My old neighborhood in Cartersville was one of those covenant neighborhoods. We owed $400 per year to the neighborhood association. For those dues, we received access to three pools, a tennis court, two playgrounds, a pavilion, a fitness center, and a basketball court.
As we used these facilities, we began to notice some elements of disrepair. Nothing serious, nothing significant, but the conditions were worse than I expected. In my head, being a numbers cruncher, I calculated the income stream for the neighborhood association. Running around the neighborhood, I counted 315 houses, which at $400 per house equals $126,000 per year collected by the neighborhood: plenty of money to provide for these facilities with some left over.
I never questioned whether or not all the money was coming in because we were all contractually obligated to pay the $400. I had signed the covenant as part of my mortgage paperwork when we purchased the house. It never occurred to me that people might not pay. And that the neighborhood might not be enforcing the covenant.
But, indeed, that’s exactly what was happening. No one on the association enforced the covenant and so the neighborhood was sorely underfunded as most folks didn’t pay.
I was paying good money, in good faith, that I would receive a return on that payment. Instead, I saw facilities in decline, my money not providing a return, because no one was upholding the covenant, a contract that bound all the neighborhood homes together.
A covenant is similar to a contract. I got a legal lesson in contract law recently and learned that, in reality, they’re not synonymous. But they’re still similar: a covenant, like a contract, requires two parties to agree to terms in which each party gives and receives something. When we enter into contracts, we come with that give and receive expectation.
In our scripture this morning, we find God entering into a covenant, where God gives to the people after the flood waters have receded. God, with Noah, creates a contract, an obligation, a covenant. Let’s hear that story, located in Genesis 9:8-17.
God creates a covenant. In this covenant, God promises never again to flood the world. And not only that, but God promises never to use violence against the world again, for God will never seek its destruction ever again. The bow serves as a sign of this to all of creation and a reminder to God of this covenant promise.
But this covenant, this contract, is kind of weird. It has some noticeable differences from what we might expect. This covenant is not like most covenants.
Notice first that the text doesn’t say rainbow. The Hebrew word means rainbow, but it also means the bow of a bow and arrow. In the ancient Middle East, gods were often depicted riding horseback with an arrow at the ready. In saying that God has “set [his] bow in the clouds,” it’s God saying that he’s hanging up his bow, his power of violence and destruction, choosing to never again use that power against creation.
That’s because God loves creation, all of it. This stands in stark contrast to other ancient depictions of the flood and resulting covenants. In those, recorded in ancient Hittite and Babylonians stories, the gods try and kill all of creation, including all of humanity. In these stories the moral is this: the gods, who created humans to be their slaves, get tired of humanity causing them trouble, and so they decide just to get rid of them so that they’ll have less trouble on their hands. The gods don’t love creation and don’t love humans, so they have no need to covenant, no need to make promises, with that creation.
So notice with me this second way that this covenant is not like most covenants: the moral is very different.
God does burn with anger at the sinning of humanity, but rather than simply seeking creation’s destruction, God chooses Noah to make sure that all of creation is salvaged before destroying it. God does this because God created humans not as slaves, but out of God’s own image, out of love. The depth of love, the depth of care and concern for all of creation, leads God to make a way for salvation–a way of saving–humans and all the rest of creation. We are not slaves; no, we are God’s treasured creation. This covenant proves that we are worth saving.
That’s love. And that’s the moral of this story and this covenant: a covenant that is not like most covenants.
In my neighborhood covenant, I had an expectation of return because I was giving something. In our lives, when we enter into contracts or handshake agreements or any kind of dealing, we expect give and take: I get something, you get something. In our dealings with each other, we often act in this way, saying that if I do the dishes for you today, you’ll do the laundry for me tomorrow.
It’s the “If you give a mouse a cookie” principle. In that famous children’s book, the mouse gets a cookie and then asks for milk. The mouse gets the milk and then asks for something else. And on and on and on. To avoid being taken advantage of in this way, in our contracts we don’t just give the mouse a cookie, we give the mouse the cookie if the mouse will give us something in return. That kind of equity serves as a guarantee that we won’t be taken advantage of. It’s self-protection. It’s the basics of a contract.
And we want to protect ourselves, lest we get hurt. Which is why we treat each other in relationships in just this give and take way. We have tacit expectations that if I help you today, you’ll help me tomorrow; or if I show you care and concern today, you’ll show me care and concern tomorrow; or if I do something loving for you today, you’ll do something loving for me tomorrow. The “if you give a mouse a cookie” principle is related to the “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” axiom.
Take, for example, how often feelings have been hurt in close relationships when you fail to meet an expectation or someone fails to meet your expectations. Valentine’s Day, which we just passed, is a great example of how people get their feelings hurt because they have an unspoken expectation of their significant other, which fails to be met. Outside of holidays, in our family relationships, we hold expectations that, when they go unmet, become sources of pain and resentment.
We have an expectation that acting in certain ways will garner certain benefits. If I help you with your car payment, you’ll pay me back one day. If I take you in when you have no where to go, you’ll always treat me with the utmost respect. If I keep loving you after you’ve hurt me over and over again, you’ll eventually change and show me love. This is how we act in relationships: give and take, I scratch your back, you scratch mine.
This kind of relationship is called a transactional relationship, where the health and well-being of the relationship is determined by equity in the transactions. So long as what you do for me equals what I do for you, the relationship is considered healthy. When there’s an imbalance, whether I do more for you or you do more for me, the relationship becomes unhealthy.
