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Forty Days Grieving with Noah

March 3, 2018

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“Forty Days” is a sermon series prepared by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary for the White Plains Presbyterian Church during Lent 2018. This sermon was preached on the Second Sunday of Lent, February 25, 2018. Today’s illustration of Jesus watching the rain come down is by Simon Smith, and British artist whose work, in part, inspired this series.

Genesis [6:5-6], 7:1–5, 11–19; 8:6–18; 9:8–13           Mark 1:12-13

We started our Lenten journey last Sunday by contemplating what Jesus did during his forty days in the wilderness. I suggested that Jesus was on something like a Native American vision quest, a spiritual journey to discover his identity, his direction, and the path ahead of him. I illustrated the point by referring to the vision quests undertaken by T’Challa and Erik Killmonger in the movie Black Panther. Alone in the wilderness, Jesus was tracing the footsteps of his people through sacred history to see where things went wrong. He faced again the forces that lured God’s people into historical dead ends of idolatry and empire and discovered in himself the possibility of the just reign of God come near.[i]

Throughout Lent we too are going to follow some of these same footprints, paying attention to other scriptural stories that feature the number forty. Today, we are going to begin at the beginning, with Noah.[ii]

We read in Genesis 6:5-6 that “God saw the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their heart was only evil continually and God regretted that God had made humankind on the earth and it grieved God to the heart.” And so God decided to unmake creation and start over. But Noah, we are told, found favor with God. And so we read …

[read Genesis text][iii]

Flood stories appear in 217 cultures around the world… 95% of the stories talk about a global flood… 73% say animals and a boat or involved, and 35% claim the bird was sent out at the end. I don’t know what these kind of statistics mean, other than that the story is deeply rooted in our human consciousness. But each cultural telling is specific. [iv]

As Walter Brueggemann puts it, ancient Israel’s story “faces a basic incongruity of human life. On the one hand, God has called the world into being to be God’s faithful covenant partner… But on the other hand, it has not worked out that way.” The world has betrayed God’s intent. The same incongruity is true of God’s people. We were created to be God’s faithful covenant partner, but it has not worked out that way. We daily betray God’s intention for our world, and that betrayal has become systemic and cultural. The world as we know it, and as we live it, is the source of grief to God. I find it fascinating and suggestive that the word for grief here is the same word used to describe the pain of a woman in childbirth, and the labors of men working in the field. Both pains/griefs are ultimately productive of good, and St. Paul will pick up this image of all creation groaning as in labor pain for the arrival of responsible human beings so that the earth can be healed, but in our scripture text today we encounter a God who appears to be having his or her first encounter with grief, an immature God, and God does not yet seem to know what to do with it except to wish it and its cause all away.[v]

The story speaks of God’s sweeping judgment on civilization as it had come to be, on the empires of the earth, and their great cities and kings. This is not the way it was supposed to work out. This is not what God intended. God is still passionate about what God created, or God would not be grieved. Yet, “God is less like a tyrant and more like an utterly frustrated parent:” God simply wants to just sweep it all away. Or, perhaps a better analogy would be that God is like a young child trying to build with blocks, who smash her project and sends blocks crashing when what she has made is not perfect.[vi]

But note carefully how human evil affects even God. There is a powerful image in this story of how destructive regret can be, and what grief can lead us to do. In grief, has God become what God deplores, destructive of human life and planetary life? Is God’s violence a mirror of human violence? Is this how violence perpetuates itself?

There’s an also an insight here into the important role humanity plays as part of creation. “As we go, so goes the whole world.” In an age of “widespread oppression, corporate greed, gross income inequality, and global climate change,” that should give us pause.[vii]

God tries to start over, to make a second creation. As the flood waters rise, they return the earth to its primal state, waste and void, tohu wabohu, the way it was in the beginning. Watery chaos. The second creation begins with the appearance of dry ground. The birds sent out of the ark remind us of the God’s spirit hovering over the water in Genesis 1:1. This should be a world made new.

