The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden | March 1, 2009
The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
March 1, 2009
Genesis 9: 8-17; Mark 1: 9-15
This past week the ban was lifted on the publishing of photos of the coffins of American war dead. We are allowed, again, to see the tragic cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That violence is again on the front page of our newspapers. Mass graves have recently been identified in Poland – they seem to date to the Second World War and be the bodies of German refugees from the Soviet Union. Another mass grave, says my newspaper, has just been found near a police station in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In every country in the world this week, in every culture and religion, violence has altered or ended the lives of children, women and men. In homes, in the streets, in schools and offices and places of worship violence has violated the sanctity of human beings.
And it has always been this way. I don’t say that to excuse or minimize violent acts, but as a statement of fact. It has been this way since earliest times, and what grief this has caused for God, and what dismay. This is not who God made us to be. What high hopes God had for us “in the beginning.” By the sixth chapter of Genesis we read that God is “sorry” for having made humanity in the first place. “Every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually,” says the text. God is sorry to have called us into being! We were never expected to be perfect, and we aren’t today, but it’s another thing to be wicked through and through, to manifest evil in all that we say and think and do. And so ensues one of the best known stories in the Bible – Noah, he builds him, he builds him an arky arky, makes it out of hick’ry barky barky. God chooses to save a family who stands out among the rest because they have integrity, compassion, and no taste for violence. And God will blot out the rest, wipe them from the face of the earth, start again with a clean slate. Humanity will start again from this one family. The rapists will drown, and the murderers. God wants to drown sexual violence itself, the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, pedophilia, thievery, every wicked act or attitude we can muster – all of it will be asphyxiated and ended as waters rise and rise, above any ability to float. All our wickedness will sink into the muck at the bottom and be gone forever. God has started over, keeping what is good and destroying the rest, washing the earth clean of it.
And when it is over, God decides never to do such a thing again. The hope was to eradicate violence from humanity; now God decides to stop being violent as well. God resolves never, ever to destroy again. And to help God abide by that promise, the Almighty hangs a bow in the sky as a note-to-self. No matter how wicked humanity may become again, God will resist the temptation to destroy – to give in to grief, anger, dismay. The bow that hangs in the sky is the kind that shoots arrows, but this bow is empty of arrows. It is a redeemed device, a reminder of the ability to do violence and the refusal to succumb to it. God, essentially, is declaring the truce, being the first to lay down the weapon, to foreswear violence, the first to break the cycle of violence. We, humanity, are thus to be encouraged to do the same. God is setting the example, and swears never, ever to go back on the promise.
God is changed, irrevocably changed, by the experience of obliterating all but a handful of living things. Despite what is presented to us as a legitimate decision to destroy for the sake of ending wickedness, stopping the awful path that humanity was on, redirecting us, saving us from ourselves, giving us a second chance – despite God’s grief and dismay at what had become of the crown of creation, the objects of God’s love – God is profoundly changed. Humanity, however, was not. Violence and evil remain embedded in whatever part of us the various disciplines declare is in control – our psyches, our souls, our spirits, our emotions, our DNA. No, we haven’t changed at all. I wonder if Noah, Mrs. Noah, and their immediate family, honorable as they were, weren’t a little intimidated at the destruction around them. Those first new generations, alone as they were in the world, had a very immediate reminder of the wages of sin. But our propensity to do violence was still there, and as time went on it manifested itself again and again. Remember this story can, I think, help us to a refreshed understanding of the parable of the Prodigal Son. The son may come back home, chastened, perhaps dedicated to changing his profligate ways but maybe not. The real story is of the love and mercy of the father who, no matter how far his son may stray, still loves him and will not let him go, who roots for him and cherishes him without enabling or encouraging more bad choices. The father renews his commitment to a beloved child who is currently chastened yet probably fundamentally the same guy as before.
Good news is everywhere in the story of God’s covenant with Noah. As the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has noted, we are not abandoned to the chaos of our disobedience, of our violence. Not only will God not destroy us all for it, God promises to stay present among us and help us – even bless us – no matter how painful it may be to watch what we do to one another. Brueggemann writes, “The one-to-one connection of guilt and punishment is broken. God is postured differently . . . [T]here may be death and destruction. Evil has not been eradicated from creation. But we are now assured that these are not rooted in the anger or rejection of God. The relation of creator to creature is no longer a scheme of retribution. Because of a revolution in the heart of God, that relation is now based in unqualified grace.” [p. 84]
And that grace is, in a most unqualified way, for all. God’s covenant is with all flesh, every living creature on earth. It is not just for Israel. It is not just for Christians, or for those from any particular religious community, region, or country. It’s not just for the United States and our current allies. God chooses to be in covenant with all living creatures, God is partnered with all, will keep promises with all, and showers blessings on all. Humanity matters equally and infinitely to the Almighty. If only human communities could feel that way toward one another!
There is some violence permitted to humanity by God in the making of this covenant, and it is a source of pain to some today. God gives permission to us to eat more living things – animals now, as well as plants. To some vegetarians and vegans who see the consumption of meat as unethical because of the cruelty of animal slaughter, this text is very hard. So, too, to those who oppose capital punishment is God’s requirement that those who kill a person, themselves be killed by people. For some environmentalists, God’s “delivery” into human hands – into human control – of all living things encourages domination of the natural world rather than understanding ourselves as respectful members of ecosystems that require domination from none in order for all to thrive. These are not silly concerns from radicals on the fringe but crucial issues of religious ethics, questions that go to the heart of the Genesis story: God chooses to cease from violence no matter what. What does it mean for us to do the same?
On this first Sunday in Lent, our Bible passages always turn to the temptation of Jesus in the desert in the first forty days and nights of his ministry. He spends those days struggling mightily to conquer the devil’s ability to pervert his judgment, his calling. Jesus was not tempted to do wild or unheard of things, but those things he actually could do but should not. He had to conquer Satan’s tempting before starting his ministry – he had to work it out of his system. I wonder if God knew what Jesus was going through, if God ever has felt tempted to renege on the promise never again to destroy. Thank God for rainbows! As we proceed into this holy season of Lent, let us also consider what tempts us – tempts us to do those things that really are in our power, the wickedness and violence and sin that we can – and do – do. These are the days to consider how we participate in violence – even the violence that made God wash away all but a few members of the human family. These are the days to remind ourselves of all the cycles of violence today that need a truce, that need promises that are kept, that need some actor to just say “no,” “stop,” “no more,” - someone to break the cycle of tit-for-tat retribution as God did, as Christ did, forgiving the agents of the imperial power that had him executed. How can we stop violence, stop our own, or our implicit support of it? The temptations that we’re to consider in Lent aren’t about indulging in chocolate but participating in sin.
God has kept the promise – the Almighty has not and will not wipe us out again. Actually, it is we who have the ability to do that now. We need to make a covenant amongst ourselves not to do that – to resist the temptation to push the nuclear button, or destroy our planet’s ecological balance, or to descend into multiple wars for power and resources that leave no one standing. Our greed tempts us to do these things. We need to make a covenant all together and to see signs of it everywhere – is it every baby’s face, unknown to us or adored beyond comprehension? It is every sunrise, the early light of dawn, something, again, that we all share and that reminds us of new beginnings? Or can every rainbow come to symbolize our mutual determination and promise to end every form of violence that tempts us? Amen.
Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982).