Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Noah: Captain Sumeria

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 6:1-8, 13-14, 7:1-5, 19-22, 8:1-4, 10-12, 9:8-13:

If you were expecting a baby, or perhaps a grandchild, and you went to a store to buy decorations for the nursery, perhaps someplace like Babies-R-Expensive, you would be almost guaranteed that one of the motifs available to you would be Noah’s Ark.  And if you were to buy a children’s Bible for that newborn, that Bible would be sure to include the story of Noah’s Ark in at as well.  And that always puzzles me because the image we have of Noah’s ark is nowhere close to what the story actually tells.  Indeed, one of the complaints leveled against the movie Noah, by one TV commentator who I am going to keep anonymous in order to protect her ignorance, said in reference to the movie Noah, and I quote, “my memories of the story of Noah are very different.  I had my children’s bible which had these wonderful illustration, and you had the two animals walking side by side, and then you had the rainbow and the dove comes and then the sun comes out and everybody lives happily ever after.”  That’s a nice idea, but it’s not scriptural, because no one lives, except for eight people, and they do not live happily ever after.

Linda and I went to see Noah or we might say, Captain Sumeria, on Friday, sort of a Waterworld meets We Bought a Zoo (thanks to Jon Stewart for the jokes) and I thought it was okay.  While I don’t think it’s going to win any major awards, it’s not anywhere close to the worst movie ever made, and theologically its okay.  Now the writers and director did take some artistic license in telling the story, in order to more fully explore some of the issues that come out of this story, such as the battle within us between good and evil, and how we know if we are doing what God really wants us to be doing, as well as what God’s true intention was in bringing about the flood, was it to totally uncreate, or was it to have a new creation.  And to make sense of the beginning of the film you really need to be familiar with 1 Enoch as well as Jubilees, which are two non-canonical texts.  But I do want to say that a biblical movie, or tv show, taking artistic license to tell the story really shouldn’t surprise us because every movie using biblical stories takes great license in telling the story, and yes you heard me right every single one of them, and as a preacher I think everyone one of these movies and shows should be required to put a disclaimer about that at the front, but that takes us off topic.

The story of Noah is not a nice touchy, feely, cuddly story, full of cute bunnies, lions and giraffes.  When we really look at what this story is saying, this is the story of nightmares.  We are told that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation.”  There are several people in scripture whom we are told are righteous or blameless, but I believe that the only one that gives the caveat about his generation, is Noah, and I think this is a telling comment about Noah.   It’s sounds good, but really it’s a backhanded compliment. It’s like saying someone is the most honest politician, or saying someone is the smartest person on a football team, or as was said to a friend who was being reappointed to Texas, that he was going to the most beautiful part of Texas.  When the level of competition is so low, what does it mean that you are a little above them?  One of the things I like doing when preaching out of the Hebrew scriptures is to look in Jewish commentaries, and in my study, the rabbis have nearly universal disdain for Noah.

Much of this comes in comparing Noah to others who we would consider righteous or blameless, and in particular to Abraham, who is the next major figure in Genesis.  When Abraham is told that God is going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and let me just throw out that it has nothing to do with homosexuality, Abraham argues on their behalf to try and save them, and not only does God listen to Abraham, but God goes along with what Abraham requests as well.  That does not happen here.  In fact Noah is silent the entire time.  Some of you may remember Bill Cosby’s famous routine between Noah and God.  But none of that happens.  Noah doesn’t talk to God.  Noah never speaks to God, and in fact the first time we hear Noah speak is well after the ark is safely back on dry ground and that is to offer a curse on his son Ham, and act which continues the violence of humanity.  Legends have arisen that Noah tried to warn his neighbors but they were so wicked that they failed to listen to him and maybe even mocked him, but that is not what the story says.  We are never told that Noah tries to warn others, tries to get them to repent, or even tries to get God to stop the action.  He doesn’t even pray for those who are not chosen.  Instead all we are told, repeatedly, is that Noah does what God requests of him.  And he does it without question, complaint or even voice.  And I have to say I’m a little sympathetic with the rabbi’s position on this, because for whatever reason Noah does nothing to help humanity, even his extended family beyond his wife Joan of Ark, and their three sons and their wives, and if he had any daughters, they are not saved.

