Sermon: Lent 1B
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
“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.” In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What do you think of when you think of the story of Noah’s ark? I’ll tell you what I think of: I think of nursery decorations. At least when my children were getting ready to be born, one could decorate nurseries and baby’s bedrooms with any number of Noah’s arks wall hangings, decals, figurines, and some such. Baby books and calendars often had Noah’s ark themes. And in fact, we did have Noah’s ark stuff in our kids’ bedrooms. We had been given decorations and baby books and calendars with the ark and the cute animals and the clouds and the rainbow as shower and baby presents, and we used them.
So when I think of Noah’s ark, I tend to think of saccharine-sweet images—until, that is, I remember the incident of my older daughter Alex and her Noah’s ark.
Now, before I tell this story, I should be clear with you that I asked Alex for permission to tell this story. Multiple times. Over the course of many days. She got sick of my asking. So if someday, she ends up sitting in a therapist’s office talking about how my telling this story destroyed her—well, I have my defense.
When Alex was little, as well as all of the baby books and decorations, she had a Noah’s ark play set. It was made of wood, and the ark itself was made in two pieces: a top which lifted off, and the bottom, which formed a large oblong bowl-like piece. It also had, of course, wooden animals. It sat in her room and she played with it quite a bit. One day, when she was three, she threw a huge temper tantrum—I can’t even remember what set it off, but I do remember that nothing that I did prevented this massive meltdown, so eventually, she ended up in timeout in her room, storming and screaming and tantruming in there. It was one of those tantrums that was so long and violent that it ended when she fell asleep. I went in to her room at that point, covered her up, and then looked around the room. Her Noah’s ark was scattered all over the place—the top lying in a corner, the animals all over the place. But the bottom of the boat was in the center of the room, and my darling daughter had peed in it.
Now, I had listened to her screams. She hadn’t screamed that she needed to use the bathroom, and if she had, I would have let her out of her room to allow her to do so. I’m pretty convinced that she peed in the Noah’s ark out of sheer anger.
How often are we like Alex? How often do we—either as individuals or as a people—piss all over God’s grace and saving work?
Now. Let’s stop here for a moment, because I’m guessing that I just shocked a pretty good number of you. I just used a word that we’re not used to hearing in the sanctuary, much less from the pulpit. So here’s the thing. Let’s remember that a good part of my life before I became a priest was spent in the study and teaching of the English language—of the rules that govern its use, of the ways that we employ it, of the stories that we tell with it. Words and how we use them are important to me. So if I just asked us to think about how we piss all over God’s grace and saving work, you better believe that I used the word that I think best conveys what we actually do. So if you’re shocked, or disturbed, or dismayed about what I’ve said, here’s my question for you: should it really be the word that shocks, disturbs, and dismays, or should it be the things that we do that shock, disturb, and dismay? I would argue—strongly—that it should be the latter.
Do I really need to sit here and list various examples of things that we do that piss all over God’s grace and saving work? I don’t think I should have to. I think that the beginnings of the answer to that question should be self-evident. If nothing else, all we need to do is turn on the news to see how we as a people piss all over God’s grace and saving work. But we do as individuals too. And figuring out, discerning how we do that, how we go so badly astray, is a part of the work of Lent. And I can’t do that work for you. Now if you’re really lost, I can guide you through the process of figuring out your sin. I have handouts. I have strategies. I love you all, but I am perfectly capable of lovingly helping you figure out your sin. So if you’re thinking, “I don’t piss all over God’s grace and saving work,” just set up an appointment with me, and we’ll get down to some real Lenten work.
And I’ll tell you this—the story of how we piss all over God’s grace and saving work is right there in the story of Noah and his sons. It’s right there in the story that we memorialize in sweet, cutsy decorations for our children’s rooms and nurseries. Because 3 verses after the end of our reading for today, the Noah that was saved from death, destruction, and chaos because he was the most righteous man on earth—that same man—planted a vineyard and got himself drunk. Not just like “Whoo-wee, do I feel good” type drunk, but like “Wow, I just passed out naked in my tent” type drunk. And one of his sons (Canaan) walked into Noah’s tent and saw his father naked and passed out. And when Noah learned of it, he cursed him, making him a slave to his family. In Bible-speak, Canaan was the father of the Canaanites, the enemy of the Israelites. And so Noah, in his post-flood life, having been saved by God’s grace, set in motion a chain of events that led to generations of violence, hatred, and oppression.
