May 28, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Genesis 9:11-17, Isaiah 54:7-17
What if the Rainbow is Working?
Earlier this year, I saw the Oscar-nominated film Arrival. It’s an extraordinary movie that weaves together a love story soaked in grief with, well, the arrival of aliens from outer space. As a film, it is exquisitely complex. It’s got action and romance, a deep spiritual ungirding, political negotiation, and some wibbly-wobbly time travel. More than anything, what struck me was a stunningly simple question at the center of the conflict.
See what happens is this: Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a professor of linguistics who gets whisked away by helicopter to the base camp established where several octopus-looking aliens have landed. Turns out, the aliens have landed in twelve spots all around the world. But here, Banks and a team of scientists begin working to communicate with the aliens. The humans write a word in English; the aliens draw some circles. After many failed attempts, the professor begins to decode this language when one day, the team receives this message from the aliens. Two words: “Use weapon.”
This sends the global community into a frenzy. Militaries begin preparing to respond while the professor and her team work to explain that their language is not fully understood. See instead of saying the word “weapon,” the aliens could actually be saying the word “tool.”
So which is it? Have they come to use a weapon against us, or they have come to give us a tool? This is the question behind so much of the fighting that has bloodied the world. It’s worth getting it right. Is their intention to cause us harm? Or is it possible they’ve come here bringing us something we desperately need? A weapon or a tool, which one are they displaying? (Which one are we…)
Even the Bible is not without weapons. We know the Bible itself has been used as a weapon to justify slavery, and execution, and domestic violence. Scriptures have been pulled out of context and brandished to condemn: those who are gay, those who are female, those who are living with disabilities, or mental illness, those who refuse to go to war, those who enlist in the military…
There are also loads of weapons in the Bible —from the battling armies in the Hebrew Bible, to the famous slingshot that took down a giant, to the whole armor of God which includes the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, and (my favorite) the shoes shod with the peace of the good news (Ephesians 6:10-17). It is not the case that the LORD our God refuses to handle weapons. It’s what God does with them that’s worth noticing.
“See it is I who created the smith,” says the LORD in the poetry of Isaiah. “He blows the fire of coals and produces a weapon fit for its purpose; I have… created the ravager to destroy. [But] no weapon that is fashioned against you shall prosper” (Isaiah 54:16-17).
You can see God at work creating and repurposing. So the sword gets heated by the flame and bent into a plowshare. A spear gets fashioned into a pruning hook. A famine gets turned into an harvest of barley. A prison cell becomes a choir loft so even the rocks in the walls join in the singing. A cross designed for execution gets taken and turned into a symbol of resurrection. As though God could take war itself and turn it into the deep mercy of understanding…As though, God could.
Today we’re continuing our sermon series on imagining the future, and we hear two scriptures in which God is speaking to the people in the moments after a terrible coming apart. Now things will be different! is the promise of the LORD. There is no missing the reassurance announced in these verses of poetry. At the same time, these light-filled words show off the shadows.
In the scripture from Genesis, God makes a promise to Noah, and his family, and every kind of animal, and every living creature: “Never again will I destroy the world with a flood.” You can hear all of creation answer back, Hallelujah! Except. There’s the problem of how God could destroy the world in the first place, even though the people were sinning, even though he was grieved to his heart, even though it was meant to wipe the slate clean and start over. Still. A God-driven genocide is a problem.
And it’s not the only one. God, you say you will never again destroy the world with a flood, but have you seen the world? How does this promise sound to the refugees whose lifeboat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea? To people starving in Sudan? To parents whose children were killed for going to an Ariana Grande concert? God, you’re technically correct; it hasn’t been by flood. But the world keeps on reeling from destruction.
Don’t you see? O God, it is a good promise. How can we believe you this time?
The second scripture comes from Isaiah from the poetry of the exile. It portrays Israel as the unfaithful wife and God as the scorned husband. And while this might sound strange to our ears, it was actually a common metaphor in the poetry of the Hebrew Bible. In other scriptures, this marriage turns violent.
There’s nothing especially cruel about the text that we just heard, but there’s something underneath the reassurance that makes me uneasy.“In overflowing wrath, for a moment, I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love, I will have compassion on you.” Which sounds all kinds of lovely, except to a person who has heard their partner say, “Sorry baby. I will change. Things will be different.” Okay.
God, it is a good promise. How can we believe you this time…
This is exactly the risk. Both scriptures run us right into the threat that comes with any reconciliation anytime, anywhere. Maybe things will be different this time, but how we can believe you? There is no peacemaking without taking this chance.
If it turns out to be a mistake, then these honeyed words bring harm instead of healing. Sure, that could really happen. Only thing is, what if God is right? What if it isn’t a lie to lure us back to faith, what if God is serious about turning wrath into compassion?
Imagine if the opportunity for violence gets interrupted and redirected. Imagine if the broken promise we have been wielding like a weapon could get surrendered, and pieced back together, and blessed, and made into a sign of everlasting life. Imagine the world undestroyed, teeming with possibility. What if the rainbow is working…
This weekend, our nation is observing Memorial Day. It is a complicated holiday. On one level, it marks the beginning of summer, and you can get a mattress on sale. On another level, the holiday rouses our patriotism and lights up our love for this country. On a deeper level, you might remember actual people who died serving in the military —people who are not weapons; people with names, and stories, and families.
However you experience this holiday, know that remembering is not a neutral activity. It is powerful, spiritual work. Remembering is how we strengthen our connection to those who have died; it renews our commitment to never forget. Remembering the people we love gives glory to God. Remember their names, and stories and families…
But I’ve got to tell you. Something I’m wondering is whether it is possible for our remembering to become a weapon. Is it a tool that unites us in Spirit? Or could it be a weapon?
If remembering is what provokes us to call for revenge…
If remembering invokes a rehearsal of our wondrous attraction to violence…
If remembering gives way to ritual that ignores the human people and instead gives glory to the firing of the guns, then remembering can turn into a battle hymn. And it’s no wonder we forget to prepare for a world making peace. This could happen.
But when this happens to us, what if we take our remembering and give it to God as a prayer? Our impulse for revenge. Our hearts stirred awake by Reveille. Our respect for sacrifice and our grieving for grandparents and friends… take all of this and hand it over to the LORD our God.
You know she will take this remembering in her two hands, and remove the clip, and say, “Here I bet we could make this into something good.” See right here, these are the stories of his family. You’ve got to keep those stories and give them to his children. Consider her commitment to service. Think of all the people whose lives she has touched. What if this could be her legacy instead of the way she got killed?
A few months ago, I had the privilege of speaking with Othea Stevenson, the mother of De’Mar Bester. De’Mar was shot and killed right out here last summer. I’m not sure whether the person who shot him has been arrested, and I have not heard Othea demanding this. Instead, she’s launching an effort to make Glenhurst Courts safer for De’Mar’s children. She is working to raise money for a bench to go by the light post. She is saying, We will answer this act of violence by making a place to sit down and have a conversation. Under our own vines and fig trees, see no one will make us afraid.
After the flood, the LORD our God hung up his bow in the clouds. Now this decommissioned weapon hangs in the sky as an invitation. “Look, you can turn in your weapons too,” says God. Together we will fill the sky with our promise to never again pull the trigger. Remember the day you gave it up and turned it in.
Suddenly, the kids have come into the room. “You’ve got to look out the window!” they’re saying as though you’ve never seen a storm before. Then against the dark clouds you see why they’ve come to get you. The promise of forgiveness is stretching all the way across the sky, see for a moment, we are not destroying the world. Oh Hallelujah. May it be so.