Linus and Lucy are standing at the window watching it rain. You know who they are, I’m sure -- two of the children from the classic comic strip Peanuts. The cartoon I’m thinking of is based on today’s Old Testament lesson from Genesis 9. Lucy says, "If it doesn't stop raining everything will be washed away."
"Oh no!" Linus assures her. "Genesis chapter 9 says that never again will God wash everything away."
A relieved Lucy says, "Thank you, that is a great comfort to me."
Linus replies, "Sound theology will do that."
The story of the flood, despite the fact that it comes from the most ancient and murkiest period of stories handed down in Scripture, actually has a lot to teach us. It is full of sound theology -- which, as Linus reminds us, is the only kind that really works because it is the only kind that describes reality.
The story goes that God looked down on earth and saw what a mess people had made of everything -- of the ecosystem, their government, their communities, and their own lives. So, they say, God decided to try and solve that problem by ditching his whole "creation experiment," flooding the world out, and starting over again with a better gene pool. (We may smile at how simple this sounds, but let's remember that stories like this have played an important role in people's spiritual lives for centuries.)
Only Noah and his family, who had so far shown nothing but obedience to God's Word, were allowed to take refuge from the flood and save their lives. Surely a planet with nice folks like this as its ancestors would turn out better. So they build their ark, load on enough animals to repopulate the world, and set sail. They pass through the waters, and the ark keeps them safe, and when they have made it to dry land everything starts over again.
But then what happens? Just a few verses later, good-guy Noah reveals himself as bad-guy Noah, getting blind drunk and passing out in the living room, and his family in turn begins behaving as dysfunctionally as you might expect the family of such a man to. So much for the idea of starting a new world with only the nice people. And in fact, as Genesis goes on to the story of the tower of Babel and of the patriarchs and matriarchs, it's clear that the world is just as full of violence and lies and bigotry as it was before the flood.
So where’s the comfort and the sound theology Linus is talking about in this story? Well, it all turns on God's choice to make a promise.
You probably noticed that Genesis 9 repeated several times the word "Covenant." God says over and over that now that the flood is finished, he is making a covenant. A covenant in Hebrew society usually was a two-way deal, like a contract. This covenant, however, is different. It's not a two-way deal. God promises something, but Noah doesn't have to promise anything back. He doesn't have to earn the benefits of the covenant. He just has to be in the covenant -- like all he had to do to be saved from the flood was to be in the ark -- and like all we have to do to be saved from nothingness is to be in Christ. And in fact, God says the covenant is not just for Noah and his family, but for every living creature, the entire earth.
So note that God doesn't tell Noah, "If you do these sacrifices and don't sleep around and don't tell lies and don’t miss worship too much, I will be good to you." He says, "I myself unconditionally am making a promise. Here is what I covenant with you: I will be for you, not against you. And I am putting a rainbow in the sky as a reminder to you and to me and to the entire creation of what kind of God I am."
The story reads almost as if God has figured out something very important: that relying on human goodness will not produce reliable results. We can't be counted on to behave the way we ought, and even when you think you have managed to create an environment which will exclude the so-called bad people, badness just crops up again. So rather than promising to give people what they deserve, God promises not to give us what we deserve. He promises to be for us, to take the responsibility for goodness himself.
Throughout this Lent we will see in our first reading a series of Old Testament covenants. And what they show, and Scripture in general shows, and our own daily lives show, is that no matter how much people try to better ourselves and live our best lives, or to exclude and cancel others whom we think have transgressed, God does not deal with us that way. God’s love and forgiveness are never because of what we do but always because of who he is. God's solution to the problem of people being so unreliable is to be reliable himself, and invite us to rely on him.
The ultimate invitation to rely on God comes in the story this season of Lent leads up to: God goes to the Cross to die for our sins and rise for our redemption, and he welcomes us all into the living ark of salvation that is Jesus Christ. We are saved not because of what we do, but because of who God is. That's a great comfort to me, but no surprise there -- sound theology will do that.
One of the great Presbyterian preachers of the past generation, Horace Allen, used to talk about how uncomfortable it is to hear the Gospel of Ash Wednesday right before ashes are administered. He’d put it this way: “So, first you proclaim the words of Our Lord: And whenever you fast, do not look dismal and disfigure your faces, and then you say: now kindly please come up and disfigure your faces.”
A seeming irony, but one that doesn’t go very deep. As usual, Jesus is not really giving a command that can be fulfilled by following one specific outward rule, by controlling what you do to the skin on your face. He’s not a simplistic thinker like that. Instead he’s talking about the attitude of the will. What Jesus is warning against is using self-presentation as a way to feel superior to others. In his day if you showed off that you were keeping a fast for God, that self-presentation won you acclaim; you would likely feel very proud to go out in public visibly marked with a sign that you were under a religious vow of fasting.
I doubt there are many people here who feel like that about the blotch you’ll have put on your foreheads when you leave. If you will be out in public in any way, my wager is you’re much more likely to feel a little embarrassed about your black stain than proud of it. The era when American culture admired the Christian way of life and honored its symbols is over; few people have any idea what this sign of ashes even means anymore. Lots will just think you forgot to clean your face.
As so often with Jesus, we need to read his specific commands looking for the intention of the will he is getting at:
Whenever you give alms, he says today, do not sound a trumpet before you.
And whenever you pray, do not…stand and pray at the street corners, so that you may be seen.
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal and disfigure your faces so as to show others.
What’s the intention he’s looking for? What kind of person would you be if it would never occur to you to do any of those kinds of things? One that doesn’t need to feed your own ego with self-presentation, but is free to act for God alone.
