Covenants We Make


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

September 16, 2018

Texts: Exodus 19:1-9; Psalm 50

        John Hancock stood at the table and looked the other 55 men who were to sign the document that would rock not just an empire but create a new way of thinking about nations, and reminded them that their commitment of their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor was for a new way of looking at the function of government not to mention its leadership.

        So, as those men covenanted with one another and you could say posterity, they understood that many of them might lose their property and lives, but never their sacred honor. Twenty-five were lawyers, including Judge Richard Stockton of New Jersey. After he signed the Declaration of Independence, he rushed back to his home in New Jersey and moved his family to the home of a friend. Dragged from his bed in the middle of a freezing November night, he was taken to Perth Amboy in just his nightshirt and then to New York where he was imprisoned in the notorious Provost prison where more than 12,000 men died in prison ships and at the prison from starvation and disease com-pared to about 4,435 battle casualties.

        Paroled by General Howe after George Washington protested the “shocking and inhumane conditions” under which he was held, Stockton was sent back to New Jersey where his son-in-law, Dr. Benjamin Rush, another signer, cared for him.

         Stockton began to recover but developed cancer. He did not live to see Corwallis, who had occupied his home and burnt his library and papers, surrender to Washington. His widow Annis Boudinot Stockton, however, did live to see this event and celebrated it with poetry. The family had lost everything but its honor and her final victory was that her younger brother Elias was one of the signers of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

         “Honest John” Hart, as he was called, took to flight as his wife was ill; his 13 children also fled. He took refuge with friends, stayed in forests, and even in caves. When he returned, he found his wife dead and his farm destroyed. He died shortly afterward in 1779.

          Of the New Jersey signers, only one survived the War. An immigrant from Scotland, the Rev. John Witherspoon was forced to close the College of New Jersey and disperse his students, many of whom supported the rebel cause as the British advanced. After the War ended, he returned to rebuild the college, serve in the State Legislature, and died in 1794.

        Even those eminent southerners we saw in 1776 suffered. Edward Ruttledge who asked John Adams to put in a kind word for him and his two co-signers from South Carolina were captured by the British and kept in irons until exchanged for British officers. They and most of the signers lived the covenant they had made with one another. Keep-ing a covenant sometimes carries a high price.

         As we look at the covenant spoken of in this morning’s Psalm, rather than a covenant made between men, we have the covenant the Lord made with the people of Israel. Composed by Asaph, it is one of three covenant renewal liturgies in the Psalms. In this Psalm, Asaph states that God will not accept the usual sacrifices from the people for a breach of the covenant they have made with the Lord.

        Asaph sings of the God who will not keep silent in the face of evil in spite of the sacrifice of bulls or goats. What right do the wicked have to recite statutes or use God’s covenant to oppress the poor? Asaph asks. It is a rebuke of insincere worship, much like the rebuke of the prophets. Certainly as one attached to the court of David, Asaph had plenty of opportunity to see hypocrisy in action.

         We, of course, do not need to live in a capital city to see such hypocrisy. Listening to the financial wizards this past week trying to explain around Lehmann Brothers, mortgages based on fraudulent numbers, and why we should thank the capitalists is quite a experience.

         The Psalmist here notes how evildoers make thieves as their friends, and fill their mouths with deceit. I have to admit that I wonder what Asaph would say about the world of finance today. This is why the keeping of the covenants we make is so important.

        We here in this church community over the centuries have made several covenants. There was first a covenant among the old Baptists regarding infant baptism. They thought it useless for salvation because, as one early Baptist cleric put it, how could an infant even know what salvation was? It was first the denial of the efficacy of infant baptism that got all those old Baptists into trouble.

         The second covenant the old Baptists made was the respect of soul liberty, or freedom of conscience. The colonies, New Jersey, , Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island settled by Baptists – or Quakers, the other group seen as heretical threats to the social order – supported the right to believe as dictated by conscience and enshrined those rights in their organizing documents.

         Baptist churches were freestanding, each congre-gation having control over church property and discipline. Although believing in soul liberty, each church created unspoken covenants of belief; it’s one of the reasons why Baptist churches are so different from each other. Down the road there is a Baptist church that thinks we here at Old First are all going to hell and without a handbasket.

          Early Congregationalists technically had no state-ment of belief as such; they really separated from the Church of England more over style than substance. They wanted simple worship and the removal of what they considered to be papist trappings, such as vestments, and hierarchical authority, such as bishops. Both of these trad-itions grew out of a desire for a “pure church” more analogous to a New Testament model of worship and community.

        It is, of course, a supreme irony that this church, Old First, grew out of a merger of the descendants of Congre-gationalism and the Baptists, considering it was the old Congregationalists who threw Roger Williams out of Mass-achusetts because of his strong belief in soul liberty and freedom of conscience.

        Over the years we here at Old First have made covenants with one another regarding not just the polity, or structure of church government, but also of the freedom for each of us to have really different beliefs within what we could call the catchment of the Christian framework of beliefs.

         Our community is formed by a broad variety of be-liefs and is more focused on how we live the Christian life rather than particularities of doctrine. In fact, we really have no doctrine, so to speak, but a covenant with each other to accept every person as we are accepted by God and to do justice and love mercy. That sounds like an easy covenant, but it is not.

         In fact, it is more difficult than adhering to a set of doctrinal statements. The Psalmist Asaph called Israel to task because, although the forms of worship were followed, worship was only in form, not in spirit. Moreover, Asaph has God saying that the hypocrisy of sustaining worship forms while not practicing justice would lead to destruction. In some ways this psalm is a fitting prelude to the Psalm we will consider next week, that of David’s repentance follow-ing Nathan’s rebuke for his taking Bathsheba and setting Uriah up to be killed in battle.

          All this brings us down to two essential questions: What is the covenant we make with God and what is the covenant we make with one another? We usually don’t think of our relationship with God as a covenant, but that is what it is. A covenant is a set of promises, of commitments, like marriage. It, however, is not a tit for tat. The ancient Hebrews believed in a God who was not only above all other gods but who would provide victory in war and pro-tection in peace. These beliefs were reflected in the Torah. God made the rules; people obeyed them.

        The story of Job brought this exchange crashing down because it was clear that righteous people suffered. To be sure, we carry remnants of these old beliefs in the way we talk about events, often having to simply admit we don’t understand why things happen the way they do.

          Our covenant with God, then, is not to simply do A so we get B; it is instead living a life of justice and mercy because we acknowledge the fact that this is where our allegiance belongs: to God. Likewise, in making a covenant as a community of faith is an acknowledgment that our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor belong to something larger than our individual selves.

          For the founders who signed the Declaration of Independence it was the recognition that the new creation, a country of ideals rather than nationality was worth estab-lishing. For us in this church community, in this place, it is our own recognition that the community we have created is larger than ourselves  because it is based on our shared values and faith in God through the One who came to show us how to live faithfully.

           Because at heart we are cantankerous Baptists and Congregationalists, we stood up against an association of narrow-minded churches that wanted to remove us from the larger covenant we had all agreed to almost four-hundred-years ago, namely that soul liberty and freedom of conscience define who we are.

          Now as we continue our covenant with each other, we continue to build a community dedicated to God’s call for reconciliation and mercy. We make this covenant freely thanking God for our independence of spirit expressed through the love and acceptance we show each other.

         Let us pray: Eternal God who calls us to be your people, be with us as we strive to live your commandment to do justice and love mercy. In the name of him who showed us the way, even Christ Jesus our Lord.