Texts: Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15
Two weeks ago Katie G ended her sermon by introducing us to a phrase that comes out of music theory: “Participatory discrepancies.” Participatory discrepancies are the human element in community and specifically, singing and music making, when each voice participates through the same score on the page, but adds its own variance and unscripted nuances. When we do it well, Katie noted, it can produce a meaningful disunity, which actually turns out to be a pretty good basis for community.
As someone not raised singing four part harmony, but who has spent much of my adult life only somewhat successfully trying to get up to speed on such things, I’m keenly aware of the participatory discrepancies I contribute to any song we sing, and am always a little surprised and grateful that the disunity turns out to be meaningful nonetheless.
And since we are in the mode of learning new vocabulary, I thought we could start the season of Lent off with another contribution, a phrase not completely unrelated to the previous one. Ready for it? Hermeneutical community. The word “hermeneutics” contains the name of the Greek god Hermes who was a messenger between the divine and human realms. Hermeneutics is the art of interpretation, how a text or story from the past carries its meaning, its message, into the present. Since its beginnings, a stream of the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition has placed great significance on the hermeneutical community – the gathered body of believers who, together, do the work of interpretation in how we understand scripture and the life of faith. The hermeneutical community seeks to avoid the danger of surrendering interpretation to a group of elites who declare truth from on high, to be accepted by all. It also seeks to avoid the opposite danger of the private, isolated individual deciding for themselves what is right.
In the hermeneutical community it is understood that no one has the full truth, and that we arrive at a closer picture of the truth only by being open to the insights and counsel of others. This shows up in our baptismal vows with a pledge to “give and receive counsel within the congregation.” And within the hermeneutical community, there will always be participatory discrepancies. Hermes runs back and forth between gods and mortals and it is up to all of us, together, to decipher his messages.
We, Columbus Mennonite Church, are a hermeneutical community, an interpreting community. So I guess that means that if you ever take anything the preacher says as 100% pure truth, then you’re missing the point. It’s a privilege to be able to help frame the conversation, but then it’s up to all of us to keep talking.
I introduce this phrase because throughout Lent we will be guided by the theme of Praying with Creation. As it turns out, each of the weeks of Lent contain a reference to some non-human aspect of creation: Water, Land, Cattle, Serpents, Seeds, and Branches. And we thought it might be fruitful to bring these things into the center of our Lenten worship. So I suppose another name for the theme could be “Expanding the hermeneutical community.” In other words, what does it look like when we invite water, and cattle, and seeds into the room with us to help us interpret what the Spirit might be saying to us? Or, since they’re already in our lives whether we invite them or not, what does it look like when we acknowledge their presence and listen to what they have to teach us?
In today’s readings it is water that plays a prominent role. In the Genesis flood story, it is water, water everywhere. In the Hebrews’ mind, water was so essential to life that the beginning of Genesis doesn’t even bother including it among that things God creates. It is there, pre-existent, before creation even begins. “In the beginning, when Elohim created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from Elohim swept over the face of the waters.” Then God said ‘Let there be light.’ Ancient Hebrew poets and modern evolutionary biologists don’t always jive in their respective pronouncements, but they both seem to agree that water is something of a precondition for the existence of life on this planet.
We emerge from the primordial watery abyss, our bodies still 2/3rd water, still utterly dependent on 2 Hs + 1 O for our existence.
And Genesis 1 soon leads into Genesis 6-9. Genesis 6:11 says that the earth had become corrupt, and filled with violence. This makes God sorry for having made humankind, it says. God’s heart is grieved. Divine mistakes were made. Homo sapiens are a failed experiment in self-reflective consciousness and free will. They have abused their power and their knowledge and turned against one another, conquering and enslaving and murdering one another. Violence and corruption fill the earth.
And so Elohim takes executive action and decides to answer with an even more violent act, the almost-nuclear option, using water now as a weapon against creation, tearing open the heavens and flooding the whole world, wiping out everything that breathes – almost – being careful to cause no extinctions, but quickly making every creature an endangered species, saved only by a massive boat, an ark built by Noah and his family, who are the only human survivors.
At the end of the rains, when the waters subside and the ark comes to a rest on a mountain, Noah sends out a dove, like a spy drone, to investigate this inundated earth to see if the ground is ready for them to leave the ark. He sends out the dove the first time and it returns with nothing. Noah waits seven days and sends out the dove again, and it returns with a freshly plucked olive leaf, a sign that the olive trees are no longer under water, a sign of creation extending the olive branch to humanity. Noah waits another seven days and sends out the dove again, and it doesn’t return. It has found a new home in this new world where all of the creatures will begin again attempting to live in balance with one another, and with the waters.
