There was always a certain buzz when I pulled out my flannel board to tell a well-known story in my pre-kindergarten classroom back when I was a teacher. I never could quite explain why the story of the three little pigs or of Goldilocks was just so much more exciting with small characters cut out and pasted to pieces of felt, to be gently placed and slowly moved around the board as the story progressed. Later in the day, I would pull out that same flannel board and those same characters and have it be an option for free play during the day, and I was always amazed at how those kids loved to tell and retell the same story; parts of the story or the dialogue between the pigs and the wolf might change, but ultimately they told and retold the story. It’s long been an opinion of mine that the difference between a group of four-year-olds and any gathering of adults is not really that different, and that’s true when it comes to the stories we love. We tell and retell the same stories all the time, each time it alters just a smidge, but we do it because when we turn and return to a well-known story, each time it sinks a bit deeper into our bones.
Now perhaps it’s my years spent teaching small children, or the ways in which I often taught Sunday School classes when I was in college, but it’s hard for me to hear the story of God’s covenant to Noah without visualizing it in flannelgraph form. And just like a small child, I have turned this story over and over in my mind so much throughout my life that I know it deeply. I know that Noah and his descendants and all of the plants and animals would never again suffer the wrath of God in total destruction by flood. I know that when the clouds come over the earth and there is a bow in the sky that it is a reminder of God’s faithfulness. And I know that this bow in the sky is not the only one of God’s covenants that God has made with God’s people; I know that time and time again God chooses us, even when it might make all human sense to walk away from this broken, fragile, and too often vicious creation.
But when stories become so settled into our minds, we begin to skip over parts or miss intricacies. Before this week, I felt that I knew the story of Noah and the Ark as well as any born-and-raised Christian, but this week as I prayed through all of our passages set for today, one particular part of this well-known story caught me by surprise. In the Hebrew Bible, there are many covenants, and they follow a typical pattern: there’s a problem, there’s a solution and covenant, and then there is a sign for that covenant. And I always assumed that I would have been able to parse out these three things in the story of the Ark fairly well, but as God was describing the rainbow as the sign of the covenant, we have God recorded in Genesis as saying, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember…” The rainbow, while it can serve as a great reminder for all of us, is actually a reminder for God’s self. It’s a reminder that in the vastness of God’s being, it is important for God to remember that humanity is always worth far more grace and love than they could ever deserve.
I find it so delightful that on this first Sunday in Lent, our minds are drawn to this story, to this place in which God chooses to love more abundantly in the future. I find it awe-inspiring that the same bow that finds its way into the clouds back then still does today. And I find it convicting that even God needs to remember God’s own promise to love. This is the first week of Lent, and as Father Steve said on Ash Wednesday, I’m not sure if I’m ready for it. It has been a long and difficult year for each and every person I know. Now, Lent is one of my favorite seasons of the church year; a seasonal opportunity to recalibrate and make adjustments to be who we actually want to be rather than surviving on autopilot is a gift, but it can be a season wherein which we carry far too many expectations and an uncompassionate amount of guilt.
And I’m still really excited for this Lent, but it looks different this year. On Ash Wednesday, as the presider at that service, I extended an invitation to a holy Lent. Extending such an invitation is a true gift of the priesthood, and if I may be so bold, let me also broaden that invitation. And let me extend an invitation for you to a hold holy Lent, but may it also be a gentle one. I invite you, therefore, to a holy and gentle Lent.
Lent, at its best, is a time of turning and returning to God, and we can do this in a variety of different manors, but my friends, perhaps this year more than others we need to remember that this turning can be as simple as remembering God’s appeal to love. Perhaps hearing God’s call to love in the chirps of the birds that have already begun to rouse for the Spring that we’ve yet to feel is the best Lenten practice we can muster. Perhaps favoring a generous view of someone with which we disagree is a high enough bar; perhaps pausing in gratitude anytime a rainbow makes its way into the sky if a holy enough practice this year. What if we remember that God, when the bow was first placed in the sky, knew that God, the one, holy, and undivided Trinity, would need a reminder to love the people with whom we share this earth, and that we can share in that reminder as well. What if when we take stock of our Lenten practices, we let them soften into the invitation to love as God does: fiercely, holistically, and sometimes, at the prompt of such a reminder.
So my friends, I invite you to a holy and gentle Lent. I pray that this season may be an opportunity to love as God does, to hold grace for yourselves, and for these Lenten practices to change our hearts so that we may become more like God every day.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church via livestream in Bowling Green, Kentucky for Lent 1B, February 21, 2021 on Genesis 9:8-17