March 11, 2012


        ON CUTTING 

                                                               Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                                 at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 11 March 2012
                                                          Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Exodus 20: 1-17
                                                         Reading from the Psalter:                                Psalm 19


Our readings during Lent from the Hebrew Scriptures this year have focussed on what some have called covenants.  A couple of weeks ago we had the story of Noah and the rainbow, then last week it was the story of the promise made to Abram under the stars, and this week we have the so-called Ten Commandments, which forms the centrepiece in the story of Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai after their escape from Egypt.  Looking ahead, we shall have two more stories about agreements between God and the people of Israel, and then three weeks from now, on Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday, as it is sometimes called nowadays) we shall read the Passion narrative according to Saint Mark. 

But what do we mean by a covenant?  Or, rather, what Hebrew word is used by the writers of the Scriptures that becomes translated as “covenant” in English?  The Hebrew word is “berith”.  Strictly this has to do with cutting, often with a knife or some sort of sharp edge.  In old Israel they had no paper, and they had not worked out how to use sheepskins as vellum for writing material.  Back then, if something needed to be written down, it was inscribed on stone or on tablets made of dried mud. Nor did they have ink or graphite for pencils and so they used chisels or some other sharp instrument or implement.  We are all familiar with this from the tablets of stone used for writing down the Ten Commandments as so dramatically shown in Cecil B De Mille’s often overly dramatic epic which is shown regularly at this time of the year on television. 

Agreements were literally carved in stone, which is the origin of that phrase in our English today.  Or we could say they were cut, and we still have that idea in our expressions “cutting a deal” and “cutting a cheque”.  If I were to cut you a cheque I would be making you a promise in writing that you can go to my bank and receive the amount of money I have inscribed on that piece of paper.  Sadly, as electronic banking becomes more and more popular, fewer cheques will be cut and another form of words drawn from the Bible will fall into disuse. 

The early Hebrews, like many primitive and not-so-primitive peoples today, were not comfortable thinking in abstract terms.  They needed something tangible, something visible, so that they could appreciate what was happening.   We like to think that we are more sophisticated than that, but I sometimes wonder.  Go to any wedding, and what really proves that the couple is married.  I might piously hope it is the vows that they exchange in my presence at my dictation, or the ring that the groom puts on his bride’s fourth finger on her left hand.  But my guess is that what really matters for many people is the cutting of the cake at the reception, and that is likely to happen at any wedding, be it held in church or elsewhere, be it a religious ceremony or a civil one. 

In the story of Abraham, although we did not have it in the passage we read last week, the promise made by God to Abraham involved some cutting, of some domestic animals, as we read in Genesis 15: 7-21.  Make a note of that passage.  You can read it later when you get home!  In the Mount Sinai story, as we read it in Exodus 34, two tablets of stone were incised with the Ten Commandments, as we so often here them called.  A Jewish friend of mine once told me that read aright those verses in Exodus 20 are not so much commandments as promises, promises made by the Lord God that if we go along with him, he will see to it that we do not do those things mentioned in Exodus 20: 1-17.  If you like, in other words, the Lord God is cutting us a cheque that he will check us before we do anything evil.  I must say that I much prefer to call them the Ten Promises that the Lord God makes and will keep, rather than the Ten Commandments that we shall almost certainly break, at least in part if not in their entirety.

But let us go back to Noah and the rainbow and think about that for a moment.  The Lord told Noah, and so all the descendants of Noah, that the rainbow would be the sign of a covenant that he was making with all humanity for ever.  This time there was no animal slaughtered and cut in two as in the covenant with Abram and his promised but yet unborn descendants.  This time there were no tablets of stone carved with symbols, largely meaningless to an illiterate or preliterate people.  Indeed, in the covenant with Noah there was no sharp blade or chisel.  But there was a division. 

Let me ask you: Have you ever looked at the sky when there is a rainbow?  Most people are so engrossed in the beauty of the rainbow that they do not look at the sky, the background to the rainbow.  But if you look at the sky, you will observe an interesting phenomenon.  On one side of the rainbow the sky is very dark, usually a deep dark grey.  On the other side of the rainbow the sky is almost white in appearance.  It is as though the firmament has been cut in two and the rainbow becomes a symbol of the promise that the light will overcome the darkness. 

Psalm 19, our psalm for this Sunday, points up a similar idea.  The psalmist has risen early and he sees how the skies lighten just before sunrise and then, whoosh, the Sun leaps into the Heavens.  Those of us who have lived in the tropics, and especially close to the Equator, know how brief is the moment when night turns into day. 

Nairobi is a city set on a high plain just south of the Equator and because of the effects of atmospheric pressure most international flights from Europe arrive  just after sunrise.  How often I have come home on one of those flights.  For hours we have flown under the blackness of the tropical night with the stars twinkling clearly above us.  And then suddenly a shaft of bright light zooms out of the east and splits the darkness of the sky.  The flight path into Nairobi is to the west of Mount Kenya, and as we descended we could see the great mountain looming up, a black shadow against that bright lightening of the sky.  As you know, I am a person who delights in words, and I am also something of a romantic.  Kenya is the nearest the early European explorers could get to the pronunciation of the Kikuyu name for that magnificent mountain, Kiri-nya-Ngai, or Kirinyaga, the Mountain of God.  Whenever I made that journey I did my utmost to get a window seat on the portside of the aircraft, just to catch that moment when the light of a new day illuminated the Home of God.  I suppose you might call that the equivalent for me of a Noah moment!  There was the reminder of the promise that God’s wish is for me to trust in his love and faithfulness that is even more certain than the dawn light striking the triple peaks of Kirinyaga. 

The promises of God will never be broken, but the actions and activities of us mortals surely stretch the limits, if any, of his faithfulness.  Noah got drunk within hours of leaving the ark.  Sarah persuaded Abraham to have intercourse with her maid, and the people of Israel became so impatient waiting for Moses that they broke out into an orgy of drunken and licentious revelry.  And each time the Lord was patient and renewed the promises to yet another generation.  The writer of Lamentations 3: 22 and 23 reminds us that:

                                                 “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
                                                         his mercies never come to an end;
                                                           they are new every morning;
                                                            so great is thy faithfulness.”

We mortals are no different from Wall Street bankers!  It would seem that the Federal Government has to keep bailing out the banks because of the misdeeds of the bankers, who then simply go back to committing the same misdeeds.  So too, the Lord God continually finds that he has to make covenants with us so that our sins may be blotted out, but so many of us simply go back to our former ways and sin the same sins all over again. 

And yet he continues to covenant with us.  And here let me try to answer that question that was posed some ten minutes or so ago.  What is meant by this concept, “covenant”?  Basically it is derived from two Latin words that mean “with” and “come”.  When God makes a covenant with us it means that he is not only coming to us, but that he is coming with us on our journey through life to eternity.  According to the evangelist Matthew, the last words that Jesus said to his followers were, “I am with you to the end.”  That is the covenant God has made with us, that is his promise to you and to me.  He has cut us a cheque and he will honour it, and we can know this new every morning, that he, Emmanuel, is with us to the end.