What a Covenant!

Mark 1:9–15; Genesis 9:8–17, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on February 18, 2024

Have you heard of the Valentine’s Bandit? Juana Summers of NPR reported last week:

Something special happens the night before Valentine’s Day in Portland, Maine. Children and adults alike go to bed knowing that, while they are sleeping, the Valentine’s Bandit will strike, covering doorways, windows, and telephone poles across the city in bright red, paper hearts.[1]

For 45 years, the original Valentine’s Bandit and his team worked in secret. After he died last year, Kevin Fahrman’s family decided to reveal his identity. Someone new has carried on the bandit’s tradition this year. To be honest, I’m not too fond of Valentine’s Day. And, yet, it’s undeniably wonderful and magical what the bandit made of out of this hallmark holiday. There’s something almost divine about spreading visible signs of love—generously, anonymously, and indiscriminately.  

It was fun to get together with the worship team a couple of weeks ago to reflect on our texts for this Lenten season. A few minutes ago, you heard the team’s musings about the story of God’s rainbow covenant with creation. What would you add? What does this story make you wonder about? What do you notice? The point of this exercise is to thicken the story, to deepen and broaden our hearing and telling and making meaning. In our worship team discussion, we noted that there’s a parallel as we process scriptural stories and the stories of our own lives. Pain, discomfort, and trauma can cause us to get stuck. And yet we find new life when we are able to move through difficult realities and integrate them into who we are. In interpreting sacred stories and life stories, what have we overlooked or suppressed? What do we need to let go of? What new possibilities are emerging?  

Here’s my wondering about today’s story of the rainbow covenant after the flood. What if it represents a thought experiment on the part of ancient theologians? Every culture in that part of the world has a myth about a catastrophic flood, so one probably did occur. The notion that natural disasters happen because they happen is not very satisfying. So these ancestors went looking for a reason. They thought, it has to be God punishing humanity. Genesis chapter 6 reads: The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth. . . . And the Lord was sorry that God had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved God to God’s heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created.”

However, today’s section of the story underlines a tension. It’s impossible for God to annihilate the world and still be good, still be God. The storytellers portray God as having a change of heart, but maybe they are the ones who change. Perhaps this story allowed our ancestors to process the reality that a violent, destructive God doesn’t solve the problem of evil. The story’s tellers haven’t explained the flood after all. Instead, they’ve shown that if God is going to love creation, this love must be unconditional. When earth suffers, a loving God will suffer too. A loving God has to find a way to live with and work with human imperfections. A loving God must be creative enough to address our violence non-violently. And so, with divine ingenuity, God transforms a weapon into a sign of beauty, a message of peace, a call to embrace diversity and open ourselves to transformation. God sets down the bow in the clouds as a reminder to God’s own self to always choose love. The God of the rainbow covenant is a lot like the Valentine’s Bandit, who plasters signs of love absolutely everywhere. Amid the tumult of a changing climate, the heartbreak of war, and the stress of extreme political polarization, God’s way is to make love visible and tangible, to call us again and again into the covenant of love that binds us together with all creation.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I’m participating in an embodied anti-racism practice group. In this group, we’re exploring the reality that racism is an embodied inheritance. Through our DNA, our ancestors have passed along patterning that shapes how we respond in situations that are racially charged. For those of us who are white, these patterns often drive us to reinforce the dynamics of white supremacy. Moments that challenge us to face our own complicity in racism, or that call upon us to intervene in racial harm, or sometimes just the mere mention of race, can cause our bodies to perceive a threat to our basic survival and move into threat response mode. Rather than staying connected and engaged, able to grow and change, we fight, freeze, or flee; we cry for help, collapse, or fawn. And these acts of dissociation keep all of us stuck in patterns of harm. Usually, we are not consciously aware of these embodied responses. So in our practice group we are working on noticing what our bodies are doing, and giving them support, and increasing their capacity to be with the discomfort of racial charge. And we are working on building an anti-racist community in which we offer each other both grace and accountability. This work makes so much sense in my head. And in my body, it feels utterly awkward and clumsy. I feel like a baby stumbling through my first steps.

Of course, we don’t inherit only challenges and obstacles from our ancestors; they also give us resources. The rhythm of liturgical time is one of their gifts. Practices like chanting the psalms and embracing the seasons of the church year can tune us in to presence of the Spirit and call us back, again and again, into the divine covenant of love. The season of Lent offers us an embodied pattern of its own. Lent is modeled after Jesus’ 40 days the desert, as well as the Israelites’ 40 years of wilderness wandering, as well as the 40 days and nights of the flood. In Mark’s pithy version of the story, the divine Spirit (who has just named Jesus God’s beloved) drives him (literally throws him out) into the Judean desert to face temptation.

Similarly, Lent is a both/and season for us, a time of challenge and safety, risk and growth, an experience of being lovingly held and supported as we confront our fear, doubt, and shame. Yes, the wild beasts in our wildernesses are dangerous; they are also a reminder of our kinship with creation. The angels who wait on us help us to stay in our barren places long enough for God to transform them, supplying the strength, courage, and faith we need to do the hard things that will bring forth new life, that will unleash freedom and joy.

Mark’s Gospel, too, offers us a Valentine’s Bandit sort of God. Jesus came forth from the wilderness proclaiming that God loves creation generously and indiscriminately. Bold red hearts are plastered everywhere and they are for everyone. And that is good news, the very best news. Here and now, God is shaping a new society and teaching a new way, rooted in the divine covenant of love with creation. And in response, our work is to repent, that is, to accept the challenge of this wilderness time, to allow the Spirit’s work of change in us, to align our very bodies with the flow of God’s visible, tangible, unchanging unconditional love. May it be so. Amen.

[1] https://www.npr.org/2024/02/13/1231221336/for-decades-the-valentines-bandit-has-plastered-portland-maine-with-hearts