In my sermon on Sunday, February 18, 2018, I will refer to this denominational article, After the sermon is preached, the manuscript with footnotes will be available here as well.
UPDATE: The manuscript follows. The links I mentioned are in the body of the text.
Covenant: An Unbreakable Love and Trust with God — A Global Guarantee
Reveille United Methodist Church
First Sunday in Lent —February 18, 2018
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. 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.”
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: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
In the Book of Job, when Job lost everything he had, including his ten children, he said, “The worst of my fears has come true, what I’ve dreaded most has happened.” (Job 3.25) Once again in our land mothers and fathers have faced the worst of their fears, as the worst of their fears have come true.
I waited until Friday and Saturday to write and rewrite this sermon. What you are hearing this morning is the third iteration of this message. I waited until then because I knew that in preaching it, I would be charged with both comforting us in our affliction and afflicting us in our comfort.
This morning, I am going to do three things. I am going to discuss firearms and provide a resource from the most recent edition (2016) of our United Methodist Book of Resolutions for understanding gun violence in a theological context with concrete steps that can be taken to address it. Second, I am going to discuss a second way to address violence, specifically violence in schools and by young people, a way that can make a significant difference regardless of where one stands politically in terms of gun legislation. For this second one, I very much need the assistance of our students, so I need you to stick with me. Third (it will take me a while, but I will get there), I am going to use this morning’s text to give a biblical context for why all of this matters, and why we cannot and must not lose hope.
First, in regard to guns: I can see both sides of this issue. I understand firearms. I grew up as a hunter, hunting with my father and my grandfather. Guns were considered an important part of the culture of my childhood for both their utility and their craftsmanship. I was well-versed in gun safety and extremely cautious. When hunting, I would keep the safety on and my shotgun broken down until we came upon the wild game. When I got home in the evening, I would disassemble the firearms, give them a thorough cleaning, and reassemble them.
But one day when I was about fifteen, I was cleaning shotguns when I noticed a twenty-two caliber rifle in the back of our gun closet, which I took out to clean with the rest. What I did not know what that this gun was loaded. It went off in my arms while I stood on the deck in the back of our house. By the grace of God, it was pointed above my neighbor’s roof, but many times I have thought about how easily it could have been pointed at my neighbor, my mother or father, my brother, or me. And even though I was the most cautious person I knew when it came to guns, that did it for me. As an adult, I have only had guns in my home twice. Both times, I had voluntarily taken these guns from parishioners about whom I was worried, and put them in parsonage attic. Also, as I said a year ago, my family has also been affected by gun violence with the murder of a close family friend in 1996.
Here it is: Americans own 48% of the estimated 650 million civilian-owned guns worldwide. That is 310 million firearms in the United States. India comes in second, with 46 million. We own the most guns per person in the world, with four in ten of us owning at least one firearm. We have more public mass shootings in America than in any other country in the world. The United States makes up less than five percent of the world’s population, but holds 31% of global mass shooters. Gun homicide rates are 25.2 times higher in the U.S. than in other high-income countries.
The United Methodist Church is in most ways, a rather centrist organization, and this is reflected in our positions regarding gun violence. I have put on my personal website, douglasforrester.org, what the United Methodist Church officially says about gun violence, as well as some practical steps that can be taken to call for change in our land. I will also post the text of this sermon on my website, which includes the footnotes for the statistics I have shared this morning, which includes a link for what I am going to say next.
My second objective: To share another necessary option for reducing school shootings. This came to me via an article titled “One Teacher’s Brilliant Strategy to Stop Future School Shootings—And It’s Not About Guns” by Glennon Doyle Melton who tells the story of his son’s fifth grade teacher who has a sacred routine. The routine is this as Melton describes it:
“Every Friday afternoon, she asks her students to take out a piece of paper and write down the names of four children with whom they’d like to sit the following week. The children know that these requests may or may not be honored. She also asks the students to nominate one student who they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. All ballots are privately submitted to her. And every single Friday afternoon, after the students go home, she takes out those slips of paper, places them in front of her, and studies them. She looks for patterns. Who is not getting requested by anyone else? Who can’t think of anyone to request? Who never gets noticed enough to be nominated? Who had a million friends last week and none this week?
“You see, Chase’s teacher is not looking for a new seating chart or ‘exceptional citizens.’ Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect with other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down—right away—who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.
She has been using this system every Friday since Columbine, in 1999.
This brilliant woman watched Columbine knowing that all violence begins with disconnection. All outward violence begins as inner loneliness. Who are our next mass shooters and how do we stop them? She watched that tragedy knowing that children who aren’t being noticed may eventually resort to being noticed by any means necessary.” (Melton)
If this sounds like something people in our faith tradition should do, it should. The biblical witness is replete with commandments to welcome and include the stranger. For example, in Deuteronomy 10:19, God says “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In the New Testament, Hebrews 13:2 says “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
This is why students extending Christian hospitality in the hallways and cafeterias and elsewhere is so very, very important. It is why it is so important for adults in this congregation to build meaningful relationships with young people in our congregation, including youth who are outside of your immediate family. Working together, we can be part of the network of a young person’s life that helps them find the welcome and acceptance they need, as well as identifying the young people who need solid mental healthcare, and supporting them while they get it.