What does it mean then to say that Noah is righteous, and yet he doesn’t do anything to help save others?  We are going to come back in a few weeks to the idea of righteousness, but Rabbi Elimalech of Lizensk once observed that there are two kinds of “righteous” persons: one is genuinely righteous, and the other dresses like a righteous person in a fur coat.  Each of them faces a freezing winter in different ways.  One will go out and collect wood for a fire; the other will wrap himself in his fur coat.  The one who collects wood lights a fire and invites others to join him.  He not only warms himself but others as well.  The one who makes himself cozy in his own heavy coat is secure, but those around him will freeze.  The genuinely righteous person is the one who shared warmth with others.  Is Noah a righteous man?  Or does his righteousness cause him to become self-righteous so that he comes to believe that he is good and right, and everyone else is wrong, and therefore it’s okay for them to die?

One of the charges leveled against the survivors of the Titanic was that those in the boats didn’t go to help those who were in the water.  The claim was made, and probably rightfully so, that had they rowed back that the boats may have been swamped by people trying to clamber in, and they too would have been lost and so they had to leave the area.  But in making the decision they then had to ignore the cries of their brothers and sisters, and husbands and sons, and friends who were crying and dying just beyond where they were and they chose to do nothing to help them.  One survivor, who was a young boy at the time, later lived near the baseball stadium in Detroit, and he said that whenever the stadium erupted in cheers over a homerun or some big play, that the sound was just as loud as it was on that night as those who were not in the boat cried for help.  One of the things that I think is done well in the movie is this reality, that as the people are screaming and dying outside the ark, and the family has to sit there and they let them die.  And then there was silence.  God doesn’t even speak while Noah is on the ark, and the silence had to be deafening in its completeness. A famous essay on the Noah story by Trevor Dennis, who was an Old Testament scholar, is called “Only the sound of rain.”

And what about God in this story?  Does God get any judgment from us? In Star Wars, the worst crime committed by the empire is the destruction of the planet Alderan by the Death Star, in which Obi One Kenobi utters his famous line “It’s as if a million voices cried out and then were suddenly silenced.”  And yet I don’t think we see God here as being like Darth Vader, even though the reality is the same, and I wonder why?

The passage begins with a very unusual stories about the sons of God mating with human women and having children, which scholars have puzzled about for millenia, and then we are told that “the wickedness of humankind was great on the earth.”  Because of this wickedness, God was sorry that humans had been created, that this “grieved him to his heart.”  Notice that it is not anger, but instead remorse, sadness or disappointment that causes God to act.  But what is the evil that is being done?  We don’t really know.  There are some sexual issues of some sort taking place, and we should note that these involve heterosexual acts.  But other than that all we know is that the “inclination” of people’s “hearts was only evil continually.”  Notice that it doesn’t even say that it was actions, but instead inclinations.  I find this striking in comparison to the story of Cain and Abel just 2 chapters before where God warns Cain about his inclinations, and says that sin is at the door lusting for him and that Cain must master it, but Cain is not punished for his inclinations, he is punished for his actions, and even then the murder of his brother doesn’t get him killed.  Instead he gets protected by God.

There are lots of destructive forces in the world.  Fire is devastating, but fire eliminates most things in its path, but as we have seen while water can be cleansing, with flooding it doesn’t eliminate things it just makes a bigger mess.  Just think of any of the images we have from flooding, or hurricanes, typhoons or tsunamis.  I think that one of the reasons that there is only one window in the ark is to make it difficult for Noah and his family to see the destruction which would have been everywhere they looked.  Anything that floated, including human and animal bodies, would have covered the surface of the water, and the stink would have been awful, and I’m not talking about what’s going on inside the ark, and the refuse would not go away when the waters receded, they would have still been there, and that’s what would have affronted Noah and his family when they left the ark.  When we think of the Noah story we don’t really think of the bodies, we don’t think of infants drowning, along with the animals, and how wicked could animals and infants be that they deserve to die?  This is not the cuddly story we were probably taught as children.  This is a scary, terrifying, disgusting, troubling story that should strike us to the core.  And I think it’s very dangerous to call this destruction good.  We live in the time of the holocaust and genocide, we live in a time in which we have the capacity to destroy all life many times over, and to say that one group will survive, and it’s for a good purpose, or for a good cause, and that those who survive are good, and that other deserve to die because they are evil is dangerous.  And yet, at the end of it, there is the note of hope, there is the new covenant and the rainbow.

