Sunday, January 14, 2024
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“Perfect Cursing”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, January 14, 2024
Reading: Genesis 9:18-27

More than one of you after church last week told me you felt like I was preaching right to you. Usually that thrills a preacher as vain as I am. But with our series topic, it’s just sad. Being at odds with a sister or brother is painful. And according to Genesis, that pain marks humanity. You heard more sibling strife in the text this morning.

We do strange things with the Noah’s ark story in our culture. It has animals in it, so we decorate children’s spaces with it. The story pleases environmentalists: God goes to great lengths to preserve endangered species. The country singer Garth Brooks sings:

Old Noah took much ridicule
For building his great ark
But after forty days and forty nights
He was lookin' pretty smart.

But there is terror in this story. God wipes out every land-borne creature. Sea creatures did fine I suppose, but that just adds to the terror. All there is left, is sea. In Jewish imagination, the sea is where you go to drown or get eaten. But things are even worse. In Genesis the first day of creation God separates light and dark: “let there be light.” But all there is, after day one, is water. The sky is water in biblical imagination. The sea’s chaos pre-exists all land. So, God divides water from water, sky from ocean. And on day three land appears, on day four vegetation. In the flood, God is collapsing creation. Undoing days two and three and four. Making the earth nothing but watery chaos again. If God will do this, would God undo light and dark? End creation altogether?

It’s enough to make you notice. We didn’t have to be here. Scientists agree: the odds of our species arising, and you and I drawing breath at this moment, are vanishingly small, one in billions. And here we are. I told y’all about my stepmom’s death over Christmas. One day she wakes up beside my dad, sick but alive. The next day she’s just not there, ashes, memories. We don’t often notice how lucky we are to be here.

So, life is a gift. But why does God take it away from all creatures?

We had sibling rivalry last week, Cain murdering Abel, then Cain marked to wander the earth. One of you asked, was that actually merciful of God? Wouldn’t death have been better for Cain? I’m here for that sort of smart question, bless you. Well Cain founds the first city, named Enoch after his son. Adam and Eve have more children. They fill the earth and multiply as commanded. But you know what else they fill the earth with? Violence. Cain is not the only murderer. Genesis Six begins with one of the saddest lines I’ve ever heard: “The Lord regretted that He had made man on Earth, and His heart was saddened.”

Ever despaired over us, your fellow humans?

In the movie American History X, Beverly D’Angelo plays a mother whose son is a white supremacist, played by Ed Norton. She shrieks at him: I’m ashamed you came out of my body. That’s God before the flood. Looking at our history of imitating Cain, you might understand.

It’s important in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theology that God is perfect. Never changes. If you change, you either go from better to worse or worse to better, and either way, God can’t. But. These stories in Genesis depict a more changeable God, more human-like. One who does change. Doesn’t know things. Gets surprised. Needs reassurance. We don’t think this theologically, but let’s let Genesis speak for itself: God is learning how to be God. I mean, where else do you get that training but on the job?

First, God creates Adam and Eve. They get one really simple rule. Ten minutes later, they break it, blame each other, and hide from God. We’ve been cursed ever since with ruin. Their son Cain kills their son Abel. The curse spreads. Violence floods in. God hates violence. God will not have it. So, God resolves to start over. Okay, that humanity didn’t work, let’s make a new one. One that won’t kill or disobey.

Some of the sweetest news you can ever hear is that you get a do-over. Well, here God takes a do-over. A mulligan, you golfers call it. New humanity without the flaws of the old.

You may know Michaelangelo’s great sculpture the pieta. It’s Mary holding her dead Son. TS Elliot saw it, dropped to his knees, and became Christian from that moment. A glimpse of such beauty was all he needed. Well, an older Michaelangelo tried to sculpt it again later in life. And hated the result. Destroyed it. Sometimes even our greatest creatives miscarry. Thing is, it wasn’t his to destroy. His genius isn’t his, it belongs to humanity. So, someone pieced it back together, and you can go see it, unfinished. I doubt anyone’s ever converted looking at the second, lesser version.

Think of God like Michaelangelo, only with the bad one made first, wrecking that draft, and starting off fresh.

In the story there is this one perfect family. They do what God asks. They don’t do violence. Noah is blameless, a righteous man, who finds favour with God. God tells Noah his plan to wipe out the Earth with 40 days and nights of rain. And Noah gets busy. Loads all the animals. Some stories say two of each. Some say seven pairs of each. Either way, that’s a big boat. They bob along until the flood recedes, going nowhere in particular. One of you in Bible study told me you remember learning about the birds Noah sends out to see if the flood has ended. They first come back with nothing. Then they come back with an olive branch. Then the dove doesn’t return at all. Land. Life. Every creature disembarks into a new creation, commanded to fill it, multiply, and God puts the rainbow in the sky as a promise never to purge the earth again. God is sorry for the second time in this story. ‘Yeah, violence is bad, but so is destroying the violent.’ Now every rainbow is a promise of life in the face of death. No wonder groups adopt the sign to show God cherishes them.

