Like the magi taking their gifts to the God-child, God Himself calls us to bring all that we have and all that we are, and to offer them, with glad and thankful, even broken and bruised hearts before Him.
The Covenant Service is solemn, deeply searching, and is one of the most beautiful liturgies for the renewal of Christian commitment, of both individuals and of communities, particularly when used at the start of a New Calendar Year. In good Wesleyan form, the crux of the service is a firm reminder of the God who keeps His promises from age to age, and whose complete orientation, is that of love and grace before all else.
Some of the thoughts that have fed my reflections here come from writings and sermons from Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Canon Mark Oakley. I wanted to try and encourage people to come to God with all that they are, as the Covenant Keeping God is the God who longs to reach out to the whole of us, even the us we often hide…I preached this sermon at St Andrew’s Methodist Church, Cardiff on Covenant Sunday 4th Jan 2015.
Law: Deuteronomy 29:10-15
Prophets: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Epistle: Romans 12:1-2
Gospel: Mark 14:22-25
Covenant Keeping God, We sometimes struggle to show you who we really are, so often we make our Covenants with you, bringing not our wholeselves, but ourselves as we think you would have us be. Help us to hear you speaking to us this morning, not only through our ears, but deep in the very depths of who we are. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and Our Redeemer. Amen.
One of the highlights of the Methodist Year for me and I’m sure for many is this very service, we know it so well – and many circuits now hold this service in September at the start of the Methodist New Year which may have its merits, but I think we’ve got it right holding it in January – when we really feel in our hearts and minds that we have begun a new year one which will bring change and new horizons and hopefully when we feel optimistic and ready for a new start – I think it’s good for us mentally aswell as spiritually…
Recently though, I’ve been thinking, as I was looking through the Covenant Service and I found myself asking – just why on earth do we do this? It’s so weird, it’s so solemn, it’s so heavy!
Why do we have a Covenant Service?
Why do it every year?
Why this particular way, with these particular words, in this particular place within the context of Holy Communion?
It seems like the Methodist version of spiritual flagellation…we come, reminded of our sins and unfaithfulness, to remember the faithfulness and love of God and renew our Covenant with God and then we ask, amongst other things, to be put to suffering and hard work, redundancy and emptiness – lifted high and brought low…if it be God’s will for us! (I wonder if it ever crosses our mind that one day it might just be!? Or for some that may already be a reality…)
It’s about commitment, It’s about conversion, it’s about sacrifice –
In a secular world that says that all there is, is deceit and mistrust and broken promises and despair and certainly no God!
In a world that is obsessed as it has always been with Money Sex and Power, the Covenant – a vow, a promise, a commitment to an unseen God is totally countercultural.
What we’re doing here isn’t normal.
What we’re doing isn’t easily understood.
What we’re doing isn’t the done thing in today’s world or even in most of today’s church.
And if we really thought about what we were doing, we might not even turn up to Church when we knew it was going to be a Covenant Service. [Of course us poor Ministers have no choice!]
For some reason for Wesley, this was important, it was important to him that the Methodist people renewed, annually, their covenant relationship with God and so he took it from the Puritans and made a few changes to it, the Wesleyan Conference revised it time and time again, and it’s one good piece of liturgy from the earliest days of the Methodist Societies that we still use in near enough full form today.
I want to help us think about three things that, I believe challenge our covenant with God, things that get in the way, that try to mess things up…when I asked some friends they came up with things like: failing to see God living up to his side of the covenant, thinking we don’t need the relationship, other things or other people…some said fear, materialism, compromise, watered down belief in scripture, and one even said the Church….I’m going with three less exciting things – Self, the Devil, and Sin. Those are my choices.
In different ways, through different means even, perhaps at different times.
[Self, the Devil, and sin]
Self, us, who we think we are, who we appear to be.
The psychologist Carl Jung calls a portion of the self, the shadow…For Jung, the self as it grows, learns to keep people happy and as it grows and develops, the human self develops a face that we present to the outside world, a little bit like a shop window, showing your best wares – or a Facebook profile telling people all about the best bits of your existence and leaving out the muck.
Jung says, this persona is in reality everything that you are NOT.
And that we repress, push down our emotions, qualities, traits, talents, sides to us which are essential, but which don’t quite go with the mask and the particular communities we exist in.
Things we have concluded are not acceptable.
And we push these things down, into the depths of our being, or, into a big black rubbish bag, which is full to bursting – and we keep piling things ontop of what’s already there into a place which absolutely no-one must see or touch, not even yourself.
Out of sight, out of touch, out of our consciousness…
That’s the untouchable self, the untouchable within. The Shadow.
You can be made whole by recognizing it, or you can just ignore it and carry on as “normal”…
Keep your intimate self and your social self separate. At odds. Apart from eachother as though they were not connected somehow.
For Jung, the thing about the shadow is that the shadow will always out. It won’t stay hidden for ever.
It will come out in an outburst, in a dream, in a comment, a criticism, a breakdown – of the mind or of a relationship, or perhaps the two.
And of course it’s not just individuals who have shadows, places, groups, organisations, families, churches…and clergy, needless to say, clergy have often very large shadows because we have such manicured personalities…or we are developing them!
The shadow can be why some of us drink, or take drugs, or have unhealthy relationships because through those things our inhibitions drop away and we have moments when we come into contact with that other self.
The false self gets in the way of our covenant with God, because it’s not really us. It’s an act, it’s false, it’s half of us, if that – but it’s not the US as God created us. It’s not the US that fully reflects all the glory and wonder of God – it’s not the US that is all it should be, which is fearfully and wonderfully made.
