November 10, 2019

Promises, Promises                                                                                       

Genesis 9: 1-17

Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church                                

Earlier this week, Anne Ellis, our Children and Family minister, posted an old “For Better or Worse” comic strip on her Facebook.  In the comic, Elly Patterson’s young daughter April is seen asking her mother why she has to wear a poppy to remember the people who lost their lives in the war. After all, she says, she’s not really sure what a war is.

It’s true that as we move further and further away from the end of the great wars, many in my generation and younger generations have never known the reality of war.  Yet many do that reality.  Children growing up in Syria, in Israel and Palestine and other places where there is political unrest know the realities of war all too well.  If we were to expand our thinking of war to include any death that comes at the hands of human initiated violence, we might speak of children who experience gun violence in their schools or on their neighbourhood streets.

So on a day like today and tomorrow when we gather to remember those who have given their lives for the sake of our freedom, we would do well to remember those in our communities and in our world whose freedoms continue to be compromised due to our penchant as human beings to solve conflicts through violence.

This morning we have been gathering around the familiar tale of Noah, the flood, the ark and the rainbow.  Like many people, I’ve raised my own children with a benevolent interpretation of this story.  When my boys were toddlers we had a plastic Fischer Price version of the ark including little plastic animals and a kindly looking Noah that provided hours of endless fun in the bathtub.  At one time we had a sweet little watercolour of the ark up on one of the kid’s bedroom walls and to this day there is a beautiful carved version of it sitting on a shelf in their bathroom with turquoise blue dolphins swimming underneath it.

We have generally come to think of Noah, the ark and the rainbow as a lovely children’s story when in fact it is really nothing of the sort.

To begin with, this is a story about a God who chooses to wipe out all of humanity and most of creation in one full swoop with the exception of one man, his family and two of every living animal, simply because the people God created are running amok. That’s actually a pretty horrific notion. Which is why when we tell the story to the children we tend to soften that detail.

But beyond God’s bad behaviour in this story, is the way humanity is portrayed.  As most of us know, God chooses to blot out humanity due to their wickedness and their inclination towards evil. What we may not know, is that even Noah and his family, the ones who find favour with God, also get themselves into disputes with one another not long after leaving the ark.  We tend to hold Noah up as a model of faithfulness and obedience, but even he is not beyond reproach.

So, even though, as we heard in the portion of the story we heard read this morning, after the flood has subsided God makes a promise to never again destroy the earth and its’ creatures, the covenant God makes is unilateral.  It’s a one-sided covenant.  Humanity does not agree to not to destroy one another ever again, only God does.  Only God says, I’m not going to beget violence with violence.

Years ago, Canadian author Timothy Findley penned a rather gruesome novel based on the story of Noah and the flood called “Not Wanted on the Voyage.”  In Findley’s version of the story, among other things, Noah’s wife is portrayed as an alcoholic who sneaks her domestic cat onto the ark even though there have already been two felines chosen for the journey; Noah arranges for someone to be murdered; a child is raped; and before the waters subside and dry land is found, a full scale rebellion takes place on board the ship.

Although the book has been criticized for having too much gratuitous violence and is not recommended for the “Sunday church going crowd,” I found that reading it made me look at the story of the ark through a somewhat more realistic lens than the benign version we tend to tell our children.  Isn’t it more probable that being cooped up on a rocky boat for 40 days and 40 nights with a bunch of animals and your in-laws might just bring out the worst of humanity rather than the best?

The ark, when viewed in this way, helps us see the contrast that exists in the story between God who after the flood has ended actually lays down his weapon by placing a bow in the sky (as in a bow and arrow) and humanity who does not.  It’s God whose behaviour changes in this story, not humanity.  God is the one who is full of regret and grief for the way humanity has acted, as well as for the way God has responded to this action.  It’s God who places the bow in the sky and says “never again.”

So where does that leave us as human family if God has promised never to destroy us again but has not removed our propensity as human family to do violence unto one another?

One place it leaves us is vulnerable to one another.  It heightens our need to remember the atrocities of the past and to “never forget.”  Something we would do well to remember this weekend is that if it happened once, it can happen again.  It also leaves us in a place of responsibility.  If the story of the ark and the flood tells us that God is not going to intervene in our lives, either to wipe us out when we are behaving wickedly or to protect us against the harm we are inclined to inflict on one another, then those of us who actually want to live in a world of peace with justice and harmony are going to have to get to work laying down our own weapons and co-creating that existence with God.

If that is the choice we make, we are assured by this story that the promise of the God who companions us on this journey, is a promise of compassion, forgiveness and grace and the possibility of new beginnings.  This is a God who is not going to participate with us in creating violence but will join us in the work of reconciliation.

So perhaps on the remembrance day weekend, on this Sunday we call peace Sabbath, in addition to remembering and giving thanks for those who have given their lives to protect our freedoms, we should also remember and give thanks for those who are encouraging and supporting our human family to lay down our weapons in the name of reconciliation and peace with justice.

For example, a number of the survivors of the shootings that took place at Stoneman Douglas Highschool in Parkland Florida last year have continued to advocate for stricter gun control laws in the United States through an organization they have created called “Never Again.”

In Syria, a group of youth have started an organization called “Bebesata” (meaning “simply.”)  They promote non-violence through the creation of animated films which are often interactive.  Audiences actually collaborate in the storytelling process by coming up with their own responses to provocative discussions about peace and violence.

The Oasis of Peace is a cooperative village founded by Israeli Jews and Muslim and Christian Palestinian Arabs who attempt to show that these two groups can live side by side peacefully through the community they have built together.  Their children are schooled alongside each another and together they conduct educational work for peace, equality and understanding between their people.

Here in the lower mainland, the Yo Bro Yo Girl Youth Initiative offers programming in classrooms, after school and during school breaks aimed at keeping youth at risk busy, active and empowered with the support of positive role models in a bid to keep them out of gangs and on a healthier life path.

In a world where we are human beings pick up weapons far too often to settle our disputes, these individuals and organizations are laying down rainbows of peace.  What better way to honour our veterans and those who died for the sake of our freedom than to celebrate and support these and many other purveyors of peace.  What better way to remember those who gave their lives for the sake of our freedom than to ponder the ways that we can lay down rainbows of peace and reconciliation in our own relationships that are conflicted.

After young April Patterson asks her mother why she should wear a poppy because she doesn’t think she really knows what war is, her mother says that’s probably the best reason of all to wear one.

This remembrance day and every day let’s look not only to the poppy but also to the rainbow and the promise it holds of a world of peace with justice, so there can be even more children in the world who go to bed at night like April, not knowing the reality of war.