Illusion of Invincibility
These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of cypressb wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15 This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. 16 Make a roofc for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17 For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19 And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. 20 Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. 21 Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” 22 Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
When I was in Elementary School, my principal was Mr. Jack Herring. He had been at Johnston Elementary for years and he was loved. Well I was a part of a group of boys that was threatening to scuffle with another group of boys. It was pre-teen posturing. And, I’ll be quick to add, “They started it.” Needless to say a teacher intercepted the mounting tensions after school and directed us to visit Mr. Herring in his office . . . immediately . . . and we went. Mr. Herring sat behind his large wooden desk, he heard the indictment of our broo-haha. He reached down and slid open one of the wooden draws of his wooden desk, and he pulled out a paddle. It was large and decorated and it looked to unwieldy to be taken seriously. He said this is one of my paddles. You know, I don’t like using this paddle. It was a gift. But it’s too heavy to really swing. Kind of hurts my hand. Then he reached down into his drawer and pulled out a thin paddle, worn smooth with age, it had athletic taped wrapped around one end, “No,” he said holding the paddle in his hand, “This is the one I prefer. It’s light enough to swing but solid enough to sting.” He laid that paddle down on the desk. He reached down and pulled out another and said, “I used to use this one but it cracked.” He pulled out a couple more, holding each one, surveying its size, weight, velocity, grip. He laid each one side-by-side on his desk and said finally, “Boys, I don’t want to use any of these paddles. But I will if I have to. Do you think I have to use one of these paddles today?” Silently we shook our heads, “No.” “Good, don’t make me use them then.” Then he told us to leave his office. That was the end of the scuffling.
Whenever I have to deal with a story like God sending a flood to wipe out the majority of humanity in order to start over again, or ordering certain people executed because they didn’t take worship seriously, or casting people in the lake of fire, I struggle with how to make sense of it. How do we reconcile our message that God loved the world (the whole world) so much that God gave his only son for the world? How do we square these stories with the affirmation that The Lord, the Lord, is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? How do we make it make sense alongside the proclamation that God is love and those who abide in love abide in God? Yesterday during Bible and Brunch we talked about a second century Christian leader who was eventually denounced as a heretic named Marcion. Marcion believed, at least according to the press clippings, that the God of the Old Testament was a totally different God than the God proclaimed in Jesus Christ. The God of the Old Testament was judgmental and angry but that God had been defeated by this other God—the God of love and mercy. And that’s one way to do it, I suppose, but I don’t believe it’s true and neither did Jesus by the way. The early church rejected his heresy. It seems that anytime anyone created a completely coherent system to explain God, the main church dismissed it as heresy. God is free and at times in predictable. We do not have permission, I don’t think, to edit out the parts simply because they don’t jive with the version of God we’ve created in our minds. And at least one way of seeing these judgment stories for me is to remember that perhaps God is like Mr. Jack Herring. Laying out the paddles—there’s destruction by flood (but I promised never to use that), there’s an earthquake to that opens us and destroys the offenders, there’s striking people with diseases if they are dishonest, or taking their life suddenly because they withhold their gift intended for me. Perhaps the judgmental texts are like that are God’s way of saying, “I have these paddles, but I don’t want to use them. Children, don’t make me have to use them.”
We set the scripture readings months ago and chose to use the story of Noah’s Ark long before we knew what this week would hold. We are in a series called the “I illusions.” All the texts are taken from Genesis. We started with the illusion of innocence—with Adam and Eve. Then with the illusion of isolation-with Cain and Abel. And today we move to the illusion of invincibility. It begins with a man not like Adam or Cain but one described as righteous, blameless, and pious. The opening verse contains it’s own three point sermon. Noah was righteous—he had integrity with himself; he was blameless—he had faithful dealings with his peers; he walked with God. The description evokes the words of Micah—God has shown you what is good and what the Lord requires—do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.
