“Again & Again, God Meets Us”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
21 February, 2021
Lent 1B
Genesis 9:8-17
Mark 1:9-15

Stories are crucial in a meaning-filled life.  Especially the narratives we live by—the ones we learn as children and take with us into our old age; the stories we tell ourselves over and over, the ones that tell us about who we are and whosewe are; where we came from and where we’re going; tales about our beginning and our end.

For the past month and a half, as we were focusing on the Holy Habit of Sharing Resources, I referred frequently to the first story in our Bible, the story of our human creation.  I did that because the Creation Story of our faith tradition lays out some important truths we hold about our relationship with God, and with the world.  Truths that structure our understanding of how we’re meant to live life, ideas about right relationships, and understandings about our fundamental purpose.

God created this world and all that’s in it for God’s own pleasure.  And, God’s creation of humankind represented a sort of pinnacle achievement—one in which God took special delight.  So much, in fact, that God decided to share creative power, dominion, and stewardship or care-taking responsibilities with us.  And all of this was done with the vision or expectation that we would all—God, humanity, creation—live in mutuality of love and nurture.  All of these truths are embedded within the story (or stories) of Genesis chapters 1 and 2.

But that’s not all that’s there.  We also learn in those stories about our primordial recognition that water is both life-giving and dreadful; that it is both nurturing and devastating.  Biblically speaking, water is symbolic both of chaos and of new life.

How many times do you suppose you’ve heard the story of Noah and the ark?  Three times?  Eight?  More than a dozen? sd

If you’re like me, and your child’s nursery was decorated with images and figurines of an ark encompassed by a rainbow, and couplets of every animal you’d teach your child to name in their first year or two of life, and if you had a Children’s Story Bible that got read before bedtime, then you’ve heard or told the story more times than you can count.  Chances are, if you’ve gone to a church that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, then you’ve heard it at least once every three years because it’s always read on the first Sunday of Lent in Year B, which is why we’re hearing it this morning.

It’s not an entirely pleasant story.  I mean, the whole human race gets wiped out by drowning except for one family, and nearly all the animals and plants along with them.  That God’s frustration with Creation should culminate in such utterly devastating wrath is a bit harrowing, don’t you think?

But then again, anyone who has ever become disgusted with a project you’d launched with high hopes and a positive spirit and a great image in your mind, but despite your care and efforts it simply wasn’t turning out as you’d envisioned it should and so you smashed it to bits, well… maybe we can relate.  One of my Biblical studies professors in seminary liked to say, “God created humankind in God’s image.  And then we set about returning the favor.”

There are hundreds of ancient flood myths represented by the many, many different tribes and peoples of the world; every inhabited continent has flood myths and legends.  All of them contain similar elements, most notably that the entire world was enveloped in a global deluge and only a few human beings survived.

But our Biblical story is unique in the divine response.  In our story alone, God makes a covenant with humankind—with the same species of creation that had so badly bungled God’s original work.  In it, as Lauren Wright Pittman pointed out in her artist’s statement, “God offers Noah, his descendants, and every living creature an all-encompassing promise, vowing never to flood the earth again.  Despite humanity’s destructive role, God limits God’s self and alone is held accountable in this covenant. … God gives humanity a chance to start fresh, and the opportunity to choose a different path.”[1]

Furthermore, as a visible symbol and active reminder of this vow God says, “Look. I’m hanging my bow in the clouds—and when I see it, and when you do, we’ll remember this everlasting covenant between us.”

Those of you who’ve listened to the “Strange New World” podcast will already have heard Rev. Matthew Myer Boulton call attention to the fact that the bow—not the sort of bow you find decorating a present, but the kind that could launch a potentially lethal arrow—is aimed away from the earth.  God lays God’s weapons down.  The story reveals the character of a compassionate, sacrificing, selfless Creator for whom relationship with us is somehow worth humbling and limiting the divine self for, in order to attain it.  Time and again throughout the Scriptures, we see God humbling and limiting Godself for our sake, sacrificing and relenting—endlessly hopeful about us and for us.  Endlessly creative in the use of love’s great power to give and transform life.  This is our story, our truth, the meaning-making narrative we live with, and live by.

In our gospel story, where the death-and-new life symbolism of water also features, we hear God speaking to the One whose name we Christians bear, as Jesus emerges from the waters of his baptism.

Jesus had made his way out to John the Baptizer—more than 100 miles from his home in Galilee—in order to begin his ministry with those on the margins.  When he deliberately joined the crowds who had flocked to John in order to accept a fresh start, those who longed to hear a message of divine hope and salvation from a world gone awry, Jesus was aligning himself with the broken, the poor, and the weary.

