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The Covenant with Abraham and his Descendants – Br. Curtis Almquist

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Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

If you have the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land, you inevitably experience a great diversity of people – Jews, Muslims, and Christians – all of whom lay claim on the land, and on their own particular narrative of history: what has happened there, down through the centuries, and why.  Though there is common ground, there is not a common creed, as we well know… except that all three faith traditions look to the same place and time and person, the first person to be invited into a relationship with God.  And this is Abraham and his wife, Sarah, with whom God establishes a covenant, as we heard in our first lesson today from the Book of Genesis.

A covenant is not the same as a contract.  A contract is a transaction, but a covenant is a relationship.  A contract is about interests, but a covenant is about identity.  And that is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform.  (I am drawing here on the teaching of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congrega­tions of the Commonwealth, who spoke last summer to the Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference.i)  In a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and the integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives, by pledging faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can do alone.  A covenant is about relationship, a relationship that invites and presumes a transformative change in both persons, both parties.

The two parties in God’s covenant established with Abraham are, obviously, God and Abraham and his descendants.  We could ask, if covenants transform, what does God get out of this covenant, a rather anthropomorphic question?   I’m not sure what God does get out of this relationship with Abraham and his descendants.  We do see repeatedly in the scriptures that God longs to be praised and blessed and thanked by human beings.  God’s relationship with people, who are created in God’s very image, matters to God.  It matters enough that we, as Christians, believe that God so loved the world that he sent his only son, Jesus, to seek us and to save us and to bring us back into relationship with God.iiWe matter that much to God.  The other question is what human beings get out of this relationship with God?  All three Abrahamic traditions would have a different answer, nonetheless Jews, Christians, and Muslims agree that this covenantal relationship with the God of Abraham is the most important thing in the whole world.

Surely we as Christians can share some common ground with Jews and Muslims, who lay joint claim on this covenantal relationship with God.  The English word “religion” comes from the Latin, religare, which means “to bind fast.”  Religion is a spiritual “ligament” which holds the parts together.  The word religion comes from the same etymological root as our word “rely,” rely not just on God, but rely on one another, for the love of God.  When I say, surely we as Christians can share some common ground with Jews and Muslims, I’m speaking about appropriating this “vertical” covenant with God in a “horizontal” way with one another: appropriating the Abrahamic covenant to respect the dignity and the integrity of each other; to come together in a bond of love and trust, to share our interests, sometimes even to share our lives, by pledging faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can do alone.  To share the Abrahamic covenant with the other Abrahamic traditions.

I say this for three reasons.  For one, though we do not share the same faith, we do share the same fate, this again according to Rabbi Sacks.  We share the same earth, with its wars and rumors of war, with its ecological devastation, and with a world economy now in a volatile recession.  We are interconnected with one another.  We acutely need one another’s help and not harm, just to survive, and hopefully to thrive.  We may not share the same faith, but we do share the same fate, and we can surely do together what we will only destroy apart..

Secondly, surely we can find an invitation to practice this covenantal relationship with one another because we are strangers to one another.  If we look to the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Old Testament, which Jews, Christians, and Muslims share as sacred scripture – a person who is the other, who is the stranger, is given special reverence.  This is counterintuitive.  Most of us are most drawn to people most like us.  But the Pentateuch gives us quite a different and higher vision.  As the rabbis noted, the Hebrew Bible in one verse commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but in no fewer than 36 places commands us to “love the stranger.”iii And so we read, for example:

“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger – you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

“When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him.  The stranger who lives with you shall be treated like the native-born.  Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  I am the Lord your God.”

In the Gospels, Jesus also speaks poignantly about our welcoming the stranger.  Jesus’ generous welcome to everyone is remembered in the Greek as philonexia, which is “the love of strangers.”ivPhilonexia is the opposite of zenophobia, which is the fear or hatred of strangers, the discrimination against strangers.  Philonexia, the love of strangers, becomes the New Testament norm for hospitality as it is repeatedly described.  We read, for example, in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Let love of brother and sister continue; do not forget the love of the stranger (philonexia).”v Philonexia, not xenophobia.

