Covenant Together: A Sermon

Covenanting Together
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
July 8, 2012
Text: 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”

So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.

David occupied the stronghold of Jerusalem, and named it the city of David. DAvid build the city all around from the Millo inwards. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts was with him.

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Our scripture lesson this morning is the culmination of David’s long journey to the throne as King of Israel. We have followed this journey together over the last four weeks, as the young shepherd David, was anointed to be king by Samuel, as he fought the Philistine Goliath, and then as he wept over the death of Saul.

At first it may be surprising to learn that Saul’s death did not mean David’s immediate ascendency to the throne, after the build up and anticipation. It’s true that the people of Judah embraced David willingly, but the people of Israel are not as quick to bow to a non-heir king. It turns out that Saul has a son or two who are interested in taking over, and so there are a few battles and conflicts, and a seven-year civil war, as the story twists and turns and David finally rises to the top.

Our story today occurs just after Saul’s son Abner has been killed, and the people of Israel no longer have a leader to bid for the throne. They have been fighting this moment for years now, but now the time has come to submit. The come to David to bow down and accept him as king over them.

The agreement that David makes with the people of Israel is different than when the people of Judah submit to David, as the ladder did so willingly and without any resignation. Judah gives their allegiance without a formal agreement, without any guidelines or rules. But in this moment, the people of Israel have been reluctant and suspicious, and David makes a “covenant” with them.

Many of you are aware that this past week the Presbyterian Church (USA) met for it’s General Assembly, a gathering of church leadership delegates from each region across the country. As our polity is structured much like the federal government of the United States, I heard someone describe it recently as meeting of Congress that happens once every two years.

That description is both accurate and daunting, as it is the one time we gather all the voices from our churches from around the country and vote on important changes to our government, statements on social justice issues, approval of worship or educational resources, and many other items of business. It is often a time of great energy and intensity, and can be a time of great conflict and divisiveness.

But presbyterians believe in the process, and not only that, we believe that God works through our process to enact God’s grace in our churches and in our lives. As in other years, some of the important issues on our docket were highly conflictual. There were debates about standing up against for-profit prisons, and restructuring our governmental bodies to become more streamlined and flexible. There were discussions of divestment from certain companies that benefit from Israel’s occupation of contested territories. There were discussions about the re-definition of marriage. Each of these last two debates took hours and hours.

In the end, as one church leader recounted, not much changed. We voted “no” to divestment, “no” to the redefinition of marriage. Delegates returned home exhausted, some energized, some disappointed; Some dismayed at the direction the church is headed, whether they believe we are getting more liberal or more conservative. In some ways, our form of government is unsatisfying for everyone.

For church goers throughout history, this is nothing new. As long as I can remember the Presbyterian Church has been discussing and debating, arguing and disagreeing. Each year, both sides threaten to leave if the vote does not go their way. Each year, some follow through with that threat; Most don’t. Those of us that stick it out do so trusting that God has brought us together for a reason, and part of being the church is covenanting to be the church even alongside those with whom we disagree.

“Covenant” is a particularly biblical word, and is not quite the same as a contract or agreement or promise. Covenant has a deeper meaning, laden with God’s action. The Hebrew word for covenant, “Berit” has the root meaning of “bond, or fetter,” indicating the binding of relationship, and is used throughout Hebrew scriptures to describe not only a relationship between humans, but a relationship with God as well.

From God’s covenant with Noah, to never again cover the earth with a flood, to God’s covenant with Abraham, to bless him with as many descendants as the stars, to God’s covenant with Moses to bring his people Israel out of Egypt, to God’s covenant with David, and the people of Israel, in our story for today, and on to God’s covenant with us through Jesus Christ – God binds us to God’s self and to one another.

Each of these covenantal actions balance human obligation and divine promise, although they differ as to which side is emphasized. While God’s covenant through Moses and the ten commandments tends to emphasize our responsibility and the consequences of blessings or curses depending on our obedience, a story like David’s emphasizes God’s persistence in his promises to make David a shepherd of his people Israel.

These covenants between God and God’s people are covenants of grace. They express God’s gracious commitment and faithfulness and therefore establish a continuing relationship. It is God who is relied upon as help, and who in fact enacts the promise made.

Our text for this morning is indeed both the culmination of a covenant promise that God made to David as well as a story about how David covenanted with a people with whom he had a long and difficult disagreement. When they come together, the people of Israel say to David, “Look, we are your bone and flesh!” And they recount the ways that all along they were connected with David, even in spite of their allegiance to Saul. Their words are both political and poetic, and David’s response is to bring them into a mutual covenant: a relationship that is bound both by obligation and responsibility, as well as by God’s love and blessing.

These kind of agreements are less and less common in our culture, as we lean more and more toward individuality and our right to the pursuit of happiness at all costs. More than half of all marriages wind up in divorce, and most frequently if we have committed ourselves to something and then change our mind or it’s not working out, there is a pretty quick and easy way to get out of it. Whether it is an obligation to a volunteer organization or a commitment to a friend, most of the time folks will understand if it “just doesn’t work out.”

So too this is the case with churches, as we become more consumer driven in all our choices. We “shop around” until we find a church that meets all of our needs, whether it be service opportunities or Sunday school. We stick around as long as those needs are met. And when the church fails us, as human institutions tend to do, we are on to the next, or better yet, we are at home with our coffee and our newspaper of preference.

In her controversial article, spiritual but not religious, UCC pastor Lillian Daniel critiques this age of Spiritual individualism, suggesting that any numskull can find God by themselves, gazing at a sunset or reading the New York Times. It is easy, even, to surround oneself with people who share your interests and opinions, who vote the way you do and attend the same club or restaurant. It is easy, even, to commit to those who are agreeable, who keep to themselves, who don’t push and don’t speak too loud.

It is not easy, however, to covenant to be the church together. It is not easy to stick it out when the church again and again lets you down, choosing the status quo instead of the way of justice. It is not easy to stay when you feel the church becoming dangerously close to embracing a culture that steers away from the gospel and towards sin. It is not easy to stand beside someone who will most definitely cancel out your vote in November, and sing hymns together, pray together, care for one another, through and by the grace of God.

The church is one of the last places in our worlds where we bump up against people who differ from us in vastly important ways. But this is the rich blessing of a life of faith. In our covenant with Christ we are drawn into a life that we would not design for ourselves, and that is not intended to be easy. But we stick with it, because we have come before the Holy One and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh!” We stick with it because God covenant with us to keep God’s promises, to bring us life and life abundant. We do this not by our own strength and power, but by the grace of God.

In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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