Sunday, February 26, 2012
A Global Covenant of Peace: Genesis 9: 8-17
*This sermon was preached on the first Sunday of Lent, February 26, 2012 with a Lenten theme of "A New Covenant."
The Noah story is a tale of terror, a horror story of global apocalypse. What? This
beloved children’s story? Although we most often think of it as a children’s story, the Noah story must be read as a story for adults. Our first reading of the Noah story was probably as a child in Sunday School. Childhood images of the Noah story have stuck in our heads. Ark floating peacefully on the water. Smiling animals stuffed inside the bobbing boat. Giraffe head poking through the ark window. Noah's hand reaching out to feel for drops of rain. Dove with olive branch. Rainbow arched across the clear blue sky. And all is well on the earth. That's the children's version. And unfortunately, many of us still read the story through the lens of our childhood. Understandably, our children's version leaves out the utter destruction of the story. As children we didn't read Noah and the flood as the tale of those who survived the total annihilation of all creation.
If we read the story of Noah as a children's story, we will continue to avoid the interpretive work of struggling with the questions it raises. We need to face head on the problematic issues in the text as we reread this story as adults. To read the story as an adult may mean reading it as it is read within the Jewish tradition---with the freedom to raise questions about the story without feeling our faith will be denied, the Bible will be denigrated, or God will be disturbed. And raising questions doesn't mean we will get satisfactory answers to all our questions. An important part of adult faith is wrestling with our holy texts and living with the questions that remain.
An adult reading might begin with some of the problematic issues surrounding the Noah character. The text says that the world was irredeemably wicked and Noah was "alone righteous, blameless in his generation." Was Noah really the only righteous person in the whole wide world? Of all the people in the world was there not at least one other person worth saving? What about the children in diapers who perished under the waves? Were they all "bad seeds," mere fish food? Must they have suffered along with the wicked? Should we, and even more so God, ever look at humans as irredeemable? Was humanity really more wicked and beyond saving than other countless moments in human history? Did all those outside the ark deserve death by drowning?
I once wrote a poem on the flood that took a sympathetic position toward those left outside the ark. I entitled it One guy outside the ark:
a sour stream runs through my life
it rushes through the canyons of my days
wearing my body thin, tearing up my roots
who can fight against the torrents of God,
against the headwaters of Yahweh's foul flood?
I am not Noah, nor one of his relatives
I am just a poor guy who missed getting into the ark
before the door slammed shut with a loud bang
the blood drained from my face
as the slow drip of water fell from the sky
The water is beginning to rise
and the boat begins to creak
I feel the wetness on my feet
I cry out and bang my fists bloody on the ark door
the water rises to my ankles, then my legs
my voice is going hoarse from the screaming
my knees are now covered in the mud and debris
It's up to my waist, my chest, now my neck
the churning waters try to pull me under
I stand on my tip toes and look up into the gray sky
shouting to the Noah-god as the water reaches my mouth
I gurgle to the heavens, "please open the door for me...
there is still room in the ark for one more...
open the door before I............
Were all those outside the ark really so bad as to die at the hands of an angry, vengeful god?
Now, stay with me. I think we must also ask: Was Noah really such a tzaddik, a righteous person? Was he as righteous as Oscar Schindler. The story of his life was entitled, Schindler’s Ark. In an utterly wicked generation, Oscar Schindler was a womanizer and scoundrel, schmoozing with the Nazis. Yet, unlike Noah, he didn't simply think of himself, but tried to save others from the flood of the Nazi holocaust. Was Noah more righteous than the womanizer Oscar Schindler? Can we consider Noah a mere "innocent bystander," not uttering a word of protest amidst the screaming, gurgling and gasping for air, the clawing and pounding at the gofer wood door, and remaining silent at the sight of all the muck and mess and bloated bodies lying in front of the ark's open door? Can anyone be called "righteous,” who stands by silently, protecting themselves while others suffer tragically? Would we call "righteous" those who stood by and said and did nothing during the holocaust? Doesn't righteousness mean speaking up or doing something for the victims, expressing concern for others beyond ourselves?
Abraham was a tzaddik, a righteous person. He argued with God in an attempt to spare the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who were facing annihilation. Was Noah really all that blameless? After leaving the ark he got stinkin' drunk, lay in his tent naked as a jay bird exposing himself to his children, then overreacted by cursing his grandchild because his son saw him in his birthday suit! Why curse his grandson? Would we consider such a man as a moral example, a hero of our faith? Was Noah that righteous or just the most righteous in his generation, which was probably not saying a whole heck of a lot? Or, as the biblical text and Jewish commentary indicate, did Noah merely find favor in God's eyes? That is, was he saved by God's sheer grace?
Don’t tune me out yet. A few more hard questions. I’m hoping not to be struck by lightning! What about God's hand in this shetef (flood), this "humanicide"? In our story we have a God who regrets having made humanity. People, supposedly we're talking about the God of the universe, God with a capital "G." God regrets having created humanity? Shouldn't God have thought this through before Genesis chapter two? A little forethought might have been nice before wiping out all of creation. I mean it's not like God didn't have time to figure out that we humans were going to blow it. I could have told God that! Wasn't God being just a bit rash? What would you think if a parent looked at their own children and said, "I regret having created these children. It makes me so sad they turned out so bad, so I guess I'll just have to wipe them off the face of the earth and start all over again, like starting a new game of “cosmic Monopoly.” Oh, but I will spare little Johnny and his friends"?
