A Covenant of Peace – 2/26/12 – Genesis 9, 1 Peter 3

A week ago, during the Sunday school hour, a small group of us sat together, right here in the sanctuary, and studied the scriptures for today.  1 Peter 3 and Genesis 9.  This was the trial run of what will be the norm during the season of Lent – a different group of six people each Sunday morning will be gathering around the lectionary passages for the following week – discussing, probing, poking, wondering out loud about these strange and wonderful words that make up the Bible.  I will use the sermons during Lent to share some of our collective wonderings that come out of this time, and try and draw in a few other sources as well.  Along with being great fun in and of itself, this feels like an Anabaptisty kind of thing to do, as we believe that two of the key sources for Wisdom are community and scripture.  Mix both of those together with a little Holy Spirit, and you never quite know what you’re going to get.  Whether there’s any Wisdom in these sermons during Lent will be up for you to decide.  But I’d say that we got off to a great start in that time last week, and another group met this morning to have conversation around the passages for next week.

This is an open invitation, by the way, so if you’re intrigued with this and would like to participate, just let me know and I’d love to have you involved.  It is an intuitive/personal reading of the text rather than a knowledge/scholarly reading that we are after in that time, so no previous study required.  I would like to keep it at five-six people a week, and different people each week, but there are still several weeks to go, so be in touch.

I would like to give the names of the people involved in the conversation, and after that point to just speak of things generated as things that “we” said, rather than trying to quote anybody or remember who had what idea or thought first.  It gets a bit mixed during group conversation, which, I believe, is the point.

So, this sermon emerges out of Bible study that I shared with Joe Luken, Jill Jantzen, Daniel Hershberger, John Bromels, and Cara Hummel.

We began with the Genesis 9 passage, Noah and the rainbow, and spent a fair amount of time just saying what we notice in this passage and what it made us wonder about.

We notice that this passage is about God making a covenant with humanity.  And not only with humanity, but with pretty much all the animals and the earth itself.  It is referred to as a covenant, that is the language that is used throughout, and we wondered how this is different than a promise.  If there is a difference.  It seems like there’s no backing out of a promise, but if one party breaks their side of a covenant, does that end the agreement?  There was mention of being skeptical of promises.

It feels like Noah and the humans get off easy in this covenant.  God is giving up any rights to destroying the earth.  In exchange, the humans get to eat anything they want – no more restrictions on just plants, like in the Garden of Eden, and no tree of forbidden fruit.  Too late on that one.  The humans are told to be fruitful and multiply.  So, on top of eating anything we want, we are commanded to have sex.  One of the few commandments humanity has actually carried out.  The only thing we’re not allowed to eat is flesh with blood still in it.  Not a problem.  And no murder.  These are the very basic grounds of this new covenant that God proposes.  We felt like the humans got a pretty good deal.

We also wondered about these very human attributes that are given to God in these and other scriptures.  The reason God sets the bow in the sky as the sign of the covenant is so that God will remember the covenant with the earth.  What does it mean for God to remember?  Do it mean that God could forget?  Thus the colorful sticky note in the sky about that agreement not to flood the earth ever again.  Before the flood God is sorry to have made humans because they are so violent.  God regrets having created them.  Whoops.  After the flood God seems to be sorry again, this time for having sent the flood.  8:21 – “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind; nor will I destroy every living creature as I have done.”  In 1 Peter it talks about God “waiting patiently as in the days of Noah.”  A God who remembers, who regrets, who waits patiently.  We thought that this appears to be a God who is learning, right along with the rest of universe, how to do this whole creation, community, love thing.  Like a parent whose child teaches them how to be a good parent and learn from their mistakes, God seems to be learning from us, the children of creation.  We weren’t sure how we felt about this.  It seems to take some of the divinity out of the Divine.  It is reassuring that God is always learning in the direction of love and mercy, and peace.

A bit of extra commentary on that bow in the clouds:

We are so accustomed to thinking of this in terms of a rainbow, that it’s easy to miss this as referring to a bow.  A weapon.  An instrument of war and conquest and subduing one’s enemies.  I did the word search throughout the Hebrew scriptures and the word here in Genesis is indeed the bow of war.  The word occurs 77 times – there’s lots of war in the Bible.  If you ever want to get little snapshots of the different times of conflict in the Old Testament, just do this word search and follow the bows and arrows all the way through from Genesis to the end.  It’s a good time, let me tell you.

