Sermon Seeds: God’s Loving Paths/Blessed Connections
First Sunday in Lent Year B
1 Peter 3:18-22
Additional reflection on Genesis 9:8-17 for One Great Hour of Sharing
Additional reflection on Genesis 9:8-17
God’s Loving Paths/Blessed Connections
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
On three of the first four Sundays in Lent, our focus reading is a psalm, not always the preacher’s first choice for a text. Taking a longer look, however, we can see great value in entering not just the psalmist’s inner thoughts and prayers, but the prayer life of Israel itself. We find that we are not so very different from our ancestors in faith in a place and time however distant from our own. And, in our own time, haven’t we come to a keener appreciation of our need, individually and communally, to a deeper life of prayer? What better teacher for us, then, that the psalmist?
Like many psalms, this week’s reading includes prayer addressed to God as well as faith claims about God. Also, at times, within the very same psalm, it feels as though the psalmist is going in more than one direction emotionally and spiritually. While the lectionary reading includes only the first ten verses of Psalm 25, it’s helpful to read the entire psalm to sense the range of emotion it expresses. Sometimes the psalms shock us with decidedly “un-Christian” prayers for vengeance, but we usually edit out those troubling phrases for public prayer. We’re missing something very important, however, when we avoid the raw honesty of the psalmist’s “cry of the heart.”
Today’s psalm, of course, only asks for protection from foes who hate the psalmist with a “violent hatred” (v. 19). We wonder at times whether we’re hearing from an extrovert who’s processing out loud, or from an introvert who has written down the deepest struggles of his soul. In any case, Brian Erickson observes that the psalms “read more like monologues than conversations, exercises in spiritual eavesdropping” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).
If we set aside all judgment and preconceptions, and approach the reading humbly and openly, we hear the inner heart of the psalmist at work, struggling with fear, anger, frustration, and distress, and then climbing to a secure place of trust, close to the heart of God. The psalm moves back and forth, at one moment complaining about the “wantonly treacherous,” and then turning abruptly to humble prayer, asking to know God’s ways and to receive God’s mercy.
Keeping things nice and proper
Wouldn’t we admit to a similar mix of conflicting feelings, at least sometimes, in our own inner life, if not in our prayers? Perhaps we’re tempted, or trained, to keep our prayer life “proper,” that is, polite to the point of being dry, sterile, and at times, even obsequious. We’re convinced that we have to avoid saying the wrong thing or using the wrong words, let alone showing the kind of emotion that might roil within us. We keep a cap on our feelings and our inner thoughts, even while we long to draw close to the One who formed us and knows us in the depths of our being. Feelings are things that we handle with exercise, therapy, medication, acquiring things, any number of distractions. But prayer, we seem to believe, is for proper thoughts and acceptable feelings, just praise, just thanks, just certainty. It’s no wonder then that we don’t emerge from prayer strengthened and renewed and that we don’t feel drawn back, again and again, to regular times of prayer.
What better time, then, than the season of Lent to examine our prayer life for its honesty in expressing our deepest hopes and beliefs about God? Lent: that time when we might make some “extra” room for God and pay some extra attention to our spiritual life (as long as we put that “extra” room right in the middle of our lives, not in what’s left over). Unlike Lent, Advent doesn’t feel the same as the world around it, as it easily gets lost in the bustle of Christmas preparations. But Lent happens at the bleakest time of year for many of us, when nature is brown and rainy and chilled, and the snow (up north, at least) is getting old, very old. We know spring, new life, is coming, but it’s hard to remember what its warmth, its greenness, feels like when late winter weariness bears down on us. The setting is right, then, for a wilderness mindset, not the beautiful wooded wilderness we want to preserve but the stark, barren wilderness, the kind where the Hebrews wandered and Jesus was tempted.
How do we re-create the wilderness?
Even if nature around us and our living conditions themselves don’t conspire to put us in the wilderness physically, we sometimes attempt during Lent to create a kind of harsh and austere time period that trains us, conditions us, to greater spiritual health, much as we might go on a strict diet or a demanding exercise regimen for the health of our body. Unfortunately, most of my childhood memories about “giving up” things for Lent are about the amount of time I spent thinking about those very things! Spiritual disciplines can slide into programs to make ourselves acceptable in God’s eyes, purer, better – another kind of achievement to pile on the others.