Many of us live our lives in just this way. We have transactional relationships: expectations based on getting a return for our care, concern, support, and especially our love. We don’t give the mice in our lives, the demanding relationships in our lives, cookies without an expectation of return. We don’t scratch people’s back’s if we expect they won’t scratch ours in return. That’s just the way of things.
Just as we discussed on the first Sunday of the new year, families form a covenant, and covenants come with expectations on behalf of both parties, just like contracts.
Or do they?
Notice with me that this covenant isn’t like most covenants.
Here in our scripture, God promises never again to utilize violence. God has hung up his bow, it’s there in the clouds, a beautiful reminder to us and to God that God’s destructive power will never again be let loose on creation. God makes this promise repetitively throughout our scripture, underlying its importance. And this promise, this covenant, is made with all of creation and all generations for all time. It’s a universal promise spanning the breadth of creation and the depth of time.
And so, in light of God’s tremendous generosity and love on display in this covenant, what’s required of us? What’s required of creation? If God makes this promise, then God will want a return on that promise. How are we to act or be in light of this covenant?
Here, in this covenant, in this moment, with Noah and with us, God makes a promise, God obligates himself, with no expectation of return.
This is astounding. The God who created all things, the God who is high and lofty, beyond our comprehension, the God who is all things and holds all things; that God limited himself, limited his power, limited his might, with no expectation of return. God gave of himself, here to Noah and to the span of the breath of creation and the depth of time, with no expectation of getting something back. God obligates himself with no expectation of return.
Why would God do such a thing? Relationships are meant to be transactional, so we proven this morning. We all have an expectation of return, whether we’re investing money, giving of our time, providing care and concern, or showing love. In our relationships, whether business, personal, or family, we expect to receive a return of some sort. It’s just the nature of things. In fact, contract law, based on English Common Law, finds its basis in this very fact: that before there was a written law, there was a standard set of expectations that governed human behavior. And that standard set of expectations was a tit-for-tat, you give to me now, I give to you later, expectation of return.
But God doesn’t operate that way. Not here through Noah. Not now. God has provided a means of salvation, salvation from God’s wrath, out of God’s tremendous love for humanity and creation. This is why God establishes a covenant with no expectation of return: God loves us so much that God gives to us selflessly.
God gives love with no expectation of return. That’s what this covenant declares to us loudly and clearly this day. The rainbow in the clouds is a sign and seal not only of protection against God’s wrath but also as a reminder that God loves us so much that God would limit himself, his power, to enjoy relationship with us.
That’s what God does here, and it’s what God did in Jesus.
We have entered the Lenten season, where we prepare our hearts for the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his death and resurrection, God gave love to the world with no expectation of return. Like with Noah, God gives of himself powerfully, clearly, and fully in Jesus Christ, simply because God loves us that much. There’s no expectation of return, no transactional nature to our relationship with God; just a simple offer of love, freely given, in the hopes that we will love God back.
That’s love: a love that acts out of care and concern for others with no expectation of return. A love that gives and gives and gives but places no expectation on the receiver of the gift.
That’s true love. God’s love is antithetical to the way we operate as humans: it expects nothing in return. We don’t naturally operate that way, but we can choose to operate that way in our human relationships because God’s love, freely given, sets the standard for how we are to live our lives. Our human relationships should mirror our divine-human relationship; a relationship characterized by God’s love, freely given to us, without expectation and without coercion.
And so, we don’t have to live with a transactional relationship mentality. In fact, in my understanding as well as in my experience, to operate with a transactional mentality in our relationships destroys those relationships. When we place expectations upon others, expecting a return for our good will, for our care and concern, and for our love, we burden those relationships and that burden eventually becomes so oppressive that the relationship collapses. Transactional relationships simply do not work.
They do not work because for love to be love, it must be given freely. Love that is given by us, to others, with an expectation of getting something back for that love isn’t love; no, it’s coercion for our benefit. That’s not what God does through Noah and it’s not what God did through Jesus: we are under no divine coercion; rather, we are given God’s love freely, for true love requires freedom.
So drop your expectations and leave behind transactional relationships, choosing instead to simply give of your love, no matter what. That means, in your relationships, whether with your husband or wife, with your children or parents, with your cousins, nephews, nieces, aunts, or uncles, with your grandparents or grandchildren, with your friends, with your mentors and mentees, with those you serve and with those who serve you, give love and expect nothing in return.
And if, this morning, you fear that God expects things of you in return for his love, drop that expectation. God does not coerce you; God gives you love even if you give nothing back. We can be evil and God still loves us. We can deny God’s existence, and God still loves us. We can treat God as a transactional relationship, and God still loves us.
God set the example for us in our scripture this morning: our relationship with God is not transactional but, rather, love given freely. That sets the standard for our relationships with each other: not transactional, but love given freely.
This morning, consider the relationships in your life. Are they transactional? Do you have an expectation, stated or unstated, of how that person will act or what that person will do for you because of what you’ve done for them?
If so, give up this expectations mindful that God doesn’t hold you to such a standard. In Jesus, God gave love to us not because of what we had done for God, but in spite of what we had done to God. Such is the covenant God makes with Noah, and such are the promises God makes to us today: I love you, no matter what you’ve done, and I will always love you, because I give of my love freely.
God’s relationship with you is not transactional, so neither should your relationships with others be transactional.
This morning, reflectively consider your relationships. Stop being transactional. Accept the unmerited, unwarranted, love of God today; a love that expects nothing in return, but is rather given to us as a free, no-strings-attached, gift.
This day, in all your relationships, expect nothing in return; simply give of your love, freely.