10-22-17 Sermon “A Way Out of No Way: Saving”
Patterns tend to catch my attention
- Patterns in clothing - notice how some patterns in clothing people wear on TV seems to messes with the camera? They don’t broadcast well
- Patterned tie on a patterned shirt with a patterned jacket - too much for me - becomes a distraction
- Numeric patterns on odometer (photos, texts) - I do this a lot
In school, we learned to do math problems and to diagram sentences by learning to recognize, understand, and then predict patterns. Learning our multiplication tables was largely about recognizing and remembering patterns.
In literature, we learn to recognize the patterns of basic story structure, and in poetry, we learn to recognize rhyme schemes and meters, which are repeating and predictable patterns.
And we see predictable patterns represented in nearly all parts of our popular culture too don’t we, even as those patterns sometimes change. For example, think of early pop rock music of the 1950s and 1960s, where nearly any song we heard on the radio was under 3 minutes or it didn’t get air time. And there was a very predictable pattern to that music - vs 1, chorus, vs 2 chorus, bridge, vs 3 chorus, end. And other than the fact that songs are longer now mostly, that pattern still largely holds true.
Think about TV shows, whether it’s Gilligan’s Island or NCIS, we know that week after week the storyboard of the show has the stars going through some kind of dilemma, maybe even life or death, but they inevitably find a way out of whatever predicament they were in - otherwise the pattern of a weekly television series doesn’t go on.
On our vacation last week Lynn and I listened to two different audiobooks while we were making the 12+ hours drive to and then back from Rhode Island.
The first one we listened to was very good and really not too predictable, which kept us very engaged. The second one, though, fell into such a predictable pattern that we could easily guess what was coming next well before it happened. We finished listening to it though, not because it kept us engaged or enthralled as much as to see if our predictions about where the story was going actually panned out. And they mostly did!
In fact, nearly every aspect of human life and all of creation is built largely around patterns, whether it be animals like this or the DNA that is the foundation of the cells that make up our body and all living things, whether it’s the light that comes from the sun as both waves and particles to provide life on our planet, or the gravitational pull of the moon that guides tidal forces, patterns are elemental to life and survival.
Thanks to modern weather technology, such as weather satellites and radar, weather patterns are mostly predictable cycles or patterns, although hurricane season this year has challenged expectations. If doppler radar had been around in Noah’s time, the severe weather warning would have been intense. God tells Noah how to get ready for the deluge and he sets to work, making a way out when it seemed like there was no way out.
It’s been said that we don’t really come to know God until we have some reason to trust God - that God seems almost unreal to us until we encounter God in some way, in some situation, that forces us to rely on God.
But scripture provides us with certain patterns, certain reoccurrences that affirm our ability to trust that God will provide for us, that is, to trust in God’s providence. God’s rainbow covenant in the flood epic provides a baseline of trust, if we allow it to, that we need to start a journey and process of self-discovery that will lead us into a renewed life built on a trust in God that will allow us to live our whole lives, our full selves, in love with God.
That journey to trust that God will provide begins with our understanding of God, and in how God is revealed to us both in scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ. In fact, the stories in Genesis 3-11, following the two creation accounts in chapters 1 and 2, serve not as history lessons for us, but rather as attempts for peoples and developing civilizations to answer basic questions for themselves about things such as where did all this come from? why does childbirth bring such pain? why do people speak in different languages? why do bad things happen? and so on.
As theologian Mark Throntveit points out though, in discussing how the opening book of the bible frames these stories,
“In Genesis…these stories have been refashioned to present us with a picture of humanity repeatedly shattering the relationship with God established in creation; as such they depict the spread of sin.
All five stories share a pattern in which a sinful act (A) prompts a speech from God (B), curse (C), and a merciful act (D).”
And he diagrams this repeating pattern as it occurs in each of the five major stories in this part of Genesis:
Adam & Eve 3:1-24
Cain & Abel (4:1-16)
The Flood (6:1-8:22)
Canaan Cursed (9:20-27)
Tower of Babel (11:1-9)
And he shows that in the story of Adam and Eve, eating the fruit is the sinful act (A, v. 6) that prompts God's reprimand (B, vv. 14-19) and banishment of the human couple from the garden (C, vv. 22-24).
Since Adam and Eve worried about their nakedness,
God made skins for them to wear (D, v. 21).
This last step is important for the relationship, for then as now, when young children are punished it is important for parents to reassure them that “Mommy and Daddy still love you!”
And so we see that ABCD pattern repeat itself in each of the five major stories of Genesis, with a couple of notable exceptions. And this repetition of pattern in these stories ties them to one another and suggests that they be read together. And as Throntveit points out, “When we do, we notice that the pattern breaks at the very end (D in the Tower of Babel); there is no concluding merciful act. We also see that the Flood narrative dominates the center. It has its own distinctive structure” or pattern in the heart of all of these stories.
