Belonging in Covenant
First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15
What we have here is two wildly inclusive covenants – although Jesus’ isn’t yet labelled as such.
The Covenant described in this part of Genesis is made with “all living flesh” for multiple generations. Those Jesus invites to follow him respond to an open invitation to Repent and Believe in the Good News that the time is now and the Kingdom of God is here, which meant that the early followers were an amazingly diverse group, defying all demographic categorizations. In coming together those early followers became one group where no one belonged and everyone belonged.
Part of the point of baptism was to wash away the old self – your former relational, professional, geographical self – so that you could be made new in Christ. That was what early followers did during Lent: got ready for baptism and new life. Jesus was baptized first and then spent his 40 days in the wilderness, but for the early church the wilderness was a necessary preparation for the rebirth of baptism.
To join the early church was a lonely proposition: it meant leaving behind family, community, status, connectedness and your place in the world. This was not something to be undertaken lightly. But to join the early church also meant a whole new family, a whole new community and purpose in life, and it meant being part of something much greater than yourself.
So in the way you had always seen your place in the world, you had nowhere you know belonged. But in the new way you could see yourself in the world, you belonged to something very powerful and visionary.
Even after that 40 days of preparation, though, belonging takes work. No one magically emerges from Lent thoroughly reborn. If they had, Paul – and others – wouldn’t have needed to write all those letters explaining what it meant to be the church and care for one another and imitate Christ. No one, having been promised that God will never again destroy the earth with a flood, and that this promise is for all generations with all living flesh, is magically going to leave behind the tendency to violence – and the things that lead to violence – that they had grown up knowing was there and suddenly belong to the kind of human race that John Lennon described in the song Imagine.
The difficult work of belonging may be why God just couldn’t leave the covenant alone. That first covenant was all up to God. People didn’t have to invest anything into belonging to the covenant, so maybe they were less invested in the world it was aimed at creating. The early church needed heavily invested members. It demanded a lot of people – beginning with the separation from their former life and asking more and more along the way until it might event ask people to go to their death singing and praising God. Of course, those people needed a lot of time to think it over and strengthen their faith in the new religion they wanted to belong to.
Churches still demand things of the people who belong to them. They demand money, they demand time, they demand commitment and participation in programs and small group membership.Some churches have hard lines and high demands, others are less strict and more indirect in their approach.
We are radically inclusive but we still ask things of each other, starting with a membership course, and going on to acceptance of a congregational covenant and regular participation, whether in worship, leadership, outside of Sunday activities, financial support or practical help like photo-copying, proofreading or counting. Rebecca and Donna, who have done that course and will be received into Full Membership today, are excellent examples of people of whom much has been asked and who have given more.
They belong here in ways that pre-date today. And we are grateful that they have chosen to hang their spiritual hat with us.
But belonging is not just about doing stuff that is asked of you. Believe it or not that would be too easy. Belonging is about conversations and connections, about authenticity and vulnerability – all things that we will see and hear in the stories of God’s covenants, and the stories of Jesus’ ministry in the weeks to come. Belonging is about trusting ourselves and trusting each other.
True belonging is is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.*
We all continue to work on those things: trust, connection, conversation, authenticity and vulnerability. This wildly inclusive group of followers of the way, companions on the journey, is a safe place to learn and to grow – in faith, as children of God, as spiritual seekers and as those who go out into the world with a daring and a tender love.
May it always be so with us.