Readers, some sermons are best understood in the context of the community. This sermon is situated in my congregation's immediate concern for a member recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, for immigrants in our city being harmed by an unjust state law, and for our commitments to ecological justice. Our denominational and congregational polity and needs also have shaped this sermon. --Ellen Sims
Texts: Genesis 9: 8-16; Psalm 25; Mark 1: 11-13
The 40 days of Lent imitate the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, which corresponds to the 40 days of rain that created the Great Flood. For those of us trying to follow in Jesus’s hopeful way, here’s a heads up: his way is not without challenges. Mark’s Gospel tells us that immediately after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit of God into the desert to face Satan and wild beasts: spiritual and physical threats (Mark 1:13). We, too, sometimes move directly from the Jordan River to the desert, from the mountaintop to the valley, from baptism to temptation, from the heavenly dove to wild beasts. Like Jesus, we are trying for this Lenten season to follow as the Spirit leads us out of our comfort zone. Like Jenni, who voluntarily and quite inexplicably spent a week with the US Marines recently, some of us have willingly signed up for spiritual boot camp called Lent--to test our mettle, to discover more about ourselves, to strengthen our faith commitments, to grow in hope and in love.
For those of us who want to experience the benefits of Lent, we’ve entered a tacit and temporary covenant with God and with one another. We’re saying that for these 40 days we intend to kick our spirituality up a notch, to be a bit more dedicated to our current spiritual disciplines or maybe to try out a new spiritual practice. Usually this is a private pact—unless we decide to give up Facebook for the next 6 weeks and owe our FB friends an explanation—or unless we must decline a brownie because we’ve given up chocolate. But mostly our Lenten commitment is private. And short term. In a way, Lent is a way to enter into a short-term covenant with God. For some of us, that’s all we can sign on for at this time.
Covenant is a word used throughout the Bible and in various ways. Its first use occurs in this very story of Noah when God pledges never to destroy the earth again by flood. In some respects, God does not come off looking very magnanimous in this agreement. God vows, “I promise never again to destroy the earth . . . by flood.” Sounds like a contract that stipulates, in very fine print, “Offer does not cover destruction of the earth by fire, ice, plague, nuclear war, asteroids, invaders from another galaxy, or giant mutant hamsters.” Such a stipulation does not set my mind at ease. After all, we in coastal Alabama know our homeowners’ insurance might cover flooding from a hurricane without covering wind damage. Makes you wonder if our insurance companies took that little trick straight from the insurance policy God wrote for Noah. Even so, the possibility of another Great Flood still lives in the human imagination. One of the most recent disaster films, set in the current year and titled 2012, tells yet another version of a flood that destroys most of humanity.
However, to be quite serious now, I feel better about Noah’s God and that less-than-airtight covenant when I consider what might have influenced the Genesis writers’ concept of God. The people who told this version of the Great Flood—and, by the way, virtually all cultures have a Great Flood story—likely patterned their image of God after the earthly rulers and powers that held sway over them. Those rulers might have had moments of mercy, but their power was probably more impressive than their compassion.
But two features of that first covenant in the Bible do impress me.
1) This pledge is one that God initiates and that God offers with no strings attached. Most covenants the Genesis writers knew about were political treaties between a king and his subjects or between a powerful nation and a vassal state. Often the Israelites were obligated to more powerful nations through what was called a suzerainty treaty, and this typical Ancient Near East agreement between unequal parties colored their understanding of their relationship to the Lord God. These political covenants were conditional: IF you are loyal to me, pay tribute to me, fight my wars, etc., THEN I will protect you, give you land, etc. So, for instance, if Abraham’s descendants are circumcised, then God will make of them a great nation.
But the covenant in today’s story is unconditional. God makes a promise that does not obligate Noah in any way. This kind of graciousness from a powerful party to a powerless party must have been as rare then as it is today. If those who wrote Noah’s story had few if any examples of an unconditional promise of care from a superior power, then this kind of covenant represents an amazing evolutionary leap of moral imagination. Here is a glimpse of a powerful God who would choose to offer mercy with no demands for loyalty or tribute. Christians have wrongly characterized the God of the Hebrew Bible as a God of law and have wrongly argued that the idea of grace is unknown until the New Testament. But we see that grace is right here—in the first book of the Torah. The Powerful One makes a pledge of graciousness to the weaker one with no expectations, no requirements.
2) The second striking feature of Noah’s covenant is its inclusiveness. God covenants with every living creature. God is concerned about every living creature. The parties named in this contract also include every living creature on into the future. God, in effect, included us in that covenant, according to today’s story. And this contract has an inherent logic to it. We join God in protecting the planet by recognizing our creaturely oneness, our interdependence as living beings. It would be impossible for the Creative Force, the Lord of Life, to protect only human beings. Modern science concurs: we’re all in this together. Our fates are tied up together. Therefore, we participate in this godly covenant that binds together parakeets and porpoises and palm trees and people—when we live with an awareness of that common covenant. If we forget this covenant that unites our fates, we have only ourselves to blame. It is not God the Creator who is the Destroyer of our planet. And the beauty of the rainbow calls us to hold out hope and to remember our interdependence. Some in our denomination are going on a “carbon fast” this Lent to reduce their carbon footprint on the environment. I think the God of Noah would approve.
