Church as a Covenantal Community

Genesis 9:8-17    May 10, 2015

Rebecca DePoe

Today is Mother’s Day. For some of us today is a joyful day. We remember our mothers and give thanks for the love and support they give us. For those of you who are mothers, today might be a day where you thank God for the privilege of raising children, in the hopes that they will go out into the world and proclaim the good news. Mother’s Day can be day of remembrance and celebration. But for some of us gathered here today, Mother’s Day is NOT a joyful day. For some of us gathered here today are grieving. Some of us had wonderful mothers, who are no longer with us. Some of us had not-so-great mothers, or even terrible mothers and are tired of trying to fake joy today. Others among us are mothers who have either lost children, or lost their relationships with their children. While we put on a happy face for church despite our grief, we’re struggling to find hope amidst our grief and chaotic experiences. 

 In today’s Scripture passage, we have a story about grief and chaos. A story about God’s grief over creation, and man’s experience of chaos. The story of Noah’s ark is a story where creation has refused to be God’s creation. With the exception of Noah, God and creation are not in right relationship with each other. We know from the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 that God has been committed to his creation from the beginning. He painstakingly created the world out of nothing, and saw that it was good. But by the time we get to the story of Noah’s ark, we learn that God’s commitment to his creation is intensified by his grief over his creation. In Genesis 5 we learn that:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.

What was once a joyful relationship between God and creation is now a tortured relationship between a grieved God and a resistant creation. God must do something to restore their right relationship. God goes about restoring their right relationship in two ways: through punishment, and through promise.

 God punishes creation by sending rain for 40 days and 40 nights to blot out every living thing he has made from the earth. Nothing and no one but Noah, his family, and two of every kind of living creature will survive this flood. God hopes to restart creation by destroying the wicked creation. The flood narrative presents what theologians like to call a “theodicy problem.” Theodicy is the way theologians try to hold the belief that God is good, in tension with the fact that sometimes bad things happen in the world. 

 Theodicy problems are not just found in the Old Testament. Every Christian struggles with how to maintain their belief that God is good when faced with the reality that sometimes bad things happen in the world. A few weeks ago, I read a beautiful book on grief by Richard Lischer, a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School, called Stations of the Heart: Parting with a Son. All of his years of studying theology did not make it any easier for him to understand why his 33 year old son, Adam, was dying from terminal brain cancer. Richard’s son Adam had a bright future ahead of him. He was an up-and-coming District Attorney committed to making sure that everyone received excellent legal counsel. He was happily married to Jenny, the love of his life,  and they just found out that they were pregnant. Adam went to the doctor’s for a routine check-up, and the doctor discovered that his cancer had returned, and that this time it was inoperable. Richard cries out to God, Where are you Lord in the midst of my grief and this chaos? 

 I can’t help but imagine Noah also wondering where God was as he paced back and forth in his little ark as the rain crashed against the roof. Noah was a Christian role model. If he were alive today, Christians would discuss his memoir at Adult Sunday School and say, “I want to be like Noah, because Noah is truly a man of God!” Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. He did everything right. So instead of destroying him in the flood, God rewarded him by telling him to build an ark, to live in it for 40 days, and to re-populate the earth. God claimed to be rewarding Noah for his faithfulness, but God’s “reward” must have felt an awful lot like punishment.

 Thankfully, Noah’s story does not end with punishment. It ends with promise. After 40 days, the flood subsides, and God makes a covenant with Noah. God says to Noah: 

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.

In the ancient Near East, a covenant was meant to clarify an intricate or opaque legal situation between two groups or individuals. In the Old Testament, its helpful to think of covenants as relational contracts that use the language of legal contracts. In these covenants, God makes promises regarding how he will treat either man or creation. In God’s covenant with Noah, he promises that he will never destroy creation again. 

 God tells Noah, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between man and the earth.” The Hebrew word for “bow” (keh’sheth) has a more nuanced meaning than “rainbow,” even though it is often translated as “rainbow.” In Hebrew, keh’sheth refereed to a bow, like an arrow, or a bowman, like an archer. When God said that he set his bow in the clouds, we get this beautiful image of God’s justice juxtaposed with God’s mercy. God is omnipotent, and creation must be punished for disobeying God. But, by setting his bow in the clouds, we are supposed to image God hanging up his bow, and promising never to use a flood to enact his justice again. 

