A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Lent 1 ~ Genesis 9:8-17
Let’s start with some really basic stuff. Today we begin the liturgical season called Lent. There are a couple of interesting ways to think about where the word comes from. One is that it refers to the ‘lengthening of days’ that happens through this time of year for us. The closer we get to Easter the more and more light we get each day. I like that.
Being a musician I like even better how the word is derived from the same source as the musical term lento, which means slowly – at a slow pace. That’s a perfect way to think about Lent. Slowing down. Pondering. Reflecting. Praying.
Lent is a time of introspection, prayer, and preparation for Holy Week and Easter.
It’s also a time of repentance, and self-understanding.
What Lent isn’t – or shouldn’t be – is a New Year’s resolution do-over. It’s popular in our culture (interestingly, even among those who’d never darken the door of a church) to mark this liturgical season by ‘giving something up’. But unless you also ‘replace’ the time and energy you gain by giving the thing up by investing it in prayer-time then you’re really just doing another resolution.
But I don’t really want to talk about all that. I prefer emphasizing contemplation and reflection – and a commitment to journey through the Season of Lent with intentionality and prayerfulness. I’d rather focus on the pace – lento – slowly – prayerfully – pondering our relationship with the Holy Mystery we call God.
This year I’m going to be taking us on a Lenten exploration through the Hebrew Scriptures (what many call the Old Testament), and to look deeply at the theological concept called: covenant. I’m not sure if you noticed, but in today’s scripture reading of Genesis 9, in 10 verses 7 of them featured the word ‘covenant.’
So what does covenant mean?
Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean: contract.
This is a fundamentally critical distinction.
If we don’t get this right we can misread and misinterpret the bible in profoundly problematic ways.
We understand contracts really well. We each enter into all sorts of contracts all the time. In fact, in order to watch this worship service you had to enter into a contract with the YouTube people.
A contract is a formal, legal agreement between two parties that clearly outlines the rights and responsibilities of each party – and clearly defines what each party gives to and gets from each other. Our economy depends upon contracts.
Sometimes contracts are sealed with a handshake – sometimes with lawyers and multipage documents – sometimes by scrolling and clicking the “I accept these terms” button. Sometimes there’s ‘fine print’ at the bottom outlining very minute and specific details in the agreement.
Contracts, we understand.
This for that, we understand.
Delineating expectations and responsibilities, we understand.
Contracts are transactional.
I do this – you do that.
And what happens when one of the parties to a contract fails to do this or that – fails to hold up their end? There may be penalties, or fines, or loss of privileges, or endings of partnerships. Break a contract – pay the consequences.
These things we understand.
Covenants are on another level.
The confusing part is that often covenants are mixed in with contracts. The best example I have is a marriage. At a wedding I make a big deal of it being a ‘covenant’ – which it is, absolutely – but then in the next breath we go over to a little table and sign legal documents which function as a contract. Confusing!
So what’s a covenant, then?
I’m so glad you asked!
Contract means ‘to draw up’, as in to delineate, formally write down.
Covenant means ‘to draw together, to come together, to agree’. It’s rooted in the word ‘to convene’.
A covenant is a solemn agreement, not enforceable by law or statute, but by mutuality.
A covenant is, in short, a relationship.
The bible is filled with all kinds of examples of ‘contracts’ because that’s how humans tend to interact with one another – transactionally.
And that’s why it’s so easy for us to take that basic paradigm of ‘I do this – you do that’ and apply it to God.
And that’s exactly where we go so tragically wrong in our theology.
God doesn’t engage in contracts with us.
God enters into covenants with us.
The difference is incalculably great.
And yet, we are constantly having to deal with misguided theological interpretations and understandings that are contractual. If God actually entered into contracts with us we’d have broken them so many times that the penalties would be enormous – such that we could never pay them back, never make good. Doesn’t that sound just like those theologies that describe a vengeful god that has been wronged and won’t rest until appropriate retribution is made? (It pains me to even put that into words.)
God. Is. Love.
I say it over, and over, and over again. And because God is Love, God can only love – because Love can do no other.
Love does not sue you for your life and limb when you break a contract. We’re on a path toward Holy Week.
I invite you to spend a significant amount of time pondering whether your Holy Week theology is grounded in contract-theology or covenant-theology.
(Warning, it may get uncomfortable. Welcome to Lent.)
This isn’t to say that covenants don’t have expectations, or that covenants can’t be broken. It just means that the basis of the relationship isn’t a set of terms – it’s a relationship.
Friendship is a covenant.
You have friends.
I doubt you have a formal, written agreement with them – but there are also clear expectations and understandings regarding that relationship. It’s likely never occurred to you to voice them, and surely not to write them down. That’s just weird.
But you and your close friends covenant with one another to be there for one another, to share the journey, to offer support, to ‘have their back’, to laugh and cry with them.
It’s a relationship – and its root is not law – it’s love.
That wedding ceremony I talked about where we sign the contract at the end – we have to do the legal part for legal reasons. But the marriage itself is not a contract – it’s a covenant. A drawing together, a partnership of mutuality with the goal of flourishing in life.
