Lent 1. Sermon preached online by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

God said to Noah, I am establishing my covenant with you and with every living creature that is with you.

We all know the fundamentals of the story of Noah and the ark. Most of us know children’s songs about the animals happily trotting along, 2 by 2. We know that most major civilisations have a flood story as part of their shared history. There are lots of artistic depictions of the ark and its inhabitants – mostly quite clean and sanitised and attractive. There are a few paintings that depict the ferocity of the winds and the storm and the chaos that was caused, but you have to look for them. What we tend to focus on is the safety of the ark; the commandment to Noah that ensured the future of life on the planet – and then the sign of hope in the form of the rainbow.

This year, in particular, we are desperate to find signs of hope. We’re not needing any more bad news stories; we’re not needing to be reminded that all is not right in our world. People are feeling that this isn’t the year to actively seek out Lenten penance – we’ve all done penance for many months and what we need more than anything is some respite.
We need to find our ark, to find a place that feels safe and secure and where we can trust, really trust, that there is a better future ahead. You don’t need me to rehearse the signs of hope that are around, but I wonder whether together we can move on from just observing those signs of hope to acting out of a place of hope, finding the ways that each one of us can make a difference.

God made a covenant with Noah that was for every living creature that was with him on the ark. God didn’t single out humankind to be saved from the flood – we’re told that God took care of the whole of the creation, that every kind of living thing – mammals, fish, insects, reptiles – every living thing was included in that covenant.

Tomorrow marks the start of Fairtrade Fortnight, a time in the year when we would normally have an exhibition and an extended fair trade stall and an input to act as a reminder that by buying fair trade goods, we’re supporting some of the poorest communities in our world, and that in doing so, we’re supporting all that lives within our world.

One impact of both the pandemic and, indeed, of Brexit is that we’ve become more aware of the source of what we buy. We’ve perhaps become more aware of the goods that are imported, often air freighted in to satisfy the demands of the Western shopper. We’ve also become more aware of the pressures on more local food producers, the impact of regulations, not just on the fishing industry in Scotland but on other food producers.

The fact that more or less the only thing we’re allowed to do is to go for a walk, has perhaps meant that we’ve become more attuned to the changes in our natural world, more aware of the changing of the seasons and the cycles of life that surround us. These past couple of weeks where it was difficult to go out at all have reminded us that our climate isn’t stable or unchanging, that across the world people are living with unusual meteorological activity. In some places, the changes in weather patterns have led to loss of life, in others loss of livelihoods.

In the most unstable parts of our world, the impact has been on whole communities and tribes that have been forced off their ancestral lands because they’re no longer able to sustain them, with the result that more people are trying to live on smaller areas of fertile land – with the inevitable conflicts that result.

So in the midst of all of that depressing knowledge, in the midst of the reminders that we all need to make changes in order to make a difference; in the midst of all of that – with which we are frankly often bombarded – where can we find that place of safety, where is the ladder that will take us onto the ark, take us to that place of shelter where we can rest, even for a moment, and be reminded of God’s covenant with Noah.

The Gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent sees Jesus driven into the wilderness for 40 days. Mark tells us that he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him.

We might think of the wilderness as a scary place, somewhere that isn’t a natural habitat for human beings, somewhere to be cautious, where we might not survive. But there is no hint of that. In fact, quite the opposite – Mark tells us that the angels waited on Jesus. I read that to mean that his needs were met; that he knew himself to be safe and secure. That this was a breathing space before he went out and began his public ministry.

In contrast to our thinking about the wilderness, we may think of the ark as a safe space, a place of refuge, but just remember the environment that it was within – how safe would any seafaring vessel feel in those circumstances? The sanitised children’s story doesn’t do justice to the frightening picture that the whole story portrays.

Within big pictures that are terrifying, both the wilderness and the ark are portrayed this week as safe havens, places where it’s possible to get away from whatever is scary in the world around us. And how desperate we all are to get away from that which has frightened us for so many months.
We might not be able to think of an ark that we can readily clamber aboard, but we may well be able to think about a wilderness place that offers a similar sense of sanctuary in the days and weeks ahead. A space to pause and to allow the angels to wait on us.

In normal times, I might have been suggesting that coming into the Cathedral on a weekday would offer just that space. But that’s not an option. However, that doesn’t mean that there are no options. One of the lessons of the pandemic has been that we have found new ways to encounter God wherever we are. We’re simply talking here about taking advantage of the safe spaces that already exist – the arks and the wilderness places that God offers to us.

Once there, perhaps we can take a little time to reflect on the good lessons of these months; to remember the shifts there have been in understanding of our global connectedness. And from that place to consider our intentions going forward; to be aware of the wild beasts and to be aware of the angels. To renew a covenant with our God, a covenant that honours you and me and all of God’s created world.

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