Monday, August 27, 2007

Think Outside the Boat

This morning’s (second) scripture reading is Genesis, chapter 8, verses 13-22.
-I invite you to listen for the word of God.
By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry.
Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you – the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground – so that they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon it.”
So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds – everything that moves on the earth – came out of the ark, one kind after another.
Then Noah built an alter to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.
And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.”
-The word of the Lord
-Thanks be to God.
Long car rides can be rough. This past weekend Sara and I were at her parents’ house not far from Spartanburg, South Carolina, and our trip there usually takes about 3 hours. For me, that 3 hour stint is a long time to sit in the car. Sara is always in a hurry to get there, thinking that a stop for me to buy a snack and use the bathroom will only impede the trip time, slowing us down, taking that much longer to get to our destination. I, on the other hand, love to get out of the car, if for nothing else, than to stretch my legs.
I guess that’s why the first thing I noticed when I really slowed down to read this passage is that even after the water dries up – which took just less than a year from the time the waters began to rise – Noah is in no rush to get out and stretch his legs.
Even once the ark is finally land locked with no where to go, Noah stays on the ark for nearly two additional months. He had in fact reached his destination, and still wouldn’t let anyone out to use the bathroom and get a coke.
It is not until God tells Noah to get out of that boat - demands that he evacuate his ark - that Noah lets anyone out.
I generally assume that I would have been beating the door down to get out of that place. Imagine how it smelled; imagine the piles of human and animal waste, the frustration of the horses who wanted to run and the birds who wanted to fly.
Even as gas prices climb, even as the summer air outside the air conditioned car gets hotter and hotter, even in the face of disgusting gas station bathrooms, I still want out of that car, and I am sure that I would have wanted out of that boat.
But let’s face it; the world is a scary place once you open the door to it.
Just as Noah’s world would have been a scary place to open the doors too. In chapter 6 this pre-flood world is described as violent and corrupted. In verse 5 of chapter six “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually”; and then in verse 6, “And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
As I read about the world that God destroyed in the flood, I think about our own world. I wonder if we are so different. We are most certainly violent – and we are no doubt corrupt. The violence on this earth seems completely insurmountable. I watch the news and I want to hide somewhere, or at least lock the doors and try to keep the violence and corruption out.
As I monitor the greater world through the lens of newspapers and TV it seems as though redemption and peace has no chance in much of the world. Despite many lives lost, despite many dollars spent, it seems as though Iraq is getting worse and worse and not better; that the fighting between Israel and Palestine will never cease, that genocide is still not an evil so great that it has seen its last day, that hunger and disease in every corner of the globe is attacking children before they even have a chance - and I wonder what God is thinking.
We live in a world that seems so far from what God intended – the world seems sometimes as though there is no hope of redemption - that things might be better off if the ice caps just melted and blotted out everything. Then the violence would stop, and then the corruption would be no more.
That was always my technique when playing computer games when I was in middle school. I used to play a game called Civilization where the goal was world domination, and if I made a false move, if things started going in a way I didn’t want them to, especially if I thought I might lose, I would just hit the restart button and begin again.
God has hit the restart button through the flood and Noah is the seed planted by God in the wreckage of a fallen world, an effort at starting over in this humanity project - but Noah doesn’t feel like playing any more. It looks like he would rather stay in the boat.
We shouldn’t be surprised, even though we can all imagine how good it would feel to get out of that ark after being on it for a full year, as our theological understanding of God and ourselves is not so different from Noah’s.
Noah knew what would happen to him if he messed up again. Yes, he was good, but he wasn’t perfect. What if things got going and violence once again broke out, what if he disappointed this very violent God who had proven his capacity to punish those who fall short.
Not unlike Noah, the pilgrims who came to this country on boats were also looking for a fresh start – an escape from a culture that seemed violent and corrupt, fallen – they wanted to start over in a new country.
As we all know, this country though, has proven itself to be less than the city on a hill – less of a haven for religious perfection and devotion to God than those pilgrims must have hoped.
Extremist Muslims certainly see us, not for the aspirations that we were founded on, but for the secularism that we export – they see us for our television shows and movies, for our economic policies and un-ending thirst for oil – we are seen as violent and corrupt; as fallen, and so many seek to take the power of God into their own hands, destroying our culture with their own flood of bombs and airplanes, seeking to wipe us out so that the world might start over.
But there are certainly many people beyond the scope of extremist Islam who maintain the same theological world view. There are those who would love to simply blast the Middle East back into the Stone Age, to start over, to begin again, to give up on those who seem lost, to destroy and plant a new seed.
I believe that such a world view could very well be the most dangerous theological conviction, not only for the future of the world but for the future of our very sense of self.
As we look out into the world, seeing ourselves in the same light that God saw before opening the windows of the heavens so that water would flood the earth, we must remember that Noah was afraid to leave his boat, scared to participate in God’s experiment with human kind once again.