All good. But here’s a problem. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that Noah is called righteous. Okay. Why didn’t he argue with God? Later Abraham would do just that. Wait, God, you can’t destroy a whole city, what if there are good people there? Moses does too. No, God, you can’t destroy your people you led out of Egypt. Real righteousness isn’t being better than other people. It’s advocating with God on behalf of people in danger. Noah doesn’t. No objection. Wipe out the Earth? Cool. I’ll get busy.

Is that really righteous?

I love getting to know how people found our church. Some of you did generations ago. Some of you did hours ago. Either way, your story is important. You’re looking for God and all praise, you find God here. Let’s make our life together. Some of you come from more conservative Christian settings. Sectarian ones even. A sect thinks only their group is good, everyone outside is bad. My wife has a cousin who grew up Roman Catholic, but is now Assemblies of God, Pentecostal, lives in Springfield Missouri where the Assemblies of God is headquartered. He likes his church. But he has one problem: he gets a church thinking it’s the only true church. Catholics think that when they’re not on good behaviour. Maybe we all do. But if you think you’re the one true church, should you really be headquartered in Springfield, Missouri? I mean, maybe Rome, but Springfield?! The whole history of Protestantism is breaking into smaller and smaller sects, ‘you’re not really Christian, we’re going to do it right this time.’ The United Church of Canada was an effort to reverse that trend. If you come from a more sectarian church, you may remember thinking there, we’re the only good ones, too bad for everyone else. Like Noah’s family in the ark.

Here’s how Sacks reads the Noah story: it’s really dangerous to think you’re the only good ones. Sectarian Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others think that; the world can all go hang, we’re the only ones who deserve to live. Atheists can be sectarians too. So can good liberals: why isn’t the world as enlightened as we are? I feel that looking at some cultures, don’t you? Shouldn’t they be democratic, capitalist, respecting of human rights, minority rights, like us? I mean, why not bomb them till they’re as enlightened as we are? That’s Noah talking. And it’s the way to religious arrogance, or even violence.

So, how does it work out with this one holy righteous man? This one perfect family, so perfect that when God wanted to drown everybody, God had to make an exception for him, and make Noah the beginning of a new humanity?

The flood’s over. Noah plants a vineyard, drinks some wine, and gets hammered. So drunk he passes out naked. I don’t know how drunk you have to be to take off your clothes before blanking out, but pretty blasted I bet. So, this is your perfect specimen, y’all. The best person on Earth. Passed out naked [don’t worry I don’t have any slides of this]. Noah’s son Ham sees his father naked and tells his brothers. Not clear why this is such a heinous offense. The rabbis wonder whether Ham did more than just see Noah naked—maybe he mocked or abused him in some way. They’re trying to find a crime to fit Ham’s punishment. Maybe it’s just that the Bible respects the body enough to say we should cover up, avert our eyes—over against a pornographic culture like ours. Some rabbis say Ham is gossiping about his father, divulging his nakedness, his secrets. Shem and Japheth take a garment, creep backwards over their father, cover him without seeing him. Noah wakes up and curses not just Ham, but Canaan, Ham’s son, and their line in perpetuity. In Judaism, fathers are supposed to bless their children. Every shabbat the children line up to have hands laid on their little heads for a blessing. Noah does the opposite. He curses his own child. And his child’s child.

So, how’s your plan to save the world with a hard reset going, God? Your best human, ten minutes after the ark lands, is drunk, naked, and cursing his grandchildren. Well, that didn’t work out. Later God will choose one family, Abraham and Sarah’s, through whom to bless the world. The Jewish people today are their descendants, still blessing the world. We Christians are adopted into the family in Jesus Christ, also doing our best to bless the world. But at this point in Genesis, God is characterized as still learning how to repair creation that’s we’ve ruined. Adam and Eve’s one rule didn’t work. Now Noah’s reset doesn’t work. This is a failed experiment in salvation. So much so God promises never to try it again, however much we deserve it. The rainbow is a sign that God has learned patience. God will tolerate a lot from us. But God will have his way with the world. Sarah and Abraham’s children, by birth and by faith, will make the world the way God wants one day.

This story may have even more terror in it than I’ve let on though. Slaveholding cultures used this story to justify slavery. Ham’s children populate Africa on the Bible’s map—two of his children are named Cush and Mitzraim, that is Sudan and Egypt. Justifiers of slavery said this story shows why black people should be slaves. Let’s be clear the real reason is slavery made some people absurdly rich, exploiting other people’s labour and flesh. But justification came from this story. This story has blood on its hands. We humans can turn anything good into something ruinous, even the Bible. Even God.

But you probably don’t need me to tell you that. You might need me to tell you why we bother with the Bible at all when it tells stories of whole peoples cursed, of millions kidnapped and exploited. You didn’t come here today for bad news, did you? How about a little good news?