God tries to start over, but it doesn’t work! “The animals that emerge from the ark have not changed their natures, and neither have the humans. The human heart can still conceive of evil. All the terror of the waters has not changed that.” But it has worked “an irreversible change in God, who now will approach creation with an unlimited patience and forbearance.”[viii]

And so this time God makes a covenant. A promise. An unconditional promise. And the promise is this: violence is off the table. The rainbow that God hangs in the sky is a war bow. God un-notches the arrow of wrath from his war bow and breaks it, and God hangs the bow in sky, never to be used again. God renounces violence and destruction as ways of dealing with grief, disappointment, and frustration. God will find another way.

That does not mean God’s people have ceased to resort to violence. There is no question that Jesus, wandering for forty days in the uncultivated wilderness by the Jordan River, could see all the ways in which his people, Israel, return to violence again and again: to wage war against their enemies, to draw sharp lines between who is in and who is out, to suppress dissent – all in the name of God. To wander the wilderness of Palestine was to wander through ancient battlefields and places of conflict, ancient sites of worship and contests between prophets and kings. But that was not God’s way, not the real God’s way, not the way of YHWH who spoke to Jesus at his baptism. This God’s way is one of covenant, commitment, patience and relationship. This God’s way does rejects violence.

I want you to consider that every claim to justify violence, subsequent to the flood, to resort to violence, to believe that violence is ever redemptive, is blasphemy. Even when it occurs in scripture. Even when biblical ancestors claimed that God called for the violence or claimed God himself[!] exacted vengeance. I certainly believe that Jesus experienced the grief of God in the wilderness and returned from the wilderness with a conviction that violence was not the way of God, but the way of every earthly empire from ancient times to the present.[ix]

When the ark came to rest on Ararat, Noah spent another forty days looking out upon this new creation. I want to linger with Noah here on the mountain top, because if God has grown through this encounter, Noah has a lot of learning and growing to do as well. And what he fails to do is important. We are told that Noah was righteous, blameless in his generation, and that he walked with God. Well, that may have been good enough “in his generation” that could conceive only evil. But from our perspective, Noah seems cold toward his fellow human beings and the earth. Psychopathic even. If God had seen how human hearts conceived of evil, Noah seems heartless. Not once does he ever appeal to God to save others. He just gets to work to save himself, his family, (and, I will grant, all the animals), but focusing on saving the animals comes close to justifying all the violence and death.

Where are Noah’s tears? I want tears for all those who have died, human, plant and animal ( a lot of animals died). I want tears of regret. Rivers of tears, Oceans of tears. World enveloping floods of tears. I would like to think that Jesus spent some of his time in the wilderness crying, joining himself through his tears to all those who have died by violent means.[x]

When the news broke about the mass murder of students at the high school in Parkland, Florida, the despair was palpable. We mixed this despair with our tears on Ash Wednesday. The next day, Thursday, the New York Times ran a piece titled,

“Gunfire erupts at school.
Leaders offer prayers.
Children are buried.
Repeat.”

But in the last ten days, everything has changed, hasn’t it. The unrelenting pressure of students who are processing their trauma life in front of the nation, has forced a CNN town hall meeting, got new commitments from congressman Marco Rubio, pressured the President to call for a ban on bump stocks, have led advertisers and corporations to drop the NRA, and raised millions for a national march next month. We have (the potential for) a new national discussion.[xi]

Of course, we also seem to be sliding into an acceptance of arming teachers. An idea that two weeks ago seemed crazy – is happening de facto. Embracing violence as a solution, despite the fact that all the evidence-based research tells us students are not safer when teachers are armed and that our schools will be more dangerous with guns present. An Internet meme emerged this week – “would you want to be the black teacher holding a gun when the police arrive?” This whole conversation needs to be brought back together with the conversation initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement and Michelle Alexander’s work on racial bias in policing, law enforcement, and the prison system. We need to remember that guns are most often used for male suicide, and for the murder by men of intimate partners and immediate family: of girlfriends, wives and children. Our problem with guns is not just about mass shootings. We have not yet begun to talk about holding gun manufacturers responsible for their products and marketing, or how our nation was born in racist violence and with genocidal practices against indigenous peoples that depended on armed citizens – the origins of our Second Amendment – violence we do know yet not know how to repent of. Our gun violence is acted out in the context of our nation being the largest purveyor of violence and arms trafficking in the world.[xii] Just this morning, Charles Blow wrote in the New York Times,

The American idea is caught up in carnage. Its very beginning is rooted in gun violence. It is by the barrel that this land was acquired. It is by the barrel that the slave was subdued and his rebellions squashed. And that is to say nothing of our wars.

