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What/Where’s the Bow Now?

First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9:8-17

©2021 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Intro to Scripture
Scripture
Sermon

Listening to the story sung as a sea shanty
is actually a good way for us to connect again
to this biblical story as just that, a darn good yarn,
a story of mythic and fabulous proportions,
where the “entire world” disappears
under a resurgent primordial chaos.

Our biblical story may well be rooted
in geo-climactic events, but it also has roots
in other ancient mythic tales,
told by neighbouring ancient Near Eastern cultures.
It’s a fascinating element of human religions globally
that flood-creation-redemption stories
can be found in almost every culture,
including the sacred stories
of the indigenous peoples of North America.

What’s common in them all, including “ours”
is their wrestling with the meaning and implications
for humanity and creation,
when their survival is threatened
by the seemingly capricious, catastrophic forces
of gods and nature.
They all ask these profound questions:
Do we matter?
Are we safe?
Is the power in and over creation cruel or benign?
How could God let this happen?

Where the biblical story departs from its similar cousins
is in its answers to those questions.
And here’s where we can fall down a rabbit hole!
Because this isn’t the sweet children’s book story
we want it to be.

It begins with God,
who despite having declared the work of her Creation
“Good” only six chapters before,
is now throwing a global tantrum
over the moral turpitude of humanity,
destroying everyone and everything,
except the family of Noah, and those creatures
they managed to accommodate on their ark.
What’s more, if we were to read on after the rainbow,
we’d see that the behaviour of these survivors
is as prone to every imaginable vice
that ticked God off in the first place.

We progressive Christian types,
who prefer our God to be abounding in merciful love,
and focusing God’s energy on global justice and equity,
we just don’t know what to do with this!
Too many in both Jewish and Christian
interpretive traditions
have glossed over these ugly bits,
and with disastrous consequences
for the planet and for the global human community.
All too often the Flood-Noah-Rainbow saga has been used
as a proof text for our own human tantrums,
ethnic persecutions, oppressive and genocidal behaviours,
and wanton disregard for the wellbeing of creation.

So we have some serious biblical homework to do
if we’re going to be able to see this Covenant story
as Gospel–Good News–worth living and sharing.

We’ve done the first step already,
recognizing it as an ancient tale,
that is ethnocentric, patriarchal,
with cultural norms and theological biases
that are millennia apart from our own.
Knowing that, we can do better
than to make it prescriptive for our own behaviours.
So we need to figure out how the story
is supposed to function in our faith.
So, please imagine it
as one of those hand-me down stories
good enough to pass on through generations,
precisely because the questions at its core
are the ones people ask
whenever they run up against big trouble.
The version of the story as we have it in our Bibles
was written for a generation of descendants
long after Noah,
who were barely surviving
in Babylon in the 6th century before Christ,
as stateless, landless, forced-labourers.
It wasn’t flood that threatened and terrified this generation,
but genocidal warfare that had stripped away everything.
There was no Temple,
no festivals and high holies, no large gatherings,
no freedom of movement,
no sense of control over their health and destiny,
just those same questions:
Do we matter?
Are we safe?
Is the power in and over creation cruel or benign?
How could God let this happen?

The story was passed and shared
to the generation decimated and dispersed by Rome’s
final destruction of Jerusalem, 600 years later,
forced to flee to lands where they were never welcome.
It’s been told by their descendants,
forced into ghettos, and onto hell-bound trains,
with these questions echoing again:
Do we matter?
Are we safe?
Is the power in and over creation cruel or benign?
Why would God let this happen?

Think of those tiny house churches of the first centuries,
or those in Communist Russia and China,
or in Nigeria, persecuted wondering if they’d survive,
hearing in this story their questions:
Do we matter?
Are we safe?
Is the power in and over creation cruel or benign?
Why would God let this happen?

Every generation that stands in the wreckage
of flood, wildfire, hurricane, warfare, human tragedies
great and small hear their questions echoed in this story:
Do we matter?
Are we safe?
Is the power in and over creation cruel or benign?
Why would God let this happen?

And, to this people, this generation,
11 ½ months into a pandemic,
cut off from the spaces and rituals of our faith,
with no freedom of movement,
where vaccines are rarer than hen’s teeth,
and viral variants signal an alarming dispassionate cruelt.
Is it any wonder we are asking the same questions:
Do we matter?
Are we safe?
Is the power in and over creation cruel or benign?
Why would God let this happen?

This sea-shanty story attempts to answer these
with what is a radical theological possibility;
God is moved.
Placed against the equivalent flood sagas
in which the gods are eternally capricious,
vindictive, or simply indifferent to suffering,
In this story, God regrets her anger,
and then grieves the loss of life
that God has allowed to happen,
and moves heaven and earth
to repair and restore, and replenish.
Far from being an Unmoved Mover,
as Aristotle called the Divine One,
God is “the Most Moved Mover.”

God cares about what happens.

In this radically innovative story,
God makes covenant with Godself,
committing to a future relationship
with all humanity and all creation,
as creation’s Eternal Sustainer.

And this covenant is sealed with a sign,
a hung bow in the sky.

Midrashers noticed last week
that the word is bow, – as in bow-and-arrow.
God hangs up her instrument of wrath,
transfiguring it
into this celestial blessing,
all the more beautiful
for its gentle ephemerality.

To all the generations
left by whatever tragedy
bereft of their human-made symbols of faith
this ancient tale reminds us that
no buildings of stone,
no pulpits or pews,
are needed to be reminded of God’s Covenant
with creation and with all humanity
ALL humanity…..

just light refracted through
the very water that once destroyed
and now blesses.

Perhaps, when you can’t see,
or can’t wait to see a rainbow,
look for the dawn, or the heart-red of a sunset.
Look for cardinals against the snowfall.
Look for the downward arc of the CoVid stats.
Look for kindness that eases pain.
Look for light that pierces darkness.
Look for life that springs from the tomb.
Look for love that outlives a cross.

In all these, our bow-hanging God
answers our questions:
Yes, you do matter. All creation matters.
Yes, you shall be safe.
In life, and death, in life beyond death,
you shall be held safe.
Yes. The power in creation is strong,
and at times cruel as well as benign.
But it will not outdo the power,
nor the everlasting fidelity of God’s
sustaining love for all life.

Look to the Rainbow.
This is our God, who keeps covenant.

Amen.

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