On Beginning Again
February 21, 2021
Psalm 50: 4-10
Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
Genesis 8 and 9 selected verses
Then God said to Noah, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
Today’s sermon, for the first Sunday in Lent, is titled On Beginning Again. I was more than a little confused by the lectionary readings for this week. There were two choices: the Gospel reading is from Jesus’s baptism in the first chapter of Mark (we spent most of January in the first chapter of Mark), and then there’s the text we have today from Genesis, recounting the story of Noah’s family and the two-by-twos and the rainbow.
This seemed to me to be an odd trajectory…aren’t we supposed to be aiming towards Easter? Aren’t we supposed to be immersing ourselves in Jesus’s ministry and searching for a deeper understanding about how Jesus’s life and teaching impacted his world and how it may yet impact our world if we allow our hands and heart and minds to do the work of Christ? Aren’t we supposed to be remembering the radical shift that Jesus was calling for, echoing the call of the prophets before him, for people to live into the laws that are “written on our hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33)? Shouldn’t I be beginning to build the tension between the Romans and the religious elite, and reminding us how the teachings of Jesus were challenging the status quo?
The lectionary wants me to preach instead about rainbows….really? It took two days of questioning for me to come around to see that this year we will approach Easter in a different way. It is a new way for me and it may be new for you, too. This year, we are led to go back before we can go forward. This year we will trace the promises and the messages of the prophets that prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus to break into the world, affecting change that is still, to this day, unfolding in human culture.
What we begin today is an ancient story. It would be more poetic to say that the story begins with a promise, but before the promise comes a realization; this is a realization from God. God plays a prominent role in the story today and to stay true to the ancient narrative, I will set aside my disdain for attributing human characteristics to God. The habit we humans have of assigning human characteristics to all manner of non-humans is called anthropomorphizing. Anthropo means “human” and morpho means “shape or form.” We humans have a habit of projecting our humanness and this can obscure another entity’s true shape or form.
In the story we are offered today, God has what we could call human qualities. God is remorseful for flooding the earth. God seeks to console. God makes a promise not to do it again. I would call these human qualities, but upon deeper reflection, I think perhaps these are all qualities that originate in the Divine and we, in our best moments, reflect them. We, in our best moments, are secure enough to express remorse, admit our mistakes, offer consolation to others, and even make a sincere promise to do better next time. It requires a strong character to admit having made a mistake; some people just can’t do it. Sometimes, I can’t do it either.
God thinks a big mistake was made. Apparently, before the flood, people lived for a very long time (like over 900 years!). God decided that was too long. In Genesis chapter 6, God limits human lifespan to 120 years and then goes one step further. I quote here from Genesis chapter 6, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” God decided to “blot out the human beings, animals, creeping things and birds of the air.” Note here that apparently God could not change the hearts of humankind against their will.
I latch onto this because it fits perfectly into my own personal idea of the nature of God. It informs what philosophers refer to as theodicy, the age old questions, “If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world?” “Why do bad things happen to such good people?” We all make mistakes. Even God, apparently, makes mistakes.
After the flood God calls Noah and his family and all of the other life forms to come out of the ark. Noah is grateful. Noah builds an altar and gives thanks to be off that boat, to be alive, to have a chance to begin again. And in return, God makes a promise, a covenant, that is completely and totally one-sided. God makes a covenant with all beings that never again will God cause such death and devastation and God asks for nothing in return. God does not have to ask for anything in return. From grateful hearts come goodness, only goodness. So the first covenant is made.
The Hebrew word for promise or covenant is b’riyt *(bee-right!). The word carries more than just promise, it speaks of the quality of relationship that arises from a promise kept, the deep regard that develops in such a relationship where there is trust, goodwill, commitment and steadfastness. The more I study our Jeudeo-Christian tradition, the more important this concept of covenant, of divine promise, is revealed. I see now why this story of God offering to enter into the first covenant with all living beings is so vitally important to our understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus. I believe Jesus embodied this covenant, and embodied this promise to all living beings. I believe this because every aspect of Jesus’s teaching returns us again and again and again to caring for one another as if we were caring for God itself.
We begin now our season of Lent. The purpose is to reflect and to change direction so that we may draw closer to that which is God. There is a parallel process I want to lift up and celebrate. Our United States’ military has begun their stand-down, which strikes me as remarkably similar to a Lenten practice… a time to reflect and to change direction. This is a truly beautiful confluence of events, in my opinion. The series title of our Lenten devotionals is “Promises, Promises.” We will be considering what it means to live in covenant with God and with one another. Our military will be continuing their process, initiated on Feb. 3 and concluding the week of Easter, to re-establish their individual and collective commitment to their own covenant, their own promise, to defend the constitution of the United States. They will, like us if we chose, take this time to reflect on what is not bringing them closer to fulfilling their commitments and take action to change direction. I am so proud of the military leadership for initiating this stand-down. I pray the process will bring about positive change and provide a shift in our culture away from extremism and nationalism and more towards moderation and true patriotism. I love the fact that it is our military leadership noting that a line has been crossed, that a sacred covenant has been broken.
In closing, I invite us to carry this concept of covenant with us not as something that happened long ago in another culture, but as a dynamic, contemporary way to think of our relationship with God and with one another. In this season of Lententide, may we be curious about the ways Jesus’s teaching returns us again and again and again to caring for ourselves, and for one another, as if we were caring for God itself. So be it. Amen.
* “The most profound and deeply brilliant concept of the Hebrew world view is the concept of the berit between God and his chosen people.” Translated into English as “covenant,” the word means something closer to “promise,” or “pledge.” https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/berit
God of sunlight and snow, we are here together with all our complexities…our mix of hope and fear, trust and worry, health and illness, acceptance and resistance. Help us, Lord, to bring the disparities of our emotions ever closer together, so that we may move through the joys and challenges of our lives with equanimity, balance, and serenity. We pray your healing presence be with us and with all those in need. May we be ever attune to the ways we can serve, with sensitivity and effectiveness and in the spirit of Christ, the giver of this prayer…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with the following words from the prophet Micah (6:8):
“[God] has shown you, o mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”