Ordinary 23A — September 7, 2014

Here Is a Story To Break Your Heart

Here is a story
to break your heart.

Are you willing?

So begins a poem by Mary Oliver whose poetry has become something of an obsession for me lately.  I begin today with that little piece of poetry because it seems an appropriate introduction to a story that we know soooo well that we wonder if there’s anything new to say about it.  So before our imaginations drift into rainbows and Sunday school watercolor pictures of the ark and the animals, listen closely to the scripture. Because this IS a story that will break your heart if you are willing.  If you listen closely, you may hear the heartbreak of God.  And maybe even your own.  Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to you.

GENESIS 6:11-22; 9:8-15  
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13And 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. 14Make yourself an ark of cypress*wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.16Make a roof* 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. 17For 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. 18But 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. 19And 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. 20Of 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. 21Also 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.’ 22Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.*11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ 12God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
So God created a world and made it good, but things didn’t work out.  By the time you get to the sixth chapter of Genesis, we read that God has pretty much had it with human beings.  The earth was corrupt and filled with violence.  So a furious God says 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.”  So Noah goes off to build the ark as God told him to do.  You can probably sing the rest of the story.
Maybe this story seldom makes it out of the church nursery because God’s rationale for destroying the earth sounds too depressingly familiar. The same old story, same as it ever was. Corruption and violence.  Human history repeating itself in the worst possible way, over and over again, each war and conflict supposedly designed to be the last one. 
And wouldn’t this story be so much more uplifting if 40 days of total devastation had actually changed anything about human behavior?  It would be a much better story if there were some small clue that somebody or anybody learned their lesson about messing with God’s intention for the earth.  We can wax poetic about rainbows until the cows come home two by twosie and sing about “arky arkys” until we are hoarse.  It doesn’t change what happens when the flood dries up. Whatever moral lesson humanity was supposed to learn from the story of Noah, it sure didn’t stick. 
Last week when we shared our burdens and our blessings in worship, Pastor Donna shared her burden in feeling that the world is pretty much unraveling at the seams.  It was easy to pray for her burden this week because I have the same one.  I just don’t know what to do but pray.
I guess another option is to tune out completely and stop watching the news or reading the newspaper.  Somebody was quoted in a story entitled, “The Unbearable Weight of World News”, as saying: “I try to (manage) my exposure to the news because media focuses mostly on horrible kinds of stories.  I don’t feel the human psyche is wired to take in that amount of sadness.”[1]  I suspect that many of you here this morning may feel exactly the same way.  
How much more can we take?  How many times can we see horrific images of war, poverty, racism, street violence and even beheadings before such images are so seared into our eyes that they can no longer be unseen, no matter how hard we try to rub them out?  How many times can our hearts be broken by human cruelty before we decide it is better to just shut them down? 
Nothing much has changed since Genesis was written down.  Life on earth is still, for too many of God’s creatures, nasty, brutish and short.   We’re still inventing new and novel ways to purposefully hurt each other or to avoid caring about one another.  And even if what’s happening in Iraq and Syria and Ukraine and Nigeria seems distant from Emsworth, violence happens here too.  The violence may not involve guns or knives or bombs, but there are all sorts of weapons we use to inflict pain on one another.  Neglect.  Indifference. Cynicism. Hurtful words.  Hurtful words are the worst.  Words can do more damage to our souls than can ever be repaired. 
Maybe you think I am exaggerating the sorry state of our plant.  Maybe we’re just in the middle of a particularly vicious news cycle.  All I know is that every time I’ve begun to believe that human beings really aren’t so bad after all, something happens to challenge my hopeful optimism.   Something as mind-boggling awful as ISIS comes into my line of vision and I am ready to give up expecting much from the whole human experiment.
Here is a story
to break your heart.

