Genesis 17:1-7; 15-16
Some of our number who took part in last year’s bible challenge, which involved reading the whole of the bible in a year, were pretty shocked by some of the things they read, particularly those blood-soaked parts of the Old Testament in which murder and mayhem is committed, apparently with God’s blessing. During the early days of the church, not a few people thought the same to the extent they wanted to get rid of the Old Testament altogether and expunge all references to it in the New Testament as well. Wiser counsel held sway of course, and in today’s reading from Genesis we find a very good reason for cherishing the Old Testament. It contains an idea that is both simple and profound and one so influential in the way society has developed, so deeply ingrained in the way that we do things, that it is easily overlooked. It is the idea of “covenant”. My reason for talking about it today is that it’s in retreat, and thais is causing huge damage to the quality of life in our nation, not to mention great distress amongst the most disadvantaged.
So what is this idea? In today’s reading God establishes a covenant relationship with Abraham. It’s basically a promise: that despite their great age, Abraham and his wife Sarah will yet bear children and that Abraham will become the father of a great nation that will be “as numerous as the stars in the sky”. All that Abraham has to do is believe that this will be so. There are other covenants in the Old Testament, some of them more demanding than this one. There is, for instance, the Sinai covenant, made with Moses in the book of Exodus. In return for their delivery from slavery, Moses and the Israelites were expected to obey the 10 Commandments and the Law.
So what’s so special about covenant relationships? Well, there’s nothing especially religious about them. They began life as a form of treaty between neighbouring powers in the Near East. Their central purpose was to build stable relationships for the good of both parties in a way that wasn’t reliant on the exercise of economic, political or military power. Covenant relationships are essentially voluntary associations and as such are about partnership without either dominance or submission.
Covenants are enriching because they allow two parties to achieve something together that they could not achieve separately so that both sides grow and benefit together. Marriage is a kind of covenant relationship. Separately men and women can’t bring new life into the world. Sports clubs are a kind of covenant. I’d be hard pressed to play tennis if I didn’t have partners.
What’s so extraordinary about God’s relationship with mankind expressed as a series of covenants is that it tells us that God can’t achieve what he wants to without us. The redemption of the world needs our willing participation. Again, the voluntary nature of the covenant is fundamental, for in none of the covenants in the bible does God impose himself on mankind. It is always for us to take up the offer – or not.
As the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, argues in his book “The Dignity of Difference”, covenants have at their heart a belief in the value of diversity. Two parties come together not so much in spite of their differences but because of them. There is something enriching about difference, and in bridging the divide between different individuals and groups, covenants create the bonds of trust that are the glue of society. As Sacks puts it:
“Covenant is the use of language to create a bond of trust through the word given, the word received, the word honoured in mutual fidelity.”
Why am I telling you all this? Well, in so far as society is rich in covenant relationships, it is rich in trust. They are the leaven in the dough in that they bring different people together who otherwise might not come together. Think of the church – where else do you find such diversity?
We are currently suffering a profound crisis of trust in our society. It’s this that prompted the bishops to write their letter and it’s hard not to conclude that the decline of trust is directly related to the decline in the kind of voluntary associations that are the hallmark of covenant relationships. I’m thinking here of organisations as diverse as sports clubs, professional associations, community organisations, credit unions, housing associations, trade unions, social enterprise and, of course, churches. As Marjorie noted last week, such organisations have declined to such an extent that only about half the population belong to such a body. What we have in their stead is an aggressive, selfish individualism that is destroying trust and our sense of solidarity, one with another. I came across a newspaper article the other day that illustrated precisely this point, dealing as it did with the phenomenon known as “defensive architecture”.
Defensive architecture is the practice of deliberately designing the homeless and vagrants out of public space – think spikes on ledges, public seats that pivot forward, sprinkler systems and even loud “muzak”, all of them “innovations” designed to deny such people a resting place. It was not until I read the article that I realised the purpose of the metal spikes that adorn the broad ledge outside the office block in Euston where I meet my coaching clients. The author of the article was a formerly homeless man and it was his account of what it’s like to be designed against that really moved me.
Those of you who have helped out at our homeless shelter will not be surprised by his story. He’s a young man who once enjoyed a six figure salary, but all it took was an economic crisis, a death in his family, a relationship break-up and then a breakdown for him to become homeless. At first he found a warm place to rest on the Circle line but engineering works put paid to that. Then came a bench on the Pentonville Road. This is what he wrote about it:
“It was an old, wooden bench, made concave and smooth by thousands of buttocks, underneath a sycamore with foliage so thick that only the most persistent rain could penetrate it. Sheltered and warm, perched as it was against a wall behind which a generator of some sort radiated heat, this was prime property. Then, one morning, it was gone. In its place was a convex metal perch with three solid arm rests. I felt such loss that day.”
But what he describes has implications that go far beyond the plight of the homeless. What about the elderly and the infirm? What about the pregnant woman suffering a dizzy spell? As the author went on to say:
“By making the city less accepting of the human frame, we make it less welcoming to all humans. By making our environment more hostile, we become more hostile to it.”
The callous disdain for the poor and underprivileged of which “defensive architecture” speaks surely marks a retreat to the evils of the Victorian era documented by Benjamin Disraeli in his novel “Sybil”:
“There are two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor”.
Is this really what we want? Surely not. And yet, it seems, this is precisely what we are getting in a society in which top executive pay is now 180 times that of the average worker, whereas it was only 60 times in the 1990s. It’s a society in which top footballers are paid over £300,000 per week, while workers in their football clubs have to make do with the minimum wage. And yes, in saying this, I do realise that the Church of England, in some instances, has recently been found guilty of paying some of its staff the minimum – as opposed to the living – wage. But what I can say with some certainty is that this is a cause of real shame for the church and will surely lead to it mending its ways.
I don’t believe for a second that Disraeli’s two nations is what most people want this country to become. If so, those of us in the voluntary sector have a duty to model something different and better. The church has a huge opportunity here. Nationally, we are second only to sports clubs in membership. Our reach remains unrivalled. Our inclusiveness of people from different backgrounds and races is unmatched. At our best, we offer a vision of effective, covenant relationships in action and the trust and solidarity they build. So this shouldn’t be a time for despair but redoubling our efforts to serve. Let’s therefore use this Lent to focus on how we can do this even more effectively, whether it be with the young or homeless, the two groups that we particularly care about, and let’s do it with all the energy and vigour we can muster.