Sunday, September 12, 2021 – off lectionary

St. Paul’s Congregational Church, UCC – reflection

First in person worship since 3/20/20 - on the lawn at St. Paul’s – also on-line worship


Scripture Genesis 7 – 9, selections

Matthew 3: 1 - 17


Over the past week and a half, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with many of you and hear your thoughts about the devastating flooding we experienced here in Nutley and the devastating damage we’ve seen here at our church building – especially after seeing the pictures Angela, Lori, Patricia have posted online – I’m especially haunted by the water line we see in those pictures – in the classrooms, hallways, and in the “patio” – up to the middle of the mailbox! The pictures of the Community School classrooms – with everything in them strewn about – the power of the water to break windows and stream into the rooms! And then there are the videos of the night of the flood itself – a deafening sound, the roar of the water. It’s overwhelming, isn’t it.

Some of you have had lots of questions – like, why does God allow something like this to happen? And these days with so much bad news around us, some of you have said, how much more do we have to take?

The reality is, this has been a traumatic event for all of us – long standing members have been sharing their memories of babies, baptisms, weddings, funerals, Christmas services – others mourn that the doors to the sanctuary remain locked – there’s really no way to get in there without going through the flood ravaged areas and that’s not safe until mediation is complete. Our sacred and safe space has been violated by torrents of waters.

And I’m sure nobody ever thought our first Sunday together in person would be for a reason such at this - I know I didn’t. But here we are – and grateful for the chance to be together, to see each other, and to worship on this sacred space.

So, how do we take care of ourselves as we walk through these difficult days? We remember what the flight attendants tell us just as we’re in the air: if in the unlikely event that the oxygen masks drop and you’re travelling with a child, put the mask on yourself first so you’re able to help your child!

Coming together in worship is putting the mask on ourselves first. Then we take a deep breath and are strengthened and empowered by God to meet whatever challenges are ahead of us – together.

Certainly the survival of St. Paul’s has been on our minds for some time but this flooding has forced us to deal with the concerns we have. This new normal is REAL in a dramatic way – not just the COVID new normal but a new normal of devastating flooding to our first floor.

The end of our life together as we’ve known it for so many years.

As I was reflecting on this journey we’re all on, seeing the pictures and videos, hearing the sounds of the water roaring down the street, across the lawn here, and imagining the power of it pushing in and breaking windows – I thought of the story of Noah’s Ark:

We read about it in the book of Genesis:

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.

God gave Noah specific instructions of how to build the ark, and continues, 17 For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you ; and you shall bring two of every living thing into the ark to keep them alive – and also take with you every kind of food and store it up. Noah did this, he did all that God commanded him.

The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights – the waters increased, the ark floated on the face of the waters. All the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered – and the waters swelled on the earth for 150 days.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; 2 the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, 3 and the waters gradually receded from the earth. At the end of one hundred fifty days the waters had abated;

6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made 7 and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9 but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; 11 and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth.”

The great flood – the waters of destruction.

But we have a hint of things to come as the story ends with the establishment of the Rainbow Covenant.

Now we fast forward to the New Covenant and another image of water, not as water of destruction but as water of new life.

From the gospel of Matthew:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[a] 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

“I baptize you with[b] water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,[d] with whom I am well pleased.”

A dove came back to Noah, a freshly plucked olive leaf in its beak.

The Spirit of God descended like a dove, alighting on Jesus, and a voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased.”

The New Covenant has come to us: the water of destruction is replaced with the water of new life.

Friends, we’re going through some tough days – nothing will be the same again. But here’s the good news: nobody was hurt. Things can be replaced. The water of destruction has been replaced by the water of new life! God is present! God is present right now! Right here! This is the place where miracles have happened.

That little girl in Charles Copenhaver’s story somehow knew that miracles have happened at her church – we know that too on some level. Let’s see beyond the symbols we have come to know and love – let’s not lose our reverence, awe, and expectancy: expectancy that miracles can still happen here!

Have you given up on that possibility in your life? In our life together as the Body of Christ here in Nutley? No, we don’t know how this will all play out – and it’s going to take hard work from all of us, a real engagement and participation in our recovery to embark on a new life together. But we have been given the water of new life – remember this: St. Paul’s Church has been a home of messages, music, and miracles for over 127 years! How will we continue this tradition, perhaps in new and exciting ways as we enter this new normal together! God is with us! That’s the promise. That’s the joy. So may it be. Amen!