And thirdly, we may experience some new revelation from the God of Abraham from the “other,” from the “stranger.”  For those of us who bear the name Christian, we recognize that we have seen the face of God in the face of Jesus.  This is not to say that no one else has seen God or known God, heard from God or called on God in another way or time or place or name.vi At the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the Roman Catholic Church issued a “Decree of Ecumenism” to restore unity among Christians.  This new doctrine also praised Jews as “the people most dear” to God because they received God’s covenant first.  And the doctrine hailed Muslims as those who “profess to hold the faith of Abraham and together with us adore the one, merciful God.”vii Dr. Walter Brueggemann of Columbia Theological Seminary says, “It is perfectly legitimate for Christians to draw all of these traditions to Jesus.  It is perfectly legitimate for Jews to draw these traditions toward them, and the same for Muslims.  It is not legitimate for Christians or anyone else to presume that theirs is the only direction.”  Brueggemann says, “As a Christian, I have to be bilingual enough to notice that our confiscation of the tradition is not the only possible legitimate confiscation of the tradition.”viii

A week or so again I was sharing a conversation with someone who was concerned about what they called the growing Islamic threat.  They were particularly vexed about some violent passages that had been pointed out to them in the Koran.  Did I know about that, they asked?  Well we talked about Islam and the Koran, my not claiming expertise.  I did ask this person, “Are you familiar with the amount of violence recorded in the Old Testament, like in I and II Kings?  Do you know the Psalms’ speaking of the happiness in dashing little children’s heads against the rocks?”ix I told them I find all of that appalling, and it does require contextualization and explanation, which we as Christians are quite prepared to do with our own scriptures.  We surely owe the same sense of dignity to Muslims and the Koran.  Surely?

Jesus Christ “proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who are near,” we read in the Letter to the Ephesians.  Jesus “has come to break down the dividing wall of hostility between peoples.”x The way that a dividing wall of hostility between peoples is broken down is not by berating or convincing the other person, the other tradition, that we are right.  Dividing walls of hostility are dismantled when people enact a tacit covenant with one another: respecting the dignity and the integrity of the other.  People of the covenant come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives, by pledging faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can do alone.  A covenant is about relationship, a relationship that invites and presumes a transformative change in both parties.  In the context of our seeking out, meeting, welcoming the stranger, we may even discover God’s revelation to us, in ways beyond which we could have asked or imagined.

In the Book of Exodus – a sacred text shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims – there is the story of Moses who discovers God speaking to him through a burning bush.xi There is an ancient story of a Rabbi Joshua’s being asked, “Why, of all things, did God choose the humble thornbush as the place from which to speak with Moses?”   The rabbi replied: “If God had chosen a carob tree or a mulberry bush, you would have asked me the same question.  Yet it is im­possible to let you go away empty-handed.  That is why I am tell­ing you that God chose the humble thornbush to teach you that there is no place on earth bereft of the Divine Presence, not even a thornbush.”  If divine revelation can even come through a lowly thornbush, then surely through another person, created in the image of God, and all the more likely if they are a stranger to us, a stranger to be welcomed into our life, into our heart.

Consider this for a Lenten discipline concerning this Abrahamic covenant to which we are heirs, a shared covenant.  Live into the covenant.  See if you can share some time, share a conversation with a Jewish or Muslim person this Lent.  Presume you are meeting them on holy ground and listen, mostly listen.

i Excerpted fromThe Relationship between the People and God,” presented by Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the Lambeth Conference, July 28, 2008.

ii John 3:16-17.

iii Jonathan Sacks in The Dignity Of Difference; How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations.

iv Philonexia comes from the Greek roots philos,a friend or neighbor, and xenos, foreign or alien.

v Hebrews 13:2.

vi Inspired by unpublished writings of Joseph C. Hough, Jr., president of Union Theological Seminary, New York.

vii Bruce Feiler in Abraham; A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, pp. 200-202.

viii Feiler.

ix Psalm 137:9.  See also, e.g., Psalm 110:6 “He will heap high the corpses; he will smash heads over the wide earth.”

xi See Ephesians 2:11-19.

xii Exodus 2:22-3:7.

© 2009

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14 Comments

  1. Christopher Engle Barnhart on June 7, 2015 at 10:26

    Having spent two years as aPeace Corp Volunteer in Somalia, I lived with Muslims. During that time I experience the murder of Robert Kennedy. The mayor and school head master came to me to express how sorry the villagers were about what had happened. I was truly grateful for their kindness. We shared common ground between a Christian and a Muslim community.

  2. Polly Chatfield on June 3, 2015 at 11:55

    Indeed, women are the bearers and the nurturers of creation. Think of Mary as the Mother of the Cosmos. But how can we make our loving voices heard amid all the noise of anger and destruction?

