022121 Lent 1
The sermon begins at minute 21:30 of the video
Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15
Last Christmas, my son asked that, instead of a Christmas present, we donate to an organization called Charity Water. I was proud of him, and happy to have him take the lead in transforming the practice of giving Christmas presents in our family. I was also pleased to support water projects. When I went to Charity Water’s website to make the donation, I learned that 785 million people around the world lack basic access to clean and safe drinking water. Last week, that number temporarily increased in the State of Texas, showing how vulnerable we all are. Death by too much water, or for lack of it, symbolizes one of our deepest dreads. At the same time, drinking water also satisfies one of our deepest needs; and playing in water is one of our favorite pastimes.
Noah’s experience of flood and rainbow, and Jesus’ baptism and temptation, underline a double-edged truth: God’s reign of light cannot draw near until the reign of darkness is engaged. It’s always flood and rainbow, temptation and baptism, Epiphany and Lent, light and darkness. Mark’s short Gospel covers baptism, temptation, and proclamation in six verses. After his baptism, the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness. Upon his return to Galilee he proclaimed the nearness of God’s reign. Jesus would have had no credibility to say the kingdom was near if he had not engaged the evil of this world head-on in the wilderness. The rainbow sends the same message to Noah. Everyone knows that you can only see rainbows when there is both rain and sunshine. That sounds trite until we honestly reflect on light and dark in our own histories. Dark moments have given us gifts. And one of those gifts is that we can’t be truly present to another person until we’ve lived through certain levels of pain, joy, or drama.
How do we engage that gift in all our relationships with creation and others? As we enter a season of penitence, both last week’s and this week’s Gospel include the phrase, my beloved child. Last week the heavenly voice spoke to the disciples: this is my beloved son; listen to him. Today’s Gospel revisits Jesus’ baptism when the voice spoke to Jesus: you are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. That message must be important to report it three times in seven weeks. The clear message at the beginning of Lent is that we must contemplate our belovedness before we can fruitfully engage in penitence. Surely those three words – my beloved son – were the ones Jesus referred to in his reply to Satan’s offer to turn stones into bread: one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. You may have wondered why I inverted the order of confession and absolution. I put absolution first because that’s the order we must follow: pardon before penitence; blessing before blame. So, don’t forget to immerse yourself in your belovedness before delving into your sin this Lent.
The rainbow covenant given to Noah sends the same message. The human heart is not what changes through the flood. What has changed is God’s heart. God’s assessment of human evil is the same before and after the flood. God’s internal reflection according to Genesis was: I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth. Walter Brueggemann says it well: We are confronted in this text… with a heavy, painful crisis in the dealings of God with creation …it is the heart and person of God which are placed in crisis…the world is brought to the rule of God only by the pathos and vulnerability of the creator. (Genesis, p. 78-79) God decided to never again give full vent to anger, even when the human heart was disappointing.
The sign of that promise is unilateral disarmament by God: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Notice that the bow is not yet a rainbow. It is a weapon of war. God has set the weapon down in an act of unilateral disarmament to accompany the promise of peace. Floods will still happen and, tragically, people will lose their lives. But life will go on through flood and drought. God has promised. Likewise, people will betray and abandon each other, and allow temptation to keep them from being their best selves. Life will go on; relationships will be renewed. How do we hear God’s promise to never again flood the earth when we’re approaching one year in a worldwide pandemic that has way too much in common with a flood? That may be a good focus of reflection for this Lent, one year into the pandemic.
We might also reflect on how what is true in God’s covenant with creation may be the best approach to human relationships. Since nothing had changed in the human heart, God’s unilateral promise that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood was a promise with no guarantee that it would make a difference. God was not seeking leverage with creation. God was simply making a promise never to destroy all flesh out of anger again. Many people believe that if we make unconditional promises, or give unconditional affirmation, to our children or neighbors, they will take advantage of our promise, and their self-confidence will go to their heads as arrogance. We want to use promises as leverage to get something out of the person. Psychology teaches the opposite: it is by affirming people, including children, in unconditional love, that they acquire confidence to shine and flourish. It seems that God agrees with psychology more than with those who want to make sure people’s belovedness doesn’t go to their heads.
Relating through belovedness must become the way to relate in all of creation. God’s covenant with Noah affirms that we are spiritually connected to each other at all levels. I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you and with every living creature that is with you. No part of creation is excluded from the promise. The universe, the planet, and all the creatures will never again be cut off. What does this say about climate change? Many believe that people will not take climate change seriously unless we threaten them with the potential extinction of the planet. Native peoples show us a different approach that builds on God’s promise to Noah. They feel at one with creation, and would not dream of damaging it. Climate change is not a threat to them; it is a warning that motivates their care of creation because they see all creatures as their siblings.
On a human level, we’re living in a world more characterized by transactional contracts than relational covenants. Maybe God’s universal covenant with Noah is a timely alternative that can help us become conscious that we’re already a part of something bigger than ourselves. How appropriate that last week President Biden proposed to world leaders that relationships between nations no longer be based on transactional diplomacy: Our partnerships have endured because they are rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values.
If we’re going to eliminate a transactional view of human relationships as contracts rather than covenants, we must also face our racism. The responsibility to reduce the racist structures of our society is rooted in being part of the family of creation that was blest by the Rainbow Covenant. The more I learn about racism, the more aware I am that the experience of slavery is at the core of the matter. Slavery is the maximum expression of a transactional way relating to other created beings. Sadly, some people use slavery as an excuse rather than an acknowledgement: “Since I never owned slaves, racism is not my fault.” Equating “it’s not my fault” with “it’s not my responsibility” maintains the same transactional view of relationships. The Rainbow Covenant sees all creatures as siblings.
Friends, we must embrace light and darkness to live life to the fullest. Epiphany comes before Lent, baptism comes before temptation, rainbows come before sin, and belovedness comes before penitence. Don’t forget to take your belovedness with you as you journey into darkness this Lent. May that journey transform us so we can engage in covenants with every part of creation. Amen.