February 26, 2012
(First Sunday in Lent)
(From The Lectionary Page)
As a boy I was fascinated by a carving that belonged to a neighbor down the road. Carved into a whole nutshell about the size of a medium-sized pecan was a Noah’s Ark brim-full with pairs of animals. The carving was among treasures this woman had brought back home after spending time with her physician husband and family as Presbyterian medical missionaries in Nanjing, China. I believe a patient had carved the familiar Bible story as a token of gratitude. I remember how by taking the golden brown nut in hand the whole story of Noah seemed to come alive, if for but a moment.
The story of Noah, from which we heard a small piece read today, is for most of us a quaint story we know from childhood. “the animals came in two-sy, two-sies,” we may even have sung. Congregational Minister, Jane Anne Ferguson, suggests that “it would do the church a world of good to liberate the story and symbol of Noah’s ark from the walls of church nurseries” and Sunday Schools. I bet if there is at least one Noah’s ark book, poster picture, or interactive Noah’s ark toy here on the Cathedral premises.
In a nutshell the ancient story of Noah is about rescue and new beginnings. A remnant of humanity, the family of Noah, along with breeding pairs of all creatures, are all saved after God decides to make “an end to all flesh” with a great flood because “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” The flood story echoes similar flood stories found in the ancient Near East. The story as found in the Book of Genesis is told for a new and particular purpose.
Following the deliverance of the faithful Noah and his floating menagerie, God makes a Covenant with Noah and all his descendants after him. God will never again destroy creation with water. God blesses Noah and tells him and his children to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. “God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.’” The rainbow hanging in the sky becomes a sign that the mythic bow of destructive chaos is put aside.
Over the next several weeks the Sunday readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament or First Testament as some refer to it, have to do with covenants: promissory agreements God makes with the likes of Noah, Abraham, Moses and the children of Israel, and the prophet Jeremiah. Through covenant God establishes humanity to a new life rescued from the terror of chaos, calls a people to be God’s own, and gives them the Law by which to live. God promises a covenant of a new heart and a new spirit.
A covenant, according to one definition, is a solemn promise concerning future relationship. Two or more parties agree to specific terms for being in relationship. In being reminded of each of the biblical covenants made with the likes of Noah, Moses, and Abraham in our Lenten series of Bible readings, we are being prepared to enter into a fuller understanding of that covenant made with us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Today in our life together we have been asked by our bishop Marty Field to share his pastoral letter that includes a covenant he would like to enter into with us as a congregation, and with the other congregations of the Diocese of West Missouri. (A diocese is — for those of you who may be new to such terms or may have always wondered — is a gathering of congregations headed by a bishop in a geographical region.)
You can read the entire text of Bishop Field’s letter — A Pastoral Letter from the Bishop of West Missouri Introducing: Our Diocesan Priorities & A Covenant for Mission — at this page. (It will open in a new tab or window to make it easier to switch back and forth.) The priorities and covenant presented in this document represent the work of the bishop and the Diocesan Futuring Task Group, made up of lay persons and clergy from throughout West Missouri. Our own Chris Morgan has been part of that team.
You may wonder at this point what biblical covenants and a bishop’s priorities and diocesan covenant have to do with your life and your priorities. I’d like to take a moment to look at the five priorities- at what these priorities might mean for us in our corporate life and as we live out our lives on the day to day.
#1 – Grow Congregations: we seek congregations growing in membership, more congregations being started, excellence in liturgies. This seems to be a “no-brainer,” a “gimme.”
Church people always want to grow the church. It feels good when there are lots of people around. What this priority says to me are two things in particular. We are a church that values beautiful worship that touches us deeply and transforms us. We come here expecting to be stirred in our hearts. A strong and vital part of what we do together needs to focus on making our gathering for worship the very best it can be, and not to be shy about inviting others to come with us. God bless the day when we are so inspired by our worship and life together that we take the show on the road in order that other congregations come into being. The covenantal command, “Be fruitful and multiply” is a word of hope to churches flooded out by malaise and the memories of worlds and ways long since passed. There is a new beginning.
#2 – Grow Personally: we seek Christian formation for all ages, especially children, youth, and young adults; we seek growth in knowledge of the faith and in spiritual depth; we seek growth in responsible stewardship; we seek excellence in liturgies
There are those liturgies again! They are probably are best way by far in forming Christians: Show up. Listen. Learn. A question I hear on a regular basis is, “Is there a book I can read that can tell me about the Episcopal Church or the Christian faith?” Over time my standard reply is to state simply, “It takes a lifetime to try and figure all this out.” and then to ask, “What are you looking to know at this time?” “What do you need?” The truth is that our faith does form over time. You and I need to be about learning from each other and teaching each other continually. In our journey of formation will both revisit familiar territory and be taken on new and even turbulent voyages of discovery.
#3 – Grow in Community: we seek unity, cooperation, and mutual support congregation-to-congregation and in our connections beyond the diocese
A very successful ecumenical organization I know has operated under the banner of “doing together what best can be done together.” Recently, someone asked me if I thought it was a threat to the Cathedral that a very effective Kansas City mega church operates a satellite shop in our downtown area. My reply is that we are stronger when other congregations are strong as well. In our diocesan community of churches, it will serve the greater good for all congregations to enter into every opportunity for mutual support and ministry. Mutual support and respect goes a long way in our personal lives, too. I wonder at how much better things would be if we could get over trying to do it all by ourselves. We are in this boat together.
#4 – Grow in Compassion: we seek to do social outreach to aid the children of God
Without hearts moved to compassion, hearts stirred to address and alleviate human need and suffering, the Christian community doesn’t have a real reason to exist. As a community we affirm that everyone can board God’s life boat of grace. It’s going to take a good measure of compassion to tackle some of the issues and challenges facing our Kansas City community and the wider world. It is true on a more intimate scale in our personal lives. May our prayer be that compassion, genuine care for all God’s people, be abundant among us. It is why we are church.
#5 – Grow Leaders: we seek leadership development for lay and clergy alike
To be God’s covenant people who extend an invitation to be part of a movement based in the new heart and new spirit given in Christ, each one of us will be called to lead. Some may be called to lead an entire community to use its gifts to a greater good, and others called to see about accomplishing some minor task no less important to the corporate good.
The bishop’s pastoral word to us, formed as it is with the counsel of others, revisits some familiar hopes and perennial wishes found around churches like our Cathedral. They are now presented to us as an invitation to enter into covenant. You and I are asked to enter into a promissory relationship, that we will do our best to be church in our times with God’s help.
Sometimes, as with the Noah story, old ideas and stories need to be reworked into a new agreement with sights set forward. An old Bible story can be dragged out of childhood memory to play to a renewed understanding of who we are as people and as a church. Our Lenten journey can begin with a reminder of a mythic Ark tossed on the waters of chaos forty days and forty nights. It can begin with the story of Jesus was tempted in the wilderness forty days and forty nights before he declared: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” I believe in our own time that we are being called to leave aside the mythic longing for church as it once was, to being the church God is raising up to interact with a changing world, always seeking a holiness and compassion that makes for new beginnings. The bishop’s covenant and God’s everlasting covenant, in a nutshell, call for this very thing.