Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’
See It And Remember: Genesis 9:8-17
In the part of Prague called the Jewish Town, there is an old synagogue called Pinkas Synagogue. It was first a private house of prayer in the midst of one of the longest-standing Jewish communities of any European city. There are records of this synagogue going back to 1492. The building we visited was constructed in 1535. It is kind of wedged into a chunk of a street between the largest and best preserved Jewish cemetery in Europe, an historic Jewish ritual bath, and another synagogue called Klausen. It has plaster walls and a red-tile roof. To enter the synagogue, you step off the sidewalk and walk down a slope that takes you about a floor below the modern street. It was cool inside. The vaulted ceiling, much like the ones we saw in gothic Christian churches and castles we visited, was high and lovely. There was an ornate bema, an elevated area in the center of the sanctuary from which Scripture is read, surrounded by a low red marble wall and high cast iron lattice. There was also a lovely ark, the case in which they stored the Torah scrolls against the far wall. There was even a balcony. I believe that is where the women worshiped.
The sanctuary is about as big as our own, but with the additional space of the balcony. It feels warm and quiet like our sanctuary does if you come here early on Sunday morning before the people begin to trickle in for worship. The synagogue is no longer an active place of worship though. Now, it's a memorial. You see, hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in what is now the Czech Republic were killed by the Nazis. Written on the walls of this synagogue are the names of 77, 297 of them, the people who lived in the regions of Bohemia and Moravia. In careful script, people are listed alphabetically, according to their last names, family groups, and towns in which they lived. In red, you see the names of the town. In black, the names of the people, people like Kamila Fiserovak, who was born in 1881 and killed in 1942, Lily Haasova, who was born in 1911 and killed in 1942, and Valtr Eisinger, who was born in 1893 and killed in 1942. Many of them ended up either in Terezin or Auschwitz. Few Jewish people returned to this part of the city after the war. The artists who created the memorial in the 1950's, Jiří John and Václav Boštík, wanted to make sure these people weren't forgotten. You are supposed to see these walls and these tens of thousands of names and remember.
On the same trip, we stayed in Berlin, Germany. The conference Tasha was attending was at the university where President Kennedy made his famous "I am a Berliner" speech. When I walked from our hotel to campus one day, I walked by a strange building. It was much the same as the other slightly posh, old-fashioned homes on the street. It had smallish lot with a nice little yard and a tall fence around the property. The home could have been built 100 years ago. But, it was different, too. While the other homes were well maintained brick and plaster, this one literally had holes in it. Well, not all the way through the walls, but down through a couple lays of plaster and wood. And, the walls were dingy compared to neat and tidy neighbors. It turns out that it was an art museum. When artist (and museum curator) Wolf Kahlen got the property, he left the outside in disrepair and renovated the inside. The inside is a fine gallery space. When describing his small museum, he once said "I have made the house in cooperation with the Russians: The Russians have the appearance and I made the inside." The part of the city where I stood had been heavily bombarded by the Russians during World War II. Then, the city had been at the center of the Cold War through the 1980's, when Kahlen opened his museum. The cracked walls and broken plaster invite you to see and remember just exactly what war looks like, even in the midst of a relatively nice, modern neighborhood.
A colleague of mine is serving a church in London, in the UK. A couple weeks ago, she and some of her parishioners visited another church, St. James, an Anglican church that was built in the 1600's. St. James has one of those grand gothic sanctuaries, with a ceiling that is easily a hundred feet high,. There are arches, vaults, grand windows, and marble floors. And, right now, through the end of the month, there are clothes... hundreds of items of clothes of all colors and sizes suspended high above the pews. There are socks, shirts, pants, and skirts all hanging vaguely in the shape of an inverted dome. These clothes almost have a life of their own. They don't hang limply like they are on a clothesline. These clothes look like snapshot of a whirlwind, caught for just a moment in the middle of the church.
They are part of an art installation called Suspended. The artist Arabella Dorman and church wanted to bring attention to the on-going frustrations and dangers facing migrants from the Middle East and North Africa as they make their way into Europe. All of these clothes were collected on the beaches of the island of Lesvos. When you cross the Mediterranean on a small craft, if you survive, you may end up on a beach in Greece in cold, wet clothes. In Lesvos, the people will peel off the wet clothes and leave them where they land. Brigades of volunteers have been formed to give them warm, dry clothes and help them on to their next steps towards building a new life. Upon leaving the beach, many of these migrants have found themselves in detention centers and strange cities, stuck just as surely as their clothes are suspended between the ceiling and pews of the church. They can't go back to where they left, but they can't really go forward, either, not without help. St. James hopes that you will see these clothes and remember... remember God's call to welcome the stranger and care for the orphan and widow.
All manner of things can call your memory to a promise of long ago. A wedding band to remind spouse of their covenant of marriage. A plaque on a wall to remind a congregation of a tradition of advocacy and welcome. A sign by the side of road to remind you of the power of march to change the world. Today's scripture tells of a bow that God set across the sky. Like the synagogue and the art museum and the whirlwind of clothes, this bow was created in the aftermath of destruction. The face of God we see in this part of Genesis is one of contrition and eventually mercy. The preceding story of a flood and a family building an ark, a story that is often told as though it were a fanciful children's story, is a hard story with an angry God and a planet-wide scale of destruction. But, it is also a story of a God who is moved by the plight of the survivors, the women and men and animals who made it through the storm. It is a story of the most powerful being realizing that they cannot wield their power so completely again. This is a story about God promising not just one family but all of creation that God will never destroy the world so completely again.
No matter how angry God will get, God will see the rainbow and remember. And, the people will see the bow bend across the sky, and remember that all people, regardless of family of origin, race, gender, sexuality, religion, or immigration status are equally covered under that covenant. Every living creature is beloved and will be covered by this promise that God made to Noah. All flesh is connected this way, through a promise of protection. If we ever make the mistake of thinking that God leaves some people out of new life and renewed creation, we have this story to remind us that all people are part of the covenant. In fact, all living being are part of this covenant, and we shouldn't forget that either. Just 'cause God won't destroy the planet with a flood again, doesn't mean that we're allowed to.
Perhaps most importantly, maybe this story is telling us that if God needs signs to remember God's promises, perhaps we, too, need signs to remember our promises. The names across the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue remind the people of Prague of the time when they failed to protect their neighbors and call on them to never so blithely sacrifice people again. The shell-shocked walls of an art museum remind a city of horrors of war and calls its citizens to work of peace and freedom. Clothes suspended in a sanctuary remind Christians of desperate migrants who are so easily forgotten and call them, and us, to welcome the migrants as neighbors. Sometimes, we, like God, need the reminder of both the breadth of our destruction and our promise to support new and renewed life after whatever flood has come. Right now, new memorials are being built in Parkland, Florida, memorials like the ones built in Sandy Hook, at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, and in Columbine. What promise will we be reminded of when we see them? Will we have the courage to hold up our end of these covenants?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the followed sources while writing this sermon:
Nicole L. Johnson, "First Sunday in Lent," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Wil Gafney: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3567
Information about Suspended: http://www.sjp.org.uk/suspended.html
Cameron B.R. Howard: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2375
Information about Pinkas Synagogue: https://www.jewishmuseum.cz/en/explore/sites/pinkas-synagogue/
Elizabeth Webb: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1222
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.