Vicar Meagan McLaughlin
First Sunday in Lent, year B
Texts: Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15
Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We moved into our house in the Longfellow neighborhood in the heat of summer, and immediately began to take advantage of the bike trail along the River Parkway. My favorite part of the ride into downtown is the stretch from Franklin Ave to the Bohemian Flats, because I love the feeling of flying down the steep hill on my bike, and just as you get to the bottom, the river seems to appear almost out of nowhere, as if you hadn’t been riding alongside it the whole way. The trees on the river banks up to that point are so thick with leaves, you can easily forget the river is even there!
Biking or walking along the Parkway in the late fall or winter is an entirely different experience. Once the leaves have fallen from the trees, the view is clear from the trail to the river below, and the first time I walked there in the fall, I was really surprised to realize that the river had been there, that close, all along. When the leaves are gone, I can see what was hidden before.
The same thing happens when I take time to clear away the “leaves” in my own life. In preparation for doing taxes this year, I spent a couple of hours one morning going through files, and cast away a few trees worth of paper in the process. The feeling of lightness and clarity that came out of that was liberating! Suddenly, the clutter was gone, there was space between files in the drawer, and we actually know what is in there.
Noah experienced a radical housecleaning when the flood swept away everything he knew, leaving only his family and two of every animal in the ark. When the waters receded, and the ark landed, God showed Noah the foundation of their life on the renewed land. The clutter of corruption and chaos in Noah’s old world was washed away, and the promise of God was made clear. God established a covenant with Noah to protect and provide for him. God promised to be faithful.
God’s covenant was not just with Noah, but with Noah’s descendants and every creature of all flesh. God promised that God will never again destroy the earth, and gave the earth to us all as a place of abundance. God promises to protect us and provide for us.
And the best part is, God’s covenant with us comes with no conditions. God makes this covenant with us out of love. The Gospel of Mark tells us that when Jesus was baptized, God spoke to Jesus, saying “You are my son, my beloved.” This is the basis for God’s covenant with Noah, and it is the basis for the covenant that each of us are baptized into. Our baptisms are a sign of God’s promise to us. We are all God’s children, beloved of God. You are God’s child, beloved of God. You can’t earn that. And you don’t have to. It is simply there, like the river is always running at the bottom of the cliffs next to the Parkway. We just can’t always see it.
The truth of God’s promise, and who we are as God’s children, gets hidden in the clutter of many things in our lives, and we can even forget God is there. We get easily wrapped up in the “doing” of our daily lives, and in the midst of the busyness we are not aware of God who makes our “doing” possible. The truth of who we are is buried under messages of doubt, and judgment, and shame, until we can’t see the love and call of God for us, and if we can see it, we don’t believe it. We get caught up in striving for whatever we think will make us happy or satisfy us, be it the approval of other people or financial success, or addictions to alcohol, or food, or drugs, and we forget that the one thing that truly gives meaning to our lives is right in front of us.
Just like the dying of the leaves each fall clears the view to the river below, and makes new growth possible in the spring, we all need to take time to clear the clutter from our own lives. It is a natural part of the cycle of the life we live as children of God. There are times of growth and abundance, and there are times when what is not needed, what is destructive to us and our relationships, what is not true about our God, needs to be washed away.
Sometimes this can feel like we have entered the ark in the midst of the flood—we are awakened suddenly by a change in our lives, and overwhelmed by awareness and emotion as we adjust to the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or even the birth of a child. We are changed as all the things that distracted us before are swept away, and we can see what is really important. In the midst of this experience, we realize we have no control over this journey. Like Noah, we are just along for the ride. Over time, as we look back, we can see the hand of God, who guides in our journey, leading us through the flood. The waters that seemed to threaten to wash us away become a reminder of the promise God made to us in the waters of our baptism: no matter what happens, God will never abandon us.
Other times, our experience of clearing out the clutter of our lives may feel more gradual—perhaps more like Jesus’s journey through the wilderness after his baptism. For no particular reason, it may seem, our perspective shifts, we recognize things in our lives that are blocking our relationship with God, and feel moved to let go of them. The process of letting go can leave us feeling somewhat empty or dry, even as our awareness of God in our lives slowly grows to fill the space that has been created in us.
However it happens, whatever it is that brings us to a place of reflection and awareness of our “clutter,” looking honestly at ourselves is not easy. It can be uncomfortable as we begin to change and see things in new ways, and it can be painful when we attend to places of shame, grief, and wounded-ness that we hold within us. The covenant of God’s love and presence with us stands firm, even then. Especially then. God is present with us, and has put us here together so that we never need to walk through this life alone. And God works in us through these times of spiritual housecleaning to make it possible for us in all our humanness to grow in our relationship with God, and be fully present to whatever God calls us to do in this world.
In the season of Lent we take time as a community of faith to remind ourselves and each other of our humanness, of the reality that we will never be finished changing and growing. Lent invites us to pay attention to the things that block our view, that stand between us and our God, and to ask God to clear that clutter from our lives so that we can better serve God and each other. We remember God’s faithfulness and love, and that, along with Noah, we are all people of the covenant. And when the leaves of our lives have fallen from the trees, we will realize once again that God has been, and will be, with us all along.
Thanks be to God!