And there, Mark tells us, as Jesus emerges from the water of his baptism, before he is tempted in the wilderness, God meets Jesus and declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[2]

This is important—because this story is our story; the meaning of this narrative lies in the truth of what it says about our own lives as those who find our identity in the life and story of Jesus Christ.  Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Denise Anderson says, “First and foremost,” [the meaning here is that] “God claims us.  God meets us in the liminal space, at the water’s edge, at the threshold of something new, and names us Beloved.  God’s covenant with all of creation reminds us that God meets us where we are—in the midst of our reluctance, doubt, eagerness, or weariness—and proclaims [again and again] that we are good.”[3]

But that’s not all this story tells us.  In seven short verses, we learn about three significant events in Jesus’ life at the outset of his ministry.  First is his baptism, where God claims him as God’s own beloved son.  Second is his wilderness experience, where God sends angels to attend to him as he faces the Adversary, the Accuser, Satan.  Finally, after his cousin and friend John the Baptizer was arrested, Mark tells us that Jesus started proclaiming God’s proximity: “the kingdom of God has come near”, even as he called for repentance—encouraged folks to turn away from the behaviors that alienated the people from God and from each other.  In each moment, God is closer than any observer might first guess, meeting Jesus’ needs, equipping and empowering him to overcome every adversity.

And that’s important, again, because Jesus’ story is our story.  Again and again, God meets us where we are—but doesn’t leave us there.  As we go deeper in faith, following as best we can the footsteps of Jesus through our own personal wilderness, through our own trials and temptations, and as we claim and live out whatever ministry God is calling us to tend to today, we will find ourselves moving from sinking sand to solid ground.  Our perspective will shift from navel-gazing to a community focus.  From personal pietism to justice for all, and away from behaviors, both personal and systemic that frustrate God’s vision for the world.[4]

As Rev. Anderson puts it, “God meets us at the edge of things—in suffering, uncertainty, reluctance.  God meets us at the edge and promises to stay with us, watching over us through the wilderness of our lives.  Where are the edges in your life right now and how is God meeting you there?”  How has God come to you, time and again, in your life?  How might you live differently if you remembered that you are God’s Beloved child, in whom God delights and is pleased?  And, “what happens when we forget or neglect that belovedness in ourselves or in others?”[5]

Some of you may have noticed that, while in previous years during the month of February I’ve made a point of trying to learn something about some notable figures in Black History.  I’ve not done that this year.  At least, not so far.  Instead, I’ve made a point of including powerful Black voices of truth and authority who are alive today.  Two weeks ago, we saw a video featuring the lawyer, social justice activist, and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson.  And last week, we heard from the Rev. Dr. Emile Townes, the dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, and professor of Christian ethics.

This past week, I watched the outstanding 3-part PBS series called “Race: The Power of an Illusion”, which was produced in 2003 but is available now and streaming free of charge on the PBS website.  I highly recommend the series, and think everyone should watch it, as it details how the idea of race was planted and grew in this country in order to justify the enslavement and subjugation of black and brown-skinned people across our history.  It’s not a comfortable watch especially for those of us with white skin and ancestors, but the truth often is uncomfortable which is why human beings will consciously and unconsciously avoid it—at great cost.  It will challenge some assumptions and some of the stories we’ve been taught and carried with us, but the facts they present are well-documented.

And yesterday, I attended another very enlightening, thought-provoking, and engaging webinar entitled “White Nationalism, Race, and the Church” presented by the Rev. Dr. Velda Love, the United Church of Christ’s Minister for Racial Justice.

Dr. Love began the webinar with the words, “Race is a myth. But racism is real—and it’s a reality that shapes this country.”  And then she pointed out that people everywhere believe we shouldn’t talk about racism, including in the churches—it’s seen as being too divisive.  But until we talk about the 400-year history of white supremacist ideas that have been woven into our very founding documents and that have brought us to this place, we will not heal or become whole.  We cannot experience a new beginning until we go back to our foundations, and that may involve smashing some dearly-held falsehoods.  She wondered, quoting Bryan Stevenson, why we don’t think it’s odd that we remain silent about key aspects of our history, and instead think it’s strange and threatening when we do talk about it.  It is worth pondering any subject that feels threatening to talk about, and do a little digging as to what it is we feel is being threatened, and how Jesus himself might respond to the perceived threat.

Friends, stories are crucial in a meaning-filled life.  Especially the narratives we live by—the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we live by: they matter, because they impact our openness to the ways that God will meet us.  The narratives we repeat and refer to, the ones we’ve grown up with, and the ones we allow to continue to shape our understanding today; the ones that tell us where we came from and where we’re going; about who we are and whose we are, and about who and whose others are.  Because we ALL are Beloved of God, and God meets each of us with delight and equal desire for relationship.

Here’s the theme and the Good News story that Lent brings us back to, year after year: “In Lent, we’re reminded that, again and again, suffering and brokenness find us.  We doubt again, we lament again, we mess up again.  Again and again, the story of Jesus on the cross repeats—every time lives are taken unjustly, every time the powerful choose corruption and violence, every time individuals forget how to love.  With exasperation we exclaim, “Again?!  How long, O God?

And yet, in the midst of the motion blur chaos of our lives, God offers a sacred refrain: ‘I choose you, I love you, I will lead you to repair.’  Again and again, [God meets us,] breaks the cycle, and offers us a new way forward.[6]  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

[1] Lauren Wright Pittman, Artist’s Statement on ‘In Our Hands’, for “Again & Again: A Lenten Refrain”, A Sanctified Art.

[2] Mark 1:11

[3] Rev. T. Denise Anderson, “Again & Again: A Lenten Refrain – Theme Connections” for The First Sunday in Lent, Mark 1:9-15.

[4] Ibid, paraphrase.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity, “Again & Again” Sermon Planning Guide Introduction, p. 1.

© 2020 The Congregational Church of Hollis, UCC