However, Valerie Bridgeman Davis introduces the season of Lent with the observation that during Lent, in our efforts at spiritual discipline, we might learn more important lessons, about “human nature and God’s graciousness.” She speaks of the internal struggle, about what happens inside us, because our inner life deserves and demands our attention and time. However, she cautions against a narcissism and an individualism that would focus on ourselves and forget the world around us: “The fast that only seeks to heighten our personal piety is not as desirable as the fast that will call us into prophetic action” (New Proclamation Year B 2009).
Tending the life of the spirit
And that may strike just the right note for our Lenten disciplines. The world does not encourage us to tend to our inner spiritual life, in fact, it does everything it can to distract us from such efforts. If Lent inspires us to focus our energy and attention on our relationship with God, perhaps we will indeed draw closer to God, and when Lent is over, we’ll want to stay in this new place. Or perhaps we will discover that we have made room for God right where we are.
The psalms are a good companion for us as we set out into the Lenten wilderness. Thousands of years later, our hearts respond to the words, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul, O my God, in you I trust,” as well as “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.” And yet we also look around and feel pressed down and wonder why others are against us, or why people are treacherous, or why violence rules in the world. Perhaps we find that polite, evenly worded prayers don’t work as well in that case as a raw cry of the heart that goes in more than one direction and speaks with harsh honesty.
What battles do you wage?
The psalm’s prayer for protection from enemies might seem a bit of a stretch for us today, when our faith rarely puts us in danger. What sort of spiritual enemies do you face? Daniel Schowalter suggests that “the greatest battle most Christians will ever fight is within themselves: a battle between self-interest and God’s interest.” We’re in a war of sorts, caught between the call of God and the demands of a world that rewards “self-promotion,” not weakness or humility (New Proclamation Year B 2006). What does it mean, in this setting, to offer up one’s soul? Is it a temporary offering, or is it a lifelong, wholehearted gift?
Concentrating on “gift” is a good way to begin our Lenten practice, recalling the great gifts of God’s love in every age. That’s what the psalmist does: he remembers God’s steadfast love “from of old,” not just in his own lifetime. This is a deep, inner-life, close-relationship love between God and humankind: what greater gift is there, than such a love?
Paying the cost of discipleship
For the most part, we enjoy a degree of familiarity with our Christian faith, but Lent originally was a time for new converts to prepare for baptism at Easter. It was a long, hard road to this new life. Brian Erickson challenges us today: “The early Christians used the same evangelical strategy that Jesus did: brutal honesty. And so rather than entice prospective recruits with the many benefits of the Christian path, they highlighted the great costs. God’s ways are not our ways. Following Christ cannot be a part-time hobby. Faith is more than dogma and discipline; it is also direction” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). One is reminded of Bonhoeffer’s “cost of discipleship,” and one also can’t help but wonder how our new member classes and evangelism ministries would be transformed with this early-Christian strategy! Do you cover the “costs” of discipleship in your new member class?
This brings us back to the psalmist’s prayer, asking to be shown the paths, the ways, the truth of God. Those ways are not easy, even for modern, apparently comfortable Christians, for our spiritual practices and disciplines prepare us to walk a long and sometimes lonely path. Reaching past our own wants and needs to care for the world God loves, to work tirelessly (even when we’re tired) for justice for God’s children (all of them, not just some, and certainly not just for us), to risk and to share and to love, to change ourselves and the way the world does things…all of these practices shape us, mold us, fashion us into more faithful people. We can’t stay in our rooms, or remain wandering in the wilderness, but must set out on the paths of God. Brian Erickson quotes Frederick Buechner, who writes, “If you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.” And, Erickson observes, “Lent is a time to choose who we will be and whose we will be” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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For further reflection:
Mignon McLaughlin, 20th century
“I often pray, though I’m not really sure Anyone’s listening; and I phrase it carefully, just in case He’s literary.”
Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
“I pray on the principle that wine knocks the cork out of a bottle. There is an inward fermentation, and there must be a vent.”
Sofia Cavalletti, 20th century
“Help me draw nearer to God by myself.”
Anne Lamott, 21st century
“It’s good to do uncomfortable things. It’s weight training for life.”
“Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”
Frederick Douglass, 19th century escaped slave and author
“I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
As a parent, my children know when I am really serious about something if I tell them the same thing multiple times. The first time may catch them by surprise. The second and third times begin to strike them that this is something important. The fourth and fifth times I say it may be saying it more to remind myself than to anyone specifically around me. And by times six and seven, well, we’re all paying attention to what this means in our daily realities.
God’s establishment of the covenant with Noah and all Noah’s family and all the creatures of the earth, land and sea as told in Genesis 9 is one of these such repetitive sequences. God is making this covenant with all people and with all creation and there is nothing any of them can do about it: “never again…this is the sign…never again…this is the sign” over and over again. The writer of Genesis in these 9 verses (8-17) of chapter 9 uses the term “covenant” seven times.
Obviously, there has been a traumatic event in the life of the earth and its peoples and creatures. The story of this great flood is told not only in Genesis, but also modeled on pre-Genesis flood stories, such as Gilgamesh. The flood story is told in the midst of God’s anger at the people for their corruption. “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth” (Gen 6: 11-12), another repetitive sequence of importance.
Anyone who has been in the midst of a deluge will readily identify with the total destruction and helplessness such flood waters create. The writer of this story in Genesis not only paints the picture of this deluge, but fills it with symbolic numbers – such as 40 – and images – such as a bow in the clouds – that have meaning far beyond the concrete realities of that particular experience.
In our work as the United Church of Christ in disaster preparedness, relief, recovery and rebuilding, the Genesis story of the flood is a continuing reference both for survivors of flooding disasters but also of accompaniers in the recovery. It’s not an easy story to interpret in light of floods that continue to cause total destruction and life disruption for those affected. Didn’t God say, “never again”? Questions arise about why a good God can allow – or cause- such destruction of life and creation. When flood waters come, they do not discriminate. All people and all creatures in the area are impacted. What about that covenant, God?
I continue to struggle vigorously with the Genesis flood story and the realities of continuing disasters in the world. I refuse to believe that there are easy answers – such as blaming a particular group of people or a particular action I do not like in the first place for the flood. Here’s my bias: I observe power and resource inequities in the world and believe it sinful to God’s intention of the fullness of abundant life for all. I observe our human destruction of the planet at an alarmingly increasing rate because we choose to use the earth’s natural resources for our own aims rather than living interdependently with creation for the wholeness of all. And I observe an increasing number of catastrophic disasters because of the ways we abuse the planet and one another. We are destroying ourselves – so why doesn’t God swoop in and make us stop?
Others would begin with different biases; other groups and actions they are hoping God will swoop in and destroy. I’ve heard enough of those other statements in the face of disaster – against this group or that action – to know I disagree vehemently with their starting biases. So, when God repeats “never again” seven times (that number for wholeness), I am reminded that this is what God means for all of us; even if God has to remind self mid-stream that, indeed, this is the agreement.
And so, if God promises relationship of abundance with all people and all creatures for all generations, then we had better get on the same page as God. Right relationships matter – with one another and with all of creation. It’s that sign of the bow in the clouds that keeps reminding us and making it possible. So, when flooding and other disasters occur, I believe it matters to God that we are active in assisting survivors, in helping them rebuild their lives, and in transforming our systems and attitudes to live interdependently with each other and all creation so these disasters do not occur in the first place.
I see this at work in specific disaster response, such as recovery from the November 2013 Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. I am grateful that the United Church of Christ has a commitment to long-term and mutual relationships with groups active in disaster response and recovery as well as a place in the public discourse that enables us to shape the content of that rebuilding for the well-being particularly of the most vulnerable and excluded. The United Church of Christ in the Philippines, a Global Ministries’ partner church, has been busy for the first year following the typhoon not only in replacing fishing boats for the most vulnerable fisherfolk and introducing organic seeds to farmers needing to replant their annual crops, but also in working on land rights as integral to the rebuilding of houses and figuring out alternative livelihood avenues with people formerly dependent on the crop of coconuts with trees that will now need 8-10 years to regrow.
The National Council of Churches in the Philippines not only was active in the immediate clean-up following the storm, but continues to call the world’s attention to the direct links between climate change and increasing numbers and strength of typhoons in their homeland. I am grateful that financial contributions to the One Great Hour of Sharing offering, special appeals and designated funding make these relationships and actions possible and life-giving. And I am grateful to a theological tradition I can claim that is grounded in God’s dynamic stories, old as the ages and continuing in newness.
