Saturday, February 25, 2012

Being in the Same Boat: Noah and the Christian People

RCL Lent 1B
26 February 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  Genesis 9.8-17 and the Baptismal Covenant

         Some of you may know and others of you may not know that I have served as the co-chair of the Vancouver Jewish-Christian Dialogue for almost ten years.  Our Dialogue had its beginnings when the provincial government announced its intention to hold a referendum on the rights of aboriginal peoples in the province as these rights affected possible settlement of land claims.

         The Jewish community immediately recognized the danger of referenda on the rights of minorities.  Over the centuries Jews have experienced the potential negative outcomes of such political actions and the Jewish community in Vancouver was not about to stand on the sidelines in this initiative of the provincial government.  I was among the Christian clergy invited to attend an initial meeting and, as the story goes, I have been involved ever since.

         Early on in our Dialogue we determined that we needed not only to look at social and political issues that affected our communities but that theological and spiritual questions were also ones that we needed to discuss.  It was in the course of preparing for one such session that I came across the Jewish teaching about the so-called covenant of Noah.

         At the heart of Jewish theology is the concept of covenant.  A covenant is a solemn agreement where two parties bind themselves together in an indissoluble relationship.  If one party fails to live up to the terms of the agreement, then there are consequences to be sure, but the covenant remains.  After a period of time and a process of reconciliation the covenant is renewed and the parties continue in their relationship.

         In the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, sometimes called the Five Books of Moses or, in Hebrew, the Torah, there are at least three covenants.  The one that most of us are familiar with is the covenant that God makes with the Hebrew people at Mount Sinai occasionally called the covenant of Moses.  This is a very specific covenant with a small community of people.  To this day this covenant shapes the lives of our Jewish sisters and brothers, our neighbours and our companions in following the Holy One of Israel.

         But before the covenant with Moses God makes two other covenants.  An older covenant than the covenant with Moses is God’s covenant with Abraham and Abraham’s descendants.  From time to time our lectionary brings us stories of Abraham and Sarah as well as stories about their descendants, Isaac and Jacob.  This covenant plays a major role in the spiritual theology of Jews, Christians and Muslims.  It is a broader covenant than the covenant with Moses, touching both the physical and spiritual descendants of this Middle Eastern patriarch.

         Even older than the covenant with Abraham, however, is the covenant we hear God making with Noah today.  This is not a covenant between God and the myriad descendants of a patriarch nor is it a covenant between God and one tribe descended from that patriarch.  The covenant with Noah is a covenant made with all living things:  “Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.’” (Genesis 9.8-10)

         This is the original covenant made between God and all living creatures, a covenant that has particular meaning in the Jewish theological tradition.  Later generations of Jewish thinkers will ponder this covenant with Noah and discern that there are seven laws in this covenant.  Human beings are forbidden (i) to commit idolatry, (ii) to commit murder, (iii) to steal, (iv) to commit sexual immorality, (v) to blaspheme and (vi) to eat the flesh of living animals and are required (vii) to establish courts of law.  Any non-Jew who follows these laws will have a place in the world to come and be considered as righteous as any Jew who follows all the commandments of the law of Moses.

         In some ways this covenant with Noah is a precursor of the covenant you and I made at our baptism.  Just as the covenant with Noah reaches out to all living creatures, so does the baptismal covenant reach out to include every human being who wishes to experience the embrace of God’s faithful and steadfast love. 

         But our baptismal covenant also mirrors the covenant of Moses.  Just as the covenant with Moses created a people who were called to witness to the God of Noah, the God of Abraham and the God of Moses, so too does the baptismal covenant create a people who are called to witness to the God of Jesus of Nazareth whose life and teaching summons every human being into relationship with the God whom Jesus called ‘Abba’.

         Lent is a season during which all Christians are called to examine their lives and to re-commit themselves to the covenant that God made with each one of us at our baptism.  Whether we were baptized as an infant or a young child or as an adult, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.  If we were to return to our baptismal covenant after years of neglect, we would not be re-baptized.  We would be re-integrated into the community of faith and given the opportunity to rediscover our fundamental identity as the people of Christ and witnesses to the resurrection.

         In our current Anglican baptismal practice we make use of a liturgical text first prepared for the American Episcopal church in the 1970’s.  Every time we baptize or celebrate a baptismal occasion in the Christian year we renew our covenant.  But the chief renewal of that covenant occurs at Easter when we celebrate the new life made known to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  That covenant has two parts:  (i) a confession of faith in God using the familiar words of the Apostles’ Creed and (ii) five commitments that arise from our confession of faith.  It is about the first part, the confession of faith, that I want to offer some reflections as we begin our Lenten journey.

         To confess that we believe in God the Father is to confess our belief in a God who has a purpose for creation.  It is not always easy to believe this in a world such as ours where governments kill their own citizens, where people die of preventable diseases and where the rich seem to grow richer and the poor poorer.  But we dare to claim that God does have a purpose for this world and that creation was not an accident or the random result of unknown physical forces.  This world and all the worlds, known and unknown, came into being because God loves.  We may not be certain what that purpose is, but we can be certain that God knows and that this purpose will come in the fullness of time.

         To confess that we believe in God the Son is to confess our belief in a God who gives us a pattern for genuine maturity and humanity.  In a society such as ours where advertising and the mass media offer us false patterns of genuine humanity, where young people are led to believe that conformity to some one else’s idea of perfection is desirable and where the quiet courage of thousands of people throughout the world who work daily for justice and peace is overshadowed by movie stars and so-called ‘reality show’ participants, to believe in Jesus Christ as the model for what it means to be a human being has a hard time selling itself.  But we dare to believe that true maturity and true humanity, when it shows itself, has the face of Christ.

         To confess that we believe in God the Holy Spirit is to confess our belief in a God who continues to work to achieve God’s purposes for us and for all of creation.  This is not always easy to believe when we face the challenges of our daily lives, especially when we experience unexplained and unpredictable brokenness, tragedy and loss.  But then a moment comes and a light shines into our darkness pointing us in an unexpected direction and we realize that the brokenness, the tragedy and the loss were not signs of God’s absence.  Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

         Today we gather for the first Sunday eucharist in Lent.  We also gather after the service for our annual meeting to transact the business of this community.  While it is tempting to see the eucharist and the annual vestry as separate and, perhaps, unrelated events, I hope that we will see them both as moments to renew our belief in the God who created all things for a purpose, who provides us with a living model for whom we are called to become and who continues to work in us and for us in bringing all creation to its perfection.  As people of the covenant made in baptism and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, I hope we will join Noah and Abraham and Moses and all their descendants in a life empowered by our hope that all God’s children shall be free and the whole earth will live to praise God’s name.  Amen.

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