God wants to see our shadow, God wants to touch our shadow, God wants to bring our shadow into the light. God wants us to take our shadow seriously, because he takes our shadow seriously.
Then there is, the Devil and Sin – the other two. Connected, I think.
I said that Covenant was about commitment, conversion and sacrifice – those are three things the devil hates.
Commitment to God.
Conversion of life.
Sacrifice of self for the other in whom we serve the Lord himself.
Remember Jesus led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil. When the devil takes him up to the high place what does he do?
First of all he takes him away from where he ought to be – to a place where they can be alone.
Then he shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world – he shows Jesus potential.
Then he tells Jesus that Jesus can have it all – all the kingdoms of the world, but for a price – the price being that Jesus must fall down and worship him, corrupt God’s plan, break his covenant.
Then finally, the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem – right to the top of the temple and tells Jesus to throw himself down, for the Angels of heaven will catch him and protect him.
He wanted Jesus to give up his commitment to his father, convert to the ways of darkness and runaway from the ultimate sacrifice which instead of being paid on the cross would not be paid at all.
That’s always what the devil seeks – everything for us that is anti-cross…that’s all the satanic is, anti-cross, anti-unity, anti-covenant – anti-Christ
Satan offers Jesus three shortcuts from the cross:
- Do whatever the hell you personally feel like doing. Impulse!
- Marvel the people by wonders, you need no cross.
- Have the kingdoms of the world, forget the transcendent, what you really came for – you have no need to be concerned with the divine.
The Church could be said to be very close to giving up on those three things:
self-denial, discipline, mystery…
Things the world so desperately needs today. When we come to make our covenant with God, or to receive the eucharist – the devil reminds us of our sins, of our pasts, of our failures. Fills us with doubt and fear about whether we can live up to the mark – just as he did to Jesus on the temple roof. There is no progress in the Christian life without trial.
You don’t need commitment, you don’t need conversion, sacrifice – that’s a thing of the past. I’ve come to make your life easier, burdenless…when we are tempted God appears as the inconvenient one who gets in the way and the devil appears as the one who clears the way to make things easier…
Forget this covenant talk – that’s what the devil wants. Let your sin have the better of you, you can’t do anything about it anyway…give up, don’t change…you’ve been this way most of your life – forget your shadow, because if you start dealing with that, you might improve as a person…!
A good way to deal with sin is to confess it, because once it’s out in the open it’s not up for grabs by the forcess of evil.
A good way to deal with the devil is to tell him the word of God, so we need to get to know it.
A good way to progress in the Christian life is to pray daily and receive Holy Communion as much as you can. It unites us, it reminds us that we are forgiven, it feeds us spiritually and physically.
If we look into our world what we see too much of, is a hatred of discipline, a hatred of the cross, a hatred of unity, a hatred of sacrifice. People long for a life without limits and commitment.
What if every year the Covenant we made with God served as a reminder to us that if God can bring about change in our hearts and in the hearts of so many of those who have gone before us in the Faith, then God can bring about change in our world and in the Church?
What if we made a clear connection between what we do in here and what we do out there?
What if we evangelized, and told the world about this God who keeps his covenant with us year by year?
What if we allowed the light that shines in the darkness, to shine where it wills and as brightly as it wills?
What if we told the world that there was a way to be set free from the weight of sin and from the shadows that follow us?
What if we told the world that there was a way to remove the masks that we wear? And that whilst that may involve therapy and medication, a relationship with God might be a good thing to have and to nurture…
“I’m afraid to tell you how I feel, because you may not feel the same way”,
“I’m afraid to be me with you, because you might stop wanting to be around me”,
or more to the point:
“I’m afraid to tell you who I am, because If I do, you may not love me.”
Words which I think we have all held in our hearts before God, or before others…
“I’m afraid to tell you who I am, because If I do, you may not love me.”…God I’m scared of letting you be God….I’m scared of letting you be you because of who and what I am.
I’m going to close now, but I just want to leave you with this:
I believe, that the Covenant Keeping God, even loves us when all we willingly show Him is ourselves with our masks on.
God loves us and God loves us even with all that we repress.
That Covenant Keeping God calls us to be attentive to our fears and our fantasies, and our failures – to be truly alive, to be in covenant relationship is to be in honest union – in marriage – in oneness with a God who longs for us to be one.
As we recall the mystery of his incarnation and recall the life of Christ in bread and wine, he asks us to recall our true selves. Because in the few moments when we share this sacred meal of his body and blood, and as we renew our covenant with God, God wants us to come with our whole selves.
Garbage bag and all. Tempted self and torn self. True self and false self. Real self and shadow…
And to come before him – knowing that we are no longer our own, we were never our own, we were always his and his we shall always remain.
There were no shortcuts for Jesus from the cross, or to the cross – there are no shortcuts for us from our covenant relationship or to the fullness of it.
But we mustn’t allow those things which get in the way of our covenant relationship with God to stick – instead we need to learn to try our best, to come to God with our intimate self and our social self, with our sin and our temptations, with our brokenness and our incompleteness, our doubts and our pain and our fears and our complexities. Because if you can’t be real with God, just who on earth can you be real with…so let us try to come before him today…
Trusting that in our deepest wounds, we and all of God’s people may see the glory of the God who keeps his covenant, never breaks his promise and never leaves us nor forsakes us – even when he sees all that we are.