January 17, 2016

Church of Peace, UCC

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Genesis 7:11-8:2

An Act of God

(first in a series: Waters of Chaos and Creation)

In the Bible, there is nothing neutral about the waters. The waters give refuge to the reign of chaos, and chaos is not a crazy, busy day. Chaos is the mix of life and death that lurks just out of bounds. It’s what one writer describes as a kind of “cosmic horror.”[1] You know about this chaos, we all do, even though it’s not something we like to look at. Chaos is the darting flash of shadow in the corner of your eye, the sound you probably didn’t hear, but you probably did. And in the Bible, the waters are teeming with chaos.

Now in these weeks leading up to Lent, we’re plunging into a short sermon series on the waters of chaos and creation. I know we’ve all had our own experiences with water. Some of us have been on river boats, or sail boats, or ships on the ocean. We have survived lake swimming, and basement flooding, and if you have ever noticed the presence of God in the water, I would like to include your experience in our worship service on the thirty-first.

But when it comes to the water in the Bible, fair warning. The lake is not quiet. The sea is not safe. The flood comes with fury. The waters harbor monsters and ghosts that walk upon them. Probably angels too, because the water is the wilderness between heaven and earth. And in the story we hear today, make no mistake. The waters are a weapon in the hands of a sorry God.

The story we hear today is one of those stories, which, if a thoughtful atheist pointed to it and said to me, “Mariah, so this is the God you believe in?” I would have to take a deep breath. There is something about God in this story that I don’t know.

It all starts when the LORD looks upon the people and sees the wickedness of humanity. The Bible says, “Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry  he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:5-6). God looks at what he had written on the page, and in one breath, rips the page from the tablet, crumples it into a ball and throws it in the trash. God decides to destroy all of creation. Wipe it out and start over. But to start over, God will need to rescue a remnant, so Noah’s family and a smattering of animals catch a break.

I believe God’s eye is on the sparrow, so I know he watches me. Think of all the sparrows God drowns in the flood. All the animals and trees, all the human bodies lapping against the side of the ark. Is this really the God we believe in?

So my first impulse is to defend God. Maybe the writers of this story were mistaken. They were taking artistic liberty borrowing our actual God to make God into character, maybe even a caricature. Surely God to whom we give the glory, God from whom all blessings flow, never did the stuff in this story. Right?

Or maybe it’s just our religious ancestors’ attempt to tell a story that’s common in the ancient world. In the Babylonian version, there’s a whole team of gods at work —some cause the flood and one, named Ea, rescues a man named Utnapishtim and his wife by teaching them to build an ark.[2] It’s very much like our story, except we don’t have a conflicted divine assembly. We have one God who destroys, and grieves, and rescues, and tries again. Our God holds all the good and all the evil. And in the version from our faith, God changes.

Still. God destroys creation because of the wickedness of humanity. There is something in God I don’t recognize. I don’t know who this God is, and I thought I knew God. Now God is defying our logic and disappointing our expectations. What if God is capable of doing the unthinkable…

Which is really quite terrifying, and not even the worst part. The worst part is what if there’s something in me I don’t recognize? What if every person has the capacity to destroy, and rescue, and grieve, and start over? What if I am capable of doing the unthinkable…

A few years ago, there was a charming family television show called “Joan of Arcadia” about a teenager who keeps bumping into God who appears to her in the guise of everyday people. In one episode, Joan is being pressured to finally go to the DMV and get her driver’s license. (As someone who worked up the courage to learn to drive at the age of twenty-eight, I could relate to Joan’s reluctance to get her license.)

Years earlier, Joan’s older brother had been in a car accident making him paraplegic. Joan’s parents and friends assume she doesn’t want to get her license because she’s of afraid of being in a car accident like her brother. There’s an exquisite scene in which God observes that Joan is not really afraid of being in a car accident. What she’s really afraid of is causing one.

God tells her this: “Being an adult isn’t merely about risking your own well-being, it means risking others’ – in cars, in love, in family – hurting others is always a possibility. That’s what’s difficult about being an adult: facing the harsh fact that you may hurt others even when you don’t want to.”[3] God should know.

Still. A car accident is one thing. Evil in the world is another thing entirely, isn’t it? There are people who torture. There are people who prey upon and hurt little children, people who take pleasure in going to rallies for hate. I see this and think, “But I could never do that!” I don’t know how to make sense of the violence. There is no adequate explanation for cruelty. No explanation for all those bodies floating in the water around the ark.

When God sees the wickedness of humankind, so the story goes, she decides to blot out every creature. Except for Noah’s family and their menagerie. Except God changes her mind about the wickedness in the world. It’s not going to work to exterminate everything that has turned violent because “the inclination of the human heart is evil.” Which is a pretty terrible indictment, if you ask me, and a pretty human attempt by our storytellers to explain what cannot be explained.

I’ll buy this much: It may be that God looks at the world she made and sees the evil we do to each other, but you know if God tries that, she will see, that is not all. The first time when God looks at the world, she wipes out most of creation! The second time God looks at the world, that’s not what she does.

We can try this too for ourselves. Go and really look at evil unfolding in our world. You’ll see it if you look, but we’ve got to look at it all the way to its end. It doesn’t hold up. Hate can flare up like a flash in the pan, but over the course of human history, hate does not have staying power. Or as Reverend King reminds us, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And mercy out beyond that.

Reverend Martin Luther King Junior was one of our greatest teachers for how to look at the truth of evil then see it change. On multiple occasions, he was confronted by the vitriol of hate. He would look hate dead in the eye and issue this threat:  “All right. We’re going to turn you into love.” And that’s what he did! His ministry reminds us that if every person is capable of doing evil, it is also the truth that every person is capable of compassion.

In one of his sermons, he reminds us of our potential for transformation: “Let us not despair. Let us not lose faith… We must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed and that [humankind] by the grace of God can be lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love.”[4]

Friends, it may be the case that the violence of humanity nailed our savior to the cross, but it wasn’t evil that rolled the stone away. Only love can do that.

The waters in the Bible are teeming with chaos, with monsters under the sea and ghosts that walk on the waves. There is always that flicker of shadow you see just in the corner of your eye, that part of God we don’t fully understand, that part of ourselves we don’t fully understand. And maybe it’s evil. But when I really look at it, I promise you, that is not all. Maybe that flicker of shadow is what holds the possibility for unthinkable grace, for mercy I can’t even explain.

Reverend King looked at the violence in the world and saw there is so much more. As he put it “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

God looked again at the world after the rain stopped, then God breaks the bow of violence and hangs up the weapon of water in the sky so war will not win. Carpet bombing will not win. Drone strikes will not win. Look at the broken weapon in the sky and see all the light, and color, and truth pouring through. Now the waters of chaos turn into creation, death turns into life. And our human infatuation with violence can give way to our deepest truth, our primal human compassion.

May it be so. Amen.

[1] Beal, Timothy K. Religion and Its Monsters. Routledge: New York, 2002. page 19.

[2] Matthews, Victor H. and Don C. Benjamin. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. Paulist Press: New York, 1997. pages 26-28.

[3] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Joan_of_Arcadia#Drive.2C_He_Said

[4] Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached the sermon “Death of Evil Upon the Seashore” (containing this quote) at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York on May 17, 1956.

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