Notes from
First Sunday of Lent, February 18, 2018  
‘Trinity on Church’ Kitchener

Texts: Genesis 9, Mark 1

Lent, and the chapel was bare, no robes on me or the choir, as we began with a unison prayer of confession from the 1969 Service Book.  I placed a dollar-store bow (without bowstring or arrows) and pop-gun (without firing mechanism or ammunition) by the communion table, missing its usual bible and cross.  School shooting in Florida, and not-guilty verdict for the man who shot Coulten Boushie in the back of his head in Saskatchewan, invited some Lenten reflection.

We are familiar with the sign of the rainbow, ubiquitous emblem of inclusivity and diversity, with many colours enhancing one arc.  The semiotics have lost an earlier dominant meaning, of a disarmed weapon pointing away from us all.  God said ‘never again a deluge’, threatening all of life.  God promised mercy and forbearance, however we continue to provoke divinity with our humanity.

What motivates you?  What drives you?  Which is more effective: a carrot, or a stick?  The ‘carrot or stick’ refers to motivating a beast of burden.  What works on humans: a child, employee, partner – or you?  A weapon threatening you, or a promise to disarm the weapon and keep it pointed away from you?  

The liberal God of our part of the Christian movement in the past couple of centuries has been a God who operates by carrot.  We celebrate the rainbow of inclusivity and diversity, as a century ago we were “building the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God”.  H. Richard Niebuhr, who with his brother Reinhold grew up in a building just like this, not far from here, German-speaking in America through two world wars, learned the limits of liberalism and wrote:

“A God without wrath
brought men without sin
into a Kingdom without judgment
through the ministrations of
a Christ without a Cross.” 
― H. Richard Niebuhr,
Kingdom of God in America

The straw opponent of liberalism and of secular culture is a God of wrath, the ultimate abusive father.  Greek Gods on mount Olympus shoot fire-bolts, ours lightning and thunder.  People react to the stick with fear and guilt and shame.  Unsurprisingly, god’s agents on earth are busy delivering punishment in the name of this god, abusing their power, and vulnerable women and children.  

Carrot or stick, love or justice, you recognize the pattern of polarized binary choices.  You also know by now that I abhor our growing culture of such mutual demonization between right and left wings.  Given a choice of “A or B”, I always prefer “A and B” or “Neither A nor B” and prefer to answer “3”!  Who wants the right answer to the wrong question?  Let’s reconstruct the conversation!

The first time I preached Noah’s rainbow was September 2001. The world had become a darker, scarier place, and we shared a sense of threat, foreboding, shadows and apprehension. Some of our elders said they were reminded of earlier dark times: the 30’s, the wars. We’ve been here before – and our people have been here before, again and again, throughout history, living under clouds and threats, living with fear.  What drives us: carrots or sticks?

Most leaders say the right things about distinguishing individual terrorists and small groups from whole peoples. However, at a pre-rational, gut level, there is a lot of ‘us and them’ imagery, of taking sides, and choosing what side of the fence to be on. Demagogues are less delicate about that.  We all slide too easily into lifeboat ethics, wondering who to share security with. When the water hole seems to be drying up, the animals look at each other differently.

If the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and only a few can be saved, what company do you want to keep? I’d rather go to hell! Will those who survive physically be morally finished by the means of preserving their security, like those who used atomic bombs in Japan or firebombing in Dresden? The spiritual ‘O Mary Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn’, sung by slaves, affirms the rainbow carrot, but does hope for the disruption of the status quo:

God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, but fire next time,
Pharaoh’s army got drownded,
O Mary don’t you weep.

‘What side of the fence are you on, and who’s there with you?’ Would change from status quo be good news for you, or a threat?  Is it a carrot, or a stick?

Your friends who are cultured despisers of religion will glibly and smugly dismiss this talk of a flood myth.  After all, the Egyptians on the Nile, and the peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, have much older myths based on the real experience of catastrophic floods.  Our blithely half-educated culture dismisses them all as anthropological curiosities, interchangeable pre-scientific nonsense.

The Babylonian traditions of Gilgamesh, of Enuma Elish, gives us the hero Utnapishtam who survives and is immortal, motivating Gilgamesh, mourning Enkidu, to undertake his own quest for immortality. Marduk and the gods of Babylon invite great heroic superhuman responses.  I personally see lots of connections to the new wave of Marvel comics and movies about superheroes.