We consider it “childish behavior” when the child doesn't like the sand castle he made and says, "I don't like this!" and throws a fit and knocks it down. The problem is after God knocks down the sandcastle of this world, the new one isn't a whole heck of a lot better. According to the story, after totally destroying all of life on earth, except in the ark, the text says God finally learns something about us humans that God didn't seem to know before the flood---we humans are evil from the start. It’s not just that we humans do bad things. We are bad to the bone! But then, God repents. God changes his mind. He rethinks this whole apocalyptic destruction thing. Well, maybe by using water. Some think God will use fire next time! Much cleaner approach. As long as the earth lasts and the seasons change, God will not kill us all off with a flood again. Does the God of Noah need an education at the expense of all of created life?
Or, we might ask of the text, was the destruction of all living things really necessary? Total annihilation? I mean, this was a cataclysm beyond the help of the Red Cross and Mennonite Disaster Service! Wasn't this overreacting a bit? Could not God have been a little more selective in judging the world? Remember the children in diapers outside the ark? Well, tell me also, what horror had the hippos done? What was the sin of the sparrows? What crime had the kangaroos committed? Isn't nondiscriminating, mass genocide or "cosmocide" overdoing it a bit? Does the punishment fit the crime? Like Noah, does God need to learn some self-restraint and to not overreact so much? Tough questions I think an adult faith needs to ask.
Now, we realize that the ancient writer of the story presents God from a very human point of view. I have been questioning the text from a modern viewpoint, wrestling with the text, questioning the god portrayed, probing for its truth. Some of us may want to stick with the children’s version of the story with drifting ark with animal heads poking out and the rainbow arching overhead. But, as adults I think we may need to ask these kinds of questions of the Noah story. Remember, this is not a child's story. It's a story for adults. This is tale of terror to wrestle with.
At the same time that this is a tale of terror, it is also a story of hope and global peace. This story has some affirmative things to say to us as a people. Admittedly, the God of Noah brings both weal and woe, judgment and grace. However we understand or whatever we think of Noah’s “God,” this God is one whose heart grieves humanity’s wickedness, rebellion, and violence, like a parent grieves a wayward child. The God of Noah calls for humanity to avoid the shedding of blood or the taking of human life. God says, “I will require a reckoning for human life.” Violence and killing must be countered with justice.
Then, God establishes a covenant with Noah and his descendants. This is a covenant with all of humanity. God binds God’s own Self to this irrevocable covenant with humanity to never again destroy the earth by a flood. God’s cosmic weapons will “never again” be drawn. What has changed is not humanity or creation. God has changed. This does not mean that evil has ceased or that war, death or destruction will not come. It does mean that these destructive things are not rooted in the heart of God. They do not reflect God’s desire for retribution or vengeance.
I wonder if what we see reflected in this ancient tale of terror and this story of hope is a primitive grasping after an understanding of God or Reality. Since in this early human grappling with Reality all things come from God, does the story place the chaos and destructive nature of creation in the lap of God? We know that this story is borrowed and modified from Babylonian stories of a flood. Aren’t floods a sign of an angry God? Do we see in this tale not only a revolution in God’s heart, but a revolution in our human perception of God as being for us and offering undeserved grace toward all humanity and creation? Possibly what we have reflected in this ancient story of Noah is a seismic shift in humanity’s understanding of God or Reality as turned toward grace and peace. I wonder.
The sign of the covenant with Noah and his descendants is a rainbow in the sky. It is a promise to humanity and creation. The bow represents not just a weapon, but an undrawn weapon. God is no longer looking for an enemy. God will not be “brain-washed” by the destructive flood as a symbol of divine retribution. God will look upon the rainbow and remember this global covenant of peace with humanity and creation.
We can align ourselves with this cosmic shift toward peace, this divine covenant of peace with all humanity and with creation. As descendants of Noah, as God’s children, as partners with creation, as followers of Jesus, as Peacemakers, and Anabaptist-Mennonites, we align our lives with the God who proclaimed this global covenant of peace. Not only is this a covenant that speaks to global peacemaking, but also to ecological concerns, for God made this covenant with “every living creature.”
If the heart of God has turned toward peace with humanity and creation, then to align our lives with this God is to follow the way of peace and preservation, conciliation and conservation. We could say the same as followers of Christ. If we align our lives with Jesus Christ, we will be a people of peace. Our symbols are the dove with the olive branch and the unstrung bow overarching the earth. As Menno Simons sang with his life: We are people of God’s peace as a new creation…a new covenant of peace binds us all together. This is the covenant that binds us together with God as a congregation and as a people. This is our collective identity. This is who we are as a people. This is who we are as descendants of Noah. This is who we are as followers of Christ. We are people of God’s peace.
At the same time, God’s covenant of peace transcends our own nation, our own faith tradition, our own denomination. This is a global covenant of peace. It is a covenant with all the descendants of Noah, a covenant with all of creation. So, we can celebrate wherever the descendants of Noah honor and nurture God’s global covenant of peace with humanity and creation. While the world may continue to be flooded in chaos and violence and humans destroy the environment, there are descendants of Noah who remember, honor, and nurture God’s global covenant of peace.