With Noah’s covenant as backdrop, let’s now consider other kinds of covenants that are binding upon us. Obviously some are legal and others are relational and often unstated, like the implicit covenants we make with friends when we stand by them through thick and thin. Like the implicit covenant you and I can make with immigrants in our state who are feeling targeted for political purposes. We as Christians must always stand in an implicit covenantal solidarity with those on the margins.
Our own denomination’s governance is founded on covenantal relationships. Individual congregations within the UCC[i] are in covenantal relationships that assume mutual support, equality, respect, and care as well as accountability. “Covenant” in the United Church of Christ requires a willingness to remain in relationship, even when we disagree. Open Table operates within a governing structure that is neither hierarchical nor independent. We do not take orders from anyone at the denominational level, yet we highly value the opinions and concerns of others in our UCC family. Somewhere between the extremes of authoritarianism and isolationism lies covenantal polity based on mutual commitments within trustful relationships.
Those same expectations hold true at the congregational level. Some of you now considering membership at Open Table may want to hear a brief excerpt from our new member covenant, and current members may periodically need to renew those commitments. Our new members agree to try to “follow Jesus’ hopeful way” and answer the biblical call to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” This covenant continues as the congregation promises “to bear one another's burdens, hear one another’s stories, support one another in spiritual growth, and serve God by serving one another and our world.” Friends, now is a time for us to remember we have made this pledge to Rosemarie and Linda.
Renewing our commitments to this congregation this Lent is another way we can deepen our spiritual commitments. But in case that membership covenant is too abstract, let me offer three concrete ways you might “practice” your faith life, in the context of this church, in a new or more intensive way this Lent:
First, you might practice the spiritual discipline of worship attendance. If you generally attend once a month, try twice a month. If you attend twice a month, try three times a month. Many of us returned to the church-going life after many, many years of NOT attending worship services. And it may seem that even a monthly appearance at Open Table is something of a stretch for you. But I’m going to ask you to stretch a bit more, at least for the next six weeks. Because you will find that scriptures and sermons and songs get layered onto each other over time. If you attend only occasionally, you will miss out on so much, including a richness of relationships that can grow only through consistent interactions. And you will BE missed. Your unique presence changes our worship experience, silent though you may seem in your pew with your own private thoughts. Your presence also is vital to our growth and sustainability as a new church. Many of our “regulars” worship on a pretty irregular basis, so when first-time visitors come, we seem a much smaller congregation than we are and therefore may seem a less viable congregation. Certainly demands of family and work require us to miss services sometimes. But for this Lenten season I challenge you to consider your worship here at Open Table as an essential part of your commitments to kick spiritual discipline up a notch. There is probably no greater way you can strengthen the vitality and ensure the future of Open Table than by lending us your presence each week.
Second, I ask you to consider increasing your financial giving this year—by 1%. Yes, many churches recommend giving a tithe, 10% of your income. Some even require that level of giving. Some of you are doing that. But the UCC is recommending this year that we all simply look at what we gave to our church last year, and increase that amount by a mere 1%. The idea is to stretch a bit from wherever we are right now. Your offerings represent a spiritual practice of generosity that enriches the giver even as it serves others.
Finally, I hope you will consider lending us your leadership and talents. Speak to me or a member of the church council if you have ideas to offer or talents to share. We have many opportunities for service. Right now we need at least an additional person or two who can work with our children. We would love someone to do web design for us. Someone who can head our marketing team. Someone with photography skills. Someone who can coordinate meals and ministry for our sick. Additional folks to help set up and clean up on Sundays. Others who can lead and participate in acts of social justice. Think about your gifts and Open Table’s needs. Come talk with me.
Traditionally Lent was a time to prepare catechumens for baptism on Easter Sunday. Although here we make no big distinction between members and nonmembers, we believe membership kicks that commitment up a notch. Lent is an ideal time to consider becoming a member at Open Table. I would be happy to talk with you about that possibility. I would love to celebrate some new members on Easter Sunday.
Lent is the church’s “little covenant” when we try out, for 40 days, a new level of commitment—to prayer or Bible study or life within a community of faith. Sometimes we create a wilderness period for ourselves in order to find in that spaciousness new strength for the journey ahead. Other times, life’s wilderness periods are thrust upon us. Our dear Rosemarie has found herself suddenly in the desert where she may feel threatened by the wild beast in the form of a brain tumor. We will do our best to make sure she and Linda are not alone in the wilderness.
I pray that your Lent brings you a new level of commitment and new experiences of God’s loving presence.
O God, our hope is in you and in your great compassion—our hope for the world that bears the stains of our carelessness, our hope for a community riven by racism, our hope for our church that aspires to serve you, our hope for all who are undergoing physical and spiritual challenges. Especially we pray for Rosemarie’s healing. Bless Linda as she stands with her and bless us as we stand beside them. Keep your rainbow before us. Amen