Delivered at Ames UCC
on September 9, 2018.
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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When I talk about being hospitalized for a mental health crisis in high school, I always express gratitude for the adults outside of my family of origin who helped to make that happen. When my wife talks about her childhood home burning down in the middle of the night, she always mentions how Tinkerbell, the family fox terrier, alerted everyone and saved their lives.
Maybe your disaster is about a lay-off from work; a suicide; a car accident; a heart attack; an assault; a stroke; a fall. From the Italian for “ill-starred event,” disasters befall us all. How we tell the story of each reveals something about us. It reveals something about what we notice, what we value, and why we live as we do in the aftermath.
This is especially true when in the telling of our disasters we invoke the presence of God, like in Noah’s.
NOT SUITABLE FOR KIDS
I have said it before and I will say it again, I do not know why we teach this story to children, how so many happy, cartoon depictions of this story ever proliferated. Look at the broad strokes: Humanity becomes so naughty that God not only kills almost all the humans, but the animals and the birds, too, with a flood. How can a story like that instill in a child anything but fear of failure and God alike?
It’s not that I completely disagree. Humans are bad and so there are floods.
Humans are bad at thinking globally or in terms of natural systems. We are also bad at accepting the consequences of our actions. The climate change behind rising sea water and unprecedented storm seasons is on us. So is the engineering and city planning that leaves whole populations of humans, animals, and birds at ongoing risk.
The bad thinking and actions of humans does lead to flood. However, that’s very different than saying a specific group of humans are bad and so God inflicts the disaster of a flood.
Lots of Christians say just that, blaming Katrina and the death toll in New Orleans on the gays, as just one example. But doing so feels an awful lot like a repeat of the conversation between God and Adam in the garden: Why did you eat that pomegranate, Adam? Uh, she made me!
Blaming God by way of queer people is a way to avoid taking responsibility rather than a faithful characterization of God.
CHARACTER OF GOD
Consider what we have been told about God up to this point in the Bible: God partnered with the deep to inspire life. A collision of holiness and matter spewed forth all the primordial forms of life and several days, or billions of years, later, humanity.
God is that which creates collaboratively.
Then, disaster. The first humans betray God’s trust. God’s response? Banishment from the garden. The punishment is to feel distance between created and Creator.
Then, disaster. The first humans experience betrayal as one of their children kills another. God’s response? Another banishment. Not death, not an eye for an eye, but something more complicated and painful: further distance from God.
We could have inherited a story that said the first pair was rotten, so God rebooted then. Or that the second generation, having worsted their parents, gave God cause to refashion our being. But we did not.
We have received a faith in a God of collaborative creation, and so eternal collaboration with what is created. So, despite what the scripture says, I do not believe God inflicts disasters as punishment. Here’s my proof: the cubits!
Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top.
That is a very specific guide for shipbuilding. That is a significant amount of detail to have survived the Bible’s process of formation.
This story is very old. We adopted it from Judaism. And before that, the ancient Hebrew people adopted it from the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, which is at least 2,700 years older than Christ. Who knows who the Mesopotamians received it from?
But the cubits have survived all that time. All of the oral recitations, all of the written versions, all the translations across language and cultures. Despite their awkwardness, the way they jar the narrative, the cubits remain.
Why is that? Why in a story about human depravity, our primal disaster story, have we pause to discuss the specs on Noah’s boat, too?
Because despite our preference for blaming God and other people for our disasters, God will not let God’s own collaborative creativity be redacted.
Noah’s is not a story of God inflicting disaster on a failed humanity. It is a story about where God is in the disasters of humanity’s failings.
Ill-starred events are part of the course of life. They always have been. Some may be predicted, if not prevented; others might be reversed or at least redirected to the good. Some people will die in them. Some will be left broken. Some will survive. We all have flood stories, we will all be flooded again. But never are the stars or the rains or the sparks or the tectonic plates quaking, burning, or drowning at the behest of God.
When Carla’s home caught fire, God was in Tinkerbell, a part of creation that had evolved to have an exceptional sense of smell and enough cuteness to be brought into human homes. When my youthful mind had fallen apart, God was in the people who gave me the dimensions for rebuilding it in safety and stability.
And in these days, these days when all of humanity is deluged by bad behavior, bad ideology, and bad policy, by humanity’s old, old will to betray and kill each other, God is still here.
We may feel even further from God than ever, but God is still here offering detailed, cubit-by-cubit plans on how to stay afloat.
This is the story I wish we would tell our children. This is the story I wish we would tell each other.
God is like a holy ship designer working with us on the vessel we need to survive until, at last, we are able to clear away our clouds of war, poverty, and hate, and see that rainbow of God’s eternal promise again.