Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

Sermon given on February 21st, 2021 at St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church, Portland Oregon. The Rev’d Dr. Maria Gwyn McDowell preaching.


The story of Noah, somehow, has become this really cute children’s story, right? Animals go onto this ark, two by two, they travel together, there’s a dove, it goes out, it comes back, it goes out, it comes back, and then there’s a rainbow at the end, right? All the elements of a perfect children’s story.

Except for the first part, which we like to skip. That’s the part where God, who has created all of the world, everything that’s in it, and God has created that world to flourish, a world where we are called as gardeners to dig our hands in the dirt, to nurture that world, to help participate in this burgeoning of life all around us. God looks at this world, and what he sees is a brother who has killed his brother and been exiled off to a city – that’s Cain and Abel – he has seen a descendant of Cain become a ruler of a city, and treat his wives literally like jewels adorning him – that’s what Lamech’s wives, their names actually mean – and a man so proud and boastful of his position that, while Cain was exiled for murder, he says that if anyone hurts me or my descendants, hundreds will be killed. What God sees is this beautifully beautiful creation, where people have escalated violence.

And God’s response to that, according to the story of Noah, is grief. God sees what has happened to creation, and God grieves.

And in God’s grief, God says “I’m starting over again. I’m done with this. All of this flesh, gone!”

And then God catches a glimpse of one family. One family, in all of this mess, and all of this increased hostility and violence and anger. God sees one family,

and says, “Oh wait. This family. This family loves my creation. so I’m gonna save them. And I’m gonna save the animals. I like the animals that I’ve created, and so, two by two, we’re gonna make sure that our biodiversity is maintained. And two by two, those animals are gonna come on the ark.”

And then God does something horrific. God floods everything. That’s what the story says. God floods all of God’s creation and kills everybody, except for eight people and a lot of animals.

I don’t quite know how we got this as a children’s story, to be honest. Except by taking out all of the hard and messy and difficult parts of it, and just focusing on the happy parts.

But this story, this story is a perfect example of the struggle that we all have with a world that is not in our control.

This story falls in a part of Genesis that echoes so many of the stories of the cultures and religions around this newly forming people of Israel. Every culture has a flood myth, because floods in the desert, floods in the wilderness, are a danger. I used to visit my grandparent’s house in Los Angeles, up in the hills above Los Angeles in the mountains, and there was a flood control channel right next to their house. It’s like a 20-foot deep cement square hole in the ground, this tunnel that came down from the mountain and shot past their house. And I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I was never to go into that flood control channel. And I thought, why? It’s sunny here all the time, it never rains in LA, right? Except that the few times that it does, the water roars off of the mountains and through that flood control channel, and I would have been swept down into the Los Angeles basin. Floods in the wilderness are dangerous, and so every culture has this memory of a flood, and they tell stories about it, because their lives are out of control. In those stories, what they do is they try to find a way to have control. And if they don’t have control, because nobody actually has control over the wilderness – we think of the wilderness as this nice place to go and rest, it’s not. The wilderness is danger- dangerous, it’s full of things that want to bite you and eat you and flood you out – and the people of this region understand that, and so since they understand that the wilderness is not under their control, they put it under the control of their gods.

And so we have this story, where just like we have said, over and over and over again at some point in our lives, “God’s in control. Everything around me feels completely out of control, but God’s in control”, right? The problem is, we’ve attributed something horrible to God in this story.

And sometimes I think we forget, as Christians, that the Hebrew Bible has the same kind of conversations that we have all the time with one another, right? If God’s in control, how can this be happening to us? If God is in control, how is it that 500,000 people have died of COVID? if God’s in control, why is it that the waters are once again rising, and people are being displaced from their homes? if God’s in control, how is it that an entire state known for its deserts can be blanketed under ice and people be dying of the cold?

And so we sort of put this into the same mystery, “well, God’s in control. God is the one who does these things, and we just need to – it’s okay, you know, if God is doing it, it must be good and we’ll be all right.”

