Sunday, February 18, 2018

Phil Kniss: God, Violence, and Creation

Lent 1: Living Between: Covenant between God and creation
Genesis 9:8-17

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Every time a high season of the church year rolls around—
Lent to Easter, Advent to Christmas—
we look for compelling biblical threads
to tie our worship service together.

Broad strokes are there already.
Advent is about waiting,
preparing for God’s salvation in Jesus,
and the mystery and wonder of Emmanuel, God with us.
Lent is a season of fasting,
repentance, embracing the wilderness,
moving from cross and suffering to resurrection and life.

But we always ask, what’s the particular emphasis this time?
What is the Gospel word for us, here and now,
in this season of this year?

One obvious thing shows up this year, the second year of the cycle.
There’s a lot about covenant.
God’s covenant with Noah, with Creation,
with Abraham’s descendants, and more.

So what is covenant?
Covenant is located in the “space between.”
In any relationship, there is some shared space between.
A covenant establishes how participants function in that space.
Covenant defines the space. Gives it a shape.

That’s why we’re calling the series, “Living Between.”
All the joy, and all the struggle,
occurs as we try to navigate life in the space between.
Between ourselves and God,
between ourselves and the church, the world, creation.
even, often, between parts of ourselves
that are at odds, within us.

At this particular time in our history as a culture and as a church,
the space between is often fraught with pain and confusion,
where chaos and violence often enter into that space,
so maybe this is a very good year for some rich biblical reflection,
and application,
about living between.

So today we look at this space between God and Noah,
or more accurately, between God and all creation—
when God established a covenant with Creation,
right after all but destroying it.

I’ve preached on this flood story before,
it comes around once every three years.
This is a new sermon,
but you may hear me say a few things I said before.
This year in particular,
the message of this story, as I take it, bears repeating.

I was feeling that, even before Thursday’s school shooting in Florida.
I feel it even more strongly now.

This flood story tells us a lot about God,
and it’s not what you might think.
And it’s a picture of God we need to grasp now, more than ever.

This story is, at the same time,
an endearing and whimsical children’s favorite—
with all the cute animals walking up the plank in pairs,
and going for a long boat ride—
and . . . one of the most horrific tales of destruction,
carried out at God’s hands, against humanity and creation.

It’s a challenge, for thinking people, to reconcile
these two stories, that are the same story.

I’ll put aside, for this sermon,
all the debates Christians love to have about this story,
about whether it happened, how it might have happened,
and where the ark is now,
and all manner of other silly questions.
My faith does not rise or fall
on whether I figure out a way to believe this was historical fact.
I’m sad that for some people, it does seem to rise or fall on that.
I think they are missing the beautiful heart of the story.

Let’s not make the mistake of reading this as history or science.
It’s not either one. It is theology.

This biblical story is one of many ancient stories
about a world-wide flood.
These stories came from many different ancient civilizations—
Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Hindu, and more.
Many of them are older than this Hebrew story of ours.
All of them, the Noah story included, attempt, through story,
to explain what kind of God or gods,
sit above the universe, and exercise control over it.

The stories have many similarities, and many differences.
We don’t say one is historically true, and the others not.
They all have they same purpose, and they all succeed.
They successfully give their civilization
a picture to help them make sense of their world,
in particular, how God, or the gods,
act in relationship to human beings and the earth.

The Genesis story grows out of the experience
of the Hebrew people with their God Yahweh.
Other stories grew out of other peoples’ experience of life.
They all teach about divine nature and human nature.
It’s what they teach that sets them apart.

Genesis 6-9 is divinely inspired holy scripture,
not because it teaches me good science.
But because it tells me the truth about God.
It tells me something that lines up with
the rest of the biblical witness about God.
And lines up with my experience of God.

The other stories do not . . . at least not for me, and not for us.
Let me tell you why not, and this is a gross oversimplification.
I’m lumping different stories together
for the sake of time.

In other ancient flood stories,
the gods seem more concerned
about their own struggle for power over each other,
and humanity is a mere annoyance
that keeps getting in the way of their cosmic plans.
In one story a Council of gods cooks up a plan for a big flood,
to destroy pesky humanity forever.
One lesser god sneaks away and spills the secret
to the human hero of the story,
who builds a big boat,
saving himself, his family, and the animals.
When they find out, the chief gods are furious that a human survived.
So other gods, who thought the chief gods went too far,
make the human survivor immortal, into a god himself,
and send him away to a new life in another world,
safe from the gods who want him dead.
End of story.

The underlying assumption in many of those stories,
is that the gods are mostly un-interested in us,
and are locked in eternal combat, with the other gods,
or with us.
So we humans must do all we can to appease the gods,
to calm them down by
burning incense to them, or feeding them,
or otherwise distracting them with something they like.
If we do that, they won’t lash out in anger and destroy us.

Now, what does Genesis 6-9 tell us?
There are some serious people who read it,
and what they see first and foremost is a violent God,
with a vendetta against the sinful world,
eager to destroy it.

