The Great Flood of 1972
It was 1972 and Hurricane Agnes had made landfall in Florida and was moving quickly up the East Coast. By the time she was done, there was extensive damage all the way from the Caribbean to Canada. Damage was heaviest in Pennsylvania, not from high winds but from severe flooding. Most media attention was on the Susquehanna River, which is the longest river on the East Coast and cities along it – like Harrisburg, the state capital, where some buildings were under 13 feet of water.
My hometown, Pottstown, is not along the Susquehanna. It’s further east, along the Schuylkill River, a much smaller waterway. But the stories that are still told about the flooding there have an additional feature. 6 million gallons of used crankcase oil were washed into the river by the flood waters that swept over the storage lagoons of a company that reclaimed dirty oil. The flood carried the oil over 14 miles of the Schuylkill, spreading oil for acres in all directions, causing the worst inland oil spill in US history at the time. As the flood waters receded, houses and trees were covered with oil as high up as 20 feet. I wasn’t living in Pottstown anymore by that time; I was actually part of a church group that helped clean up houses after the flood up in Portville, NY along the Allegheny River. But the pictures and stories of the flood and oil spill of 1972 continue to this day. I recently saw a bunch on the “Good Old Days of Pottstown” Facebook page.
As you can imagine, epic events like this are forever woven into the fabric of the history of these places. That’s true for any disaster, natural or otherwise. People in Texas will forever remember the freezing winter of 2021. Questions about ERCOT’s culpability for the failure of their power grid reminded me of similar questions about PG&E’s role in the pipeline explosion in San Bruno and in some of our devastating wildfires. We want to know who or what was responsible. But some catastrophes need a bigger framework, a way to tell the story in a way that it speaks to bigger issues. Karen Armstrong, author of “A History of God” says, “If you witness a terrible natural disaster, yes, you want a scientific explanation why this has happened. But you also need to something that will help you to assuage your grief and anguish and rage. And it is here that myth helps us through that.”
THE Great Flood
Now, the book of Genesis wasn’t written until the 5th or 6th century BCE, possibly during the time of exile. But the story was evidently seared into the collective memory of the people, passed down orally from generation to generation, and eventually written into the story of Noah – not as a history lesson but as a theological message about their relationship with God – who was very different from the gods of the Babylonians.
Water was a very important part of the way the ancient Hebrews understood the world and their God. In the beginning, Genesis 1 depicts pre-creation as a watery chaos, a formless void. The Hebrew creation story portrays God bringing order out of this chaos. And it was all very good.
By the time we get to the Noah story, we’ve seen how humanity has messed up God’s beautiful garden. The great flood was interpreted as God’s way of reversing creation and returning earth to its previous state of chaos and nothingness. You can see what a profound theological concept this was. God, creator of everything, had had it with us. Humanity had gone too far and there was nothing worth saving. Well, not quite. God was not completely done with us. There was Noah.
And so, the rainbow. When the flood was over and Noah and his family were back on dry land, God makes a to covenant with them to never do that again. And as a sign of this promise, God sets the rainbow in the clouds and says, “Whenever my bow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between me and all living things on the earth.”
We love this story. It’s a favorite motif for children’s books and toys. There are Noah’s Ark themed Bible school curricula, Noah’s Ark Precious Moments characters. But we might want to take a closer. I’ll never forget the lesson our Sunday school teacher had prepared one Sunday. I didn’t hear about it until after, or I might have intervened. She brought in a big metal tub filled with water and proceeded to tell the Noah’s Ark story complete with drowning people and animals. She was distraught as she told me the horrified reactions of the children. The thing is she was literally correct in her telling of the story. According to the Genesis writer, God did that. The problem is the literal details are not the point. The point is the covenant that God makes.
Covenant-making is something that God does a lot of in the Bible This one with Noah is one of the first. During Lent this year, our Old Testament readings will lead us through the story of God’s saving purposes in human history by way of God’s covenants. And the interesting thing is that, taken as a whole, they make it a little difficult to pin down exactly what a covenant is. The easiest definition is that a covenant is a contract: if you do, this, then I’ll do that. The problem with that is that it’s transactional. There’s quid pro quo. That’s not how we want to think about God any more than as someone who kills innocent people and animals.
