Refreshing God’s Memory
Scripture - Genesis 9:8-17
I do not know anyone whose spirits are not improved by a rainbow. It does not seem to matter where you are – stuck in rush hour traffic on a Friday afternoon or sitting on a porch watching the wind blow waves across the lake. The point is you are not expecting anything. It is raining, & your soul has fallen
silent under the drumming on the roof. All plans are cancelled. There is nothing to do but wait it out & so you sit there, sniffing all the things you cannot smell when the air is dry – the street, the grass, the earth, & of course the dog. The wet air is heavy in your nose. It lies against your face like a washcloth while you wait for the clouds to pass.
It is easy to lose track of time when it is raining, since rain has a way of triggering memory. Before you know it, you are 5 years old again, sliding down a muddy bank in the back of your house while the rain beats your hair flat against your head. The taste of it in your mouth is sweet & salty – part sky, part you. It runs into your eyes & your ears. It runs down the back of your neck, cold, the best bath you ever had. The sky is as gray as a dolphin, or was, the last time you looked. Now you look up & there it is – a perfect arch of purest color – a rainbow, where you least expected it. What a wonderful idea! Who in the world thought of that? I know people who are otherwise unreligious who still get quiet when they see a rainbow. They know it is just a trick the sun plays – the refraction of light in drops of water – but it sure does look like an omen, or a blessing.
A friend of mine remembers his own rainbow omen. When he was 8 years old in Macon, GA, he was inside listening to the radio when he heard the news that WWII was over. Running into the street, he found his entire neighborhood there, all of them cheering & crying & falling into each other’s arms. He does not remember who saw it first, but someone said, “Look!” & pointed down the street, where the oak trees parted to reveal the top of a bright rainbow. All at once the street got as quiet as a prayer. “It was God’s promise of peace,” he says now, “and we all knew it.”
The story of God, Noah, & the rainbow is one of those stories that has gotten deep down inside of us, so deep that most of us make the connection my friend made without even thinking about it. The rainbow is God’s promise of peace – God’s everlasting covenant with all creation - & it is hard to see one without experiencing a measure of that peace. The rainbow is God’s pure gift to us, a colorful corrective for anyone who believes that all the grace of the Bible is in the New Testament. It is not. The sacred story is full of grace from the very beginning, although we have always had a perverse way of fighting it off. It is almost as if we cannot stand too much good news.
God says, “I choose you to be my partners. Will you choose me?” And we say sure, but before you know it, we have got our sticky fingers in the till, embezzlers from the word go. That is what happened in today’s story, anyway. God made the whole world in one whirlwind week, pronounced it all good, yes, even supremely good, & gave us the keys to the whole creation, with one notable exception. A fruit tree, one fruit tree with a picket fence around it & a small sign that said, “Private property. Please do not pick.”
Walking through an art store while on a trip, I came across one artist who had painted her version of what happened with the fruit tree. In her picture, a beautiful brown woman reaches up to pluck a piece of fruit while a gorilla holds his hands up like a policeman stopping traffic & a leopard sharpens her claws on the trunk of the tree. Meanwhile, the fruit on the forbidden tree looks suspiciously like SC peaches.
“What are those?” I asked, pointing at the reddish-gold fruit. “Well,” she said, “the Bible doesn’t say what kind of fruit it was, & I figured no one was going to be tempted by an apple if they could have a peach instead.” And you know she was right. Someone was tempted, & before the new creation had even dried, there it was broken – first the trespass with the fruit, then the shameful, sad eviction, which even God could not stand. Before sending them out of Eden forever, God made Adam & Eve their first set of clothes. Can you picture that? The Lord God Almighty, bent over some stiff animal skins with a needle & thread, so the poor pale creatures would have something to pull around them when they walked out the gates for the last time. Grace, from the very beginning.
But things got worse, not better. Adam & Eve’s son Cain killed his brother Abel – the first murder but certainly not the last - & humankind went on breaking what God had made until, by the 6th chapter of Genesis, God ran out of patience. I will wipe off of the land the human race that I’ve created: from human beings to livestock to the crawling things to the birds in the skies, because I regret I ever made them. That may be the most sobering sentence in the entire Bible. What a fast catastrophe, to go from God saw everything he had made: it was supremely good to I regret I ever made them in 5 short chapters.
There was one person who found favor in the sight of the Lord, however, & to him God gave the blueprint for an ark. All of us who have heard the story have imagined it: the big, roofed boat, looking more like a floating barn than a boat, filled to the rafters with life – zebras, flamingos, king snakes, box turtles, barn owls, giraffes, hyenas, groundhogs – all of them floating above the wet chaos below, where the rest of creation was perishing, seeking higher & higher ground until there was none left, & then surrendering their last bubbles of air as the waters closed over their heads.
It was awful, make no mistake about it. We focus on Noah & his zoo because they survived, but no one & nothing else did. The cleansing was complete. The destruction was total, & when the waters subsided it was like Hurricane Laura (cat 4) had circled the entire globe. God had willed it, but the result was so devastating that God willed never to will such a thing again. I will set up my covenant with you, God said to Noah when it was over, so that never again will all life be cut off by floodwaters. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth. As a sign of the covenant, God set a rainbow in the clouds – not to jog Noah’s memory but to jog God’s own. When… the bow appears in the clouds… I will remember, God said, & the creation was back on dry ground again.
