The Irreversible Compassion of God

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
February 18, 2024, First Sunday in Lent

Scripture: Genesis 9:8–17

On this first Sunday in Lent, our theme for this season of Lent is “Repair and Renewal: Embracing an Ethic of Care,” in which we seek to journey with God and each other on an exploration to discover our truest identities as part of the heart of God, coming to understand that who God is and who we are may have been submerged under the world’s relentless claim on our attention, loyalties, and bodies. We embark on the hard and holy work of honesty, truth-telling, and repentance about ourselves and the world, using the opportunity of the season to reflect on “the primal and universal temptations” that interfere with our God-given impulse to love, serve, and do justice, that can make it hard to construct an ethic of care and compassion for ourselves and others? How do we use the spiritual practices of confession, repentance, and discernment to understand and come to terms with our role in the work of repair and renewal? What does an ethic of care look like in a world addicted to wealth, power, and violence?

Many ancient cultures and civilizations include an account of a great flood in a time before, a great deluge that cleared out the whole of existence as a way of ushering in the reality in which humanity now lives. The flood is that prime example of the punitive response of the gods, or in the case of the Hebrew Scriptures, the response of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to humanity’s propensity for violence, malice, and fecklessness. As the novelist Marilynne Robinson reflected on the flood in a recent essay, “The Deluge is a good metaphor for the world returned all at once to a primal state” (from “And it Was So: Creation in Genesis,” in February 2024 Harper’s Magazine, 41). Unfortunately, that fear of a primal state of existence has stayed with humanity, leaving us to assume that that primal state is deserved punishment for humanity’s sin and fallenness. But I worry how much emphasis we have placed on humanity’s propensity for violence, malice, and fecklessness as a plea for God’s wrathful destruction. We have made the case for inevitable human depravity so well and so often that it appears the only way we know how to respond to human failure and weakness is through severe punishment. And if by law, culture, or circumstance, we are unable to mete out punishment for some supposed or articulated sin or failure, humans, especially religious folk, enlist God in on the action, damning people to hell in the name of God. Or as we’ve seen with some televangelists in recent years, declaring God to be the author of every flood, tornado, earthquake, or other natural disaster because of gay people, feminists, liberals, communists, or any other group deemed to be the picture of human depravity. And yet, in our reading today, God resists that assignment that humans so easily impose on the Divine, evincing instead, a willingness to consider renewed commitment over hostility. Whatever our understanding of God happens to be, too many of our faith traditions have taught us to expect judgment above all else and have difficulty allowing God to change, repent, or reconsider what God has done.

Even when we get to the verses of today’s scripture lesson, read it too quickly and we risk running past the image of God honestly reckoning with what just happened with that destructive flood, with what God just did to the creation. For a long time, all I knew about the post-flood debrief between God and Noah was the rainbow. Even though the text just calls it a bow, we’ve been living with the decorative, romantic, vacation Bible school image of the rainbow that glosses over the hard and holy work God does to come to terms with the destruction God caused to happen and to make amends for destroying all things. Scholars date the writing of the Flood account to the period of exile, when Israel was destroyed and scattered from the land and temple, which they concluded happened because God was angry with Israel because of her disobedience and faithlessness. But in the Flood account, the priests of Israel do not just give us an image of the wrathful God. In this account of God’s response to Noah after the water recedes, they paint a new idea and image of God: a God who struggles in the tension between love and judgment and falls on the side of love and compassion; a God willing to be moved by God’s own grieving heart and change the Divine approach; a God who learned that perhaps the journey to healing what’s wrong with the creation doesn’t have to begin with destroying it. In God’s post-flood covenant commitment to the creation, God imposes on God’s divine will an ethic of care, an irreversible commitment to the well-being, protection, and freedom for the entire creation.