But I’m not sure that’s what the story of Noah is actually telling us, because this story, it’s a conversation.

It’s a conversation that says, “You know, typically we would assume that God raises the flood waters, and God wipes everybody out, and that that happens out of anger, but in this story it happens out of grief.”

And God’s response is not to say to Noah, “Well, now that you’ve done what is faithful, you’ve done the right thing, I will give you what you expect.” I had a professor in seminary who talked about the “vending machine God”, right? We put our goodness into God, we put the right quarter in the machine and we get out our can of Coke. God’s grace in a can. As if somehow, what we do makes God do right to us.

But that’s not what this God does. In this story, what this God does is recognize that the intent of Creation is life and flourishing, and this God says, “I will not act like that. I will not be a god of expectation, where if you do right, I do right, and if you do wrong, I do wrong.”

“I instead will be a god of faithfulness.”

“A God who loves, a God who sees life abundant in creation, and I commit myself to that.”

Walter Brueggemann points out in this story that it’s not that people change. The next story about Noah and his sons, not a great story! It’s not that suddenly people become good. It’s not that the violence and the escalation of hostilities that preceded the flood changes. It doesn’t.

What this story says is that the God that we expect, a God of vengeance and retribution, that is not our God.

There is no God of the Old Testament that is a God of retribution and anger, and a God of a New Testament that is a God of love and forgiveness. There is just God, and that God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The likelihood that Noah’s story is actually even meant to be literal history is low. Genesis 1 through 11 is this kind of, early mythological beginnings of this relationship, where we tell a story about a relationship between God’s new people and God, and that they are learning and understanding who that God is. And what they are learning and understanding is that that God is not who they expect. Because what’s expected is a world that is dangerous, and a God who is dangerous. And what they get is a God who says, “I will bless all flesh.” Not “all humans”, “all flesh”.

“All of creation, I will bless it. And you you are invited to join me in that, and if you fail to join me in that, you know what? I will still bless all of creation.”

When Jesus goes into the wilderness, in this super fast-paced little section of Mark: Baptism, spirit drives him into the wilderness, 40 days, angels minister him, and he comes back (this is totally typical of mark, everything happens, [gestures a list being made] bing bing bing bing),he goes into the wilderness, and he confronts the ways in which our life and our world is simply not in our control.

It’s just not. We want it to be, but it’s not. It’s also not in God’s control in the way that we assume, that somehow God is pulling strings.

It’s just not. That’s not what scripture tells us. What scripture tells us is, “Reality is, the world is full of suffering and difficulty and violence, and actually, we don’t really know why. But what we do know is that God is with us.” And so Jesus goes into the wilderness. He confronts this reality. He is reminded of the reality of his people, of people who are always finding themselves in the wilderness, whether that is slavery or a wilderness of the desert, a wilderness of the injustice of their own kings. Jesus goes into that wilderness, and recognizes the faithfulness of God in that wilderness, and comes back out, goes back to his hometown, and he says, “I am preaching the good news.” Mark is an amazing Gospel, and we over this next year are going to spend a lot of time in Mark.

And over and over again, the response of Mark to the reality of violence around us, because it is a gospel written to a people suffering violence over and over and over again,

Mark’s response is “We bind that which is evil. We identify it. We call it by name. And we say no. We reject this way of living, and instead we choose to live as a community who seeks to care for the least, who seeks the welfare of the vulnerable, and we do it whether it’s by serving lunch, or building affordable housing, or engaging with our neighbors, or having conversations with people that surprise us. We are about the vitality of the world.”

So listen for that, as we continue both through Lent, a time of wilderness, when we have the opportunity to spend a little bit more time confronted with the reality of our own lack of control, knowing though that God is abounding in steadfast love, slow to anger. That God is always with us, and that the promise of God, the promise of our God, is to always walk with us, as we seek the flourishing of all creation.