, and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
© 2007 Douglas I. Norris