Stuck between great imperial myths of super-humans, our Hebrew story is nearly a parody. This boat can barely float, let alone steer and sail, the way the heroic craft could. The heroes only loaded the seed of creatures, not the whole stinking load of mating pairs. At the end, Marduk places a bow – a weapon - of victory in the sky. Ishtar wears a necklace of lapis lazuli, a beauty queen. 

Our God hangs up a bow as a sign of giving up the power, and promising not to use it. The women on Noah’s boat just argue among themselves. It’s a parody, a comedy – isn’t it?  The surahs in the Quran continue this wry assessment of human foibles, as one of Noah’s sons refuses to work on building the ark – should he get aboard as the waters rise? (It’s a ‘Little Red Hen’ argument.)

We all have myths and stories. We all have a way of organizing the chaos around us into a story that has meaning and purpose. Is yours fatalistic, competitive and violent, like Marduk’s? Would you recognize humbler humour, of a Hebrew version where actions have consequences and morality matters? We are not saved by heroism or beauty, but by God’s mercy.

When the floods are rising around our own necks, and we feel cast adrift in the waves and storms of our lives, what’s our operating myth? Are we helplessly hoping for a hero, under the raging battles between Marduk and the other gods? Are we riding in an ark of a church, that often smells, and wallows like a water-logged raft, and reminds us on our need for God’s mercy? Our story is:

We’re all in the same boat.
We’re all off the same boat.

This is a story about universal human experience, and how all creatures have been saved to get us to our world of diversity. The biblical story has always demanded that we recognize all our neighbours, even our enemies, as children of Noah like us. We’re not separate races rooted and raised in homeland soils, different worlds – we’re all on the same boat.

In our age and generation, we share a new and powerful image of our common lifeboat – the image of a blue planet floating in black space, seen from spacecraft, overawing astronauts. We can imagine our fragile ecosystem and its vulnerability, and its potential destruction affecting us all, in ecological or technological disasters.

Individually, we’re all on the same boat. Each of us is mortal, never knowing when it’s going to end for us, or how. We can send our ravens and doves to test the floods and waters – medical tests, studies and inquiries, trying to probe the mysteries surrounding us. But in the end, we’re all on the same boat, secured for now from the floods.  

Since I preached Noah’s rainbow in September 2001, what has changed?  “Border security” is a growth industry, drawing a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. We send kids to war, our JTF2 alongside USN Seals, doing illegal things in unacknowledged missions, and more die at their own hands when they come home, unable to reconcile two realities.  First responders anticipate terrorism, educators fear school shootings.  Bullet-proof vests and school glass don’t work.

Again this week I rambled over-time, and barely acknowledged the gospel reading at the end.  I hope lots of you are listening to the CDs and online audio and notes as we read through Mark in Lent.  This version of the gospel is deceptively brief and journalistic.  Jesus ‘from Na-za-reth in Ga-li-lee’ is in my reading of Mark like Buddy ‘from Cor-ner-brook in New-found-land’.  The hick from the boonies comes to the big city, baptized in the big crowd at the river.

Jesus sees the Spirit, and hears the voice, but not the crowd, in Mark.  Then with far fewer words than the other 3 gospels, we change scenes.  He does not go into the city with the crowd - yet.  He does not go home to Galilee – yet.

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan;
and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

If ‘the Spirit’ drives Jesus into the wilderness, is done with a carrot, or a stick?  What drives Jesus, and how, according to Mark?  There are too few words, and reasonable and faithful people may differ.  Do we simply add what we hear from Matthew, Luke, and John to Mark’s story?  Not yet.  

Satan, something ‘bigger than people, but smaller than God’, tempts Jesus.  Does Satan use a carrot, or a stick?  “He was with the wild beasts.”  Was that company threatening, or protective companionship?  “The angels waited on him.”  How did they help motivate Jesus – by doing for him, or doing with him?

We had some good conversations after worship today.  Some of us recognized the issues of ‘carrot and stick’ from parenting.  Some of us pray a lot for our adult kids now in the front lines as first responders, educators, working with the enormous pressures on mental health, addictions, and real violence.  We won’t reduce the world to “A or B”.  We’re working on “3”, and meanwhile echoing “Both A and B” or “Neither A nor B”.  It promises to be a holy Lent!