  3. Sallie on June 3, 2015 at 11:01

    So where are the women in all this? It was Sarah who bore the child after all…..

  4. anders on June 3, 2015 at 10:13

    Thanks, it’s wonderful to read of interfaith dialogue and commitment from beyond the narrow scope of what I have been practicing for many years. I have found that most Christians consider such cross-religious talk “going rogue”, but it has done much to deepen my faith and understanding. For example, it occurred to me that I share the same first name and last initial as the biggest living Christian terrorist Anders Brejvik. Not once in my life has anyone judged me for this, but my Muslim brothers and sisters encounter prejudice every day. I will continue my dialogue with them and others and feel all the richer for it.

  5. N on June 3, 2015 at 08:55

    Yesterday (June 2) saw the release in Canada of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This commission was struck in response to the history and legacy of the residential school system and the crimes and sorrows that were visited on so many First Nations children. The system has been described as ‘cultural genocide’ and, shamefully, the Anglican Church in Canada played a role in the administration of some of those schools. This reflection on covenants is very timely as one of the Report’s recommendations urges that the citizenship oath for new Canadians be amended to include a reference to upholding the treaties that were struck a century and a half ago with the First Nations.

  6. Marta e. on June 3, 2015 at 07:42

    This provokes such a good opportunity to open our minds to those who are different and also loved byGod. Love is so great that there are no limitations. We all seek, all of God’s creatures, seek that love and who else to convey it that another human being. “No man/humankind is an island”.

    In the Hebrew Bible days, a covenant was between a master/king and vassals, binding the two together with loyalty and protection to the king and protection and provender to the vassals– a suzerainty covenant. The covenant became transformed at Zion (I think), or I would have to check my text and notes. Maybe someone else knows this better than I do now as I am relying on my “memory”! See “Sinai and Zion” by don (?) Levinson.

    What better “job” to have than to “love” one’s neighbor? . . . A huge, demanding, all-encompassing job!

    • Marta e. on June 3, 2015 at 07:43

      And to give to our Creator such JOY! M

  7. Todd Donatelli on June 3, 2015 at 05:45

    Brueggemann says, “As a Christian, I have to be bilingual enough to notice that our confiscation of the tradition is not the only possible legitimate confiscation of the tradition.” Love this.
    And regarding what God gets out of covenant with us, I think a lot of delight.
    Thank you Curtis.

  8. John David Spangler on August 4, 2014 at 07:25

    Dear Brother Almquist, being greatly troubled by the word covenant, I need your help! I have always understood that a covenant was made between two parties. In the covenant with Abraham and his descendants this is not the case. I see no evidence that the people of Israel entered into any agreement with God. He made a pledge to them and a pledge to carry the pledge out regardless of their actions. I believe that the biblical covenants were made “to” not “with”. Accordingly, I seek your good counsel. Cheers! Peace! Love! David

  9. Linda McVay on October 27, 2013 at 06:54

    Thank you for this very important message.

  10. Maureen Doyle on October 30, 2012 at 19:21

    Watch the children as they play. There are no strangers. The “new kid” fast becomes Tasha who can do a somersault; or Ibrahem who can make milk squirt out his nose.
    We are born knowing that we all “belong.” Somewhere along the way, we become convinced that we should exclude some.
    We must become as children (except for squirting milk out our noses).

    • anders on June 3, 2015 at 10:14

      I say yes to squirting milk out of my nose!

  11. Anders on October 29, 2012 at 05:46

    Your meditation touched a healing, still raw nerve, having grown up in a shaming ethnic evangelical “Covenant” enclave which seemed to claim some special access to God that remained beyond my grasp. I have found much peace and healing in reaching out to members of other faiths, including going to a mosque for prayers with a Muslim friend. This has helped strengthen my faith as a Christian, despite that I’d likely be viewed as an apostate in my “Covenant” origin.

    I gladly agree with your Brueggemann quote, “As a Christian, I have to be bilingual enough to notice that our confiscation of the tradition is not the only possible legitimate confiscation of the tradition.” The question which remains for me: how do I actively share or expand my confiscated Abrahamic tradition in interfaith with others? One avenue has been through an organization called Dances of Universal Peace (http://www.dancesofuniversalpeace.org), though this is something I would like to examine further through my church. An Abrahamic community dinner perhaps? Thanks for the inspiration!

  12. Benneville Strohecker on April 8, 2009 at 14:01

    Wonderful message.
    I intend to circulate it widely.
    b

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