God makes a mistake. Did you notice that?
Noah and the flood is a Sunday School favorite. Why not? It has all the makings of a great story. There’s a brave hero who follows God’s commands, even though everyone laughs at him. There’s a dramatic storm that proves that the hero was right after all. There are lots of animals, for scenery and comic relief. There’s a long, difficult wait, as Noah and his family and all the animals sail on a vast ocean. And then: a miraculous ending, when the seas disperse, a dove returns with an olive leaf, and a rainbow appears in the sky. It has all the makings of a great story. But maybe because it is so familiar, we forget to listen to all the details.
God makes a mistake. Or at least, God has a change of heart. In this story, God is so angry about what people are doing on earth that She regrets ever creating us. She lashes out in anger, destroying all of creation except for Noah, his family, and the animals on the boat. But once the whole thing is over, God has a change of heart. She watches the crowd run off the ark, kiss the ground, and give Her thanks, and She says: I will never do this again.
God has a change of heart. And She wants to make sure she doesn’t forget what she’s learned. So after God blesses Noah and his family, She establishes a covenant with them and with all creation. She makes a holy promise: I will never do this again. And God gives herself a reminder of this promise. When I see a rainbow, She says, I will remember my covenant with all of you.
God makes a mistake. Or at least, God has a change of heart. This story may not really match up with how you think of God. We have lots of different stories about God in the bible. They come from different people; in different places; in different times. The stories don’t always agree with each other. We don’t have to agree with all of them, either. But we do need to take them seriously. We do need to pay attention to them and see what they can teach us.
One of the wonderful things that this story teaches us is that it’s OK to make mistakes. Even God makes mistakes, apparently, so it’s not very surprising that we do. God makes a mistake in this story – a really, really big one. But it’s a mistake she learns from. God learns that even when She gets angry about what we are doing here on earth, it doesn’t help to act in anger. Better to offer a blessing. Better to offer encouragement, and instruction. So she binds herself in a covenant: I will never do this again.
There are lots of covenants, lots of holy promises, in the bible. This one is the first. God also makes a covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, that they will be fruitful and multiply. God makes a covenant with the people Israel at Mt. Sinai, giving them the ten Commandments and promising to be their God. And Christians believe that Jesus represents yet another covenant that God makes: a covenant of eternal presence, love, and forgiveness. These are the big promises of God: to love us, to guide us, to forgive us. The rainbow reminds us of these promises.
We have covenants here at West Concord Union Church, too. We make holy promises to one another. We have covenants of baptism and marriage. We make covenants with new members. The people who came together to begin this congregation made a covenant; in fact, they’re called the Covenanters.
We have covenants here. But like God, we make mistakes. We forget what we’ve promised to do. Or, we remember, but we just can’t help ourselves and act in anger or indifference anyways. After all, as God knows, people can be infuriating. Living alongside one another is hard. Taking one another’s needs and preferences into account is frustrating. Making decisions together can be tedious. Trying to truly love God, and our fellow church member as ourselves; some days it seems just about impossible.
But that’s why we have covenants. Because doing this stuff is really hard, but we WANT TO DO IT ANYWAY. Some days, we may not get it right, but there’s always an opportunity to try again.
What covenants, what holy promises, have you made in your life, here at church, or far beyond? How are you doing with them? Is there anything you need forgiveness for? Is there anything you need to be reminded of?
Here in the beginning of September, on our Covenanting Sunday, it’s a fresh start for all of us. It’s a good time to remember what God has promised: to love us, to guide us, to forgive us. And it’s a good time to try again to keep our covenant with one another here at church. What do we want to do differently here? What hopes do we have of what God and God’s people gathered in this place may be able to do together?
When we welcome new members into our midst, we close the ceremony with a prayer. I pray it for all of us –visitors, new members, seasoned members alike.
Eternal God, we thank you for bringing us together. May we find joy, nurture, encouragement and support as we gather. May we be open to the gifts each other share, the truths each other speak, and the wisdom each other impart. May we together so grow in grace, that we may be a community of your gracious love and a blessing to the world, through Jesus Christ. Amen.