First Sunday in Lent
Listening to the first reading today, it’s probably not lost on any of us that there is an uncanny, almost eerie coincidence that it’s a story we hear in the wake of the horrible weather-related state of affairs in Texas: the shocking frigid weather, loss of power for four million residents, frightening images on the news, destruction to homes, huge fires, the sad death stories that are merging, and now the utter scarcity of water. It does make us wonder. Is all this God’s doing? Was there really a flood that devastated almost all living creatures?
Like many of us, I first heard the story of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood as a child and understood it as being literal—that it really happened and just the way the Bible says it happened. Some people still believe that we must take stories like this on face value—and that’s where we can find ourselves in deep waters (pardon the pun).
Our Anglican tradition, however, offers us the great tool of being able to look at the Bible through the lens of our gift of reason, our brain, and figure out what it means for us in our time. We can read these stories as metaphor, as allegory, as parable and garner some truth from them, taking them seriously but not literally.
You may be familiar with the humorous stories Garrison Keillor tells about Lake Wobegon—tall tales and sweet stories about the citizens of this small Minnesota town where "the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all of the children are above average." Keillor's monologues capture the nuances of country life with eloquence and subtle humor—the luxury of rhubarb pie and the vapor lights of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. Did these stories really happen? Well, no, he makes them up. Are they true? Well, for some of us, they are because we recognize the characters and we find at least some element of truth in them. We may even recognize ourselves.
The portion of Genesis we read today is post-flood and contains God’s pledge never to bring on such catastrophe again. However, we can’t ignore the fact that the Book of Genesis includes the whole story. Where do we find the face of God—a God whom Jesus tells us is a God of love and tenderness and mercy—where do we see the face of that God in a story like this? In what is happening in Texas In the loss of lives in the pandemic? Or in any tragedy or disaster?
The story of the flood was written during the Babylonian exile when the people of Israel had been forcibly removed from their homes and were facing a crisis of their faith. Why would God let this happen to them? All they could figure out was that God wanted it to happen to them. Just like many other people who have suffered over the centuries, the best they could come up with is that God was mad as hell with them.
Those who lived in the ancient world believed that everything that happened was caused by God or caused by one of the gods. There was no such thing as a natural disaster. The suffering and desolation of Texas, COVID19, and any such tragic crises would have been interpreted as God’s wrath for the evil they had done.
Noah’s story does end in good news and that’s the part that we heard today—the after the flood story. God makes a covenant—an agreement, a pledge, a contract with the people of Israel that never again would the earth be destroyed. And God promises to give them a sign of that promise—a rainbow of splendid colors in the sky.
And the people of Israel, in the midst of the darkest hour of their history, as confused and as angry as they were about who and where God was, were able to come out on the other side, even as God did in this story, affirming that they and God would continue to walk together, would continue to live in relationship together.
Who among us does not struggle with our faith, with our belief in God and our understanding of why bad things happen? Who among us has not felt like the flood gates had been opened on us when we face great hardship and suffering? And who among us has not felt as completely alone as Jesus in the wilderness, facing doubts and uncertainties that confront us and tempt us to do what we know will not be good for us?
There is a story that one night some of the prisoners in Auschwitz, one of the most horrific concentration camps of the Holocaust, put God on trial and found God guilty for allowing the Holocaust to happen. They condemned God to death, and then when the trial was over, the presiding rabbi said, “It’s time for our evening prayers.” They came out on the other side determined to walk with God, and God with them—in spite of their heartache, in spite of their anger, in spite of the horror they experienced.
What the Genesis story teaches us is that God never withdraws from participation in our life, but decides, instead, to hang in there through thick and thin, to be involved in all of its darkness and in all of its wonder, in all of its paucity in all of its richness, in all of its successes and all of its failures. God covenants with us—stays in relationship with us—and with all of creation, pledging to walk with us through it all.
Several years ago, U2’s lead singer Bono, addressed the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., offering this perspective: “God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives… God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”
The happy ending of the Genesis story is that the rainbow appeared, and a new world was born. Today, God still calms the flood waters of our unsettled lives helps us to build our arks for safety when we need them and renews the covenant God made so long ago—God’s promise to be with us through thick and thin. Everyday the sun rises on us, the dawning of the reign of God occurs. Every day is a new chance, a new opportunity to walk away from the darkness into the light and life of the gospel of the God of Jesus Christ.