February 26th, 2012
“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” by Heidi Ward
Many of you know that when I am not here with all of you, I share my life with my fiancé in Southern Vermont. It is a beautiful area of God’s creation, full of trees, rivers, and crisp mountain air. Some of you know it well. It has become a wonderful place to call home.
This summer our little Green Mountain State was suddenly rocked to its core by a once in a century event. It was the end of August of 2011. A particularly gorgeous summer was in full effect. The weather reports had started to come in. Hurricane Irene was in full swing and heading toward New England. Like many of you, we watched the reports with a careful eye and they all had the same overarching message. The coastal areas were in danger of a bad storm, but we were too far inland to be worried. There was no need to be afraid. As the storm grew closer, just to be safe, many of the churches in our area canceled Sunday services.
Thanks be to God that they did, because the weather reports were wrong. As I opened the front door that Sunday morning, the river in our front yard had almost crested its banks at 8 AM. By late morning, we had lost power, and surrounding towns had lost running water. The calls came fast and furious from friends and neighbors across the county throughout the day, surrounding towns were literally underwater.
The mountain that we live on was impassable. Buildings and roads were literally washing away. There were already reports that it would be weeks before direct roads on and off the mountain would be passable. The destruction came fast and furious, sparing no one and nothing in its path. We had heard Wilmington, the next town over was one of the worst hit in the state.
The night of the storm, we attempted to go to Wilmington. After an agonizing drive, we finally were able to get close enough to walk into the village.
I wish I could tell you that we walked into town that night to breathe a sigh of relief that the reports of damage were vastly exaggerated. They weren’t. It looked like a war zone. Our mouths hung open in disbelief. We stood in the center of town clasping hands with people we knew and even those we didn’t, tears streaming down all of our faces, crying out to God silently and aloud. How could this have happened to our little town? What would we do now? Where was God?
I immediately empathized with the people of the Ancient Near East ias I read this morning’s Scripture passage. This section of the book of Genesis can be dated near the time of the post-Babylonian exile around 530 B.C.E. The post-exilic people would have been looking for a sign of covenant with God and God’s presence. Their society and life as they knew it was in turmoil. They had already experienced the demise of their government, and upheaval of their religious life. Life was in chaos, and God was fed up.
Heart broken over humanity’s hard heartedness and lack of care of one another and creation, God has had enough. And so, the creator of heaven and earth, the one who moved across the deep and breathed everything into creation, has returned the world to nothingness through a once in a lifetime flood. In the Ancient Near Eastern world, water (particularly such violent, turbulent water) was the symbol of ultimate chaos.
And yet in the wake of chaos, this is where the story really gets good. The text tells us that God sets God’s bow in the clouds. In ancient civilization, the rainbow was imagined as God’s weapon (or literal bow) from which his arrows were shot. God literally lays down God’s proverbial weapon against humankind in the sky as a sign of covenant and peace. The Holy One turns away from vindication, and toward forgiveness, patience and love, even knowing that the human heart will always be imperfect. We will continue to battle against God, creation, and one another, but God covenants with us never to destroy the earth again. God has begun a new creation with those that were on the ark.
In this covenant is something truly remarkable. Humankind is not bound to any kind of behavior, norms, or even standards. Think about that with me for a minute. We have to do absolutely nothing at all, and yet God pledges to love us, and deliver us always. Our God covenants to hold God’s self to the highest standards of love and care, even when we do not do the same in return. Our God is one who remembers us, even and especially in the midst of the greatest chaos.
I know that I am not the only one who is familiar with the feeling of chaos. We see it all around us. We see chaos in war, the breakdown in civil and political discourse, and natural disasters, to name a few. But, hurricanes and natural disasters are far from the only way that chaos comes into our own lives. We see it individually as well. There is breakdown in relationship. There is the pain and deep ache of grief, or loss. There are the demons of addiction. Indeed beloved, chaos can lead us to some dark nights of the soul.
But while this passage from Genesis begins with chaos, it does not leave us there. Chaos is not the end of the story for the Israelites. Nor is it the end of the story for us. In the moments that we believe we will never feel joy again, that there is no hope for us, this Scripture tells us that a rainbow is coming (even if we cannot see it). Just as the exiled people came to know God as the “one who remembered” them despite the chaos, so too does God remember us. God’s covenant promises that God will never leave us alone.
This Sunday marks the first Sunday of our Lenten journey into the wilderness with Jesus, and with one another. I don’t know about you, but growing up Lent was a time of giving up my favorite things. It became a contest ever year to see how long I could go without chocolate, ice cream, or some other 40-day forbidden treat. Of course, as I got older, I began to understand more about the theology of why people gave something up. I saw it as part of their walk with Jesus through the wilderness.
And yet, as I reflect on the passage this morning, I want to invite us to a deeper, or perhaps new understanding of Lent. Jesus does not call us to suffer simply for suffering’s sake. It is not about giving something up, simply because it is what we are supposed to do. Setting down chocolate, or lattes for 40 days will not automatically bring us closer to the Divine. It is about making room in our lives for God. About letting go of things that have been taking up unnecessary space, perhaps creating chaos, and allowing God to fill that space.
True closeness with God requires trust. It requires leaning into God’s everlasting arms, and trusting God enough to do the hard work we cannot do on our own. As we walk through the Lenten wilderness, I think all of us are called to examine the places of chaos in our own lives and hearts. Where is our own heartedness, lack of care of one another or God’s creation keeping us from living fully into God’s promise for us? What are the hard choices this Lenten season may be calling us to make to live more fully into relationship with God and one another? Where in our own lives are we so lost in the chaos or wilderness that we cannot see God’s rainbow shining in front of us, calling us to new life?
Often in Sunday School, we hold forth the story of Noah’s Ark and God’s rainbow covenant as an overarching message of God’s Grace, promise, and love for our children. We paint rainbows on the walls of our Sunday school classrooms, or give them as gifts for things like Baptism. And yet, they are no less a powerful reminder for us whether we are four, or ninety-four. I often wonder what it might be like to paint rainbows on the walls of our sanctuaries, offices, or favorite room in our homes to remind us of this holy promise, and the things it calls us to.
About 48 hours after Hurricane Irene blew through Wilmington, the bright summer sun has returned to the sky. The sky was blue, and storm clouds were nowhere to be found. As the dust blew heavily through the air, and the clean-up efforts began, a rainbow just as bright as the one I imagine God gave to the Israelites that day spread across the Vermont sky.
In the midst of our chaos, there came a reminder of God’s promise that chaos would not have the last word. God’s covenant was made new again. So too can it be for us.
This is the good news this morning beloved. There is chaos in the world, and in our lives. There are indeed hurricanes and dark nights of the soul. But there is calm after the storm. There are rainbows of hope and promise, if only we will make room in our hearts and our lives for them. One of my favorite preachers, Rev. Dr. Susan Smith says it like this: Joy comes in the morning, the psalmist tells us. And thanks be to God, morning always comes. May we trust enough to uncover the chaotic places in our lives and in ourselves this Lenten season, knowing that God’s covenant dawns new each morning. Amen.