If there’s a Bible story that is universally known – or at least depicted – it is probably the story of Noah’s Ark. Very young children are introduced to this story through play-sets that have a cargo boat and pairs of animals and a few people. Sometimes nurseries are decorated with Noah’s Ark images, complete with rainbows; and there are certainly kids' Bible songs and camp songs that feature Noah and the animals.
Those all have their place. And yet what once seemed like a way for children to learn some of the important texts of Scripture has become a trivialization, something that we can dismiss as a cute kids’ Bible story. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The story of Noah comes from the earliest days of the Hebrew tribes, and it takes up four whole chapters in Genesis – in part because two different versions of the story are woven together, causing some repetition and duplication, which is the subject for a later Bible study; and in part because the events were so momentous. God had taken stock of God’s handwork – the earth and its inhabitants – and found 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.” (Gen. 6:5-6). The solution – or so it seemed – was for God to have a do-over; scrap the whole project and start again. And then Noah and his righteousness caught God’s eye. God told Noah to build an ark, a large cargo vessel that would carry and preserve the life of Creation – both human and animal – into the next phase of God’s project. We are clearly in the realm of true myth and symbol here, and attempts to do any kind of modern-day scientific re-creation of the ark or the event are beside the point.
What matters here is that Noah trusted God; he had faith in God’s care and life-giving purposes. And God made a covenant with Noah and his family, with their descendants, and with all creation. Never again would God destroy the entire world with flood, and the rainbow would be the sign of that covenant. Covenants in the Bible are binding agreements in which both parties have responsibilities and rights, and usually carry some sign, symbol, or tangible reminder. This covenant with Noah is not just God’s promise to us, a promise of care and life, but it is also a call for us to be in partnership with God. We are not just passive receivers, but we have a role here, too. Just like Noah, we are called to be good stewards of life – human, creaturely, earthly. We are partners in this covenant that is about the flourishing of all human beings and all creation.
We are living through a time in our common life when this seems to be getting harder and harder – the flourishing of all human beings – or least the challenges seem to be getting greater. The shooting death of seventeen people, students and teachers, on Wednesday – Valentine’s Day, Ash Wednesday – is the most recent expression of a turning away from our human responsibility to care for one another, to value one another, to work for the flourishing of all those whom God has made and for whom Jesus gave his life. This turning away happens in so many ways and on so many levels – both individual and societal; the abuse of guns and the violence surrounding that abuse are but one very obvious example.
Here at the start of Lent we encounter Jesus, fresh from his baptism, being driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, meeting temptation to turn away from God’s purpose for him, and ultimately overcoming that temptation and beginning his mission. Jesus announced the nearness of the Kingdom of God. He called for repentance – metanoia – that turning to face and embrace God’s kingdom and purpose instead of our own. Do a 180, Jesus is saying, an about-face, trust in God’s good news. God’s good news, salvation, is not just about “going to heaven when we die” but about becoming the people, the human race, that God intended in the first place: loving, just, wise stewards of God’s good creation. Part of repentance means that we need to be on board with God’s life-giving purpose. I believe that in our current time and place, we need to face into our part of this covenant purpose anew, as we see so much dislocation and fracturing and destruction around us. Now is not the time to run away, nor put our heads in the sand – as tempting as that is.
There is no single easy answer to the problems of violence and hatred in our culture, even if some steps we could take may seem more obvious than others. Legislation will be one strand of an answer. A deeper and more thorough understanding of both our constitutional responsibilities as well as rights will play a part. Paying attention to the real needs of children: emotional, social, spiritual, healthy parenting and healthy schools working together is another part of the equation. It will be important to find ways to talk together as local communities and as a society about the overwhelming speed of change that has created the incredible rage and disconnection that erupts in violence over and over again, and that also fuels so many of the addictions in our world.
Most of all, I believe, Jesus is calling us into a spiritual renewal, and as Jesus’ disciples, that starts with us. That does not mean some kind of pious separating ourselves from society at large. It does not mean that we are to be holier-than-thou, but to trust God deeply with our very lives, to be holy/whole people, and communities. To be communities where no one is outside the reach of our love and care, where whatever differences we may have (politics, race, gender, class, sexuality, economics, education, immigration status) we can come together, and talk about what is real. To be communities where we recognize that the threats to our society and our American ideals are not each other, but actually social and spiritual forces that demean and divide and play on our fear, our grief, our loneliness. Because fear, grief, resentment, and loneliness are those are the places in the emotional and psychic landscape where we could say (like the medieval map makers wanting to mark uncharted danger): Here be dragons.
This is very difficult terrain, but we Christians, of all people, have a compass who will help. Jesus faced the physical, external challenge of the desert wilderness, which the outward expression of the inner landscape. He came through the desert with greater clarity and purpose and truth: Repent, turn around, turn your minds Godward; the kingdom of God has come near; turn around and trust the Good News. Jesus is the compass we need to follow.
Like Jesus we need to turn Godward, not just on Sundays or in our private prayer time, but in our whole life. Like Jesus we need to meet people where they are and have honest, true, empathic conversations with them about what life is really like. To do this we must be willing not to accept memes or catch-phrases that we think “says it all” in diagnosing our current very difficult experience; those memes will just suck us down the rabbit hole of disconnection and spiritual alienation and rage.
Like Jesus, we need to continually refill our spiritual batteries with prayer. We need to spend quality time with other disciples with whom we can share wisdom, learning, insights, and the nudges of the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus we need to be healing presences in our communities and families. Like Jesus we must learn when to exercise strength and when we need to extend vulnerability. Like Jesus, we need to learn the power of humility, the importance of forgiveness, the value of self-sacrifice, and the joy of love.
All of this is a very tough landscape. The journey is not easy. But we Christians have a compass – Jesus; we have the companionship of the Communion of Saints under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; we have God’s covenant of care and purpose for all of life – physical life, societal life, the life of the planet, family life, spiritual life: the flourishing of every person, every human community, and the whole created order. Jesus is our compass, and the rainbow is the sign of God’s covenant.
We can’t give up – lest we either drown in the waters of chaos that Noah navigated, or die of thirst in the desert in which Jesus sojourn. We go forward - God’s partners in this covenant of care, with Jesus as our compass and the rainbow as our sign. May God’s goodness and life come to pass in our own time and place – in us, and through us, and all around us.
Let us pray.
Holy God, we offer ourselves to you. Make us your holy people, sent out to do your work of wholeness and love. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
First Sunday in Lent
February 18, 2018