When they come out of the ark God forms a covenant not only with humanity, but, as Genesis 9:10 says, “with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you.” God’s promise is to never again destroy the earth with a flood. And the sign of the covenant, the reminder, is the bow in the clouds that appears at the end of a rainstorm when the sun comes out. More than just a colorful decoration, the bow refers to that weapon, so common for all those conquering armies enslaving and murdering, slinging arrows at their enemies. Even ancient deities were depicted holding a bow, ready to shoot any time, a sign of power. But after the flood, God, Elohim, gives up the war bow, gives up using water as a weapon, and hangs the bow, unstrung, without arrows, in the air, pointed away from the earth. It is a sign of the covenant of peace between the Creator and creation.
Of course none of this actually happened.
It’s just a story. A story with so many impossibilities we can’t honestly take it seriously. It’s a myth. And not even an original myth. The Babylonians, who the Jews lived among after they were exiled from their own land, had an even older flood myth that they told, which was adopted and adapted by the hermeneutical community of Jewish elders and editors composing their Scriptures – which, for us, is just the Old Testament.
Besides, there’s all kinds of loopholes in that Genesis covenant that aren’t exactly comforting. Elohim won’t destroy the earth with water, but it never mentions anything about a meteor, intensive volcanic activity, or a pandemic. Or even if the retired bow means that the Divine relates utterly peacefully with us, and that natural disasters are no longer to be seen as agents of heavenly wrath, the covenant doesn’t rule out us destroying the earth ourselves with whatever massive disaster we happen to trigger first. A new book by New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History attempts to popularize what many scientists have been saying for decades, which is that we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction event in the history of life on earth, and that unlike the previous five, this one has the fingerprints of homo sapiens all over it.
My hunch is that rather than being culturally irrelevant, we will continue hearing more and more references to the biblical flood story as a myth that speaks to us in new and pertinent ways, adopted and adapted to the reality of our present situation, searching for an ark, a vessel of salvation, to keep the pulse of diverse life alive and thriving. And no, I’m not just referring to Hollywood’s recent efforts to reimagine Noah through Russell Crowe – which I haven’t brought myself to watching yet. Like any good myth, the important question is not whether or not it actually happened, but where and how it is actually happening, and how the hermeneutical community interprets what it sees and hears in light of the collective stories and wisdom we have inherited.
If we do allow water into our hermeneutical community, to speak its message and help interpret our present condition, we might have to confess that it is giving us all kinds of warning signs. It could very well be saying the same message that John the Baptist was saying by the Jordan River – “Repent! Change your ways. Warning, warning. Toxins. Depletion. Melting Ice. The direction you’re headed leads to destruction.”
We come from the waters, are made mostly of water, need water to remain alive, and so it should come as no surprise that the main mark of our identity – the ritual act which tells us who we are – happens in the water. “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.”
We cannot escape the waters, and so the waters become a place, an opportunity, for us to discover our identity. We have forgotten who we are, that we are Beloved children of God, that we are a species gifted with divine attributes of creativity which can aid in the flourishing of life. We have forgotten that the ancient dove has extended the olive branch and that there can be a fresh beginning.
Within our baptism, all of this is present. The water, the dove, the Christ, the Lover and the Beloved. It’s all there. And we are there. And we are claimed by the waters and the Divine Source of the waters. And we give our vows, we make our covenant, to consciously live a life of peace and reconciliation within a community. A community seeking to live out its calling of becoming the Beloved Community. After his baptism the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness where, as Mark says, he is among the wild beasts. As if Jesus, now away from “civilization,” is re-learning the ways of the wild, listening for God amid the wildness of rock and wind and undomesticated animal. It is only after this experience that Jesus begins his ministry, with the message, as translated by the Common English Version: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news! (Mark 1:15)
There is the possibility of baptism going the way of the Old Testament, something that probably meant something a long time ago but no longer speaks to us in the same way. I would like to suggest that the opposite could be true. We need to know who we are, to be reminded of where we come from, to be marked and called and claimed as Beloved children of God. To have an event that we point back to and say “that’s who I am,” and to have that event take on more and more meaning as we walk down the path that it sets us on.
We are children of the water, children of the Source of water and all life, invited to live as if Now is the time, the kin-dom of God is here. Good news.