Third (finally): This morning’s text, which is set early in the Book of Genesis after the great flood and after the waters had receded, after Noah, his wife and his sons and sons’ wives had reached dry land, and after Noah had released the animals from the ark, and Noah had made an altar and offering to the Lord. Genesis tells us in chapter eight that the Lord smelled the offering and said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
God then tells Noah and his sons to be fruitful and to multiply, filling the earth. And God gives Noah’s family everything, all life on the earth except for human life, because human life is precious to God, for humankind is made in God’s image. God makes it clear from the outset of chapter nine that human blood is not to be shed.
And then God does this: makes a covenant with Noah, his sons, their descendants, and every living creature, which happens where this morning’s text picks up. God promises to never cause another flood to destroy the earth. And God gives Noah and his family a gift, a gift that endures to this day: a rainbow in the clouds which serves as a reminder of this new covenant of protection for the earth and all living creatures.
What amazes me about this text is that the bow in the clouds is that scripture attests that the bow exists not as a reminder to you and me of God’s covenant. It exists to remind God of God’s covenant. God says, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” It seems preposterous, to suggest that an all-knowing God needs to be reminded of anything, but there you have it. God says “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”
The story of Noah and the ark challenges almost all of my assumptions about God in ways in which I am not always comfortable. To believe that human life is precious to God is usually pretty easy, because I believe that in Jesus Christ, God died for all of humankind. What makes me uncomfortable is this notion of a God who creates a reminder for himself and especially this God who changes his mind.
Our God considers the carnage of God’s drowned creation and says “never again. It is all to precious to me.” Regardless of how violent, broken, hard-hearted, and sinful humanity may be, and here, God acknowledges that it is; no matter how much we may even deserve it, never again. Never again.
And therein lies our greatest hope.
I believe there are two lessons here: first, if there can be a shift in even the divine mind, then what does that say about our own well-worn assumptions, especially our assumptions when it comes to the root causes of violence and the value of human life. Second, this text teaches us that God loves humankind, broken and sinful though we may be, far too much to ever quit on us. There are simply no hopeless cases in the economy of God.
Even though in Genesis 8, God proclaims that “the human heart is evil from youth,” God refuses to ever give up on us so much that our God is willing to die a violent death on a cross outside of Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon for our sake. Even when one would think that every depraved thing about us would make God throw up his hands and say “Enough! I am done,” God instead uses those hands to carry a cross, so face the violence, so that we do not have to.
What if: what if we could work towards a world where the shedding of human blood truly was the abomination to us that it is to God, enough for us to live differently, perhaps even be entertained by it a little less? What if our minds could be changed? What if we were able, by the power of God, to regard humankind and human society as something on which giving up was not an option, and what if we put that faith in action in the here and now?
Through it all, I am an optimist. I still believe in the American dream. Yet while I also believe that we deserve better than we currently have, but we have to care enough to work for it. We have to care enough about mothers and fathers facing their worst fears again and again and again. We have to care enough about the kind of world in which our children and our children’s children will live. We have to care about what God cares about and forsake those things that grieve the very heart of God.
Comfort the afflicted. Afflict the comfortable. I am aware that there are some who believe that this is a purely political problem and not a religious one. However, if the church’s message is purely one of comfort and not one of action, then we fall prey to the greatest stereotype of our most ardent detractors, that religion is but a salve, a crutch for the weak, but ultimately unable to affect any significant or lasting change in the world. Furthermore, things that affect the mere existence of God’s children will always be a theological problem, one that we must have the courage and fortitude to address.
Despite what our detractor may say, Christians can affect real and lasting change in the world. The church is the cradle of the civil rights movement, the movement for universal suffrage, the end of child labor, rights for workers, even the temperance movement when we saw lives and families being destroyed by drink.
And this is our moment. Now is the time of which our children and our children’s children will ask about when they are older and they ask us, perhaps as they are discerning what role God and faith will have in their lives, “When everything was falling apart, and the blood of the dead was crying from the ground, what did you do?”
To be clear, I am never going to tell you how to vote. What I am saying, however, is that the time has come for Christians of all denominations and political stripes to hold our legislators to the very highest of standards, for the sake of our children, born and unborn and to hold ourselves to account to work for peace and justice in the world in tangible ways that communicate by our priorities God’s abhorrence of violence.
God has placed a bow in the clouds, a weapon pointing away from humankind to remind God of the promise God made to never give up on us. May it remind us as well to never, ever, ever give up on God, on one another, on peace and justice, and on a future for generations waiting to be born. “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:23)
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.