In the ancient world there are various depictions of different deities wielding their bow with arrows as a sign of strength.  Ishtar of the Babylonians is shown standing on the back of a lion wielding her bow and arrows.    Ashur of the Assyrians draws a bow.  The Greeks pictured Apollo, among his other attributes, as having a war bow.  And, of course, if the gods have bows, it’s not long before the humans get bows.  There are numerous depictions in Egyptian art of the gods handing to the Pharaoh the weapons of war by which he conquered, the bow and arrow being the primary weapon.  The subtext of these images is Don’t mess.  I’ve got a bow and I’m not afraid to use it.

So, a bow was kind of the hip thing to have if your were an ancient deity of the Near East/Mediterranean region.  And, Elohim, the God of Noah, has his bow as well.  And it is a him at this point.  Only Elohim does a very interesting thing with his bow.  He says, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every 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.”  After the rebellion of the humans in turning to violence against each other, after the divine retaliation of unleashing the destruction of the flood waters on the earth, God is unilaterally disarming, hanging up the bow, for now and for all future generations.  The movement of God toward creation is no longer one of violence, but of covenant making peace.  As pastor Rob Bell has said, the gods are not angry.  As a reminder for all of us, including God, who no doubt needs that reminder when we’re at our worst, there is that bow in the clouds, unstrung, pointed away from humanity, with no arrows in sight.  And very colorful, which is a nice touch.

So here’s a question:  Is this enough?  This covenant, with this sign?  Can we rest assured that all is well in the world and that we are destined to journey safely through the millennia?

There was a weariness in our group.

The older among us remember the days of Cold War nuclear stand off.  And nuclear weapons have not gone away.  The younger among us are especially mindful of climate change, the global population explosion, peak oil, extinctions of species, and the heavy footprint our species is putting on this planet.  We are pretty sure we will live to see very difficult times, and that, for a significant percentage of the planet, difficult times have fully arrived in all their fury.   We wondered if we broke our end of the covenant, if God still has to uphold God’s end.

Elie Wiesel has made a similar kind of comment.  This Jewish man who survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and wrote Night, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, reading the account in Genesis once felt assured by God’s words.  Then noticed that God had only agreed not to destroy the earth with water.  There are other methods available.  He’s got a point.  It’s a pretty big loophole in the covenant.  (Referenced in The Dogmatic Imagination, A. James Reimer, p.5)

We also realize that even if God doesn’t destroy the earth, it doesn’t mean we can’t do it ourselves.

We’re weary.  We love the covenant, and the sign, but, in our darker moments, the radical freedom that we have been given scares us.  Maybe it’s time we make a covenant of our own with creation.  That we will find our rightful place in the web of life and work for the healing of our home planet.  What kind of sign would be a reminder for us?  Sometimes I feel like I’d like to hang my car up in the clouds, as a reminder to creation and myself of a covenant of peace.  Keep all that carbon rich oil in the ground where the good Lord put it over those however many millions of years.

The 1 Peter passage has some interesting connections to Genesis 9.  Rather than being a situation of humanity suffering at the hands of God with the flood, it is now the Christ who has suffered at the hands of humanity, “in order to bring us to God,” 1 Peter says.  We wondered how that works.  How is it that the suffering and death of Christ bring us to God?  We have an awareness of there being different theologies about how this works, but it’s hard to grasp intuitively.

Those among us with roots in the Catholic church recalled how central the suffering of Christ was in their lives and in the church.  That ever present crucifix.  Jesus suffered for you.  For you.  It is quite a thought to have in your head throughout the day.

Water shows up again in this passage, and mention of Noah and the ark.  Only this time we are challenged to make the connection between that flood water and baptism.  The waters of destruction can also be the waters of life.  The waters which symbolize the death of the old way and the birth of the new way, the new humanity.  Baptism.  How’s that for a sign?  A sign of remembrance.  Hang that up in the clouds of your consciousness.  Remember your baptism, the sign you have been given that you now live at peace with God and with your neighbor and with all of creation.

