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We are a people of covenant. We are a people of promises.

When we baptize a child, or confirm a teenager, or welcome an adult as a new member, we ask them to make a set of promises. And we make a set of promises to them. 

Will you…? We will, with the help of God.

When we install a pastor, or declare ourselves to be open and affirming, or agree about how we will handle conflict, we ask each other to make a set of promises, and we make a set of promises to each other.

Will you…? We will, with the help of God.

We are a people of covenant. We are a people of promises.

And as hard as this is to hear, that means that we are a people of broken covenants and shattered promises.

A few weeks ago, we met Abraham when God called him away from his country and his kindred and his father’s house, and promised to make him into a great nation, and promised that his descendants would have this land, in Canaan.

And then… some things happened.

Abraham’s great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren went down to Egypt. And, when a new Pharaoh came to the throne there, he enslaved and oppressed the descendants of Abraham. And the descendants of Abraham—the Israelites—cried out.

So God raised up a hero and led the Israelites out of the land of Egypt and the house of bondage. And God led them to the land that God had told Abraham that his descendants would inhabit. And they conquered the people who were living there. And they took their land and their towns and their vineyards and their olive orchards.

And now, we are here, watching the Israelites renew a covenant and make a promise.

Our reading today has two parts.

In the first part, Joshua—the successor to Moses and the leader of the Israelites—tells the people about the things that God has done for them. It is the beginning of Israel’s national story. It is the beginning of Israel’s who-we-are story.

The Lord your God brought you and your ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and did great things in your sight. The Lord protected you along all the way that you went and among all the peoples through whom you passed, and the Lord drove out before you all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. All to give you this land, that the Lord had promised your ancestor Abraham that you would inherit.

And in the second part, Joshua tells the people about the choice that they have to make: they can serve the Lord in sincerity and in faithfulness… or they can chase after other gods.

And then there is this strange moment…

Joshua has the people riled up. Joshua has told the people the beginning of their who-we-are story. Joshua has inspired the people.

And then he asks the people, more or less, “Will you put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the river and in Egypt? And will you serve the Lord?” And the people reply, more or less, “We will, with the help of God.”

And Joshua tells the people, more or less, “No you won’t. This is going to be hard. And you will fail. You cannot serve the Lord.” And the people reply, more or less, “We will, with the help of God.”

And Joshua tells the people, more of less, “You are witnesses against yourselves. If you mess this up, you will be called to testify against yourself and to give an honest account of the ways that you have broken then covenant and shattered these promises. Are you absolutely sure that you will serve the Lord?“ And the people reply, more or less, “We will, with the help of God.”

When they say, “Yes,” he tells them, “no.” When they say, “We’re all in,” he tells them, “You most certainly are not.” And when they tell him, “We will serve and obey the Lord our God…”

He takes a stone… and he sets it in the sanctuary… and he tells them, more or less, “This stone has heard everything that the Lord has said to you. And it has heard everything that you have said to the Lord. And it will be a witness against you if you deal falsely with your God.”

And if you know the rest of the story, then you know that this stone gets called to testify a lot. Because so much of the story of Israel is a story about a people who turn away from the Lord, and who the Lord has to call back to this covenant again and again.

I have told you this before, but we are not Jewish. Israel’s national story is not our story; and Israel’s who-we-are story is not our story. We have no part in these commandments and we are not bound by this covenant. Our story is different.

God loves the world this way: God creates and sustains a world and gives it to itself—to all of us—as a gift. And we break it. 

So God comes into the world as one of us, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land, and lives the life that we cannot live, and loves the love that we cannot love. And we betray him, and arrest him, and hang him on a cross, and lay him in a tomb. We ensnare him with the chains that our own sin has forged and place him among the dead.

And then… God… gets up. And steps out of the tomb. And rejects our brokenness. And says, “I am not done with you, yet.”

And, somehow, through all of that, we who have no part in these commandments and who are not bound by this covenant are grafted into a priestly people and a holy nation like a branch is grafted onto an olive tree. And the old covenant is not diminished by the new covenant that we are given: love.

Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and all of your soul and all of your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love strangers. Love enemies. Love the least of these. Love. Love. Love.

And it is easy to treat that as though it is… simple. It is easy to treat that as though it is… easy.

Will you love? We will, with the help of God.

Love is not just a word that we say. Love is no just a feeling that we have.

Love is a thing that we do. And, maybe, if we do it enough, love can be the thing that we are.

And love is a thing that we fail at.

Because the truth is that is it easy to say that we love people. And it might even be easy to stir up a feeling of love—or, at least, a feeling that we can confuse with love—for people. And it is easy to love within the bounds of capitalism or whiteness or middle-classness or Iowa-niceness.

But that is just…

I’ll be honest. I don’t know what that is. A shadow of love? A reflection of a reflection of a reflection of love? A love that is love… or the idea of love… or a hope for love… but that isn’t, y’know… love in all of its wonder and all of its glory.

And the truth is that, as much as we might want to love—as much as we might strive to love—the love that we love is nothing compared to the love that the God who is love… loves.

The love that we love is nothing compared to the love that creates and sustains a world… that comes into the world as one of us, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land… that lives the life that we cannot live and loves the love that we cannot love… that wears the chains the our own sin has forged and goes to the cross and to the tomb… that gets up, and rejects our brokenness, and says, “I am not done with you, yet.”

Our love is nothing compared to that. Our love is a love of broken covenants. Our love is a love of shattered promises.

And, believe it or not, that is good news.

We are a people of covenant. We are a people of promises.

And as hard as this is to hear, there is not one person here who has not broken their covenant. There is not one person here who does not stand in a field of shattered promises.

And it is a little heartbreaking to know that once we hear that—once we know that—we feel that temptation to give up and walk away. And that is an option. And people take that option every day; we give our lives to the things that we can do… and we give up on doing any better.

But the beauty of the gospel is that, even now, the God who loves the love that we cannot love—the God who is the love that we cannot love—is taking our broken covenants and our shattered promises, and our mangled humanity and our fractured souls, and this whole messed-up world… and putting it back together again… and filling the cracks in with gold.

So that, one day, what was broken will glitter and what was shattered will shine in the light of God’s enduring and abundant love.

And our part in that is not to be perfect. Not under our own power or on our own terms.

Our part in that is to turn ourselves over to God. And to do our best. And, when we fail—and we will fail—it is to pick up the pieces, and to testify against ourselves, and to confess the things that we have done, and to start putting things back together, and then to do better.

And in doing that, we fail forward. We learn to love a love that is more like the love that creates and sustains, that stands with and speaks out for, that redeems and restores. We learn to love a love that is more like love… until, maybe, one day, it is love.

We inch imperfectly ever closer to the life of love that God—who keeps their covenants and fulfills their promises—has promised.

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