February 26, 2012
Why is the story of Noah’s ark so popular with people who design children’s nurseries and other décor? It is a story from the Bible about God—the same God who supposedly gently molded the world, stopping every so often to say, “It is good”—getting so disgusted and infuriated with creation that God decides to obliterate the whole thing and start from scratch. And God doesn’t just wipe out human beings–who were certainly the species causing the trouble—but everything. And we’re only 8 chapters into the story! The story of Noah’s ark seems to depict a portrait of a God-as-Diva, throwing a temper tantrum.
And what makes this particularly sad is that, however dramatic it was, the Flood did not fix the problem of sin in the world. Yes, the first thing Noah and his family do when they emerge on dry land at the end of the flood is worship, but that’s not the end of the story. The last time we see Noah in the book of Genesis he’s completely drunk, and has shamed his sons and cursed his grandson. Apparently God missed a few spots when cleaning up the universe. Can you have that much rain and not expect some mud?
This is all very disheartening. On the other hand, it is an important story in our collective family history as the people of God. In his novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven, author Mitch Albom entitles the first chapter “The End.” Within the first few pages, Eddy, the main character, dies. This is not the way a book usually starts, but Albom reminds us repeatedly throughout the book that all endings are beginnings. We just may not recognize them at the time. The Flood may in fact have been the end of the world for an awful lot of creation, but it was also a new beginning.
And perhaps the fact that Noah and his family did not emerge from the ark as angels, but as sinners is what draws us back to our own Flood experiences, our baptisms. If you grew up in a church that practices infant baptism you may not remember yours. I know I was only two weeks old when I was brought to the waters. But what we perform as a sacrament in our churches is a mini-flood experience. In what is sometimes just a few tablespoons of water, we re-enact a drowning, a death. We say that in baptism all that is sinful and broken and ugly about us is drowned in the waters. In this sacrament, the power of God is obliterating from the record any sin that might ever separate us from God–including sins we aren’t even capable of imagining yet. Our accounts are prepaid, and there is no limit to the forgiveness that will be rained down upon us. When we emerge from the waters, we are new creations. The End is the Beginning. The Beginning is the End.
The thing is, since I was two weeks old, I’ve certainly done my share of traipsing around in the mud. I’ve done many shameful things and left many good deeds undone. Why? Did my baptism not “take”? Should our churches adopt the method of rebaptism that is practiced in many churches so that each time we repent, we get washed anew?
Or maybe we need to consider how our baptisms are not unlike Albom’s story about Eddy. Start with the end, with our sinful selves crucified at the font, because from there the rest of the story unfolds. Nothing that comes after chapter one erases the way the story began. Eddy is just as dead at the end of the novel as he is in the first chapter. Similarly, we continue to blot God’s creation with ugliness that we cannot curb, no matter how hard we try. Still, the story will always end where it began–with forgiveness, with grace, with a chance at newness. God has drawn us up out of the destruction that and up onto the life-raft–the ark, if you will–of God’s mercy. We are continually spared. This is God’s covenant promise.
A covenant is unlike a contractual promise, which involves one party saying, “I’ll do this and you do that.” In a covenant one party says, “I’ll do this.” Period. End of story. In the floods of our baptisms, God claims us, embraces us forever, and nothing we do or fail to do, nothing that happens to us can separate us from God’s attachment to us. There’s no point in being re-baptized, because God’s promise is always in effect, no matter how we try to sever it. A covenant promise can only be broken by the one who has made it. And God says over and over in today’s reading from Genesis that this covenant between God and the world can never be severed.
And I do want us to look at the covenant God makes with the world. Over and over in this brief reading from Genesis, God states and restates this intention: “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth.” Four times in these few short verses, God says, “I will remember the everlasting covenant between (me) and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God, whose heart was broken by a broken creation, establishes a covenant with all living things. All. Not just humans. No one can say it is un-Biblical to embrace a theology that focuses on care for the earth. We only need to look at a rainbow to remember that here—and in many other places in the Bible—humans are not the only precious part of God’s world.
But we cannot take God’s promise to never again destroy the earth as license to do whatever we want with it. In Genesis 1 and 2, humans are instructed to care for the earth, to serve it. And yes, the word serve is not unlike the one Jesus uses when he says he has come to serve the world. Jesus understands that the whole world needs embracing. Notice that in today’s Gospel he hangs out with wild beasts and angels. They understand the unity of God’s relationship with the world. They know they need one another.
But we, we need to be reminded. We need to return to the Lord our God, to repent and believe the good news. We need to end and begin again, to drown all those things that destroy life and to embrace new beginnings. The Invitation to Lent we heard on Ash Wednesday put it this way: “We are created to experience joy in communion with God, to love one another, and to live in harmony with creation. But our sinful rebellion separates us from God, our neighbors, and creation, so that we do not enjoy the life our creator intended.”
This is a season to be reminded of the covenant that has been poured over us in baptism. We can return to the font again and again to find refreshment and renewal there, but we do not need to drown in it again. God’s promises are forever. The end of the story is the beginning, every time.
~Pastor Susan Schneider