We imagined then that we would emphasize the nature of humanity’s sin at the time of God’s grievance with humanity. Noah’s neighbors were guilty of violence. It’s mentioned more than once. Contrary to the Puritanical judgment that sin is limited to gluttony, debauchery, bad habits and bad hygiene, the story is clear that what grieved the heart of God most was humanity’s destruction of humanity. In contrast with the “good” God saw in creation in chapter 1, here God sees all of creation—and not just humanity—as corrupt, prone to decay, not worth keeping around. The earth itself, and not just the people on it, have stopped acting the way they should. Clarence Jordan sees in this as the first stage in human development. It is a stage of unlimited aggression. When the law is given in Exodus, a rule is created that says and eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot—in Latin its called lex talionisthe law of talion, the law of retaliation. Which says that the punishment corresponds in kind and degree to the injury. With the introduction of lex talionis we move from unlimited aggression to limited aggression. Then there develops a moral principle that says, “you shall love your neighbor but hate your enemy.” The third stage is from limited aggression to limited love. But finally with Jesus Christ we hear—love your enemy, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you. The movement is complete from unlimited aggression in Noah, to limited aggression in the law, to limited love in the commands, to unlimited love in Christ. But it is still hard to believe that God’s ultimate plan is unlimited love, even of one’s enemies when God’s answer to humanity’s violence is their complete destruction—with the exception of Noah and his wife, and their three sons and their wives.
We planned on saying all of that before this week. Before a young man, radicalized by racist white supremacy, entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, sat through an hour’s worth of Bible study and then opened fire killing, Rev. Clementa Pickney, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Myra Thompson, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Ethel Lance. That was before the flood of rhetoric filled what should have been quiet spaces of lament into stormy corners of advocacy. We planned on saying that before another group was victimized. Some of us wanting to distance this shooter’s actions from the racism prevalent in our culture have claimed he was mentally ill. That kind of language displays the worst sort of use of the phrase “mental illness.” Mental illness is a broad category that contains many complex and difficult disorders like anxiety, depression, identity disorders like schizophrenia, and eating disorders just to name a few. The mentally ill have a hard enough time being treated with the dignity they deserve and getting the treatment they need. We should resist throwing around the term mental illness as a way of explaining away the inexplicable. The mentally ill are not evil. Let’s not burden them with this.
We had planned on talking about the illusion of invincibility before the events of this week would so thoroughly and painfully reveal our vulnerability. My heart hurts and I despair. I am too weary to speak of humanity’s violence toward humanity right now—not the ancient violence of Noah’s day nor the senseless violence of our own. I do not wish to speak of God’s justice or rightness or capacity to judge because the implications frighten me. We have not advanced so far beyond unlimited aggression; there’s no way to practice an eye for an eye with someone who has destroyed so much; I’m not sure I can trust my neighbor much less love him; and as for loving my enemy . . . . In the midst of the storm we want an escape hatch that takes us to the rainbow instantly. Get me to some place where I can assure myself that God doesn’t really act this way. NO, cannot act this way. But the escape hatch isn’t there and if it was, I’m afraid we’d find that it’s not a rainbow that awaits us—not a promise that everything will be alright. I am not certain as to how we reconcile all of this with the overarching view that God is love. I do think That stories like Noah need to be in front of us because we risk putting God in a kind of box defined by our own conception of love. We want to insist that God never does anything that we do not like and by that we say that’s what it means to claim God is love. But God is free and God is just and the God of love is still a God of holiness with high expectations for how we are to live and treat one another. We cannot harbor the illusion of our invincibility and live as people defined by violence and pretend that before God there is no reckoning.
It shouldn’t have taken an aggressive act against a church to arouse my consciousness but it has. God’s authority stretches beyond the walls of any religious building. The violence in Charleston, SC is the latest chapter in a horrific narrative that includes McKinney, Garland, Baltimore, Ferguson, Boston, Newtown, Aurora . . . the list goes on. In my lifetime, I’ve not seen a season as volatile and frightening as the last few years. This includes the difficult years of 1992 (the LA riots), 1993 (Waco compound burning), and 1994 (Oklahoma City Bombings). Evil people acting in evil ways will be with us. We know that. What we do not know is whether good people will counteract and mitigate the evil or simply acquiesce. My sisters and brothers, we cannot simply hope to simply tread water. There is an ark to be built and lives to be saved. We build that ark through forging relationships with people in our community. We cannot let the fear of who our neighbor might be overwhelm what our response to our neighbor must be. I have reached out to some neighboring churches and tomorrow night at 7 pm, we will be at the College Park Center to hold a prayer vigil for Emanuel AME and for the nation and for ourselves. We’ve also been invited to attend a Men’s day gathering at Greater Community Missionary Baptist Church next Sunday and I hope we will nurture that developing relationship. Today, I do not feel that God has cast the rainbow quite yet. Nor do I believe God is pulling out paddles and placing them in front of us. I believe God is giving us the materials and dimensions of an Ark and is beckoning us to build–build connections, build relationships, throw open the doors that others may enter and together we may sail the choppy seas of reconciliation.