(Genesis 6: 9-22)
In our house on a bookshelf alongside framed photos of family sits a replica of Noah’s ark cast in clay. The ark is small enough to hold in one hand, and its sides are painted bright yellow trimmed with red. On deck are two of lots of different animals all standing shoulder to shoulder, or in the case of the giraffes, neck and neck. Mr. Noah keeps watch over it all from atop the quarter deck while Mrs. Noah and the rest of the clan are only seen by the most careful observer. Here’s a clue: they’re down among the masses, toward the front of the boat, very near what must be a black and white panda or else a stuffed teddy bear of biblical proportions! There is no water, no circling dove and no overarching rainbow. Just a boat, which in and of itself makes for a jolly scene!
Perhaps you have something similar in your home. Or maybe another piece of art capturing a multi-hued rainbow spanning across dry, lush, green land. Not some flood ravaged landscape. Or perhaps an illustrated book you enjoy sharing with your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. The pop-up varieties rank highest in popularity among the young and young at heart for the way they make rainbows literally leap right off the page! Each time you open the centerfold, there it is. Predictable but always packing a punch. Is it any surprise, then, that publishers of Sunday school materials describe Noah’s Ark as one of the most beloved and well known stories in all the Bible while recognizing it as a top seller among any printed material written for children. It’s just about a little boat, lots of cute animals, some rain and then an awesome rainbow! Right?
Taking a second look at the ark in my house, I’m struck by many curious things. First, that Noah might take time to adorn what would be for him and a select few a life boat, and for others a “ship that passes in the night”. Could any of us be so glib in the face of known danger and mass destruction? You don’t have to answer that. And I’m struck by how civil and calm the animals appear. Not at all like my dog when she sees a squirrel or hears rumble of thunder still several counties away. Is that how any of us truly behave? And the architect in me really wants to cry foul on the size of the crowd up top compared to the scale of the cabin down below intended to shelter them all during the storm. Even if the giraffes were to lie on their sides and the elephants were to hunker on the bottom allowing smaller animals to pile on top, there’s no way this works! You may just have to trust me on this one. But known contradictions aside, who among us isn’t keen to move beyond life on the boat or loss of life off the boat once we learn to expect a rainbow.
And turning to rainbows now, you may recall from a science class somewhere along the way how rainbows are formed by light passing through water droplets. Refraction is the term scientist use. Funny thing about rainbows is that when they appear, they appear in the sky opposite the source of illumination. And if you try to walk up and touch a rainbow, you can’t. The spectrum of color is only visible at a set distance which means two people can face the same direction but only one may see the rainbow. What might the other person see from their perspective?
At this point, I guess I should go ahead and tell you that life is not all rainbows! I do so knowing full well that I’m not shattering anyone’s illusions here. Steve and Grace have assured me that this sermon series was intended to force a second, more critical look at what we already know but often choose to ignore. They’ve also assured me that you don’t stone folks. Or, if you do, not with really big rocks! So I’m prepared to play my part today as would-be bearer of bad news. And I do so with a clear conscience and little or no concern about rendering more harm than good in telling the truth. That’s what we’ve been told to do: always tell the truth. It’s all pretty tidy! Much like the boat or rainbow we’ve romanticized since childhood.
Or at least it was… You see, from a pastoral perspective, if you strip something away, you’d better be ready to put something back in its place. And that seemed a far easier task until just two weeks ago when our collective grief began to find widespread expression through all the colors of the rainbow. It’s out there on Facebook posts. Uptown, the Duke Energy building has been awash with more than just Panther pride. And online the Bank of America logo now has green, yellow, orange and purple added alongside the customary blue and red.
Up until this recent show of solidarity, I had intended to follow the sermon outline originally presented to Steve and to implement most if not all of the tweaks prompted by conversations had as he and I prayerfully considered this text. On Steve’s wise counsel, I had intended to leave unanswered the really tough questions posed by today’s passage but still to acknowledge they exist so that together, you and I, might begin to wrestle for some meaning to us in this time and in this place. A time and a place that arguably seemed quite different before all the recent rainbows.
With due credit given, the sermon would have benefitted from Walter Bruggermann’s scholarship as expounded in one of his many commentaries on Genesis. First, suggesting that God is not so much angry as God is deeply anguished. Second, suggesting that Noah’s story has never been about the flood, the ark or the animals. After all, such epic flood narratives were not unique to nor did they originate with the compiling of the Old Testament. And third, suggesting that we stop clinging to some notion that humanity was changed then or will change now and instead cling to the good hope fixed in God’s covenant with us.
