A Covenant of Love
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, September 28, 1997

 

Readings:

1 Kings 8:22-29 Solomon's Prayer of Dedication
Luke 1:67-75 Zechariah's Song
Arcana Coelestia #1055 The covenant of love and kindness

O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below--you who keep your covenant of love with your servants who continue wholeheartedly in your way. (1 Kings 8:23)

This is a special day for all of us. Even though I have been here as your pastor for a year already, this afternoon in our installation service we are celebrating the beginning of our relationship with each other. We have had a year to try it out, and now the three year contract that we have signed is a written testimony to our happiness with the relationship. Though in one sense the contract is only words on paper, it represents much more than that: it is an expression of the agreement that I have made to love and serve you as my congregation, and that you have made to love and support me as your pastor.

The Bible has a different word for "contract." That word is "covenant." The word "covenant" may sound more poetic and Biblical than "contract," but really it is the same thing--only with the deeper meaning more clearly present. When we think of a covenant in the Biblical sense, we do not get stuck in the legal idea of a written document that is binding on the parties that sign it. Rather, we focus on the heart of the relationship that the covenant represents: we focus on a covenant of love between the Lord and his people.

The very first time I preached here in this church as your pastor, I read the story of Moses setting up the tabernacle for the first time. Today's reading from 1 Kings celebrates a similar occasion: it is the beginning of King Solomon's prayer of dedication for the first Temple to the Lord in Jerusalem, which he had just finished building. This scene also calls to mind the new beginning we are celebrating later today when the Rev. Edwin Capon comes to install me as your pastor.

King Solomon's words provide us with our theme for this morning's service. He speaks of the Lord as the one who keeps a "covenant of love" with his servants who continue wholeheartedly in his way. We sometimes think of the Bible as a great, long saga that is far to much for us to easily grasp. But then we come upon these wonderfully brief phrases that cut right to the core of the matter.

"A covenant of love." Love, as Swedenborg tells us, is the covenant. He says, "There is no other eternal covenant besides love to the Lord and love toward our neighbor." (Arcana Coelestia #1055) And even this sweeping statement is not enough. He continues, "The whole of heaven is founded on love. In fact, so is the whole order of nature, since in the natural order nothing at all exists that has any union or connection if it does not trace its source back to love."

A covenant is a relationship. The Biblical covenant is a covenant between the Lord and all of his creation. And that covenant is not only based on love, it is love. Love is not an abstract thing or a wispy feeling that only poets and lovers have fleeting glimpses of. It is the stuff that we are all made of, and it is the very real and human relationships that we share with each other.

For example, when we talk with each other, it is our love speaking. Oh yes, our love is filtered through our thinking minds. Often by the time the words come out, the love that prompted them has become so deeply hidden and disguised that we can easily forget that behind them there is a person with a warm and beating heart. We say things to people because we care about them--we care about the people and we care about the things we are trying to communicate through our words. Nothing we say or do comes from pure intellect. No matter what the outward appearance, all of it comes from the love that we are made of.

This should not surprise us. We know both from the Bible and from the teachings of our church that God is love in a very literal way. God is love. And everything God does is an expression of love, and has love at its core. That means that the entire spiritual and physical universe is love at its core. And it means that we are love at our core.

However, unlike everything else in the universe, we human beings can turn that love into something that it was never meant to be. We can take love for God and for other people and turn it into hatred and contempt for them instead. Or we can water it down to apathy that does not move us to acts of love and kindness toward each other.

God knew when he created us to be expressions of love that we would turn away from that love and go astray on our own paths of error and sorrow. Yet he did not leave us to those hopeless paths. Instead, as Zechariah says in our reading from Luke, "he has come and has redeemed his people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us . . . salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us--to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant."

These enemies that the Lord has saved us from are not enemies that carry rifles or arrive at our shores in warships and jet fighters. They are the spiritual enemies of hatred, apathy, selfishness, greed. They are the false and destructive loves that turn us away from the true and eternal covenant of love that the Lord offers us: the covenant of mutual love between us and the Lord, and between us and all the people that the Lord has given us to be with here on earth. If we are willing to enter into a covenant of love with the Lord, he will help us to overcome all the inner enemies that we struggle with throughout our lives. Yes, we will still have to struggle with them. But with the Lord's help, over time, we will overcome them. This is the promise of the covenant.

Today we are celebrating a covenant of love. It is a covenant of mutual love, support, and service that you and I are entering into. This covenant represents more than a mutual commitment made by me as pastor and you as congregation. It also represents a commitment that we as a church body--as a member of the body of Christ--are making to serve each other and our community out of love for our neighbor. If we as a church did not make this commitment, there would be no point in having a pastor, or even having a church, since this is the essence of being a church.

As our mission statement says, "Our mission is to nurture spiritual growth by: worshipping the one God, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, studying his Word, and living a life of kindness and service." This is the mission and the covenant that we as a church have made with our Lord. The order in which our mission unfolds is a good one: it starts with the worship of our Lord Jesus Christ, gains shape and substance through the study of his Word, and both of these are expressed in a life of kindness and service to others. This is our church's covenant of love.

We know that we often do not live up to this covenant. We know that as a church, we are often focused inward, on our own internal affairs, rather than outward on the work that the Lord is calling us to do. Sometimes we may think that we are too small a group to express that covenant in outward-looking ways. But if we think this way, we will only bring about our own failure to carry out the mission that we have set for ourselves.

The Lord also knows that we often do not live up to our covenant, and that too often we fail to fulfill its good and loving goals. Yet the Lord is never content to let us remain in a position that falls short of our potential. The Lord is always calling us to reach beyond what we have previously done or even conceived of as possible for our church. The Lord is calling us to reach out in new ways, from love.

Perhaps we still have lingering thoughts that this is just not possible for us. That we can only make small and gradual progress toward the goals that not just we, but the Lord himself has set before us. But then again, if someone had asked us a year ago, how many of us would have thought it possible that our church steeple might soon be rebuilt?

The Lord is not limited by size or by history. The Lord is always offering to break us free from any limitations that we may feel are holding us back. The Lord is offering us so much more than we could possibly do on our own. The Lord is offering us a covenant of love--a covenant that puts us in the stream of the greatest and most powerful force in the universe: God's love.

As we make our commitment to each other in our installation service this afternoon, I pray that our commitment will not only be to each other, but will also be a renewed commitment--a covenant--to carry out our mission and purpose for existing as a church. I pray that as we renew and continue our relationship with each other, we will also be renewing and strengthening a covenant of love with the Lord, with each other, and with all the people of our community. Amen.


İDanny Hahlbohm
name of painting is "Little Precious One"

Music: How I Love You
İ 1999 Bruce DeBoer

Floating Hearts Script
Courtesy of: