Harrowing Of Hell
April 4, 2015

Easter Vigil Sermon: Covenant

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

I casually mentioned to a friend the other morning that I would be spending a good portion of my day working on this Easter sermon, to which she replied, “After all these years, you would think that would be figured out by now. What are you still writing?” My off the cuff response was, “Well, the Holy Spirit is still speaking you know. There are still things to say. I hope.”

It’s true. I hope there are still things to say that are relevant to our lives, relevant to our spiritual journeys, and relevant to our relationships with God. But even more than “hoping,” I believe it to be true and your presence here tonight suggests that you might agree with me.

If social media is to be trusted at all—which is highly debatable—we may be in the minority, certainly in Seattle. The other night, I let myself get sucked in. I was scrolling through Facebook in the evening, and King 5 had posted this question on their page, “Seattle is bucking the national trend when it comes to churches – more are starting up than are closing down here. What does CHURCH mean to you?” Last time I looked, there were 781 comments. They seemed to be split fairly evenly between totally rude and judgmental of Christianity in general and a positive affirmation of what church has done in people’s lives.

As someone who spends a lot of time immersed in church, it was interesting to read through the comments of those disenfranchised with organized religion – those for whom the idea of writing an Easter sermon seems absurd because they can’t imagine an active, ongoing relationship with God that continues today. If a relationship with God is to be more than ancient history, what does that look like? What do we do to uphold our end of the relationship? What actions do we take? What does it look like? What does it feel like?

Tonight, I’m going to be talking about relationships. I’m going to explore the idea of covenant and the difference between a regular old relationship and vowing to be in covenantal relationship. A relationship with another person makes sense. We are all in relationship with other people in some capacity or another and understand the intricacies of what that entails – whether it is a spouse or partner, friend, parent, neighbor, or co-worker.

So, how about your relationship with God? What does that look like? Is it a give and take relationship based upon mutuality and respect? Is it filled with unconditional love and mutual admiration? Or is it completely one-sided?

The God of the Old Testament, the one we just heard about in the readings from Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, the God portrayed in those stories is an active God, interacting with Noah, Moses, the Israelites, and all of God’s people. But the relationship between God and God’s people as reflected in the stories of the Old Testament that we just heard, goes even deeper. It is a covenantal relationship.

After the flood, God said to Noah and the rest of his family, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you…” We heard it again in Isaiah when God said, “I will make with you an everlasting covenant.” And once more in the prayer just before the sermon when we said together, “Almighty God, who in the Paschal mystery, in the Easter mystery, established the new covenant of reconciliation.”

So, how is a covenantal relationship different than any other relationship? By definition, a covenant means to agree, promise, pledge, engage, guarantee, in other words to commit oneself or bind oneself. A covenantal relationship is more intentional, has a higher level of commitment, and requires more work. Covenantal relationships also have the capacity to nourish our spirits and our souls in richer and more satisfying ways because they require more from us.

In a moment, all of us will renew our baptismal covenant. That means, we will recommit to the vows we made, or the vows someone else made on our behalf at our baptism. We will recommit ourselves to those vows and reaffirm our commitment to being in covenantal relationship with God. That isn’t something to be entered into lightly. And after that, we will support these five children: Elliott, Jillian, Rocco, Conor, and Madison as they enter into this everlasting covenant with God.

How many times in our life do we have the opportunity to make vows or enter into covenant? Not very many. Baptism, marriage, and possibly ordination or entering holy orders of some kind. That is it. Every human being, every human soul, is invited to enter into this covenantal relationship with God. We do it through baptism. This is the covenant Christians make with God. The only other time in our life in which we make vows is marriage, when two people vow to love one another for a lifetime, and in the Episcopal church at least, we consider that a sacrament just like baptism.

These are sacred moments and they have sacred symbols; like God’s rainbow in the clouds, or the Lord in a pillar of fire and cloud as he delivered the Israelites at the Red Sea, or God as the water of life, and even God’s gift of a new heart and a new spirit. Other sacred moments have other symbols, like rings exchanged in marriage, or the water, oil, and candles we will use tonight in baptism.

But there’s also something terrifying about making vows. If you are married, think back to your wedding day. Or, if you have baptized a child, think back to that day. Did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into? It took a whole lot of trust, a whole lot of love, and a giant leap of faith, all the while leaning on God and your community. That’s what this covenantal relationship with God is all about. It’s a leap of faith and it’s a stretch too because it doesn’t look like anything else we know.

Covenant and vowing to be in relationship with God or another person is about promising to be in relationship even when you don’t want to be, even when it’s hard. But the thing is, the hard part is freeing at the same time.

But the most important thing to remember is that you are doing it right now. You are in relationship with God right now. You are doing it by praying. You are doing it by participating in the life of a Christian community. You are doing it when you remember that you are in God’s presence. Covenant is the lived expression of our connection with God.

Now, we move into the time of baptisms and we pray the Baptismal Covenant. This might be your first time to hear this prayer and these questions, or it might be etched in your memory and your heart by now. Regardless of how many times you’ve heard it, I want you to really listen.

After affirming the words of the Apostle’s Creed, the presider asks us five questions. The first one being this, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” And we respond together, “I will, with God’s help.” These five questions provide a framework for our covenant: our pledge, our promise, and our binding guarantee to God, that we will ALWAYS seek relationship, no matter what.

As we move into the Great Fifty Days of Easter, I invite you to consider covenant. Choose ONE of these five questions and your affirmation, “I will, with God’s help.” Choose ONE, and carry it with you these Fifty Days.

Covenant is the lived expression of our connection with God. How are you going to do throughout these next Fifty Days of Easter?