It’s a relationship, not a contract.
You and I, as minister and Community of Faith, are in a covenanted relationship together. But it’s even more wonderful than that! We’re actually in a very vibrant and complex covenant with 4 parties to it. There’s Faith United, there’s me, there’s the Region (the denomination), and there’s God. We’re all party to this covenant. Yes, there are some contractual aspects – I get paid, I have certain amounts of holidays – but beyond and deeper than that employment stuff is a relationship.
We are in a binding, loving, holy covenant together – you, me, the denomination, and God. Together in love, for the purpose of flourishing, of growing ever deeper in the Way of Jesus.
I wasn’t hired here. I was called.
I don’t work for this church. I serve this church.
These are critically important differences.
We are not a contractual organization – we are bound by covenant love.
And now, with all that said, I can finally get to our scripture reading.
We’re looking at Genesis 9:8-17. It’s the famous story of Noah but not the part with the ark, or the animals going two-by-two, or the 40 days and 40 nights of rain. Instead, we’re looking at the aftermath. The rain has stopped, they’re on dry land, and they’re ready to make a fresh start.
What will be the nature of that fresh start?
On what foundation shall their fresh start be built?
If you just read the surface of the Noah story (and yes, for me it’s a ‘story’ and not factual history – but that doesn’t really matter at all for this) – anyway, reading the surface it sure sounds like a contract gone very, very bad. The humans broke God’s rules so God cancelled the contract and extracted a penalty – of wiping everyone and everything out.
Friends, does that sound like something that Love could do?
So again, when our biblical interpretation seems to contradict our fundamental understanding that God is Love then we must rethink our interpretation.
What if we had it all wrong?
What if our typical understanding of the story is off?
I mean, what’s more likely – that the Holy Love that we call ‘God’, who was, and is, and ever shall be Love has radically, suddenly changed from a nasty, vengeful, destructive, killing machine into a benevolent daddy figure?
Or maybe God has always been Love, and it was Noah’s perception of God that changed!
Maybe it just took a catastrophic event (like a massive flood) for Noah to realize what was true all along?!
Maybe God was offering Love and relationship all along, and in the aftermath of what was clearly such a calamitous event that it shaped their story-telling, Noah finally learned to recognize it.
Maybe all that ark, and animals, and rain stuff is actually distracting us from the big message! What’s the message?
Genesis 9:9-10 As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you [not just with humans – God’s relationship is with ALL that is], the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark [as many as survived the calamity].
In the aftermath of a supreme trial, or catastrophe (or pandemic), ‘Noah’ awoke to a new understanding.
He realized that our relationship with God is not ‘judge and judged,’ but rather is framed in mutuality, in mercy, in loving-kindness – not a contract god, but a covenanting God.
It’s a paradigm-shifting re-imagining of how we thought God was to learn how God really is.
Let me say it plainly. God didn’t change – our perception of God changed.
The God Noah discovers is not offering a new deal, a new contract.
God offers a covenant.
God offers love.
God offers Godself.
If it was a new contract God would outline God’s demands. But God doesn’t demand – God invites – God invites Noah and his family (us) into flourishing.
If you look just before today’s reading you’ll see that Genesis 9:1-7 says that their job – our job – is (v.1) to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. And (vv.4-6) to treat all life with respect. In other words, to live with respect in creation. Gee, where have I heard that before? J
And in order to remind us of this ever-present love the story paints the picture of a rainbow in the sky. One theological interpretation offers that that’s a symbol of God putting God’s weapon (a bow and arrow) away so as not to use it on us again. That’s pure contractual interpretation.
Might there be other interpretations? Of course!
The one that probably leaps to mind for us – being an Affirming congregation and all – is that the rainbow is a symbol of inclusion, and valuing, and loving, and respecting all people. Well heck, doesn’t that sound just like a covenant to you?
A relationship of love and mutuality for the purpose of human flourishing!
Or maybe the rainbow for you is a symbol of the beauty of God’s light and love colourfully adorning the world in a visible way?
Or maybe it’s a sign of how the rains, and storms, and calamities of life are not forever, and that God is with us through those calamities – in a deep, covenantal, loving relationship with us?
Verse 9 – I am establishing my covenant with you.
Verse 11 – I establish my covenant with you.
Verse 12 – This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature.
Verse 13 – A sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
Verse 15 – I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature.
Verse 16 – I will remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature.
Verse 17 – This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.
I hope ‘Noah’ got the message.
God will remember this covenant, and honour it, because Love is what and who God is.
I wish I knew where that message broke down over the years.
Even if you disagree with my interpretation about God never changing and only Noah’s perception changing, there can be no disagreeing that the God of Genesis 9 – Genesis, the very first book of the bible – this God is not a contractual god.
Our God is a God of covenant love, and that love is grounded in a relationship of mutuality for the purpose of our flourishing.
If you really want to give something up for Lent – how about giving up the god of contracts – and instead embrace the God of covenant love and relationship!
Like Noah, it just might change everything!