 I think it’s important here to note that God’s covenant with Noah is a unilateral agreement. By unilateral I mean that the obligations to fulfill the covenant falls on only one partner (God). When God says that he will never again destroy creation, NOTHING about creation has changed. Even though God chose the best human beings to restart creation, they are still human beings, and human beings can still choose to be evil or wicked if they want to. The flood did not eradicate either sin or evil from the world. What has changed is not anything about humankind, or creation. What changed is God. Yes, God has decided to punish creation, but he has also promised never to destroy creation again. With God’s covenant, chaos and grief do not have the last word. The last word belongs to the one who stands outside of creation and proclaims “I will remember my covenant!”

I think the challenge of this text is trying to understand what does it mean for us as a church community to live in covenantal relationship with God? As I said before, nothing about creation changed after the flood. Human beings still sin, and evil still exists. God promised to never flood the earth again, but we all know that natural disasters, like the one that struck Nepal two weeks ago, still happen. 

Richard too struggled with how to live a life now that God’s promises seemed to turn on themselves. Parents are not supposed to watch their children die, just as children are not supposed to witness the passion that created them. But what Richard learns by the end of his memoir is that the best grieving is done in community. He experiences this community when two of his students drop by unexpectedly with their mother’s turkey dinner in tow. He experiences this community when a trusted colleague lets him voice his anger at God, without suggesting that Richard is a bad Christian. And it is this community that brings the Eucharist to Adam on his deathbed to remind both Adam and Richard that they worship a God who understands their grief. 

Last week, Reverend Purves challenged us to imagine ways that we might share our faith with those people not sitting in this room. She spoke about the external ways we might tell our friends, families, and neighbors about Jesus Christ. She is right. Part of the way we live in covenantal relationship with God is by inviting people who do not know God into a relationship with God. 

This week I want to challenge you to imagine the internal ways we might imagine sharing our faith with those people not sitting in this room. One way to imagine how we as a church might bear witness to the hope we have in Jesus Christ is to think of our church as a covenantal community. Let me explain what I mean by the church as a covenantal community. 

Besides God’s covenant with Noah, there are three other covenants recorded in the Old Testament. God’s covenant with Abraham, with Moses, with David. In each of these covenants, God promises something in exchange for humanity promising to obey God’s commands. The “problem” with these covenants is that even though humanity promised to obey God’s commands, humanity could not. Humanity’s inability to follow God’s commands was destroying the relationship between humanity and God. God wanted to be reconciled with humanity, but humanity couldn’t reconcile themselves to God because they were not God. The final covenant between God and humanity comes in the New Testament through the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ atonement allowed him to fulfill the covenants God made in the Old Testament because only that which is God could restore the relationship between God and that which is not God. 

Just because we are living in New Testament times, and Jesus Christ fulfilled the covenant God made with Noah on our behalf, this does not mean that we have no responsibility within Jesus’ earthly ministry: the church. The church lives as a covenantal community when it believes that it is a community of faith called together by God to live and worship together. This covenantal community is a place where we love and respect everyone- even people we strongly disagree with. This covenantal community is also a place where we walk with each other in the midst of the chaos and grief of life. Where we don’t have to be “fine” every moment of every day. Where our children can be children during worship. Where we can acknowledge that for some of us, it’s a struggle to drag ourselves to church on Mother’s Day.  

Understanding church as a covenantal community is going to cost us something. It means we must stop seeing church as a voluntary organization that we attend when we’re feeling good, or it fits our schedules. And skip when it conflicts with soccer practice, or a Steeler play-off game. But the good news of understanding our church as a covenantal community is that we as a church community get to bear witness to the other communities we live in (our schools, our work, and our families, our friends) that the unity we have in Christ is stronger than our disagreements over church polity, which hymns to sing on Sunday morning, and what color to paint the Narthex. As we think about ways to invite new folks to join our community of faith, let us remember that we have something to offer our friends, families, and neighbors that a Sunday morning yoga class does not. We offer them a God who loves his creation so deeply that he is willing to send his only Son to die so that we might be reconciled to him. 

Let us remember on this Sixth Sunday of Eastertide that the God we worship is a God who stands both outside of, and within, creation and proclaims, “I will remember my covenant.”