Joe Neville

Genesis 9:8-17

Mark 1:9-15



A Covenant

Two summers ago while driving to one of my favorite stores just off of Route 84:  Home Depot.  It had just finished raining and was about 1:30 in the afternoon. There wasn’t anything spectacular about that stretch of Rte. 84 between exits 16 and 18.  There was that subtle thickness in the air that you feel just after it has rained in the middle of summer. I began to notice that the traffic started to slow down for no apparent reason.  But I was about to see the culprit in just a few moments.  For just over the crest of the highway one and all could see a spectacular rainbow and all its boundless beauty.  You know, Sometimes the arch can throw vibrant, clear colors into the sky other times, it can be soft and muted, pale and subtle, hardly noticeable, but beautiful nonetheless.

But this time, I saw my one and only double rainbow while driving to Home Depot.  A huge bow appeared across the highway and then another, softer and less extravagant, right on top of it. Every car on the highway dropped in speed and it seemed, suddenly, as if we were one organism, traveling together toward the rainbow.  Hushed and awed and quietly grateful, we drove in a huge slow pack for a mile or so, until the bows disappeared.

I know it's a trick the sun plays on water, refracting it and causing it to vibrate into color. There is always a scientific explanation for these things, but anyone who has ever seen a rainbow, knows that it feels like an omen or an incredible moment of blessing—a gift from the heavens!

We begin the season of Lent with the story of Noah and the flood.

Actually, we begin just after the flood.  You'll remember that God saves Noah and his family and all kinds of creatures from death by flood, although the rest of the world goes down.  God wills the flood, but also realizes that is an awful thing to do–and this should never happen again.  So God initiates a covenant with the people–"I will establish a covenant with you," God says, "Never again."  God throws a gorgeous rainbow across the sky as a promise of peace.

The Right Rev., John Shelby Spong, Bishop of Newark, retired, used the story to remind us of the Warrior King God who rallies against sinful creation by sending a huge flood that wipes out everyone except Noah and a few good animals.  The rains cease, the floodwaters recede and God lays aside his weapons of war.  Spong suggests that in an era when the bow was the primary weapon with which to attack an enemy, God laid the divine bow aside.  Since God was seen as a being of enormous size, this divine bow was large enough to cover the heavens.  God was beyond all human imagining, so the bow included all the colors of the spectrum.  When God laid down the divine weapon and ended warfare designed to punish the sinfulness of humankind, the sign was the divine bow, called a rainbow that covered the entire sky.  Spong comments that this was an imaginative interpretation, and it lasted until scientists figured out how rain refracts the sun into the colors present in a beam of light.

If that is how those Old Testament writers comprehended the power and meaning of a rainbow, I think they didn't do so badly!  It’s a beautiful, natural event and I can understand their desire to give it spiritual meaning.

The word "covenant" shows up lots of times in the Hebrew Testaments.  There is the promise of peace to Noah, the promise of land and a nation to Abraham and Sarah, the covenant of the law with Moses, the promise of the end of exile to the Israelites. / Initially, the covenant was an exclusive one between God and Israel.  The Almighty God chose one people above all others and gave them a Promised Land with divine permission to slay or enslave all the previous inhabitants.  Well, those who are thoughtful among us, those who have a sense of inclusion, might ask, "What kind of a God would do that?"  “How can we worship such an unfair and violent God?” // But already in the Hebrew Testament we see a more universal notion of God beginning to evolve.  The prophets broke with the exclusivist tradition and insisted that God was a God of all humanity, a God who demanded justice for all.  This evolution reached fruition in the New Testament when Paul wrote that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, neither male nor female.

In all the stories of the covenant we can see an emerging awareness of an intimate connection between God's life and our life, between the spirit of God and the Breath of the Human being, between those who are loved and the Beloved.

That is what is at the heart of the covenant promise.  We hear two versions of it today.  To Noah, God says, "I will be your God, you are my people."  And in the reading from Mark's Gospel, a similar declaration is made at the baptism of Jesus; "You are my beloved. I have pleasure in you."

We belong to God.  God belongs to us.  We exist in an intimate covenant with the Divine Spirit of Life.  God joins with all creation and all creatures for good rather than evil, for life rather than death, for love, rather than anger or violence.  The story is told to tell us that God is our ally, our intimate relation, redeemed from being a Warrior King, our judge or destroyer.  God's intention for humanity is made abundantly clear after the flood…God's love includes life for everyone–two-legged creatures and four legged ones, fish, birds, insects and creeping things, God love is in the midst of everything.   Today, we would say that God's loves includes us all on the planet–Iraqis and Americans, Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims and Christians, Buddhists and Jews, Black, Brown, Gay and Straight, HIV positive and negative.  The God of Life covenants with all creation, for life, for love, and for peace.

Today, you and I entered into a time of covenanting with each other. It's a time of covenanting for us all.  Not only do we support and uphold each other in our various ministries, but also we covenanted to remember that we are all called to ministry and life beyond these walls.  Our covenant is to empower everyone, all God's disenfranchised, suffering, beloved children, to help fulfill the world's longing for love, justice and grace.

The Church for me is a super racial, super national and super temporal community of grace. At our best, we attempt to make real the promise of God's intimate connection in the lives of people. We come here to try to make sense of the old, old truth stories and to pass on our living stories to each other.  We come here, hoping for an intimate connection, to God's love and to each other.  And from all that I have read about the Congregational Church of Brookfield family, and hope to experience with you, indicates that you manage, somehow, to do this.  I thank God that I have been graced to walk with you as you share your past, discern your present and future and embrace the wonderful possibilities of making new disciples for the uplifting of the church.  We come together today, in this different configuration, so that we might be sent forth into the world to live and love and to proclaim God's promise of peace today as well as tomorrow.  To proclaim, by our patient confidence in God’s Covenant with us, that the purpose of peace is that we may all be one.

This Lent, instead of denying ourselves, let us put into practice the promises that God has made with us and we have made with each other.  We are covenant partners of creation.  We have got to love it, care for it and tread upon the earth with gentleness and respect.  Let's love the world and those who live in it, whether they are here this morning or will be bowing toward Mecca this afternoon; whether they share our cultural or economic values, or embrace and attitude of survival; whether rich or poor, impoverished of mind or free in the spirit.

This story reminds us that no one people or single nation is chosen by God for a covenant relationship.  God should not be used ever again to justify violence or hate for another nation or people.  The God we love is the God of all life, the God who desires peace and is Love.  As we face the challenging decisions that will be made in the coming months, let us remember that the covenant of God is with all people–there is neither Jew nor Greek, Iraqi nor American.  God chooses no one nation or people for special privileges… and yet, God chooses everyone for life and hope.

The rainbow, the bow in the clouds, is a reminder of God's overwhelming and over arching covenant of love for the whole world, not just our part of it.  And how do we honor and worship such a God?  By breaking the warriors bow, turning spears into plowshares, by learning to live together in civility under the curve of the radiant arch of God.