But the reality is that throughout the Bible, there are contradictory definitions. Abraham and Sarah are given a unilateral, unconditional covenant: “I will make of you a great nation. . .” There’s no quid pro quo; it’s all about what God is doing. On the other hand, Moses is given a bilateral, conditional covenant: “If you obey my commandments, then you will be my people.” Even the covenant with Noah gives God an “escape clause,” promising never again to send a flood, but silent about other disasters. So what are we to make of this seemingly contradictory God. And how does this idea of covenant help us as we navigate through this season of Lent.
The Lentiest Lent We Ever Lented
As an aside, on Wednesday I talked about how last year there was a meme going around that said “Lent was the Lentiest Lent we ever Lented” because we were in the first stage of the pandemic, sheltering in place, sacrificing human contact, scrambling to find hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and thinking it would be all over by Easter. This year, we know better. The Lentiest Lent has become our new normal, at least until another new normal can be established. The pandemic is an epic disaster. Last summer, the wildfires were epic disasters. Texas is in the midst of an epic disaster. Climate change is an epic disaster.
Thankfully, we don’t blame God for creating them – at least not usually. I do find it interesting to note that those who claimed that God caused the 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina because of the sins of New York and New Orleans have been silent about Texas. It seems for some God is selective in which sins to punish. If we want to hold to only the punitive interpretation of the Noah story, we’d better be prepared to be included in the indictment. Many disasters – like the one in Texas – can be attributed to human sin.
OK, so we’re not going to take these stories historically or literally. But unless we believe that God is out there somewhere, uninvolved with us, then we do still want to try to make sense of how God does work with us in our world today. And this messy concept of covenant can help – as it would help Jesus as he continued in this tradition and we continue in this tradition through the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. It’s no accident that we hear Jesus say in the Words of Institution, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood . . .” or that we speak of the covenant we make with God in our baptism. It’s no accident that the passage from Genesis is paired with Mark’s version of Jesus’ baptism today as we take our first steps into the Lenten wilderness.
It may sound trite, but covenant is all about relationship. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann defines covenant as
“the deep and pervasive affirmation that our lives in all aspects depend upon our relatedness to this other One who takes the initiative in our lives and who wills more good for us that we do for ourselves.” *
Keep that definition in mind as we go through the five covenants before us this Lent. Don’t be thrown off by contradictions – because the biblical tradition is saturated with deep contradiction. Brueggemann’s theory is that “God possess a rich internal life . . . that is always processing, adjudicating, and reengaging God’s people in a covenant that is unsettled,” flashing back and forth between “punishment and pathos, judgment and mercy.”
We may be uncomfortable with a God whose mind can change and can feel remorse. That idea is threatening if we demand certitude from an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent God. But remember further along in Genesis when Abraham dickers with God over how many righteous people there would need to be in the city of Sodom for God not to destroy it?
Abraham challenges God: “What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? You won’t forgive it for those fifty?”
“OK,” God says, “if I find fifty, I’ll forgive them all.”
But Abraham’s not done: “What if five of those fifty are lacking? You’ll destroy the whole city because of them?’
God says, “No, I won’t destroy it if I find forty-five righteous people there.”
Abraham again: “What if there are forty?”
God: “For the sake of forty I won’t do it.”
Abraham: “Oh, please don’t be angry if I speak. What if thirty are found there?’
God: “I won’t do it if I find thirty.”
Abraham, “Just one last time, allow me to speak. Suppose twenty are found there?” God: “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.”
The last verse says, “After speaking with Abraham God departed and Abraham returned home.”
Do you get the impression that God might have finally just gotten exasperated with Abraham’s persistence and just gave up? But on the other hand, God was willing to listen to Abraham.