It was all pretty tidy and came wrapped in a bow…a rainbow, if you must.…which was not at all the often elusive miracles you or I wish for but the sign God left in the sky as reminder to bind God’s self to us no matter what. That means in good times and in bad. That means unconditionally, forever, to infinity and beyond! God would shower us with grace though we had done nothing to deserve it.
Hence, I was going to pose these rhetorical questions to you: Which is better, that God loves us enough to be deeply hurt when we fail to live up to God’s expectations or that God should regard creation so lightly as to remain completely unmoved and unemotional when things turn ugly? And second, where do you want to put your stock, in a God that rushes in on a rainbow at the first hint of trouble or in a God that says, “Do not fear, for I am with you always even unto the ends of the world”? (Isaiah 41:10 cf. Matt. 28:20) Come to terms with a feeling God…check! Come to terms with a flawed humanity…check! Present the challenges of free will…check! This was going to be the sure path for my rather tidy and perhaps tepid first sermon about life beyond the rainbows.
And then a gunman in Orlando and not the God in heaven ripped that concoction all to shreds! And it’s not the least bit tidy anymore! No, I don’t doubt for one second anything we’ve been told about God as always just and ever-sufficient. Or, God as sure, compassionate, all loving and slow to anger. I just doubt us on every one of those counts! So I really appreciate all the rainbows right now! Even if it’s not that tidy anymore!
Suddenly, my intended illustration of driving right out here along Providence Road seemed a foreign concept. Would I not appear rather silly suggesting to you that even those whose cars are plastered with bumper stickers celebrating World Peace, Habitat for Humanity, or Friendship Trays – that even these otherwise good intentioned folks – often can become our worst enemies. And would I have confessed any dark secrets by telling you that the one whose car bears seminary and hospice parking stickers and is littered inside with Trinity Presbyterian bulletins and newsletters often reacts in ways that are far from what you would expect. “Go ahead, cut in front of me, jerk! I’ll honk my horn and show you a thing or two!” And then one of God’s creations and not God the Creator made my example seem all but polite in comparison to more heinous crimes against humanity. It’s not that tidy anymore!
Based on my all too tame illustration, I was going to suggest to you – even though we are admonished never to utter such foolishness – that we might actually know how God felt! Like so many others who have wrestled with these hard words from God – listen again, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh…now I am going to destroy them along with the earth” (vs. 13) – with all the evidence before us, I was prepared to let us go the route of God is good all the time and all the time God is good knowing that ultimately it wasn’t God we were letting off the hook but ourselves. “Noah was a righteous man.” (vs. 9) Noah…did all that God commanded…” (vs. 22) Ouch! That’s not me. Until Noah didn’t. Ouch again! That is me. And I suspect you as well. How many times must we casually offend, not to mention our more sinister misdeeds before they no longer escape our notice? Oh, how we all need God to be all good so we can go on being all bad. It’s not that tidy anymore!
In closing, I was going to share with you some reflections from my time as a chaplain-intern at the Levine and Dickson Hospice House at Southminister. Not through my words but using theirs, I was going to suggest that rainbows, the kind we more nearly can expect, often are as simple and seemingly unspectacular as a few moments pain-free; or the first I forgive you that finally comes; or the final I love you that lingers forever; or assurances recalled from the 23 Psalm about a shepherd who supplies our needs; or the human touch especially for those who have been told all their lives they are untouchable because they look, think and act differently from us. But it’s not that tidy anymore.
And yet, I think we can still stop here. Because in moments of acute crisis in places people go seeking comfort like hospice or, as we have recently learned, a welcoming nightclub in Florida, when people become resigned by their own volition or another’s disturbed mission to the fact there can be few if any rainbows ahead and only assurance of the resurrection now; it becomes clear that things were never going to be all that tidy. That ship sailed long ago. But on another boat still very much afloat through waters that promise to wash us anew but not away, Jesus makes clear in our very midst, before, during and after the storms of this life that the gospel’s claim has never been about all that is tidy…just all that is true! And sometimes that truth hurts! And God is anguished. And we should be as well. But the truth still holds! And God puts aside anger. And we must do the same. God’s very first covenant with us, sealed by God putting God’s bow in the sky, tells us we haven’t missed the boat whether we stretch the truth a little or a lot. To that end, maybe we are called to hold on to our child-like wonder for as long as possible. To cling to an innocence still unable to fathom the bad but so eager to fixate on the good. To go on wishing as God intended that for the entirety of creation right down to the very last creeping, crawling thing, that all life will be rainbows.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.