02/28/2021 ~ Second Sunday in Lent ~ Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38 or Mark 9:2-9 ~ Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
Blessed to Be a Blessing
“…I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” — Genesis 17:7.
This is, I hope, obvious. I am standing in the pulpit of a church named for the Nineteenth Century Congregational minister, Elijah Kellogg. Many of you probably know what I am about to say concerning this pastor but some may not.
Kellogg was born in Portland, Maine, graduated from Bowdoin College, Andover Theological Seminary and served the church in Harpswell from 1844 to 1854. He served other churches and in other ways. Today he may be best known outside of Harpswell for writing multiple series of books largely aimed at youth. Kellogg’s life spanned 87 years between 1813 and 1901.  (Slight pause.)
As it happens I’ve just finished reading a biography of John Quincy Adams,  himself a life-long Congregationalist. Adams was the son of a founder of this nation and in this sequence served as an Ambassador, a member of the Massachusetts legislature, a United States Senator, Secretary of State, President and after that, as a member of the House of Representatives. Adams’ life spanned 80 years between 1767 and 1848. 
While the lifetimes of these two do not exactly match there is overlap. Obviously when Adams died in 1848, Kellogg would have been the pastor at the Harpswell Church. Obviously, these two were very accomplished, very learned. (Slight pause.)
For a moment, let’s look at the times their lives spanned. In the lifetime of Adams this nation saw the declaration of and the struggle for independence, the formation of its government structure through the Constitution, the Louisiana Purchase which greatly expanded its territory and the war of 1812. Adams, himself, negotiated the treaty with Spain which expanded American territory to the West Coast. Adams was still alive when the so-called Mexican–American War ended.
It should also be noted during the lifetime of Adams, transportation changed from horse and wagon to railroads and from sailing ships to steam ships. Adams saw communication change from printed material taking weeks and weeks to travel anywhere to the telegraph which communicated over large distances in seconds. (Slight pause.)
Kellogg was born before the War of 1812 ended and lived through a chunk of history I’ve already connected with the life of Adams. Then after 1848 Kellogg saw the Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln, Reconstruction, economic depressions and the so-called Spanish–American War.
During Kellogg’s lifetime railroads were invented and then spanned the continent. The automobile, though not yet in mass production, was invented. Electrification was happening. The limitations of the telegraph were overcome by the telephone. (Slight pause.)
For those who think we live in tumultuous, unsettled, dangerous times today, just look at this cursory list of what happened in those lifetimes. And I have left out major chunks of what happened during their lifetimes, major chunks of what happened around them and to them. So, you might well ask, what’s the point? (Pause.)
We find these words in the Seventeenth Chapter of Genesis. “…I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.” (Slight pause.)
I think one thing we moderns do not grasp well is, in different eras, the same words can carry different meanings. I think the word covenant is a good example.
Today many take it to mean a contract, effectively you do this and in return I’ll do that. This meaning might have even been true of secular covenants in Biblical times.
But it clearly was not true with the covenant about which God speaks. God makes it clear this is not a give and take contract. (Quote:) “…I will establish my covenant…” This is one way. This is not you do this, I’ll do that. No demand is made by God. God simply establishes it. (Slight pause.)
Now, both Kellogg and Adams had what we today would call a classical education. In that era it was a given that one would study Latin and Greek at the levels we equate with Grade and High School. Then one would read Greek and Roman authors in the original languages in college. (Slight pause.)
That observation brings me back to the meaning of words. In the late Eighteenth and into the Nineteenth Century, for those who had a classical education, the kind Kellogg and Adams had, the word “virtue” did not mean what it mostly means today. For them the meaning much more rested on what it meant to the Greeks and Romans.
These days we often take virtue to be synonymous with morality, behavior within specific, often culturally decided boundaries. Back in the Kellogg/Adams era they would have leaned on what virtue meant to the ancients. In those times virtue meant putting the common good above one’s own interests. Hence, virtue was thought of as a lynchpin of public life. It was thought of as doing what supported the community. 
So, what did the practice of virtue entail? This… this is where the words virtue and covenant collide.
The lives of both Kellogg and Adams embodied the type of virtue I’ve defined— service. Indeed, no matter what was happening around them or to them they were dedicated to the common good, dedicated to striving to make the world a better place, addressing wrongs, even in tumultuous, unsettled, dangerous times. (Slight pause.)
It is at this juncture many people struggle with the covenant of God. Earlier I said it’s clear the covenant God proclaims is not give and take, not a contract. The common way to put this is simple. God is the prime mover. Therefore, God places no demand on us.
However, while making no demands God does invite us… invite us… to participate in covenant. Further, we are changed not by our participation. We are changed simply by the invitation of God. This change is clearly delineated as in the reading the name Abram is changed to Abraham. And, in a section of this passage not read today, the name of Sarai is changed to Sarah. We are changed simply by being invited to covenant.
And what is the message of this covenant to us? The simplest way to express the covenant God offers is the way Jesus put it: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Love your neighbor.
This circles us back to the idea of virtue. If we love God and neighbor we will strive to look for and be involved in the greater good, strive to seek out places where injustice abounds and work toward justice. Covenant means we will strive to do the work of God encompassed by justice for all and love of everyone. Hence, covenant means we will learn. Covenant means we will grow. (Slight pause.)
I do not want to mislead you. Living into, out from and through the covenant to which God calls us, a covenant of justice and love, a covenant of growth and learning, is not easy work. Ask Adams. Ask Kellogg. Their paths were not easy. But I think covenant work is the place to which God invites us, the place to which God calls us.
And so, let me reiterate: to where are we called? To what are we invited? We are called, we are invited to covenant. We are, thereby, called, invited to be a blessing to the world in which we live. And in so doing we shall be blessed. Amen.
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “You may have noticed I preached on Genesis but the choir sang an arrangement of Fairest Lord Jesus. What’s the connection? In the words of New Testament Scholar Nicholas Thomas Wright, what is seen in the resurrected Christ is the reality of covenant, the place we can come to understand God loves everyone. And hence, we need to move toward that virtuous task— we need to love everyone.”
We are commissioned by God to carry God’s peace, the presence of God, into the world. Our words and our deeds will be used by God, for we become messengers of God’s Word in our action. Let us recognize that God Who transforms us is forever among us. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one and nothing else. Amen.
Note: May 20, 1813 – March 17, 1901 which means he was 87 at this death.
 The Lost Founding Father: John Quincy Adams and the Transformation of American Politics by William J. Cooper.
Note: July 11, 1767 to February 23, 1848 which means he was 80 when he died.
 First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country by Thomas E. Ricks.