How could he eagerly exit his boat, knowing the corruption that was sure to come as soon as he left his vessel, as all the needed corruption was already there in his own soul? How could he leave his ark knowing that the fallenness that God had tried to destroy lived on in him, lived on in his brokenness, his imperfections, his inadequacies; that the violence of the pre-flood world would live on because it had survived in Noah’s own DNA.
Noah knew that the perfect world God sought would never be a reality, that the fallen world God had destroyed in the flood would only be reborn again, that the world Noah would found would have to be destroyed, that the problem God saw in the humanity God had created would not be solved - because there is a tragic flaw inside each of us.
So Noah was afraid to leave the ark, for the same reason that I am afraid for God to see my imperfections.
Noah was afraid to leave the ark for the same reason that so many Christians point out other people’s sins rather than think seriously about their own.
Noah was afraid to leave the ark for the same reason that children do not easily admit their problems or wrong doings to their parents.
For they fear, as we all fear - that the acknowledgement of their mistakes and imperfections will surely be the cause of the end of relationship; that the love of their parents cannot be un-ending, unconditional, but must be contingent on their actions.
And why should they not fear when faced with such a fragile and shallow understanding of love.
And why should we believe that there is another, a deeper, a true love evidenced in each other and in God, as this theological assumption – the assumption that love is a contract that can be broken - runs rampant in our culture.
This kind of theological assumption is real in the God of the flood – in a God who destroys and starts over.
This kind of theological assumption lives on in the life of each person who believes that the middle east must be destroyed, or that New York City must come crumbling down so that a new world may be begun.
And this kind of God will also live on in our very souls for as we judge the world as being undeserving, unredeemable, in need of destruction and a new beginning.
Under such a limited theological assumption we cannot help but see ourselves in that same light, as the sin that we see out in the world is right here in this sanctuary, living and breathing inside this boat, because the fallenness that causes violence is simply a part of our humanity – so we too are afraid to leave this boat, for we believe in a judgmental and violent God who surely cannot love us if we reveal our brokenness.
So God calls Noah out of the Ark, because God must call Noah to come out of the Ark because Noah is afraid of God as he understood God in light of the flood.
For Noah expects to be struck down, if not now then two or three generations down the road – the next time humanity’s fallenness comes to the point that God will decide to send a flood down on the earth to clean up the mess humankind has made.
But Noah is not struck down.
For God promises not to flood the earth again.
And God calls Noah into a relationship, though God knows, as Noah knows, that the intended perfection, the foundation of a perfect world has not been achieved.
By this relationship Noah comes to understand God in a new way, and we may all be so bold to do like-wise.
A new understanding of God emerges that is made real as God calls Noah out of the Ark, but it is one that is rarely shouted as loudly as the image of a God who desires an oasis of faithful people in the midst of a fallen world, a new image, though it stands against the image of a God who is on the brink of destroying this whole world while saving the faithful in Rapture that is so popularly illustrated by the Left Behind series. A new image of God emerges that is in direct contrast to the image of God who invites us to start over, and who expects us to be perfect in every way – buying the right clothes, listening to the right radio station, buying books from the right kind of book store – and disengaging ourselves from much of the world around us – creating our own arks of faithful behavior in the midst of a roaring sea that awaits God’s next consuming fire.
But can’t we hear God calling us out of the Ark?
Can’t we hear God calling us into the world?
Can’t we hear God acknowledging our imperfections and loving us anyway?
Can’t we hear God calling us into a relationship knowing full well that the sin that God attempted to drown lives on in our very souls?
Can’t you hear God telling you that our God is not done with you yet?
God is calling us out of our Ark, but will we be bold enough to see what waits. That God does not meet Noah in his boat, but outside it, in the world.
So we must be bold enough to hear God in the words of music, whether it is on the Fish or not, whether it comes from the Contemporary Christian section or not.
We must be brave enough to learn new things about God from books, whether they come from the right book store or not, even if they are written by non-Christian writers.
We must keep our eyes open, because God is working in the world outside of our Ark, just as God is working in us, despite our sinful fallen nature.
So let’s listen to God as God calls us out of our Ark and into the world where God is at work.
Our world is full of violence, the sins of humanity are boldly vivid in our world, and it seems now more than ever. But our call is not to defend God; our call is not to look inward, hiding from a fallen world, as we are called out by God to see what God is doing.
The violence may not end, but our hopelessness will not help make this world any better.
As we must confess to believe in a God who has not left this world behind, who has not given up on this world and has not given up on us.
For we worship a God who calls us out into the world to boldly see what God is doing.
We too often assume that perfection is our goal.
But God simply calls us out of our boats into the world, where we may offer our gifts, and that God might find these offerings pleasing.
God knows our very souls, and still calls us into relationship.
In this relationship our sins are revealed, in this relationship our fallenness is visible – but more importantly, we see that we are worthy of communion with the most high. That God has not given up on us – that God does not seek to condemn us; that God seeks a redeeming relationship with us, saying “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.” These are the words of the true God, so thanks be to God.