An intriguing part of this passage is this whole idea of Christ “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.”  It’s a remarkable picture that is in many ways foreign to our Protestant minds.  The notion of Christ visiting those spirits in prison came to be called in church tradition “the harrowing of hell.”  The apostles creed, an early formulation of Christian doctrine still recited in many church traditions states that Christ “descended into hell.”  In Eastern Orthodox theology, the primary picture of the resurrection is not the empty tomb, but a picture of Christ having descended into hell, standing victorious over the gates of death, pulling up Adam and Eve, those representations of fallen humanity.  That’s the resurrection.  There’s a sense in which the work of Christ spans and redeems all of cosmic history and that nothing, nothing, is outside the scope of redemption.  We still have radical freedom, but we are being pursued.  We have different thoughts on how literal or figurative an understanding to have of hell, but the picture remains true.  If we descend down into the depths of hell, whatever that hell is, Christ is there.  You cannot go where God is not.  There is no realm or state of being outside the reach of grace.  It’s hard to think of a more hopeful teaching.

It’s Lent, and we’re in repentance mode.  Repentance, metanoia, means, literally, to change your mind.  To change your thinking.  And God’s knows we need it.  We are inheritors of a long tradition of being of the wrong mind.  In the long scope of history it’s beginning to become clear that our species has a tendency to project our own thoughts and aspirations onto God.  We have wanted to seek power and conquer, and so we have imagined a God who does the same.  We carry a bow into battle, and so must God.  We seek to destroy our enemies, wipe them off the face of the earth, and so must God.

The biblical story invites us into the lifelong journey of undoing these projections.  Genesis makes important steps.  God hangs up the bow and calls it quits on the narrative of destruction and redemptive violence.  Humanity is invited into a peaceful relationship with God and one another and the earth.

Lent is an invitation to allow for the undoing of these projections.  To strip away our own sinfulness and violence that we hang in the sky and call God.

But the biblical story goes even further.  Beyond simply undoing all our projections of ourselves onto God, we are invited to receive God’s projections of Godself onto us.  Jesus is on the forefront of God’s projection of godself onto humanity.  A humanity made whole through the power of redemptive love.  God projecting godself onto us such that even in the darkest caverns of hell we are being pulled up toward the light.  Whether we think we are in heaven or in hell, we are being pursued with this kind of love, that would remake us in its own image, for the good of all creation.  God would even make us to be a sign, our lives, a sign, of remembrance of the way of peace.

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Stones – 5/22/11 – Acts 7:54-60, 1 Peter 2:4-10, Psalm 31

Sometimes one wonders just what the lectionary creators had in mind when they paired together certain scriptures.  Often there is a clear theme that presents itself.  Other times, not so much.  This week, the theme holding together three of the readings seems to be…stones.  Rocks.  Stones used to injure, stones used to protect, stones as obstacles, as building material, stones used to point to spiritual realities. 

As you may be aware, I’m a week away from starting a Sabbatical that will include a fair amount of time on the farm where I grew up; doing some farm and garden work with my parents along with times of study and writing.  A certain segment of my mind has gone to anticipating and preparing for that time.  When I think of stones, I think of a couple different ways that stones have been a part of our farm. 

One of the spring projects on the farm when I was young was walking the fields for stones.  This involved pretty much what it sounds like.  Before the spring planting, before the fields were covered with crops, three or four of us would walk up and down the fields and pick up stones.  Our fields grew good crops, but they were also pretty good at producing stones.  These stones would appear after the fall ploughing had turned the soil over, stones that had made their way up through the earth during the process of freezing and thawing, expansion and contraction, that causes a slow motion heaving of objects up to surface.  Those objects being stones.  Originally formed under the massive pressures of the earth now climbing up toward the light of day.  Despite the poetry of their heroic and improbable journey, they were not welcome.  They were a major obstacle and hazard for farm machinery and didn’t exactly aid in the kind of harvest my dad and uncle were interested in.  So they had to go.  We would walk the field, with one person puttering along in a bobcat, and everytime a stone was spotted it would be chucked into the bobcat bucket, which, when full, would be dumped at the edge of the field, and the process repeated many times.  Occasionally there would be the massive stone that simply could not be moved.  These stones became a part of the geography of the farm, and the person driving the tractor for planting and harvest needed to have a knowledge of where these permanent fixtures were located.  Otherwise, they would be not so gently reminded with the jolt of steel machinery encountering unbudging boulder.