But if we read it carefully,
with these other flood stories in mind,
we see that Genesis tells us a radically different story,
about a radically different God—
the One God who created all life,
and sustains that life out of everlasting love.

Here we see, not a God who was angry and resentful,
but a brokenhearted God.
The Hebrew word used to describe God’s feelings
about the earth before the flood,
is not the word for “anger,” but for “pain,” “hurt,” “grief.”

God was brokenhearted by all the wickedness on the earth,
all the violence, the corruption, the chaos covering the earth.
This was chaos humans brought on themselves,
it was not God’s doing, nor God’s desire.
Humans rejected the shalom God created and intended for them.
So in this flood story,
God does in the natural realm,
what humans had already done spiritually and relationally—
covered the earth with chaos.
Water, a symbol of chaos, overwhelms the earth.
And now the physical reality God wrought,
matches the spiritual reality humans wrought.

But then, when the flood goes down,
we see where this version of the flood story really stands alone.
We see the core character of the one God Yahweh most clearly,
in what happens afterward.

Instead of ending the story with the gods and humans
locked in mortal combat,
and the human hero escaping the earth,
escaping his humanity . . .
the Genesis story restores the divine and human communion.
It establishes a covenant—
a one-way covenant,
in which God takes full and complete responsibility
to sustain human life and help it flourish.

Because of love, God is deeply moved after the flood,
moved to anguish, and even regret at such massive destruction.
So instead of continuing to rage against humanity and creation,
God lays down a bow, as a sign for himself,
to never again destroy the earth.

Ch. 9, v. 13, “I have set my bow in the clouds,
and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,
I will remember my covenant that is between me and you
and every living creature of all flesh.”

God moves toward humans and the earth, in love,
and lays down his weapon.
Numerous scholars have pointed out that the rainbow
was not an arbitrary shape,
a random splash of color.
It was a bow, the weapon of war.

In other stories, the gods kept up their battle.
The God of the Bible laid down his weapon of war against creation,
and made an everlasting, unilateral, unconditional
covenant of love
that promised to sustain life and help it flourish.

When we read Genesis against the backdrop of the other stories,
and read it, not as history or science, but as theology,
we see how wrong we are
if we make this into a horror story about a violent God.
The best interpretation, taking everything into its known context,
gives us a Good News picture, a Gospel picture,
painted to show us a God of boundless love and mercy
and tenderness toward all humans, and all creation,
with no conditions attached!

The brokenness and chaos continues in this world,
as bad, if not worse, than it was before the flood.
But we have this story to give us hope.
God laid down his weapon, never to pick it up again.
The human story will end not with destruction,
but with the restoring of shalom.
The covenant, the space between, God and creation,
is still intact.
It is holding up, despite the rampant violence in our world.

Violent tragedies that still occur in our world,
such as the senseless shootings in Parkland, Florida,
carried out by a deeply broken young man . . .
such as the senseless wars around the world
carried out by legitimate world powers claiming to do good . . .
such as violent rhetoric toward people different from us . . .
such as the pervasive sexual violence that continues unchecked,
unspoken of, and without consequence . . .
such as the systemic discrimination that continues
in our culture and even in our church,
that make it more difficult for people of color,
for women, for young people,
to have a real say in how things get done.

The space between continues to be filled with chaos and violence.
Today’s covenant story reminds us
that we need not despair.
We are not left to our own devices forever.
We are not about to be forgotten by God
and left to oblivion.
Yes, we should be concerned. We should care. We should act.
But we should not lose hope.
And we should cling to the unconditional promise of God.

Every time we see a rainbow in the sky,
we should remember that God is seeing it, too,
and it is reminding God to keep the promise.
God will never again make chaos in creation,
as a way to combat the chaos we ourselves make.
God will stick with us, for life.

The image from the shootings in Florida,
that will no doubt become iconic for years to come,
has two weeping mothers comforting each other,
and one of them has ashes on her forehead,
in the sign of the cross.
I haven’t heard any journalist comment on the ashes,
but they practically shouted to me.
Here is a woman who just a few hours earlier,
was in a church, worshiping,
being reminded of our sinfulness and mortality,
and of God’s grace.
And now she stands in the middle of human chaos and sin,
with a cross of ashes on her head, clinging to hope—
a hope available to us who believe
that our Creator God keeps faith with creation.
Chaos will not have the last word.
That word belongs to God, and it is a word of love.

one God of love, God of shalom, God of salvation,
We recognize your rule over the Creation you love,
We acknowledge our failure to love as you love,
We confess our sin in not trusting your love and provision,
as we take matters into our own hands,
and seek to maintain our power through violence.
Forgive us for making your love too small.
Teach us to act with humility, grace, and mercy
as we seek to join you in making things right.
Words of assurance
all All the paths of God are loving and faithful
for those who keep God’s covenant and laws.

—Phil Kniss, February 18, 2018

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