That’s some heavy-duty sin.
My friends, often I hear people question how the God that we worship could in this story send a giant flood to destroy most of the face of the earth and the people in it. Here’s the hard Lenten truth for us today: What is surprising about this story is NOT that God would despair over humanity and decide to wipe us out. What is surprising is that he hasn’t done it since—that he hasn’t wiped us with all of our pissy and sinful ways out of existence altogether. What is surprising is that he promised that he wouldn’t. Ever. And that he attached no conditions to that promise.
What we have in today’s reading from Genesis is an account of God’s first covenant with humanity. A covenant is a bond—a bond entered into voluntarily by two parties by which each pledges to do something for the other. Now God enters into several covenants with humanity throughout the Old Testament, and we will be talking about them all through Lent. But this covenant that God makes not just with Noah, but with all of creation, is the first. And as such, it reveals in a special way what God is like. And my friends, what is extraordinary about this covenant is that is one-sided. God does all the promising, and he asks for nothing in return.
That’s right. He doesn’t say, “If you behave yourself, I won’t wipe you out.” He doesn’t say, “Follow these rules, and I won’t wipe you out.” All he says is, “I won’t wipe you out. I promise.” This covenant only sets limits on God. Noah doesn’t say a word.
This may not sound all that surprising to us. After all, we’ve mostly been taught about an all-loving God, full of compassion, who gathers his children around himself and forgives all things. But that wasn’t the case when this story was written. Let’s get real here for a moment. The One who created all things is entitled to destroy all things if they prove disappointing. And we have proven disappointing. For God to limit Godself by promising for all time not to destroy—that is an unheard-of surrendering of divine power. Especially when we were and are the cause of the problem.
What we have here—in the story, and in our lives—is a God who sees that humanity cannot end the downward spiral of violence, and so God covenants to do so. When we, over and over again, threaten to close off all hope by repeated offenses, God keeps the future open and full of hope. The God revealed in this covenant is not an objective judge proclaiming a just sentence, but a lover grieved to the heart, yet still seeking reconciliation, and promising to continue to seek reconciliation, for all of time.
This story—this covenant—begins to reach a first climax with the coming of Jesus. Notice that God never said, “If you do these things, if you’re really good, THEN I will send my son.” God just does it. Jesus is just born. And he’s baptized, and then he willingly, without conditions, goes out into the wilderness of human experience, goes out and lives with the wild beasts. And then he’s crucified and he dies, not because we deserve to have him do this for us. But because God is so committed to us, to reconciliation and to life and hope and salvation and to love, that he’s willing to unilaterally step into the worst of us, and to transform things. To turn the waters of the flood into the waters of baptism. To soak up our violence and cruelty like a sponge. To stage an intervention. To say, “Right. Once again you have pissed in my ark. But my dear hearts, I love you anyway, and I will not destroy you. I will search for you to the end of the ages.”
THAT is the God that is revealed to us in this story—in this covenant. This is the God before whom we stand, to whom we belong. A God who limits himself in shocking and unheard of ways out of sheer love for us.
There is a danger inherent in Lent, I think. There’s a danger in all of this giving stuff up and taking stuff on, in our prayer, fasting, and self denial. The danger is that we put too much stock in our own efforts, and not enough stock in God’s grace. The danger is in thinking that if we just do enough, we’ll deserve to be saved. Don’t get me wrong—there are good reasons for the prayer, fasting, and self denial, for the giving stuff up and taking stuff on. There are good reasons for the examinations of conscience, for confession and repentance. But they don’t save us. They can’t save us. Because as a people, we continually piss on God’s grace and saving work, even with all of the Lenten stuff. Only God can save us. Only God DOES save us, through God’s unilateral promise not to destroy us, and later, through his Son, whose unilateral action changed everything.
So sure—give stuff up. Take stuff on. Pray. Fast. Deny yourself. Confess. Repent. Try your hardest not to piss all over God’s grace and saving work. I’m doing all of those things. And you should too. But through it all, place your faith in and focus your gaze on the God of this first covenant. Place your faith in and focus your gaze on a God who says to you, “Oh my love, you are so full of piss and vinegar. You are so devoted to violence and chaos. You are so stubborn and stiff-necked. You all are. But you are my love, and I’m setting things right. I promise.”