A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.

I know most of you have heard me talk about living in Louisiana, because I talk about it all the time. Especially around this time of year.

I moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in June of 2005. My son Jed was born in July. I can’t tell you how miserable I was. I was so hot and I was surprised as a southerner that I was experiencing culture shock. But Louisiana is a place unto itself. Then at the end of August, when Jed was just about six weeks old, I turned on the TV and saw that Katrina was on the way. The children and I left and went home to Nashville. We ended up having to be gone for nearly a month. Although Baton Rouge was spared from the storm the entire region was in disarray and there was no guarantee that I would be able to get gas once I hit Mississippi because oil production had been shut down in the Gulf.

When I returned to Baton Rouge the town had doubled in size. Nearly 250,000 people from the New Orleans area, which was just a little more than an hour east, had come to shelter in hotels and rentals and with family. There was nowhere else for them to go because New Orleans was uninhabitable, and it remained so for quite some time.

Just five years later in 2010 a freak storm stopped over Nashville, Tennessee, my hometown, and dumped so much water the Cumberland River and all its tributaries boiled over in a flood that took the lives of 11 Nashvillians and destroyed or damaged over 11,000 homes and businesses including the Grand Ole Opry. My home parish of St. George’s lost two dear parishioners, Mr. and Mrs. Rutledge, who got swept away from their car a stone’s throw from church where they were headed that Sunday morning.

I tell you this because I do not come to the story of Noah and the flood as if it is a sweet story we tell children. Try telling this story to a classroom full of children who know exactly what a flood that covers everything is because they have seen it with their own eyes. I never could do it. It’s been 18 years since Katrina and I still struggle with this story. How does such a story fit with the Kingdom of God?

Why did God cover the earth with water? Why would He do such a thing? The people of Israel wrote down this story that had been told for so many years while they were in exile in Babylon, themselves wondering why, why God would let them be in such a state.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and the earth was filled with violence.  Genesis 6:11

That’s how the people in Babylon told the story.

The earlier tradition of the story reads like this, The Lord saw the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  Genesis 6:5-6

That is what God’s people remembered there in exile. That God was sorry that He had ever created humankind because the thoughts of their hearts were so absent of Him, because the earth of filled with violence. We people broke the Lord’s heart. But the story does not end in brokenness but hope.

God found hope in one family, the family of Noah. He spared Noah and his wife and his sons and their wives and two of every kind of animal after calling upon him to build an ark to house them all to ride out the waters.

God remembered Noah and all the wild and domestic animals after 40 days and nights floating out in the waters. And God sent a wind to blow over the earth and the waters subsided. And all the inhabitants of the ark stepped out onto dry land again.

This is where the passage we hear today picks up…

As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, as many as came out of the ark.

Never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.

And God as a sign of this first Covenant sets his bow in the clouds as a sign of the covenant between him and all creation.

I think we just often think, oh the beautiful rainbow. But the people living in exile in Babylon would have heard something very different. The bow and arrow was the most deadly weapon of the age.  God turned this weapon upside down. And every time God saw the bow, he would remember His promise. Never again.

God required nothing of Noah and his family or any of creation in this promise. Nothing. God knew that Noah, just like the rest of humankind, still had a heart that could be evil. Just a few verses later in the scripture Noah is drunk and naked.

But God didn’t wipe out all of creation and start anew. God changed how he was going to handle us humans and he decided that love and mercy were the way.

We broke God’s heart and instead of getting rid of humankind, instead of scraping all of what God had made and called good, God chose mercy and love.

God laid down the power of destruction against us. God promised steadfast love to humankind who will inevitably never be able to live up to such a love.

Just a few weeks ago I was talking with the children about how God heals the brokenhearted. It was the responsorial psalm for the day. They had wonderful ideas about what it meant to be broken hearted and the group was popping with things to share.

Harrison, who is the dear 4-year-old who was baptized just last week, shot up his hand. “I know, Amelia it’s like this…”

And he raised his hands above his head.

“It’s like in church when the priest says Jesus took bread and he broke it. And he did that for us. Because he loves us.”

It’s like this.

We break God’s heart.

God breaks his bow and promises to love us, just as we are.

And in time God sends Jesus.

Jesus who breaks his body in love for us.

Jesus who breaks the bondage of our sin.

And we are broken open, if we let ourselves be, to hope in Christ and the hope of the Kingdom of God in our very midst.

I never set foot in New Orleans before the flood. In late February 2006 we loaded up Wyly, my daughter who was three, and Jed, who was a whole seven months old, and headed in for Mardi Gras.  The people of New Orleans were determined to go forward with the celebration that is one of the defining marks of them as a people.

As we drove in there wasn’t a roof that wasn’t dotted or completely covered in blue tarp. Plywood covered windows.  Mounds of debris lay everywhere. There were piles, huge piles of flooded out cars stacked one atop the other, beneath the underpasses. The spray paint signals made by rescuers indicating that they had been in the building still on so many doorways.

We parked and loaded up Wyly in the wagon and I tucked Jed into his carrier on my chest. I had no idea what to expect. What I found as we rounded the corner and stepped onto St. Charles was a sight I will never forget. People everywhere, children, families from every walk of life. There in joy to celebrate. Strangers came up and oohed and aahed at my babies. Music, so much music, from the parade, from people playing boom boxes in the neutral ground, which is how New Orleanians refer to what we call the median. Children perched on their dads’ shoulders shouting, “Throw me something, mister!” as the floats rolled by with people in fantastic costumes throwing prizes. People coming up and hanging beads around my little girl’s neck. “Here you go, baby.”

I fell in love with New Orleans that day. A place so broken, a people so broken, so heartbroken, filled with so much hope.

In Lent we are asked to turn ourselves in all our brokenness toward God, surrendering to God’s love and mercy and to let that love change us as God himself changed. We are asked to fix our hearts, souls, and minds on the promise of the Kingdom of God that Jesus brings.

If you asked me about the times that I’ve glimpsed what the Kingdom of God might be like, I’d mostly likely tell you first about that day on St. Charles.

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.

Amelia McDaniel