First Sunday in Lent
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Intro to Scripture:
The story of Noah and the ark is, perhaps, one of the best-known stories in Hebrew scripture. Adopted by widely in popular culture because of the beauty of rainbows and little animals prancing two by two out of the ark into a new world. And echoed in many creation stories from ancient and indigenous people around the world. But it is also a harrowing story of loss and destruction brought on in the version in Genesis by God’s grief and anger at the rebellious ways of humanity. God sets out to wipe the slate of creation clean with a flood covering all the earth. Plunging creation back into the primordial chaos from which it came. Saving only a remnant. Much to God’s surprise, retributive justice does not work well. The remnant of humanity saved has not been greatly changed by 40 days and nights at sea in a boat with several hundred squawking animal friends needing to be fed. Humanity is still contentious and prone to sin. God changes God’s mind about how to deal with human being. And that is where our text for today beings.
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 "As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 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." 12 God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." 17 God said to Noah, "This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth."
Grace and peace to you as we stand together at the beginning edge of our 2021 Lenten journey. As one often does at the beginning of a journey, we stand looking at where we have come from and towards where we are going. Today we can look behind us at a year that was like a plunge into the primordial destructive flood waters of our scripture story. We are attempting to look forward surveying, like Noah and his family from deck of the ark, a wilderness land still devastatingly deconstructed by the chaos that we hope is now subsiding. Over this threshold moment we see a bow in the clouds, a rainbow.
And we hear God’s ancient covenant with Noah. “Never again will I plunge the world into the chaotic waters of destruction. My bow in the clouds will be a sign that I will always remember my love for humanity and all creation. I will remember, even when I am grieved, that retribution will not resolve the issue of humanity’s hard-heartedness. Punishment will not coerce humankind into changing its rebellious ways. I make a covenant to always be present with my beloved creation, with humankind made in my image, to protect, not destroy.”
As God says, the sign of this extraordinary covenant is the unstrung warrior’s bow in the clouds. The bow was the war weapon of choice at the time that this story was written down in post-exilic Israel, a time when the people were coming out of the extreme chaos and confusion of exile. A bow strung and ready for war is a different shape. It is longer, thinner, taut. But this bow in the clouds is unstrung and its warrior edge from where the arrows are launched is pointed away from the earth. The disarmed bow, the rainbow, may be beautiful and inspiring to us, but it is a personal reminder to God. In its multi-colored light God is reminded to be “One Who Remembers,” even in the midst of chaos and rebellion of creation, “One Who Repents.”
God repents. Isn’t that a stunning statement? God makes a covenant to repent, to turn from vindication to forgiveness, patience, and steadfast love despite knowing that the human heart may never completely change. The creatures made in God’s image may always resist God. Yet God lays down God’s weapons and makes a covenant that is unilateral…it limits God’s power while setting no conditions on humankind. God does not demand that we change. God changes because God remembers to be lover, as well as judge, to be protector, as well as creator. God repents, turns from the path of destruction and anger, to the path of compassion and peace.
So, it seems to me that our story today implicitly asks us, what is our response to God’s repentance? Since God repents, can we? Can we repent? Can we unstring the bow of falsehoods that we cling to making us feel important? Can we unstring the bow of grudges that we hold, of anger that makes us feel entitled? Can those us born with the privilege of being white in this nation, unstring the, often unconscious, bow of prejudice? Can we unstring the bow of needing to “be right,” so we can see new ways to peace? Unstringing the bows of self-righteous defensiveness, laying down the weapons that defend our hearts, is the way of repentance.
From the time it was conceived as a season of the liturgical year preparing Christians for Holy Week, the Lenten journey has been about repentance. Repentance is not a very popular word in progressive Christianity. Forgetting that the prophets first cry is “Repent,” we like the revolutionary cry of the prophets., Justice!” Perhaps the word, repentance, speaks to you of over-emotional wallowing in unproductive guilt. But the repentance that Jesus spoke of meant literally “to turn around.” One must have keen sight to make a proper turn. I imagine repentance as standing at a threshold and taking a good hard, unsentimental look at where I am going. Do I want to stay on the same path I am going down on this journey in life? Or risk a new path?
Humanity is wont to continually choose the path to division and destruction. I believe it is time to risk a new path, as God did in the covenant with Noah, a path that leads to understanding and reconstruction. I believe that we can best cry “Justice!” speaking truth to the powers of the world, when we have the courage to first say honestly to our own hearts, “Repent.” Rainbows are reminders of God’s holy repentance and our invitation to turn toward God to participate in holy repentance.
Let me share a story with you – a true story and a story that actually happened to a friend of mine. One day a young mother was taking a walk with her small son and they saw a rainbow. The four-year-old boy looked up in wonder and said, “Mommy, can we take that home and put it in our house?” His awestruck question prompted the mother to write a poem she titled “A Rainbow in My House.” She took her son’s question literally, imagining what it would be like to have a rainbow in their house, on their walls, emanating from the windows and doors, coming out the chimney. The house was transformed, and it could not contain the glory of the rainbow and its colors.
“….When the door opens
Bursts of blues, greens and yellows
Pour out and float up towards heaven.
Inside I breathe in warm reds
And sleep on soft pinks….
Sometimes I pull back my curtain
To let the passersby
Take a peak.
They stare amazed…at the rainbow in my house.”[i]
I heard my friend tell this story and share her poem at a justice event for homelessness prevention many years ago. Our sons who are about the same age are now both grown men. In revisiting her beautiful imagery, I am prompted to imagine what my “house,” my inner soul/heart house, might look like with God’s rainbow covenant of repentance inside? What about yours?
And what about other houses we inhabit? God’s rainbow bending over Noah’s ark with its doors wide open and spilling out pairs of animals into a new world is an image painted or hung on the walls of many a church nursery. We love to tell this story of God’s love and hope to our children, starting at the earliest ages. We want them to know that, even in the midst of the worst times, God is with them and never forgets them. But why relegate this message to the church nursery? Why not let the rainbow colors emanate down the hall from the nursery into worship and committee meetings, into youth group, adult education and mission projects, into choir rehearsal and church potlucks? What might the entire body of Christ look like in the light of God’s rainbow? What might our world look like?
God’s rainbow covenant of repentance does not guarantee a utopia. Instead, it invites communities of all shapes and sizes to be places where people are willing to let their hearts be remade in the image of God’s repentant heart. Led by humanity’s siblings of color and our LGBTQ+ siblings, our communities can stand under rainbow flags of justice and inclusion where literally “all the colors of the rainbow” are welcome and equal in God’s sight. We can be communities asking the question, with the wonder of the child, “Can we take that rainbow home and put it in our house?”
My friends, today we stand together, in God’s grace, at the beginning edge of Lent, looking back and looking forward. How will we journey with Jesus this Lenten season in the light of God’s rainbow? May we allow it healing colors of repentance to penetrate our hearts, our homes, our life together in this community and beyond. May it be so. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. Reprint with permission only.
[i] Personal story and excerpt from unpublished poem by Michelle Sisk, 2008.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.