“God’s Welcoming Covenant in the Sky”
We continue in the story of Noah from Genesis. The story of Noah and the flood is ultimately not just one of challenging justice but also welcoming grace. The story begins with God’s disappointment. It appears at first that God decided to undo creation through the flood. But like a parent who gets angry at first then calms down, God’s anger is overwhelmed with love for God’s children and God walks back God’s threat. God held out hope for creation and saved Noah, his family and animals. Then God makes a covenant with Noah, never again to turn God’s back on or cut off creation. For the covenant is not just with Noah, but with all humanity and all life, to love us despite our imperfections. To shower us with grace. That is good news for you and for me. Reading now from God’s holy word. Let us pray.
Like most of us I got up on September 11, 2001 expecting a normal day. It was beautiful in Washington that morning. From 8-9:00am I helped lead a Bible study in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, not knowing that at 8:46 an American Airlines Flight had crashed into the North tower of the World Trade Center.
I returned to my office and found a friend watching television with tears rolling down her face and over her hands as she covered her mouth, for a United Airlines Flight had crashed into the South Tower.
I put my coat and briefcase down in our office common room as the newscasters cut to pictures of smoke rising from the Pentagon. At 9:48 am, sirens began screaming for us to evacuate Capitol Hill.
It took me more than three hours to complete my typical twenty-minute commute home. All day we sat in front of the television watching the horror of the destruction. At one point Bridget and I, still dating at that point, said to each other, “Regardless of where we go from here, we will have spent this day together.” We knew we would look back on our experience as the answer to the question we could be asked by children who have never known life without airport screenings, “Where were you on 9/11?” Like previous generations asked, “Where were you when JFK was shot or WW2 or WW1 ended.”
For many of us, this day triggers grief and reconnects us with emotions of anger, patriotism, and vulnerability.
Our vacation last month began with us visiting the 9/11 memorial in New York which has water flowing down like raindrops from the sky.
At the time, some wrote that the attacks of 9/11 were part of God’s judgement against America.
The author of Genesis writes that God was behind the rain which caused the flood.
Is that ultimately our image of God from the flood narrative?
Well, the first takeaway for me from the flood story is that God has the power to destroy what our sovereign God created. We should respect God. Proverbs 9 tells us, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Secondly, that we cut ourselves off from God. God didn’t like the violence of Noah’s society, what about the violence of our world from Syria to Chicago, from domestic violence to gun violence?
Yet the ultimate takeaway from the story for me is that God not only chose not to destroy us, saving Noah and the others, but went a step further, promising never to cut creation off. That is grace. That is God concluding that on our own we aren’t going to be perfect, and that is ok. God chooses to love us anyway and promises to stay present with us. That promise gives us confidence to live in God’s love.
The flood story ends with God’s welcoming covenant in the sky. The same location that was the source of the rain, now has a rainbow as a sign of God’s commitment to grace. The rainbow is a symbol of welcoming and inclusiveness.
The bible calls it a bow. A bow, like bow and arrow, an object of war, now a symbol of peace.
The key to the Noah story is not that the good win and the wicked die, it’s that all are saved by God’s amazing grace.
Noah wasn’t perfect. Our text says Noah was a righteous man, but not a perfect one. The one thing we find out about Noah’s life after the flood was that after he sacrificed to God, he goes and plants a vineyard, gets drunk on wine and passes out naked in his tent. Here God had chosen Noah because he was the best of the lot and this is how Noah repays God’s confidence. On the other hand, Noah had been in a boat for tons of animals for a year in a major storm and we can’t blame him for some catharsis perhaps.
The point is that it’s only God’s grace which saves Noah to begin with. Our text tells us Noah “found favor” in God’s sight. He did not begin as a righteous man, but he began as a sinner like everyone else. Yet Noah “found favor” with God. That means God gave Noah grace. God original decision despite the ills of humanity was not to wipe out creation but to save it through the ark.
We need to separate ourselves from the idea that if we can only do something more, God would love us more. God loves us unconditionally now.
God doesn’t just make a covenant with Noah, or only the Israelites, or even with only humans. It’s with all creation. It’s not a covenant with only the good people. Only the in crowd. It’s a promise never again to cut off or to turn away from everyone. The way forward for you and me does not depend on human perfection. It never did. It’s always been about God’s grace.
So we begin the program year with the welcome of grace. This is why our prayer of confession here is not only a prayer of confession but a prayer of adoration and confession. It is from our knowledge of God’s forgiveness, confirmed in God’s covenant with Noah and the blood of Christ, that we confess our sins. When we say “Friends, believe the good news” in our assurance of forgiveness, we are reaffirming what we declare in the adoration part of the prayer first – that God’s grace is there before we act. God has promised to stay in covenant relationship with all people, so we can confess our sins and commit to living a righteous life confident of God’s love. As one scholar put it, “we don’t fight for victory, we fight from victory.” Our future is already secured in God’s promises.