A God resolves to destroy (6:11-13)
B Noah builds ark (6:14-22)
C God orders Noah, "Enter the ark!" (7:1-9)
D Flood begins (7:10-16)
E Flood prevails 150 days covering the mountains (7:17-24)
X God remembers Noah (8:1a)
E' Flood recedes 150 days revealing the mountains (8:1b-5)
D' Flood ends (8:6-14)
C' God orders Noah, "Leave the ark!" (8:15-19)
B' Noah builds altar (8:20)
A' God resolves not to destroy (8:21-22)
And when we recognized this pattern, this arrangement in the story then we see that, much as the beloved hymn says, “in the end is our beginning,” “the end (A') echoes the beginning (A), the next to last element (B') echoes the second element (B) and so on.
When we compare the matching elements three things become more clear to us in the pattern:
- The progression in the top half of the structure, from God's decision to destroy all flesh to their destruction in the flood (A to E), reverses the process of creation in Genesis 1. There, creation was portrayed as a process of separation and distinction; here, God removes those separations and distinctions. For example, in the creation story God placed a dome in the sky to separate the waters above from the waters below (1:6-8); now God opens the windows of the heavens, thus removing that separation (7:11). The previous distinction between the water and the dry land (1:9) was removed when the "fountains of the great deep burst forth" (7:11). The sequence of destruction mirrors that of creation: first the earth was destroyed, then birds, domestic animals, wild animals, swarming creatures, and people (7:21). When we arrive at 7:24 we recognize that the story has gone full circle, returning to the watery chaos with which God began in Genesis 1. If Genesis 1 depicts God's grace in "The Creation," Genesis 6 and 7 depict God's judgment in "The Un-creation!” So that’s the first thing we notice.
2. The second is this: if the progression in the top half of the structure, from A to E, depicts God's Un-Creation, the parallel movement from E' to A' depicts God's "Re-Creation." From the receding of the water (E') to the end of the flood (D') to the command to leave the Ark (C') to the building of the altar (B') to God's decision never again to destroy (A'), every element of the first half of the flood story is reversed in the second half. This suggests that God's judgment is matched by God's mercy. A second indication that this is a re-creation story in which God undoes creation in order to start again is found in the command to Noah: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth" (9:1), which is the same command given to Adam and Eve (1:28).
3. Thirdly and finally, in the center of the narrative we read that "God remembered Noah" (X, 8:1a). In our baptismal liturgy, built around images of God creating out of the chaos of the water, of God saving humanity from the flood waters, of God’s Son being birthed in the water of a womb, out of these words and images we are reminded that here, as God remembered Noah, God also remembers us.
In the celebration of the sacrament that we will share in just a few minutes, we remember and celebrate that God remembers baby Harry, and that God remembers you, and that God remembers me. The waters of baptism remind us that in the midst of all that occurs around us that leads to either creation or uncreation, in this moment, in these waters, God remembers us. When we celebrate the remembrance of our baptisms, it is a reminder that God continues to remember us in the present moment. When we say the words of the Thanksgiving Over the Water in the baptism liturgy, we are reminded that God remembers us. But it is a remembering that is more than just an act of mental recall. When something is dismembered it is taken apart, it is separated. Re-membering, then, is a bringing together, a rejoining.
Regardless of what went before, regardless of what comes after, we are re-membered, brought back together, by the God and with the God who creates all things, who breathes life into all things, who saves all things. Even as God separated the waters above from the waters below in the Genesis 1, scripture reminds us that the rainbow helps God re-member, that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.
Perhaps, Throntveit suggests, “that is why the flood narrative appears in the middle of this collection of myths and stories in Genesis 3-11. Following God's initial blessing to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth (Gen 1:28), the progression of sin begins with the parental sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3) and proceeds through the brothers Cain and Abel (Gen 4) to the whole world (Gen 6).”
“God's "un-creation" and subsequent "re-creation" of the world, indicating God's intention to give humanity a second chance,” a way out when no way seemed apparent, “initiated with the same blessing to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth (Gen 9:1), the world reverts to the same sinful progression of parental sin (Noah's drunkenness, 9:21), followed by sin involving the brothers Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Gen 9:23-27), and culminating in the world-wide sin of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). Since this old pattern of sin reasserted itself immediately after God's merciful re-creation, it seems that neither God's judgment shown in (A--E) nor God's mercy shown in (E'--A') are able to stop the spread of sin!”
But even when it appears again that there is no way out of this cycle, this repeating pattern, God, again, creates a way out of no way. Do you remember the first pattern we looked at - the ABCD pattern?
In the last story in this series of stories, the Tower of Babel, (Gen 11), the pattern was incomplete - there was no D, no saving act of mercy given at the end of that story. But one of the reasons patterns are established
is to get our attention when they break down.
By omitting God's merciful act in Genesis 11, the author presents a stunningly different divine plan for restoring relationship with humanity, for re-membering what humanity had dismembered. Instead of working with the whole human race in acts of judgment or mercy, God chooses one human representative and blesses him into relationship about which God says, "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12:3). That chosen one is Abraham, and it is to him that we will turn next week. Amen.