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Extending an Olive Leaf

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 1, 2000
Worldwide Communion Sunday


Genesis 8:1-17 The raven and the dove

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; the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters gradually receded from the earth.

At the end of one hundred fifty days the waters had abated; and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains appeared.

At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth.

Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 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.

He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; 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.

Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.

In the six hundred first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry.

Then God said to Noah, "Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons, and your sons' wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh--birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth--so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth."

Matthew 5:21-24 Be reconciled to your brother

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother without cause will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of hell fire.

"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."


He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; 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. (Genesis 8:10, 11)

Today, on Worldwide Communion Sunday, we share the Lord's table with millions of Christians around the world. This is very appropriate, since the word "communion" means "joining together." Just as the people we usually share our meals with are the people in our family, and our closest friends, when we share the Lord's table we are sharing a meal with our spiritual family--with the people who share our faith. This joins us together with one another and with God in our hearts and minds.

The "food" of communion represents the two parts of ourselves that we especially share with one another: our thoughts and our feelings. The wine of communion represents truth, which is the "stuff" of our thinking--if we are thinking well! The bread of communion represents love and goodness, which is the "stuff" of our feelings--if we are feeling in good ways! And of course, since this is the Lord's table, it is the Lord's truth and love that we are sharing as we sit down to share communion with one another.

This morning I would like to focus on a different set of images, but talk about the same theme: how we can come together in love and mutual understanding.

In our story from Genesis, we are reaching the end of a period when things had gotten about as bad as they could for human beings. The (symbolic) flood had destroyed all of humanity except for Noah and his family, who were all shut off in a big boat--which would really have been tiny compared to the worldwide ocean it was floating on. Talk about being cut off from human companionship!

Sometimes we find ourselves in that position, too. As we discussed last week, there are times when we feel cut off from the people around us, and even from God. There are times when we feel all alone, shut off in our own little world with only our own thoughts and feelings--represented by Noah's family, and by all the animals in the ark with them--to keep us company. Sometimes we feel cut off and alone even from the people we share our house and our lives with. Like the flood surrounding Noah, there is a huge flood of misunderstanding that seems to have killed off all the relationships that used to feel so alive for us.

The story of the raven and the dove is the story of how we come out of the isolation and loneliness of misunderstanding to a renewed and living relationship with the people around us, and with God. And through the images of the raven and the dove, I would like to briefly explore with you how we take the steps to reconnect with our family members, our friends, and the people we work with.

First of all, it helps to understand the reasons our relationships get broken in the first place. Of course, there are many complex, individual reasons that particular relationships get into trouble. It can take months or even years with a therapist to sleuth them out--and we don't have time for that this morning! However, if we were to boil it all down to its simplest form, and state it in the most positive form, it would be that as human beings there are still many areas where we need to learn how to love and understand others better and more deeply. We are all in process, and there is always room for growth. And the areas where we haven't grown yet are the very areas where our relationships get "flooded out."

This suggests another positive way of looking at the stresses and strains in our relationships. Rather than seeing them as failures, we can look at them as opportunities for new growth. And under the Lord's Providence, our particular interpersonal struggles tend to focus on the very areas where we most need to grow right now. What can the raven and the dove in our story teach us about how to start a new phase in our lives and relationships?

The first thing we learn is that not everything we try is going to work. In fact, since it's still the old "us" trying to reach out to become the new "us," it is very likely we'll make the same mistake Noah did: we'll send out the raven first, rather than the dove.

Now, in some Bible stories and in some cultures, the raven has a positive meaning. But here, it represents our old, faulty way of thinking. After a huge storm in our marriage, or our friendship with someone, or our work situation has finally started to die down, instead of jumping right in and starting out with a new way of relating to the other person or people, we tend to try the old, familiar ways first. Perhaps our "raven" involves asking ourselves questions such as, "How can I come out looking best in this situation? What's the easiest way to get through this? How can I take advantage of what's happened between us?" Basically, we may start out trying to get the most for ourselves for the least amount of effort.

This sort of thinking is probably what got us into this mess in the first place, though. And like the raven in the story, it doesn't get us anywhere. The raven just flies back and forth uselessly until the floodwaters dry up. In the same way, when we are trying to patch up a relationship, but we're still basically thinking about ourselves, we don't get anywhere with the other person or people involved in the relationship.

When all else fails, it's time to follow the directions! After we've tried our own way, it's time to try the Lord's way. The "dove" represents thinking, not of ourselves first, but of the other person first, and of how the Lord would have us treat others. In particular, it represents our growing understanding of what it means to do good for other people simply because we care about them and we want to do what is good and right.

And here we find our second lesson: this doesn't always work, either! At least, it doesn't always work the first time. One of the problems is that when we first decide to "do the right thing," we're often rather smug about it. "Aren't I good! My only thought is make the other person happy!" Like little Jack Horner, we say, "Oh, what a good boy (or girl) am I!" And it is fascinating to notice that the first time Noah sends out the dove, it says (if we read a translation that preserves the wording of the original Hebrew) that he sends the dove out "from him" (or "from himself"), and when it comes back, that he puts out his hand and brings it back in "with him" (verses 8 & 9). Even though we're starting to think more about the other person's feelings, and not just about our own, we still think that we ourselves are pretty good--and very virtuous for taking those first steps toward reconciliation.

When we drop all our pretenses of being better or wiser than the other person, and drop all the chips on our shoulder about being the underdog or the one who got the short end of the stick, then we start to make progress. When Noah sends out the dove the second time, there is no commentary about it being sent "from him" or that he "put his arm out" to take it back in "with him." He simply sends it out to see what it will find.

When we are ready to reach out to the other person with no thought of what we can get out of it, and with no thought of our own virtue in doing so, then we can truly begin to make contact. When we have dropped our personal agendas, and simply want to do what is good and loving and thoughtful for the other person, we finally find that the "floodwaters" of misunderstanding have dried up enough that the "dove" of thoughtfulness we send out comes back with an olive leaf in its beak!

It is no accident that the dove with the olive leaf in its mouth has become a symbol of peace. Olives were the source of the oil in the lamps that lit the people's houses, and also in the lamps that gave light in the temple of God. Olives represent God's love and kindness working in peoples actions. And it is when we act from simple kindness that our relationships are truly warmed with love, and enlightened with mutual understanding.

When we see our partner or friend or co-worker first begin to respond to our new and sincere efforts at thoughtfulness and kindness, we are seeing the "olive leaf" in the dove's beak. We're not quite to the stage of harvesting the olives and making olive oil, but that beautiful little olive leaf tells us that we are on the way to the new and better relationship, in which the oil of love can once again give its light and warmth.

My challenge for you today, as we share together the love and wisdom that the Lord offers us at the communion table, is that each one of us pick a relationship in our lives that is strained and fraying, and begin to consciously leave behind the raven of thinking how we can come out best, and send out instead the dove of simple thoughtfulness and kindness toward the other person. Amen.

Music: Heart to Heart
1999 by Bruce DeBoer

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