Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Sign of the Covenant: GENESIS 9:8-17, 1 PETER 3:18-22

This morning's passages on this first Sunday of Lent are Genesis 9:8-17 and 1 Peter 3:18-22.

We're hearing a lot this week about Christians killed for their faith. Specifically about the 21 Egyptian  Christians who recently lost their lives for their faith. This week's passages speak to that suffering and give us an idea of what we can do for them all these thousands of miles away from our safe homes and churches.

The sermon podcast is here:
And the hymns are here:
The manuscript is after the break.

The Christians on the receiving end of Peter’s first letter were suffering some hard times. The author of 1 Peter is addressing persecuted Christians. They were persecuted for their beliefs by pretty much everyone around them. The Jews persecuted them, the pagans persecuted them. Pretty much everywhere they turned, they were met with adversity simply because they were Christian.
The persecution they were suffering was not minor either. It’s not just that their holidays weren’t observed by the other people around them or that people thought they were a little strange for their beliefs. The Christians in the early church were at the receiving end of some serious anger and misplaced judgment. The lucky ones who were caught were jailed. The less fortunate were killed – oftentimes alongside their entire family. It was not just inconvenient or unpopular for these Christians to be Christian – in many cases, it was an illegal and life-threatening choice to worship Jesus Christ as God.
It’s a real wonder that the Christian faith survived through all of that. There must have been a really powerful and compelling story that these Christians were telling that there were people who were willing to convert, knowing that doing so would put their lives in danger!
You know that old saying “misery loves company?” I think there’s something to that. Sometimes it’s taken to mean that miserable people make other people miserable so they aren’t alone in their misery. And that is certainly sometimes true. But I think it’s got a flipside too. There is comfort in knowing that we’re not walking through our pain alone.
That’s where much of the power of our story as Christians comes from. It comes from knowing that we don’t walk through persecution and suffering alone. Peter doesn’t tell us that Jesus suffered for us and with us because we can’t be good Christians without suffering or that we’re supposed to look for suffering in our lives, but to point out that Jesus so participated in the human experience that he too suffered great persecution at the hands of others.
But is all Jesus came for to suffer alongside of us? Not according to Scripture. Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant that God made with God’s people long ago. A Covenant in which God said, “Hey, people! I am on your side! I am with you no matter what.”
A covenant is different than a promise. It’s more binding. Today we seem to see covenant as being something a little softer than it was seen in Biblical times. Today when we hear covenant, we hear “promise” or “really strong important promise” maybe. But in the way that it’s used in the Bible, a covenant is a legal term. What’s weird about the covenant that God makes with humanity is that God knows the other party is going to be unable to keep up their end of the covenant. This is a one-sided thing and God knows that going into it.
Yet, God still enters into covenant with humanity.
Maybe those of you who are parents can sympathize a little bit with God on this one. Perhaps you can see a glimpse of what sort of love God must have to look at someone who is sure to break the rules, to make a mess of things, to treat his or her parents and siblings and pets and home and whatever else poorly from time to time and to say, “I love you anyway. You screwed up. But I love you no matter what and I always will.”
Ancient covenants often had a physical symbol or sign of the covenant. In a time where few people could read, these symbols were a reminder to all the people of what was promised and what was required. It’s why the rainbow is so important in the story of Noah.
But Jesus wasn’t just a symbol of God’s solidarity with humanity: he came to show us the deep, amazing, unconditional, covenantal love that God has for us all. And Jesus is not just a symbol, but a manifestation – the love made physical and tangible – something we can feel and touch and really truly understand.
We all made it to church this morning. There are some of our members who didn’t get to church this week, but it’s due to work or illness or weather – not because any of them were killed or imprisoned for being Christian. We’re pretty fortunate here. It’s true that there aren’t nearly as many Americans in church this morning as there used to be on any given Sunday morning – not by any stretch – but that’s not the sort of suffering that Peter is talking about in his letter. That’s not the church that he’s comforting.
The church that Peter was comforting in his letter was the church in places like Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, North Korea, and Sudan. These are the places today where Christians are jailed or killed for their faith. This week, a video was made public in which 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded by extremists. This is the persecution that Peter is offering hope for.
There are still many places in the world where religious intolerance is woven into the culture. In 2015, we like to think that we are above that sort of barbaric action, yet we still continue to hear about places where people are jeered and harassed, jailed and executed for their faith. And it’s not just Christians who suffer. A friend of mine, a social worker and counselor right here in the Pittsburgh area, recently met with a client who is an immigrant from Iraq. The woman told her that she had recently told her daughter to stop wearing her hijab in public because she was being harassed on the streets for being Muslim.
It’s not just Christians who need a champion, who need a friend in the midst of persecution and suffering and mistreatment. It’s not just Christians who need to hear the message of the suffering savior. We are called to carry the gospel to all people. We are called to love our neighbors and show compassion for all.
            If we ignore the persecution of others both on our own streets and around the world because of their religion, their race, their gender, their sexual orientation, their class, their whatever, what message are we sending? What can we do for those who are suffering the sort of persecution that Peter is writing about in the letter we read from this morning? How do we spread the news that no one is alone and that God hates to see beloved children persecuted?
            I read a beautiful story this week that illustrates this idea of the church being the symbol of covenant – of the church shining the love of God to those who are suffering:
 One day a young mother was taking a walk with her small son and they saw a rainbow. The four-year-old boy looked up in wonder and said, “Mommy, can we take that home and put it in our house?” His awestruck question prompted the mother to write a poem she titled “A Rainbow in My House.” She took her son’s question literally, imagining what it would be like to have a rainbow in their house, on their walls, emanating from the windows and doors, coming out the chimney. The house was transformed, and it could not contain the glory of the rainbow and its colors.1,[1]

How can we be rainbows? How can we be walking representations of the covenant of love that God makes with humanity? How can we be rainbows that show the sacrifice of Christ to those around us? Peter says that a rainbow walks down the street with someone who is at risk because of their faith – protecting all those around us from those who would harm them unjustly – regardless of their background, their gender, their race, even their religion. A rainbow reaches out to the outcasts and tells them, “You are loved.” A rainbow prays for the downtrodden, the misfits, the persecuted. A rainbow doesn’t participate in persecution by ignoring it, but rather takes it seriously as an offense to God.
While it’s vitally important to remember the people both near and far from us, it is sometimes easier to see the ways we can combat persecution and hate in our own neighborhoods. We can walk with someone nobody else wants to walk with. We can speak up when people are speaking intolerance and hate about other groups of people. We can refuse to ignore unfair treatment in the workplace and in the schools. We can befriend people who are different from us in some way – even when it’s uncomfortable.
It’s harder to figure out what to do in the face of the plight of our brothers and sisters around the world who are dying for their faith in Christ. This week, I set out in the kitchen some information from a website I discovered this week when I was researching Christian persecution around the world. It’s really helpful and pretty unbiased information on which countries are the most dangerous for Christians and has some background info on the most dangerous ones. I encourage everyone – yes everyone – to take one home this week and to pray over it. Take some time to read about what’s happening to Christians around the world and to pray for them and to thank God for the freedom that we have to meet openly here together this morning to worship.
Let us spend this week thinking about how we can each be a rainbow – a sign of the covenant and a representative on earth of the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for the forgiveness of humankind.

1 Personal story used by permission of Michelle Sisk, student at Iliff School of Theology and candidate for ordination in the United Church of Christ.
[1] Ferguson, J. A. (2008). Pastoral Perspective on Genesis 9:8–17. In D. L. Bartlett & B. B. Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B (Vol. 2, p. 26). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press.

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