God Learns from Mistakes Why Don’t We

Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on the flood and why God learns from mistakes but we do  not!


During the four years that I attended Macalester 1975 – 80 we set a national record for the most losses of any college football team in the history of the N.C.A.A. We used to lose by basketball scores, St. John’s 98 – Macalester 7. Our cheerleaders used to come out during half time and get the crowd to chant, “Pick new teams, Pick new teams! At least our players go to classes.”

And like adding salt to an open wound- Howie Sinker, the editor for the school paper – had the distinct privilege after each game, 15 games a year, 5 straight years asking: “So coach any thoughts on the game? Or how are you feeling about the big loss today? Any thoughts about next weekend? Are you excited about setting a college football record for the most losses?”

It got so bad that Howie started a campaign to see if we could get the Minnesota School for the Blind or a team from the Twin Cities Nursing Home Association to play us for Homecoming just to give the coach some distant hope of winning.

If it weren’t so funny it would be sad! Absolutely no chance of starting over, not even the slightest hope of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

I suspect this is the way God felt after the opening two chapters of Genesis. With two bites of an apple, Adam and Eve traded an idyllic way of being with God for the neurosis of being like god. God must have felt like Howie, having to report that the whole thing was over before it ever really got started.

Four chapters later Genesis cynically observes: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”

Only 9 pages into the Bible, with 1,621 to go before the end and the damage seems irreparable.

But it is still pretty hard to sympathize with God’s way of dealing with the problem by drowning everyone and everything. For us a big part of what makes God, God is that God never gives up on us and forgives our every sin. But here with the flood it makes God look like a big bully at best and a tyrant at worst. What are we to make of this story?

The only way I can make sense of it is from a mere mortal’s perspective. Just as humanity in the first 9 pages of the Bible has lost control, so it seems has God. It is only after the utter destruction of humanity that God realizes that he too is capable of great evil or at least mass destruction and from that moment on God makes a covenant never to wipe out humanity by a flood again.

Offering this covenant in rainbow colors was something more than God waving the white flag or a truce. It’s as though God was saying, “Sometimes you make me sorrowful, sometimes you make me shake with anger, and sometimes you please me. And though I cannot ignore your wrong, I have decided that only my love will overrule it in such a way that you will always have a chance of a new and right life. Therefore, while I will not let you off the hook, neither will I ever let you go.”

As Frederick Buechner puts it, God speaks to us like the mother who says to her sick child, “I’d do anything to make you well.” And that is exactly what God does, moving far beyond words, God ends up doing everything to make sure that nothing can ever separate us from his love. And in Jesus Christ we see what God does and in the cross and resurrection we see how God does it.

The story about the flood isn’t a story about the inherit goodness in human beings to learn and change from our mistakes. It’s a story about a change in God, who swears off retribution as a way of dealing with creation. From now on God will not repay betrayal with betrayal. From now on God will not let his anger and sorrow lead him to kill. For God has taken on the punishment that rightly belongs on us. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. God’s promise to us is life, not death.

But bad things like the latest killing of school children in Florida still happen over and over again. So this covenant is the assurance that none of these things are rooted in God’s ill will toward us. Rather it is rooted in the prophetic warning God gave to Noah and to us – saying: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” (9: 6)

We are creatures made in the image of our creator, which means that we have the power and the choice to either ally ourselves with God’s way or to continue on our own way. We have the power to be killers or healers. But make no mistake God has shifted the balance and emphasis from death to life. The warning is ours to answer.

And so far we are not answering very well. When I listen to people talk about the latest in an ever-growing series of mass shootings in our country. Our answer is never to address the proliferation of guns or who can own them. It’s always the same ole same ole – we need to arm more people.

And it would seem that unlike God we do not learn from our mistakes. We continue to do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. The very definition of insanity. The problem is not God. It is us. We have met the enemy and they are us. If we go on perishing then it will not be our prayers that God ignores. It will be our failure to use the God given ability we all have to repent and start doing something new, different, better.

We have forgotten to whom we must answer for this life. So it’s not only God who needs a rainbow. We need one too, a reminder that we and every living thing share the same divine breathe of life. And the rainbow is a constant reminder stretching across our horizon after every storm that God has given his everlasting Yes to all who live in its embrace. The question is: Do we want to live in God’s embrace or continue on the way we’ve been going? Amen

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