Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Of Power, Covenants, and Love: Speaking to the Soul, January 19, 2016

Rainbow at Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite.
Sometimes, it seems, God taps us on the shoulder to awaken us, and the last few days have been no exception. Much of the Episcopal/Anglican world has been abuzz with what did (or did not) happen at the Primates’ Meeting last week. Yesterday, we remembered that great prophet and martyr, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There are some common currents that run through those events and our reading today from Genesis in the daily office lectionary.  In all these things, there seems to be a thread related to power, covenant, and freedom that binds them together.

Today’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures is from Genesis 9:1-17, which sets forth the promise of God to Noah at the end of the story of the flood. However, after I read it, I flipped back in my Bible and read the end of the creation account in Genesis 1:26-28. This is where in the biblical story we are first reminded that God created humans in God’s own image. Through establishing a covenant with us in creation, God showered humanity with gifts: our beautiful, fragile Earth, our only home; the breath of life itself; and most importantly, freedom, and the power that must accompany that freedom, if it is to mean anything at all.

The reading from Genesis 9 in the daily office lectionary today also speaks about freedom, power, and covenant, just as the story from Genesis 1, although with some differences:

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth….Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,“Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”—Genesis 9:1, 8-11

The language used as God speaks echoes with phrases from the Genesis 1 reading. Once again, humans are ordered to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” Once again, humans are given power over every living thing. However, there is an interesting difference in the covenant with Noah and his family: this is not a two-way covenant. It is actually a three-way covenant: between God, and Noah, and with creation itself as well. The voiceless are part of the covenant, and specifically acknowledged as being included. Dr. King also understood the importance of contract and covenant when, in his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, he spoke of promises of inalienable, God-given rights made but NOT fulfilled, promises of freedom and justice for all, promises that rest upon that same freedom and love that is an intrinsic part of God’s relationship with creation.

In endowing humanity with power and freedom, God made possible a real relationship of love between God and humanity, for love must be freely given. Love that is coerced is actually the opposite of love—it’s domination and tyranny. God created human beings with free will—including the freedom to reject God and reject God’s intention for creation even as we simultaneously long for God, the Infinite One. In giving us free will, in seriously desiring relationship with us, God gave us power. Yet the greatest way to exercise that power is through love, as Dr. King reminded us again and again. This reminder is rooted in the concept of covenant. It is indeed ironic that our current situation in the Anglican Communion has to do with arguments about covenants. On the one hand, there are covenants that were never made--covenants that sought to deny and restrict the full personhood and acceptance of all of God’s people, male or female, of every race and sexual orientation or gender identity. Part of this latest argument is, ironically about another type of covenant: marriage. Marriage, too, just like the covenants in Genesis, is a covenant that is rooted in love and the proper use of power, that offers rights and privileges, yes, but is also based on both fulfilling and yet sometimes limiting our freedom—all in the name of love.

This point might cause us to go back and look at those stories of the covenants again. The stories we tell—and scripture falls within this field—are always stories about ourselves, or we do not find them very compelling, much less enduring. In telling this story in Genesis about ourselves, I wonder how different the story would have been if, instead of being stated as “dominion over” the rest of creation, we would instead have been able to see that God was calling us not to use but to love and care for every living thing that moves upon the Earth. Love, like power, only exists through the agency of freedom, but the difference is that love uses its freedom to limit itself in the interests of the object of love, the beloved. God loves humanity so much that God gave us freedom in the interest of making us understand our heritage as ones made in God’s image. That’s our potential. The tragedy of human history, however, is of using our freedom not for the glory and love of God but for the glory and love of ourselves. Too often our freedom is rooted in a failure to pour ourselves out in love to our God and our fellow creatures, as Jesus does on the cross.

We in the Episcopal Church have declared that we will stand with those who have been excluded from full participation in the rights enjoyed by others, which is why we remember and celebrate the life of Dr. King as a saint of God. Further, we stand with those who have been excluded throughout history from the full protection of the Church, whose full humanity has been denied based on fear and prejudice. Real, lasting love is sacred, and is a blessing that should be blessed by the Church, called as we are to embody the love of God in the world. As Christians, we are called to understand that the greatest power in the world is love, because it comes from God, and is the foundation for all covenants.

(This was originally posted at Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on January 19, 2016.)

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