The other way that stones were present on the farm was that they formed, and still form, the foundation of our barn.  Before poured concrete foundations, or cinder block became more common, these barns were built on field stone, stacked carefully together, with each rock chosen just for the void needed to filled in that spot, held together with mortar.  I imagine at some point on the farm there would have been a walking the fields for stones for another purpose.  They’re a major pain lying there with the crops, but in order to have a place to keep the crops protected, you’ve got to have these stones providing a firm base to hold up the barn. 

Stones are some of the main characters in three of today’s scriptures. 

The Acts reading rather abruptly throws us into the middle of a mob scene in which Stephen, the first martyr of the early church, is the recipient of people’s anger and rage and, stones.  Stephen had been chosen by the apostles to lead up food distribution within the growing Jerusalem church.  When they would gather together, these early Christians would often bring as their offerings actual food, the harvest of their fields, or purchased goods, to be distributed to those in need.  It was a pantry system that needed quick distribution because everything was perishable.  There had been complaining that the Jewish believers were being favored over the Greek believers in the food distribution.  Faced with this problem, the apostles say, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.”  This is kind of a loaded statement, which seems to assume there is some kind of conflict, or order of importance, between preaching (the word of God), and serving (waiting on tables).  It’s hard to know just what they mean by it, but what they do ends up being a pretty good leadership decision.  The apostles appoint seven others with spiritual gifts in this area to head up the Jerusalem food pantry/community meal, Stephen being the leader of these.

Maybe it’s just his personality, maybe he was inspired, or maybe it was through his daily encounter with need and poverty, but Stephen can’t keep his mouth shut.  He comes out with some pretty harsh words to say against the Jerusalem authorities and ends up provoking a crowd of people, which leads to his death by stoning.  The first martyr of the church, following in the footsteps of Christ, wasn’t an apostle dedicated to the “word of God,” but the lead waiter on tables, the chair of the board of the food pantry. 

The book of Acts makes considerable effort to present Stephen’s death as an echo of Jesus’ death.  In his final moments he declares two phrases that were also on Jesus’ lips on the cross.  “Lord, receive my Spirit,” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” an echo of Jesus’ words, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”  This appeal to forgiveness rather than an appeal to vengeance seems to be part of the very foundation on which the early church was built.  The power of Christ, the power of the church, was its power to serve and its power to forgive and not get caught up in the cycle of vengeance, to present a completely different way of structuring relationships.   

The first phrase that Jesus and Stephen say, “Into your hand I commit my Spirit,” is a reference to a Psalm, Psalm 31.  The irony of Stephen calling this out, with rocks clutched and hurled at him, is clear enough in looking at the Psalm.  The Psalm says, “O Lord, be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.  You are indeed my rock and my fortress.  Into your hand I commit my spirit.”  When the Psalmist, and Stephen, are under attack, they seek refuge in the sturdy, protective, steadfast love of God, the most solid gift we’ve been given.  God’s love is like a rock, even when we humans misuse these rocks and other parts of creation to inflict harm.    

One chapter into his letter to the believers spread out throughout Asia Minor, after speaking to them about new birth, resurrection, suffering, and salvation, Peter’s mind turns to stones.  He gives us a clue that he is taking us into the territory of paradox when his first reference has to do with living stones.  “Come to Christ, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”  Stones are many things, but one thing they are not, as far as I have ever known, is living.  But this is only the beginning of the apostle Peter’s extended stone meditation.  He follows this up by quoting three stone scriptures.  First from Isaiah, then from the Psalms, then another passage from Isaiah.  Choosing them carefully from the pile of scriptures to select from, as if he’s trying to piece them together just so, to build some kind of structure out of these words themselves.  The series goes like this: “For it stands in scripture: ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in it will not be put to shame.’”  That’s the first Isaiah stone.  Then Peter says, “To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,’ and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’” 

This letter may or may not be written by the actual apostle Peter.  It could have been written in his name by a next generation follower, but I find it interesting that a letter bearing Peter’s name has a section that meditates on stones.  Peter’s name means rock, given to him by Jesus himself after Simon Peter had confessed faith in him.  When Jesus gives you a nickname, you probably spend some time meditating on what in the world it might mean.  Jesus had asked Simon, “Who do you say that I am,” and Simon had answered, “You are the Christ.”  Jesus had then responded, “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah.  I tell you, you are Peter, the rock, Rocky, and on this rock I will build my church.”