I know I will continue to struggle with the Genesis flood story in the face of continuing natural and human-caused disasters in the world. I believe that struggle is a faithful response – because like my children, I have to hear the promise over and over again to know what it might mean in everyday life. Yes, God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
The Rev. Dr. Mary Schaller Blaufuss serves as Global Sharing of Resources Team Leader and Executive for Volunteer Ministries in Wider Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
We are especially prone, in the church, to concentrate on what we are doing or not doing in our relationship with God or, for that matter, what we are doing (or not doing) in the world. One of the tasks of the pastor and preacher is to call us back, to remind us that it’s not all about us, but about God. It’s about what God is doing and has done not only here and now, but in times long ago and in a future we cannot even dimly see.
The Noah story of destruction is a difficult one for preachers (not to mention church school teachers, unless they domesticate it with cute pictures of the animals riding in the boat, without mentioning the death and destruction that necessitated the ride; oddly, Noah and his boat are a popular theme for toys and nursery decorations!). These early chapters of Genesis have marvelously diverse images of a God who on the one hand tenderly makes clothing for Adam and Eve and takes walks in the garden at evening time, and yet on the other hand orders the destruction of all living things in the wake of sin and wickedness.
However, this text is about remembering and reminding, and about relationship. Even God needs to be reminded, in this case by a beautiful bow (ironically, an ancient weapon) in the sky, of a promise God makes out of tenderness and compassion. This is not Noah’s idea, the text indicates. God initiates the whole plan, the promise and the bow and the reassurance it offers. Yes, Noah has offered a fragrant offering after landing on dry ground, but God is the one who comes up with the idea of a promise, along with a reminder in the rainbow.
Our Lenten readings will say much about the relationship of humans and God. What does this story tell us about our ancient ancestors and their view of the world? Their view of God? The first thought that occurs to God after Noah’s offering is a resolution never again to “curse the ground because of humankind…nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” Do you believe that God needs to be reminded of that promise, or of any promise God makes?
Readings in future weeks will speak of covenant in terms of Israel, but this covenant, this beautiful moment of reconciliation and peace, is a universal one with all peoples and with nature itself, all living creatures. The blessing is for all, too, a renewal of the blessing at creation, along with the command to exercise dominion. At the beginning of our Lenten journey, how does this text speak to us about our relationship with God today? How does it call us to remember our relationship with the earth and with all living creatures? The Noah story is one of power and the checking of power. What power do we have over nature, and how have we used and misused that power? What do we need to remember in order to be in right relationship with God, with the earth, and with all peoples? What vision of reconciliation might we hold out to the world, as people of faith?
For further reflection:
Marcus Borg, 21st century
“God wills, comprehensively, our well-being — not just my well-being as an individual but the well-being of all of us and of the whole of creation. In short, God wills our salvation, our healing, here on earth. The Christian life is about participating in the salvation of God.”
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 20th century
“Things are always better in the morning.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
“God can make a new beginning with people whenever God pleases, but not people with God. Therefore, people cannot make a new beginning at all; they can only pray for one. Where people are on their own and live by their own devices, there is only the old, the past.”
Aberjhani, 21st century
“Rainbows introduce us to reflections
of different beautiful possibilities
so we never forget that pain and grief
are not the final options in life.”
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “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 with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
To you, O God,
I lift up my soul.
O my God,
in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you
be put to shame;
let them be ashamed
who are wantonly treacherous.
Make me to know your ways, O God;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth,
and teach me,
for you are the God
of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O God,
and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth
or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love
remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O God!
Good and upright is God; therefore
God instructs sinners in the way.
God leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble God’s way.
All the paths of God are steadfast love
for those who keep God’s covenant
and God’s decrees.
1 Peter 3:18-22
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.
And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation) Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Lent and Easter
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Violet throughout Lent is in wide use, but some churches have begun instead to use browns, beiges, and grays (burlaps and unbleached fabrics, for example) to reflect the mood of penitence. There are many variations in the use of vestments and color during Holy Week. Some common practices: Red, the color of martyrs, for Palm/Passion Sunday up to Maundy Thursday, when White is used for Holy Communion; stripping of all chancel paraments at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service, with no adornment until the appearance of White and/or Gold at Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday; the use of Black, Red or no color for Good Friday; the use of Scarlet during Holy Week instead of the “fire” Red of Pentecost.