The history of the world, biblically speaking, is the history of God’s promises to humankind. When we tell the sacred story, we tend to organize our telling around these promises – the promise of peace to Noah, the promise of a land & a nation to Abraham & Sarah, the promise of the law to Moses, & the promise of a son to Mary. They are all the same promise, at heart – the promise of intimate relationship with God – but that one promise has taken different forms over the years, as God has struggled to remain faithful to the orneriest bunch of partners a deity ever had.
‘Covenant’ is the Bible’s word for this strange & strong relationship. Established by God in creation, the covenant has survived floods & famines, wars & upheavals, & the rising & falling of empires. The prosperity of our own culture may be the worst blow the covenant has ever been dealt, but it has survived that too, & to this day, the promise holds. I shall be your God & you shall be my people. That is the heart of it – our belonging to God, & God’s belonging to us – the covenant of intimate relationship with God.
Yet many of us hear an if at the end of it. I shall be your God & you shall be my people – if you obey my laws, if you heed my commandments, if you sell all you own & follow me. We are right to expect something like that, since most covenants are clear about what each partner will & will not do, but God’s covenant with Noah has no conditions in it whatsoever. There is not one word in it about what Noah will & will not do. It is all about what God will & will not do. “I won’t hurt you like this again,” God promises Noah. “I won’t hurt the earth like this again. I won’t do it & I won’t forget, because I’m hanging up my bow where I can see it – not a weapon anymore, but a reminder of the covenant between me & you & every living creature that is with you, for all future generations.”
That is what God said to the whole water-logged bunch of them – not just to Noah & his family, but to all the thin, bewildered animals who were standing around the ramp of the ark with them. The must ox whose hide had begun to mildew, & the horse who had foundered from standing in water, & the hawk who had all but forgotten how to fly – they were all included in the covenant God made that day. The birds, the animals, the creeping things – every living creature that came out of the ark. “I will not hurt you like this again,” God said to all of them that day. “From now on I am in the protection business, not the destruction business. From this day forth, you are all my partners, & your lives are as precious to me as my own.”
What in the world happened? you may ask. At the beginning of the story, God was mad enough to drown the whole earth. But here in the end something major has shifted in the divine mind. Humankind will not change. The God who knows everything knows that. In no time at all, Jacob will be stealing Esau’s birthright. Aaron will be dancing around a golden calf, & David will be figuring out how to get Bathsheba’s husband out of town. So, the story of the flood is not a story about a change in humankind. It is a story about a change in God, who swears off retribution as a way of dealing with creation & chooses relationship instead.
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 how 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 he protect himself from it by killing off those who have caused it. God’s promise to them is life, not death, the enduring covenant between God & every living being of all the earth’s creatures.
Of course, bad things still to happen to us, but this covenant is our assurance that none of them is rooted in God’s ill will toward us. God is our ally, not our enemy. God’s will for us is life, not death, & that includes life for every living creature – not just us 2-legged ones but also the 4-legged ones & the winged ones & those with no legs or wings at all. God’s covenant includes clams & trout & snails & snakes. God’s covenant includes lizards & centipedes & tadpoles & fireflies. It includes all the species disappearing daily off the face of the earth. They are all of them our covenant partners – heirs of God’s promise just like we are - & those of us who understand our kinship with them tremble to think what we have done, killing off those to whom God has promised life.
Just because there are no conditions in Noah’s covenant does not make us merely recipients of it. We are creatures made in the image of our Creator, after all, which makes us partners in God’s plan. We too are allies of creation. We too are lovers of life, which means that we too are wounded by the brokenness we see around us, the brokenness in which we ourselves participate. We are both the breakers & the healers, set into relationship with a God whose covenant calls us to shift the balance from death to life whenever & wherever we can.
Friends, I do not have to remind you that it is still raining. The story is not over yet, but those of us who have heard it before have a distinct advantage over those who have not, because we know something about how it turns out in the end. In our own time, the ark does not look so much like a barn floating on a choppy sea. It looks more like a blue-green ball bobbing on the dark ocean of space. Inside its gauzy atmosphere, there are black rhinos prowling the thorn bushes of the Serengeti & monarch butterflies hanging from eucalyptus trees in CA; there are baby chimney sweeps chirping in suburban fireplaces & coyotes howling in desert canyons. There are children in the Sudan eating hibiscus blossoms because there is nothing else left for them to eat & there are disease-wrecked men & women who never leave their post at the small window of the ark, wondering when, please God when, will the dove return with the olive branch in her beak.
We have all of us got a place in that ark – not because we, like Noah & his crew, are all that righteous, but because it has pleased God to preserve our lives. Because life is sacred to God, & having destroyed it once, God has promised never to do it again. If we go on perishing, it may have less to do with divine providence than with our own amnesia. We have forgotten who we are & what we are supposed to be doing. We have forgotten whose covenant partners we are & how that covenant – not to mention that God – means for us to be bailing water & handing out life vests as fast as we can, so that every living creature who rides this ark with us may share the unmitigated joy of walking down the rickety ramp to plant a foot, a paw, or a hoof on dry land.
So, God is not the only one who needs a rainbow. We need one too, a reminder of the covenant between God & all creation, between us & every creature who shares the breath of life with us. However stuffy the air may get inside the ark, we can still, like God, remember. We can search the sky for the sign we know is there, even when we cannot see it. We can stay awake to it, & to God, & to one another, until the next time we look up & see it – a perfect curve of color, stretching across the sky. God’s everlasting Yes to all who live in his embrace.