God is changed by this encounter with humanity.  We often talk about God being all knowing and unchanging, but that is not the image of God portrayed in this story.  There is no indication given that God knew that humanity would turn out being inclined to evil, and then at the end of the story nothing has really changed, because after the flood when the promise is made, God says, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the heart is evil from youth.”  That is humanity is not changed, but clearly God is changed.  The very thing that led to the flood, the inclination of our hearts to evil, is also the very thing that causes God to give us a covenant.  And this covenant is totally onesided.  Unlike future covenants which ask something of humanity, God is the only one who has to do anything here, and it is God becoming self-limiting.  Even though humanity remains the same, God chooses to remain in relationship with us, just differently.  If you stop in this story with just the destructiveness of God you have nothing, this story also shows us that God is not done creating or with creation and it shows us the certainty of God’s promises to us.

It also shows us that our actions have consequences, and not just for us.  The destruction of all of creation, including the death of all the land animals and birds, is because of human actions.  That means that we are responsible for the creation and that our actions have consequences, not just for us, but for all of creation, for the entire earth.  This should give us some significant pause, because what we are also told is that God protects the animals.

There is a lot of detail offered in the story about the protection of the animals and assuring their survival, and I can imagine Noah saying as he see them all coming, “we’re going to need a bigger boat,” because in the version we heard this morning, Noah is ordered to bring in not just two of every animal, but one pair of unclean and seven pairs of clean animals.  Of course one of the problems is that kosher and sacrifical laws have not yet been given, and second is that at the point everyone is vegetarian, as one of the things that Noah will be told after he gets off the ark is that humans now have permission to eat animals, and thus become omnivores.  But scholars are in large agreement that we actually have two different versions of this story which have been combined into one story, and this is not the only place we find this happening.

So God protects the animals as well as Noah, and then God makes a covenant with all of the creation.  This is not just a covenant between God and humans, instead God says this is “between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations.”  While we as humanity can bring destruction upon ourselves, upon animals, and even upon the creation itself, God is going to work to save and preserve the creation and us, and God covenants with us to that effect.

I honestly don’t know what to make of the Noah story.  And to answer a couple of questions, no, there were no dinosaurs on the ark because they had become extinct some 65 million years before, and if you ask me if the story of Noah is actually true, that is historically accurate, the answer is probably no, but the story of Noah can be true, that is the heart of it is true, even if it might not be historically accurate as told.   Some want to say that this story is all about the rainbow, the covenant and the hope, but it can’t be just about that because that is to ignore everything that comes before.  I can’t just ignore the God who destroys and kills everything out of regret.  And yet even with that, at the end of the day as I struggle with this, I can’t just focus on the destruction because I too am left with that image of the rainbow, the vision of hope, the proclamation to all of creation about God’s covenant, and I am reminded of what Jesus says at the end of the Gospel of Mark, in Mark’s version of the great commission, where Jesus says “Go into the world and proclaim the good news to all of creation.”  The good news is not just for us, the covenant is not just for us, it is for all of creation, because God has called it all good.  This past week we celebrated Earth Day, or as it’s called in the church, the Festival of God’s Creation, and we need to remember that we are responsible for the creation. We need to remember that our actions on this planet impact not just us, but they impact everything; that God’s covenant is not just with us, but it is with the whole creation, that we are all tied together, and that God is concerned about the creation just as much as God is concerned about us.  Amen.

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