Or consider how in the Noah story, God sets the bow in the clouds as a reminder to God’s self: “When I bring clouds over the earth, my bow will appear in the clouds. Then I will remember the covenant that is between me and you and every kind of living creature, and never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all flesh. Whenever my bow appears in the clouds, I will see it, and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature on the earth.” The rainbow is indeed a wonderful sign and symbol to us, but it is God who admits the need for the reminder.
When we think of covenant as a contract, it’s too easy to see it as an uneven deal. One party has power over the other. One party can punish the other. In fact, some of the Old Testament covenants are modeled on Near Eastern suzerain/vassal treaties between a greater and a lesser party. The greater party, the suzerain, provided benefits such as military protection and land grants to the lesser party, the vassal. In response, the vassal owed the suzerain financial tribute and fidelity.
But taken all together, what we find in these stories is a way to go beyond the ancient models to in order to embrace a covenantal existence that is always a two-way conversation, a biblical faith in a God who is always reaching out to us and calling us to reach out to each other.
Fidelity is the hallmark of covenant with God, but not based on coercion, but on love, compassion, and truth. The biblical witness can be messy and contradictory, but is ultimately about God’s commitment to being with us through all the messiness and contradictions of our lives. As Christians, we see this commitment to us, personified in Jesus, that carries God beyond punishment to a love that will not let us go.
Covenantal living then is recognizing this “love that will not let go” in every circumstance of our lives. It is entering into the conversation with God and with one another both in order to mutually support and nurture the body of Christ, but also to move outward into the world in ways that are faithful to our covenant.
My first congregation was a covenant church. That is, it was a church that had drawn up a covenant when it was formed that outlined the responsibilities of church members. Each year at the annual meeting, members would sign the covenant and recommit to those responsibilities. I don’t know how that practice found its way to a Lutheran church. It’s usually associated with the Baptist church. Anyway, by the time I got there as their third pastor, the board with the covenant written on it with signatures of members had been relegated to the back of a closet. When I discovered it and asked about it, I felt sad that the tradition had died. That congregation no longer exists. I don’t claim to think it was because they broke their covenant, but I wonder what would have been different if we had taken it out, dusted it off, and renewed it.
Actually, though, we don’t need a board with a covenant and signatures. We are in covenant already by virtue of our baptisms. Remember I said that water was a very important element of the way the ancient Hebrews understood the world and their God? And he Genesis creation story depicts God as bringing order out of the watery chaos? And the Noah story is a myth signifying a return to that chaos, the undoing of the goodness of creation through the waters of the flood? Fast forward to the Jordan River with God pronouncing Jesus “my beloved” at his baptism.
At our baptisms, we entered into a covenant community. If we were baptized as adults, we took on the responsibilities of Christian life for ourselves. If we were infants or small children, adults made the promises for us. In either case, it is the responsibility of the community to remind ourselves and one another what we signed on for. We did that not long ago in January on the day we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus. But it’s meant to be a daily awareness and commitment to this covenant that, as Walter Brueggemann defined it, “is the deep and pervasive affirmation that our lives in all aspects depend upon our relatedness to this other One who takes the initiative in our lives and who wills more good for us that we do for ourselves.”
On Ash Wednesday we made a sign of ash on our foreheads, the same place where the cross was traced at our baptism. We recognize the messiness, the ash-iness, the contradictions of life – and we take heart because we are created in the image of the One who created us out of the earth and water and who has redeemed us through water for our life on this earth. Everything we do should come from this foundation. It’s our contract, our covenant, the best deal we could ever have.
*LentWalter Brueggemann, “Neither Absolutist Nor Atheist Be”
God said, “Here is the sign of the covenant between me and you and every living creature for ageless generations: I set my bow in the clouds, and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, my bow will appear in the clouds. Then I will remember the covenant that is between me and you and every kind of living creature, and never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all flesh. Whenever my bow appears in the clouds I will see it, and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature on the earth.”
God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all living things on the earth.”
It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.”
Immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him. After John’s arrest, Jesus appeared in Galilee proclaiming the good news of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Change your hearts and minds and believe this good news!”