Peter must have wondered what this meant.  Catholics and Protestants have understood this verse differently.  Catholics emphasize that Peter is the rock on which the church is built.  Peter, despite his shortcomings, is the head of the church, the first pope.  Protestants interpret Jesus’ words as meaning that it was Peter’s faith, his confession of Christ, that is the rock on which the church is built, a faith shared by all who give a similar confession. 

However Peter interpreted this phrase himself, and his new name, the letter bearing Mr. Rock’s name meditates on Christ as the living stone. 

If living stone is a paradox, so is the way these stone scriptures are used to refer to Christ.  Christ is “a stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”  I would expect more of an emphasis on Christ as a firm foundation, but Peter imagines Christ more like one of those big boulders out in the field, that one that just won’t budge.  That obstacle that sticks out of the ground that you try and avoid.  One could be minding one’s own business, going about one’s regular routines, up and down the field, following the normal pattern of things, and all of a sudden be jolted and tripped up.  This is certainly what had happened to Peter and his fishing buddies back in the day.  They had an unanticipated collision with Christ that jarred them out of the plans they had for themselves.  Now they were all in. 

Christ is also “The stone that the builders rejected which has become the cornerstone.”  This verse from Psalm 118:22 is one of the Old Testament verses most often quoted in the New.  It seems like a riddle kind of a verse, but was probably pretty easily understood for those who prayed it as a part of their liturgy.  Israel had been oppressed by the various empires of their time, nations building themselves up through warfare and conquering, and Israel, the nation whose laws taught justice, compassion for the poor and stranger, had been rejected.  But they still believed that the ways of justice and God’s steadfast love for all people were the only things worth building on, even though the big builders of empire had other plans.  “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.  Jesus, and the next in line, Stephen, living the way of forgiveness, were rejected by builders who wanted nothing to do with them.  But this becomes the very cornerstone of a whole new structure that was being built – the church.   

What do our relationships look like when we build them with justice, forgiveness, kindness, and compassion as the cornerstone – values too easily rejected?  Peter would call these living stones, built into a spiritual house.  Joel Salatin is a farmer in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia who believes we need to be building forgiveness into not only our human relationships, but our relationship with the earth.  Here’s what he has to say about it.  “I believe one of the most fundamental things that we are supposed to do as stewards of the landscape, is build forgiveness into the system.  You can call it resililiency, flex, or whatever, but I like to call it forgiveness.  We know there’s going to be bad things that happen.  There’s going to be floods and hurricanes, there’s going to droughts.  And so part of our responsibility is to bring that forgiveness, that redemption, into the landscape, and make it more resilient.  So when it floods, the soil isn’t going to leave us.  When it’s dry, there’s enough organic matter – one pound of organic matter holds four pounds of water – so as we lift our organic matter, then our water retention is much better, so that in a drought, our grass can continue to get moisture longer into the season” (For a clip of Joel Salatin talking about this, click HERE)”  He talks about different ways that his farm builds forgiveness and resiliency into their animals and the way they do business, so they don’t get shocked when commodity prices or fuel prices fluctuate.  Their strong network of relationships with those who buy their food protects them from those forces, builds forgiveness into the system.   It’s the cornerstone of how they do business.

This is one of the things I want to be considering back on the farm this summer.  Those things which are too easily rejected, which we too easily build our lives without, as being the very key for what we need to be building.

Within Peter’s stone meditation he includes the idea that we, ourselves, are living stones.  That we together are being built into a people, a new sort of structure, which reflects Christ.  A shelter, a refuge, a people who live by the laws of mercy, forgiveness and compassion.  You are living stones.