God declares to Noah that I am establishing a covenant with Noah and his descendants and with every living creature and with the whole earth. Four times God declares that God is establishing a covenant, with Noah and his descendants, with every living creature that came out of the ark, every animal of the earth, with all future generations, and with all flesh on the earth. Twice God promises that “I will remember my covenant.” Three times God promises that never again would God cause a deluge to destroy all flesh or the earth. God is honest about God’s role in the chaos and destruction that destroyed the world and intends to no longer be the agent of that chaos and destruction. God appears to be doing what looks like in our time the hard and holy work of Lent. But not only does God promise to never again destroy the world, God also places an internal check on God’s prerogative to respond so violently. So God places a bow in the clouds so God will remember God’s promise to never again destroy. Don’t think rainbow, which may obscure how truly incredible the commitment God is making. Think about it as one theologian calls it, “an undrawn bow,” God’s laying down God’s loaded weapon against creation. God unilaterally disarms and asks very little of the creation in return. The covenant is absolute, comprehensive, and eternal. It demonstrates an ethic of care, not a regime of law and order, anchored in an everlasting covenant and given force by God’s remembering us.

And in my experience, it has been religious folk who have trouble with God’s demonstration of such blanket, unfettered, irreversible compassion. How do I know? Because preachers, poets, and songwriters have taken this account of God’s gracious, unilateral act of care and compassion to never again destroy the world and added destruction to it. They declare that God won’t destroy the world with water but with fire the next time. But in this act of covenant, God makes no such claim. God says never again. If God’s word is true, then the details of the covenant God made with Noah are unimpeachable and irreversible. And if we look deeper into the destructive things visited upon God’s creation, from what we call natural disasters to the diseases and conditions that hobble bodies and ecosystems to the merciless barrage of humankind’s war machine and unfettered capitalism, to lay it all on God is disingenuous at best and callous at worst. God is not punishing the creation through destructive weather patterns nor is God judging the world by the so-called fallenness of the world. If we are honest, we appear to be the ones who have failed to move and live in the world with an ethic of care for the world. Perhaps, God models for us the kind of self-reflection about the destruction we have wrought and finding our way to never again. Even after the wealth we’ve accumulated and progress we have made, blessed beyond measure with riches and resources only dreamed, we have not allowed ourselves to be agents of repair and renewal for our neighbors or for creation. The receding waters of the flood created within God “a new generosity and new graciousness” that liberated all of creation from chaos and destruction and God has promised to see that it remains free. How will we reflect that generosity and graciousness in our dealings with creation?

Perhaps it’s time we embrace the God of this covenant, a new idea of God that does not make God the sole author of the world’s chaos and destruction. That perhaps we have imposed our own propensity to violence and vengeance on God and forfeited our role in repairing and renewing creation. That following God’s example and embracing an ethic of care, we discern how to see ourselves and all of creation through eyes of covenant. That yes, chaos and destruction are a part of the human experience, but God is the source of new beginnings, offering repair and renewal as part of an ethic of care that began when God said never again. And therein lies the central tension of our engagement with a bodies, people, and a world that will disappoint us: will we regard others with hostility or commitment. Whether it is the poor and the unhoused, the migrant and the immigrant seeking sanctuary, the earth and her bounty, the racially, political, or ethnic other who show up differently, or the nations of the world who want nothing more than to secure the welfare of their citizens, will we engage with hostility or commitment?

Jesus seems to have understood God’s covenant transformation. I believe that is what made Jesus’ ministry so gentle, loving, and nonjudgmental. That’s why in the last few years, we’ve been hearing rumblings in some religious circles that Jesus in not muscular enough, vengeful enough, apocalyptic enough. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels eschews the logic and prerogatives of violence and punishment. Jesus is truly his divine parent’s child. His whole ministry is infused with an ethic of care: a saying, a touch, an embrace, an act of healing that leaves those who he encountered free. Every person he meets and touches leave the encounter with their bodies repaired and their spirits renewed. That is my hope for Lent. That is becomes for all of us a season of repair and renewal.

So, during this season of Lent, assured of God’s irreversible compassion toward us, a God who has shown a willingness to change, repent, and come to terms with the lived experience of the creation, we can be bold, honest, and reckless in our show of love and compassion to ourselves, to each other, and to our neighbors. We can lead with love before we respond in judgment. We can accept God’s new generosity and new graciousness with sure confidence that the hard and holy personal work we do during Lent will be blessed, accepted, and renewed by God. We can initiate the work of repair and renewal because we ourselves enjoy the compassionate care of a God whose absolute, comprehensive, and eternal covenant with all flesh, all living creatures, can be summed up in the words of response to chaos and destruction, “never again!” We embrace an ethic of care as the foundation of our discipleship because God did so and bid the creation to begin again.

9 a.m. service

11 a.m. service