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Covenant of Gratitude
November 25, 2018
Rev. Fritz Nelson

Text: Psalm 118:1, Colossians 3:12-17

Its 1620. The Pilgrims – they called themselves Separatists – wait on the Mayflower for permission to go ashore and start their new settlement. Realizing the need for 100% commitment and unity before embarking on the next stage of their adventure, the community’s leaders draft a simple document. After much flowery language celebrating their King and the divine calling of their mission, the document gets down to business. One sentence is all it takes:

“We … do … solemnly and mutually covenant and combine ourselves together in a Civil Body Politic…”

We do solemnly and mutually covenant together. Covenant for the Pilgrims was a loaded word. The Pilgrims were strict followers of John Calvin, the founding father of the strain of theology we Presbyterians still more or less kind of follow. When England went Protestant, the Pilgrims felt they had not gone far enough. They separated from the Church of England and fled to Holland, which was the only country in Europe to have religious freedom. But they wanted more than freedom – they wanted an opportunity to create an entire society based on their understanding of divine covenant – of being God’s chosen people who were called to do God’s will in this world.

God calls Abraham out of the desert and makes him a promise – your family will be my people and I will be your God. I will love you, I will care for you, I will prosper you. And you will walk steadfastly with me. You will go where I call you to go. Do as I call you to do. In me your name will become great. Through me you will transform the world.

Covenant underlies the entire Old Testament. God creates a covenant with Noah never again to destroy the world. God creates a covenant with Abraham to make his name great, provide land for his extended family and be his God. God rescues the Israelites from Egypt because he remembers his covenant and reaffirms his covenant through the law. To the prophets God gave a vision of a new covenant, one not of laws but of totally mutual belonging to God. Jesus is the new covenant, sealing it with his blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins. His death on the cross makes the fullness of God’s covenant accessible to us, enabling us to become children of God, joint heirs with Christ, full recipients of the benefits of God’s grace.

On Sundays, first in their humble homes and then in the community and later in a central meeting hall, they would gather as God’s chosen ones. As they worshipped they would sing the Psalms:

O give thanks to the Lord for He is good
Because his mercy endureth forever

I first heard these words not in church but around the table at my wife’s house. They would – and still do – start blessing the meal by reciting a handful of responses from the Psalms. I didn’t know they were Psalms then – I’d discover that later – it was just what they said.

O give thanks to the Lord for He is good
Because his mercy/love/steadfast love endures forever

What you say depends on what century you’re speaking from. The Hebrew behind Psalm 118 is Hesed – a powerful word meaning love so deep, so enduring, so abundant; a love forming and shaping us, preserving and protecting us, supporting and redeeming us; a love we long for, hope for, yearn for; a love only available through God’s grace – through God’s covenant with us.

A love enduring forever. Once negotiated a covenant holds until one party or the other dies. Generations passed between God’s declaring his covenant with Abraham and God’s remembering it as the Israelites cried out in Egypt. The Israelites had largely forgotten this God of their ancestors, but God hadn’t forgotten, the covenant still held. Generations more would pass between God’s giving the Israelites the law and God’s hearing the cry of those oppressed by Romans and religious authorities alike. They still followed God, but had forgotten who God was. Yet God remembered his covenant and sent his only Son to show us how to live and to die so we might be fully adopted into divine covenant – so we might receive without limits God’s steadfast love.

God’s steadfast love – his Hesed

Decades ago, when I was seven, or eight – maybe nine – I walked into the kitchen to see my mother squatting in front of the refrigerator – you know, like you do when you know there is hoisin sauce in there somewhere. Sensing a unique opportunity I tiptoed behind her and shoved – sending her face first into the fridge. I’ve never before or since seen my mother so mad. We weren’t a corporal punishment household – I can count on one hand – actually on a few fingers – the number of times I was spanked – and this was one of them. A bare bottomed thrashing. The whole event is seared into my memory – as vivid today as it was then.

A few years before my mother died we were talking and I brought this event up. She had no recollection of it. I was shocked. How could she not recall this time I’d been so aweful, so disrespectful, so misplacing of her trust? But she had no recollection at all.

That’s Hesed. That’s covenantal love. A love enduring forever because God has bound the divine self to us, a divine self required to love without limits because God is love.

And we’re left to revel in God’s love and give thanks. Not for the little stuff. Not to sit and count our blessings while also grousing about how troubled and difficult our lives are. Not to parse our thanks by saying we could have done it better ourselves, or we should have received more, or received something differently.

No, we just give thanks. Consistently, cheerfully, constantly. For we are children of God, adopted into the divine covenant, a covenant promising God’s steadfast love – a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over; enduring forever.