So in some small way, we can understand how God feels in this text.  Looking around at the unholy mess humans have made, God decides that enough is enough and he’s going to shut down the whole operation.  God gets mad, mad enough to destroy everything on earth except for one family and two of each kind of living creature, male and female, so God can try again.  Which is really sort of strange, when you think about it.  Why God would preserve any remnant of the old order of things?  Noah was a righteous man, but he certainly wasn’t a perfect one.  Why didn’t God start from scratch?  With some new and improved creatures?  Maybe even on a whole new planet?  That’s what I would do, wouldn’t you? 
The only reason I can come up with is that God’s heart just wasn’t in it.  God got mad, but couldn’t pull the trigger, not for keeps.  God could not eliminate the highly unlikely possibility that freaky, feckless human beings could maybe – just maybe – do a little better.  The Holy Imagination still had hope that there’s something in us that can be redeemed, reclaimed and renewed. 
The flood reveals the breaking of God’s Holy heart.  But once God’s heart broken open, it never closed again. 
When Rachel was a little girl, one of her favorite books for me to read to her was, “I’ll Love You Forever” which was about a mother singing through the years to her beloved child:
I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always,
As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.
And the mother continues to sing the song, even when the baby becomes a toddler and unrolls a whole roll of toilet paper all over the house.  Even when the baby becomes an annoying teenager.  Even when the child grows up and moves away and forgets to call on Sunday, the mother remembers and sings the song to her child, no matter what.  At the end of the book, the mother has become so old and hobbled that she can no longer sing to her baby.  So the fully-grown man takes his mother into his arms and sings,
“l’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always,
As long as I’m living, my mommy you’ll be.
God draws up a peace treaty with no strings attached.  God doesn’t say, “If you’re good, I won’t try to drown you all again.”  God doesn’t say, “If you’re good, I will keep loving you.”  There are no conditions to God’s promise.  There is no contingency to God’s covenant.  It is simply a promise straight from God’s broken.  It is a promise of faithfulness as clear as the one made by the mother to her newborn baby.  I will love you.  You are my child.  You don’t have to be or do anything.  The fact that you are mine is sufficient.  The very fact of your existence has broken open my heart and I will not close it again.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes what is happening here this way:
“From now on, God will not repay betrayal with betrayal.  From now on, God will not let his sorrow lead him to kill.  He will bind himself to his creation in peace, promising himself to it although he knows it will wound him.  So God will be wounded.  So be it.  With this first, remarkable covenant, God chooses to ally himself with his cantankerous creation, whatever the cost.  If there is to be pain in the world, then God will share it.  Never again will God protect himself from it by killing off those who have caused it.  God’s promise to them is life, not death, ‘an everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on earth.’”
And ever since God made that promise to Noah, God is faithful even when human beings have been anything but.  Scripture tells us that God’s heart is broken again and again, most particularly by the people that God thought might be the ones God could count on – God’s chosen people.  And despite God’s disappointment, God continued to reach out through prophets and poets.  And in the fullest expression of God’s stubborn, broken-hearted love for us, God sent Jesus.  And when Jesus looked around and saw that things weren’t much better than they were when Noah stumbled off the ark, Jesus could have finished off the job of destroying every vestige of evil on earth.  But he didn’t.
 In his humility and humanity, Jesus put down that divine weapon and headed to the cross, a human portrait of God’s heart broken.  Again.  Because Jesus trusted that at least a couple of us might follow after him.  That at least a few of us would be foolish enough to have our hearts broken for sake of the Gospel.   Instead of destroying us for our sins, in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God decided to remind us that God hadn’t forgotten the promise made so long ago to Noah and his family.  In Jesus, God shows us that God has gone all in to share every heartbreak of humanity.
Here is a story
to break your heart.

Are you willing?
I tell you this
to break your heart,

by which I mean only
that it break open
 and never close again
to the rest of the world.
We have two more weeks in which we’ll be holding our house meetings for New Beginning/Unglued Church.  And as we continue these conversations over the coming weeks and months, I invite you to think about…pray about…maybe not so much what you like to do or what you are good at doing.  Tell me…what breaks your heart?  What keeps you awake at night?  Because if you know the answer to that question, it may just be a clue to understanding where God is calling you in the community to serve.  I think that God speaks to us most directly to us in those places we are most tender and vulnerable.  And I believe it is in our tenderness and vulnerability that we are most able to be Jesus in the world.
The people I know who are doing the best kind of ministry, the most impactful ministry, are doing it because something broke their heart.  It may be a particular group of people or a particular neighborhood or a particular social problem – something broke their heart wide open and the Holy Spirit just won’t leave them alone.  For my friend Eugene Blackwell, it is the gang members and drug dealers in Homewood.  For Matt Harding at Shepherd’s Door, it’s unemployed people and at-risk young adults in Bellevue.  Within 5 minutes of meeting her, you’ll discover that Jenn Frayer-Griggs’ heart is broken on a regular basis by the lonely, hungry people who show up at The Table on the South Side.  Jay Poliziani’s heart breaks for the homeless guys in the Pleasant Valley Men’s Shelter.  My heart was broken open 22 years ago when I held my new born baby and realized that if the world was going to be a fit place for her to grow up in, her mother had better get busy.  And for the past three years, my heart breaks for you, Beloved.  In the best possible way. 
May our broken hearts lead us to where God needs us. 
Thanks be to God.  Amen. 

[1] http://www.onbeing.org/blog/the-unbearable-weight-of-world-news/6734