We have venerated the gun and valorized its usage. America is violent and the gun is a preferred instrument of that violence. America, in many ways, is the gun.[xiii]

These are wilderness thoughts, I know. But Jesus, in his time of testing, was surely thinking beyond ways of tinkering with the Roman Empire to make it a little safer, a little less oppressive, a little more fair. He was going to the root of the problem itself, the human heart and our history of turning to violence to save us. This is the path ultimately rejected by God.

I was to invite you during this second week of Lent to imagine sitting with Noah for forty days and forty nights on the top of Mount Ararat: there is a chance at a new future him, but Noah has no idea what it is or what it will involve. If God has hung up the war bow, how will we now walk with God? Can you imagine a world without violence? I want to invite you to sit in that moment this week. The world as we know it, is not what God intended. But the time of judgment is over. It is past. It is now time to build something new. It is, in fact, to be something new. But what?[xiv]

Our sermon-hymn this morning captures this moment of pause, this moment of waiting and expectation. It expresses a deep trust in the God who is and will remain faithful to us, but an uncertainty about where we are going and what comes next. It is a plea for guidance, to know what the “next” will require of us. And in song, it helps us offer ourselves up to walk with God, discerning with God a new way into a new world.

Sing: “God of Compassion, in Mercy Befriend Us.”

 

[i] Paraphrased from Ched Myers, Say to this Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship. (Orbis, 1996).

[ii] For a fascinating look at several avenues with this story, in particular the relationship between science and faith and our desire to root our faith in the world, themes which are not taken up in this sermon, see J. David Plains, When the Great Abyss Opened: Classic and Contemporary Readings of Noah’s Flood. (Oxford, 2003).

[iii] Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary. (W.W. Norton and Company, 1996).

[iv] Bruce Feiler, Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land through the Bible. (William Morrow, 2001)

[v] The images of covenant and grief are derived from Walter Brueggemann, Genesis. (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). (John Knox Press, 1982). The image of God’s immaturity is explored in Bill Moyers, et.al. Genesis: A Living Conversation. (Doubleday, 1996). See also Jack Miles, God: A Biography. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. (Vintage, 1996).

[vi] Brueggemann (God as frustrated parent) and Moyers, et al. (God as parent and child).

[vii] Rodney Sadler, Jr. “Genesis” in Gale Yee, Hugh Page Jr., and Matthew Coomber, eds. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha. (Fortress Press, 2014).

[viii] For “Creation has not changed…” see Ellen Frankel. The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah. (Harper, 1996). For a similar sentiment, “There seemed to be less and less point to the flood.” see the novel by Madeleine L’Engle, Many Waters, the fourth in her time Quintet. For the irreversible change in God, see Brueggemann. 

[ix] In my admittedly limited reading I have not found a concern with the violence in any other flood story. For a reading of the flood alongside the Enuma Elish and the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, see Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!” God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. (Orbis, 2010). For a couple Native American stories that justify the violence, see American Indian Myths and Legends, Selected and Edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz. Pantheon Books, 1984).

[x] On the healing power of tears, see Bob Haverluck, When God was Flesh and Wild: Stories in Defense of the Earth. (Liturgical Press, 2017).

[xi] https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/cnns-town-hall-on-guns-and-the-unmaking-of-marco-rubio

[xii] James E. Atwood, America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé. (Cascade Books, 2012). See also Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment. (City Lights Open Media, 2017).

[xiii] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/25/opinion/america-is-the-gun.html

[xiv] On Ararat, from Bruce Fieler, Walking the Bible. “Mount Ararat is a perfect volcanic pier amid 16,000, 984 feet high, with a junior volcano, a little Ararat, attached to his hip. The highest peak in the middle east (and the second highest in Europe), Big Ararat is holy to everyone around it. The Turks call is Agri Dagi, The Mountain of Pain. The Kurds call it the Mountain of Fire. Armenians also worship the mountain, which was in their homeland until [the genocide of] 1915. … Mount Ararat is the first place mentioned in the Bible that could be located with any degree of certainty.” The Turkish title is particularly interesting in light of the linguistic relationship between Pain and Grief.

 

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