What the Bible is doing here is explaining the Israelites’ world. It takes a story to make a people. Why is the world the way it is? Why are we the way we are? Why are our enemies the way they are? Well, Egypt, Mitzraim, was a place of slavery. For us. Not for other people. Pharaoh is a tyrant from whom God liberates slaves, that is us. This story explains the Israelites’ own slavery. If anyone was cursed, it was God’s own people. Then God worked to end the curse with the Exodus.

Okay, that’s fine for history class, but what about for church?

Well, in church, there is also a curse. But it’s on all humanity. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, fell, but their descendant, Jesus Christ, rose. He broke the curse. We sang about it at Christmas, remember? “He comes to make, his blessings known, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as ...”. That’s what we’re singing about. Christ’s blessings curse the curse. Like Shem and Japheth covering their father, Jesus Christ covers humanity’s shame with blessing. Genesis lays bare our sin, the ways we destroy one another, like naked, cursing Noah. Christ’s grace covers our sin and teaches us to bless one another again.

When my southern forebears read this story to justify the plantation, they read their Bible badly. You can have the thing memorized in Hebrew and still make a hash of it. The Bible also forbids kidnapping, people-stealing, treating your fellow human beings like animals or property. There is no perpetual slavery in scripture. Every Year of Jubilee everyone is set free, and every debt cancelled. And Africa is the first place of the gospel’s blessing. The good news of Jesus Christ spread in Africa first in the Bible, only later to Europe. Christianity starts out life as an Asian religion and a Jewish sect, and we spread to Roman North Africa first, producing there our greatest early intellects: Origen and Augustine and many more. Africa is also now the place of the greatest Christian growth and fertility. Here’s the heart of what scripture says about Africa: it’s a land of blessing. Here’s the heart of what scripture says about slavery: God chooses the slaves, not the enslavers. Here’s what God says about cursing. It’s undone.

I was on a ski slope once and saw a woman get cut off and lose her balance a little. The other skied on. I heard her say out loud, “I hope you fall, hit your head, and die.” Now that’s a proper curse, not just a naughty word. It’s trying to change reality. Similarly, when we bless, it radiates and changes things. Ask any teacher who’s ever praised any student. Noah is an excellent curser. Jesus Christ doesn’t just command us not to curse. He swallows our curses and gives us back nothing but blessing.

I’ve already told you scripture is implicitly criticizing Noah, and any notion of ourselves as good, others as bad. Any notion. Lots of religions do this. They’re not reading scripture well. Noah is kind of the opposite of Jesus Christ. Noah, the supposedly one righteous man fails miserably, drunk, naked, and cursing. Jesus, the one righteous man, fails miserably, crucified naked. But he’s not cursing, is he? He’s blessing those who crucify. Blessing the whole world with salvation. On his cross, he turns down the offer of wine that Noah overindulged in. We human beings gave the worst curse to the best person: a slow agonizing death. He transfigures that into blessing for his crucifiers, for the world.

Do you know we Christians even made the cross into a Noah-like curse? For centuries we said the Jews crucified Jesus, not us, so they’re cursed. No. All humanity’s sins, yours and mine first, put him on that cross. And in response, he blessed. Gave life and health. There is no curse anymore, either for Ham or Canaan or Jesus’ own Jewish family, or anybody else.

Want more? Well, there is sibling rivalry here too, but it’s muted a little. Shem and Japheth cooperate to cover their father. Shem is the founding patriarch of the Arabian peninsula in the Bible. Ham of Egypt. Japheth of Asia Minor, basically Turkey. Some of the most volatile places in the world today. These are siblings. The Jews point this out: we are all descended from Noah, every one of us got off that boat. We survived the flood together. The rainbow shows God wants life for us not death. Oppressed groups cling to that promise. And the reason for the flood in the first place? Violence. The answer to the violence? Peace. There is no way to peace, wise heads say, peace is the way. The greatest movements for peace in the 20th century were non-violent: Gandhi’s, King’s, the fall of Apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall. To respond to curses with blessings, even to the point of shedding your own blood, is to be like Jesus, like God.

The ark has long been taken as an image for the church. And despite some qualifications, you can see why. We make churches’ roofs look like upside-down boats. We call the worship space the nave, where we get our English word navy, it’s a nautical term. We are on the ark of life together. There’s a joke about this: the church is like Noah’s ark, you can only stand the smell inside, because of the storm outside. We’ve had new folks join our church lately, more of this Lord. But I almost need to warn ‘em, sorry, we will harm you. We don’t mean to. It’s just what happens in a boat with bobcats next to coyotes, where panthers are right beside chickens. And for all of that, it’s sort of beautiful. God saves us creatures together, not apart, promises life in place of death. For all the carnage in the story, life wins. A life we see in full in Jesus Christ, prince of peace. The opposite of Noah. Noah lives while everyone else dies. Christ dies so everyone else can live. Amen.