We Are A Covenant People (Homily for Lent I)

Readings:   Genesis 9:8-17     Psalm 25:1-10    Mark1:9-15

Starting over. 

Beginning a new chapter. 

Turning over a new leaf. 

Under new management. 

Re-boot. 

Reset. 

Repent.

We have so many different ways of talking about making a fresh start, and as many reasons for wanting or needing to. Disruptive technology puts someone out of a job. Manufacturing moves to a different continent. The market crashes. A Marriage ends. You win the lottery.

This is a theme that threads through the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and today’s readings touched on two stories: God’s covenant with creation after the flood, and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness after his baptism.

As Bible stories go, Noah and the flood is one of the more widely known. When I was in high school, everyone had the vinyl record with of Bill Cosby’s Noah stand-up routine, with his unforgettable dialogue with God asking, “Noah, how long can you tread water?” In the biblical narrative, the flood was understood as a way to start over after the human race had become so corrupt and alienated from the Creator that there was no other remedy. The flood calls to mind the beginning of the book of Genesis, when the earth was a formless void and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. This was like a new creation. At the end of the story arc there is a rainbow, a sign of God’s promise never to destroy the earth with a flood again. 

In the Bible, covenants are initiated by God with parties who are in relationship with God. God promises to keep his end of the agreement, even if the other parties fail to do so. Four of the five Sundays this Lent the Hebrew Scripture readings involve covenants. In addition to the covenant with Noah’s clan and creation, we will reflect on the covenants with Abraham, Moses, and the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah. The other Sunday we hear about what happens when God’s people abandon their part of the contract. 

At Christmastime, when I was looking ahead at the lectionary, and noticed this covenant theme, it occurred to me that, just as new covenants were entered into over time between God and God’s people, our own community, through a process of strategic planning, is trying to re-imagine how our partnership with God might be patterned for the future to which God is calling us. The Worship Committee agreed. Consequently, the homilists during Lent will be members of the Strategic Planning Steering Committee, with one exception. On March 4th, Rabbi Tina Grimberg, of Congregation Darchei Noam, will be our guest homilist when the reading of the day is the Covenant with Moses—the Ten Commandments.

Now, back to today’s story. Covenants accomplish a variety of goods, but chiefly they aim to promote peace and justice: how we live with one another and how we regard creation, as a result of our of our relationship with God. It is impossible to read the story of Noah today without thinking of all the ways we humans have failed to keep our side of the covenant. Instead of treating one another with respect, we have created great inequality through our management of the earth’s resources and through policies based on race, ethnicity, or religion. Mining tailings in the north have destroyed Indigenous habitat. The Rohingya are purged from their territory in Myanmar. Palestinians live under apartheid in Israel. We live with new threats of nuclear annihilation. Our oceans are polluted with plastic, chemicals, and radioactive waste. Our poor stewardship is creating catastrophic climate change. The rainbow may have been a sign that God would never destroy the earth with another flood, but we are well on our way to doing so all on our own. In the world of 12-step recovery from addiction, one often hears that people don’t seek help for their addiction until they “hit bottom.” What will it take for a critical mass of human beings to realize the time for denial, doubt, and dithering has expired. This is not the category of problem that will heal with time, left to itself.

The other story we heard today is the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism. Mark tells the story without the elaboration and dialogue with the tempter as Matthew and Luke do. He does it in thirty-two words: “The Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and there he remained for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. Jesus was among the wild animals, and angels ministered to him.”

You will recall that baptism is also a covenant. In the baptismal covenant, we declare our belief in God, and how our relationship with God will shape lives through: commitment to community, resisting evil, reconciliation, witness, striving for justice and peace, and loving our neighbor as ourself. It is no accident that the temptation of Jesus in the gospels comes immediately after his baptism, because every covenant begins to be tested as soon as it is entered into. How long did it take for the treaties made with Indigenous people in North America to be whittled away or disregarded by settler treaty partners? We see the shameless way politicians the world over make promises in order to get elected, and then abandon them afterwards. We have good reason to be cynical. There are many forces that seek to draw us away from the covenants we are party to.

And then there are the angels who minister to us—those unnamed sources of light in our darkness, nourishment in our hunger, compassionate concern in our pain or fear, encouragement in our doubt or despair. They are models for us to emulate—amateurs—for they do what they do out of love. And perhaps therein lies the good news for us today. Are we being called to be a community of angels who minister to those experiencing wilderness, to help the world to on a path to repent (in the original Greek, the word means literally to change one’s mind, or to turn around). Television evangelists and street-corner preachers have laden the word ‘repent’ with so much judgment, that our minds refuse to process it any longer. But if the human race—or enough of us, at least—don’t change our mind or begin to turn some critical things around, it won’t take Hollywood to depict the dystopia that our children and grandchildren will face.

We have seen what can happen when enough people band together and strive for change, committed to covenant principles of justice and peace on earth. God’s Spirit will continue to push us to discern and test our community’s vocation, to help us find our direction as she speaks in our midst and in our hearts. As we prayed in today’s collect:

God of trackless desert,

whose Child walked untamed

in league with beasts and spirits,

whose realm is not distant

but breaking in among us:

give us time and space

to find a new identity

to let go of control

and walk the pilgrim way.