Noah knew this truth. When you are on an ark, you are at the mercy of God. Arks don’t have GPS or steering devices. There are kind of like early driverless vehicles. God didn’t tell Noah to assemble a sailing crew or navigation team. God told Noah to trust God.
The Hebrew word here for ark, tebah, is used in one other place in the Bible. For the basket in which the strong Hebrew women placed the baby Moses after Pharaoh had ordered the death of the male children, about which Kori preached about last Sunday.
In a way, a life of faith means being in a rudderless ark. It means trusting God’s grace. But being in an ark which God steers gets us through a lot of challenges too.
In the past year, terrorism has hit France, Turkey, and Orlando, floods have struck Baton Rouge and parts of Maryland, and we all have done something we regret, but God’s commitment is not to cut us off.
I do not believe that terrorism or floods today are the will of God. I do believe that God is present in trauma, patching up lives and hearts through spiritual fortitude and human acts of kindness.
I do believe there was a great flood long ago. The fertile crescent, between four rivers, would have been threat for flooding especially in spring. Several cultures contain a similar great flood narrative.
I do not believe evil and death have the last word. That while some would seek to destroy the world, we follow God’s example when we seek to love and save it.
After worship we’ll join in a brunch here which celebrates that all are welcome in this place. After that we’ll have a meeting about welcoming a family from abroad who is in a place of crisis. Tomorrow morning, a day after September 11, we host 400 Muslims for one of their major celebrations, Eid al-Adha, perhaps the holiest worldwide Muslim celebration of the year, as we seek to connect across religious differences.
Tom Friedman’s New York Times op ed on Wednesday argues that we and our kids are now the Noah generation, charged with saving the last pairs of animals. He points out that July 2016 was the hottest month on record globally since global tracking began in 1880. As elephant populations has declined 30% since 2007 and half of the world’s species will be gone by the end of the century unless people take drastic action, Friedman channels scientists who argue for radically increasing the amount of land and oceans protected globally. It’s worth thinking about our own responsibility to reflect God’s love for the world.
On August 14, I flew from through Chicago on way to Wyoming to officiate a wedding. I was at my gate when a woman there who only spoke Spanish was trying to communicate with the United ticket counter people and it just wasn’t working.
The woman, Mischel, was from Guatemala and trying to figure out her flight and no one at the United counter spoke Spanish. They said they even sent her to the main United counter and no one there spoke Spanish. This is one of the largest airports in the world for crying out loud and United can’t they find someone who can translate English and Spanish? The exasperated United people asked me as I standing there in line if I spoke Spanish. I said not really but happy to help the woman. My Spanish is so bad one of my friends gave a whole toast at my wedding rehearsal dinner about it. But that is what was called for at the time, so I started talking with Mischel as best I could.
She turned out to be very nice. I gathered that her issue was United moved the gate for her flight but she missed that announcement. I was far from perfect, but got her to the right gate just in time. Really what I did was make her feel welcome in a way the United people did not.
When I return to my gate the United counter folks were so thankful they just upgraded me so now I had a sweet seat to Wyoming. And satisfaction that one person felt welcome and given a second chance to get home.
Grace is about second chances. One could come from reading the Noah story and have an image of God as a God of destruction or one of second chances.
Humanity was not perfect after the flood. Noah’s sons respond to their father’s drunken nakedness by “turning away from their father.” By contrast, God promises never to “cut off” creation. The Hebrew of turning away and cutting off are similar. The human action to turn away. God is the one who shows us the way of grace.
So if your image of the God of the Old Testament, the God of Noah, the God of you and me, is primarily about judgment or about destruction, then your challenge this week is to rethink your image of God.
And from that your image of your role as a grace filled, fully loved, made in the image of our creator, follower of God. Who starts the program year receiving and then giving grace. Being welcomed and then welcoming. Benefiting from a covenant of love and perhaps begin in relationship with those at work and home, and beyond who are different from us or with whom we are frustrated and disappointed, and finding our place in caring for the continuation of the world.
The thing about the rainbow is that it connects Heaven and earth. One end touches the sky and one bends down towards land. The arc between the two makes a connection.
Sometimes “To see a rainbow you have to stand a little rain,” to quote the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. You won’t see a rainbow on a perfect cloudless day.
And if the most beautiful, meaningful, God filled, experiences of your life come when the covenant of God shines through a storm, that is grace.
For that, all we can say is, “thank you.” To which God responds, “You are welcome.” Amen.