So in our day, it may actually fulfill the point of Jesus’ teaching better if you deliberately do leave the ashes on your face, to feel that ego embarrassment that comes with caring what others think. I think it also fulfills his point to have to receive ashes in the contactless way we are doing it this year, from individual cups. It’s awkward. It will probably not work as well as having the clergy put our thumbs on your foreheads. Your cross may not be as well-formed and dark as it might have been last Ash Wednesday.
But again – all of this makes it just a little less possible for us to feel pleased with ourselves that we are keeping Lent. And a little more aware of the sting of our own egos wanting to be gratified, and thus a little more able to notice our need for God’s grace. And noticing our need for God’s grace is what this season is all about. So I invite you to stand now as we enter into this holy season, and then we will kindly come on up, and disfigure our faces.
If we are to take the way St. Mark writes things up for us at face value, the verses we hear in today’s reading may actually be Jesus’ first real day in public. Mark just gives us a blizzard of vignettes here in chapter one of his Gospel. Jesus comes into Galilee “saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe.” He abruptly calls Simon and Andrew to follow him, and then James and John.
As Mark tells it, the first thing they do is go to synagogue together, where Jesus has a public confrontation with evil and sets someone free from an unclean spirit right in front of the whole congregation. Everyone sees this. Capernaum is a small city. It would to be hard to believe that there are more than a couple people who don’t know the guy.
And that’s where this morning’s Gospel reading came in, partway through that day, still on page one of the book, with the blizzard of vignettes continuing. They’ve been to synagogue, and when they come home, it turns out Peter’s mother in law has a fever. Jesus reaches out his hand to her and she too is healed, and then finally they get a little break to engage in whatever the average family does at home on a Sabbath afternoon in Capernaum.
But then at sundown, Mark tells us, this huge crowd shows up. Word of what happened in the synagogue has gotten around. Why sundown? Well, on the Sabbath of course, you can’t work, and work includes carrying things. So the villagers wait until the sun recedes beyond the horizon, and then they start to work, to carry their loads.
They pick up the broken bodies of their aging relatives and ease them onto stretchers, they hoist their feverish, wailing babies onto their shoulders, and they come. They can’t wait till morning. They’ve been waiting too long already. They come to Jesus the moment it’s possible for them to come, at sundown. “The whole city,” it says, “was gathered around the door.” So Jesus goes about the work of setting them all free. As the night wears on and these newly minted disciples (Simon, Andrew, James and John) sit there, I assume, gaping in astonishment, Jesus over and over reaches out to person after person, and everyone who takes his hand that night is raised up, set free, made whole.
How long does this take? If the whole city gathered around the door at sundown, what time is it when Jesus bids the last weeping, grateful family farewell? Midnight? The text doesn’t say but it does tell us that later on, “while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” You sometimes hear a modern interpretation of this verse preached that basically uses it to induce guilt for our self-care routines not being good enough, suggesting that we ought to work harder to emulate some disciplined regimen of self-care that Jesus allegedly held himself to.
Apart from the issue that prayer isn’t about self, I’ve long found that use of the verse really implausible. If the day Mark shows us on page one is the day as it was, I wonder if Jesus may have been up so early for a different reason. If his first day started by coming face to face with evil, and ended with a line of human anguish that stretched around the block three times, might it have been more likely that he just couldn’t sleep? It’s actually a rather important part of Christianity, you know, that Jesus doesn’t float tranquil and unmoved above the daily pressures and concerns of human beings. He is a human being, not just God in a costume.
At any rate, for whatever reason, Jesus is awake before dawn, and eventually he gets up and tiptoes out of the house. And he walks for awhile in the dark, until he is far away, until he feels himself safe from observation by anyone who won’t understand, out in the middle of this ocean of divine Life and Truth that is in him as it has never been in anybody else, and he prays. But eventually the disciples come find him, and what does he say? OK, he tells them, let’s keep going. That’s why I’m here.
This – from gathering a community, to worship in the synagogue, to victory over evil, to healing and mercy, to responding to the needs of a city, to deep union with the Father, to renewed mission each morning – this blizzard of vignettes on the very first page of the earliest Gospel to be written shows us through Mark’s eyes who Jesus is.
We see here the most compelling, fascinating person who has ever lived, launching the most important work anyone has ever had. We see someone who is caring enough to take the time to tend to one woman with a fever, and someone who is focused and competent enough to address the issues of a whole town. And when we look at him, we see God.
There’s nobody else like Jesus. And even more astonishingly, he is there to be met every time you pick up your Bible. This unique person who is God and man, Jesus Christ, is right there, just as he is right there when you come to an in-person Mass or receive contactless communion at home. It’s never too late to start really taking in these Words of Scripture, to ask God questions about them, to come to this Jesus who is every bit as extraordinary in person as he is in Mark’s description. Even if you’ve been waiting for years to get to know him, it’s never, ever too late.
Conflict has always been a part of group life. And discussion and resolution of conflict is how relationships stay together. This is true of couples, of families, of churches, of work environments, and of governments. Conflict happens.
Recently I have been wondering what the Bible might have to say about how we deal with opposing viewpoints in peaceful ways? How might we come to resolution of differences without violence? How do we exist with those with whom we disagree and how might scripture help us as we wrestle with these questions.
Today’s Epistle, I think, has some relevance to this.
What we have heard today is part of a lengthy letter Paul wrote to the early church in Corinth. This letter, as do most of Paul’s letters, speaks of actual life in a particular church at a particular time. While the questions and disagreements of that place and time are not ours now, I think we can learn from Paul’s approach to their conflict.