Archives For Noah

Genesis 6.11-22, 1 Peter 3.18-22

  Father Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest from Los Angeles. In 1986, having served in Bolivia, Father Boyle was appointed pastor of Delores Mission Church in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East L.A. 

At the time, it was the poorest Catholic parish in the city, and surrounded by public housing projects.  The church was in the middle of a sea of gang violence. The parish had more gangs and gang activity than anywhere else in the country. Between 1986 and 1988, Father Boyle buried 294 victims of gang shootings, most of them kids. 

In 1988, Father Boyle and members of his church decided to do something about the flood of young deaths around them. They established an alternative school, since most gang members had exhausted all their opportunities in the public system. 

They started a day care program to help keep kids off the streets. They started a jobs training program to give gang members an option to a different lifestyle. 

And then, because so few businesses were willing to hire former gang members, they started their own social enterprise business, “Homeboy Bakery.” 

Homeboy Bakery has since grown to become Homeboy Industries, and it’s the largest and most effective gang rehabilitation program in the world. 

They help ten thousand men and women each year overcome the violence of their past, find forgiveness and healing, and train them for a different future for themselves. 

I heard Father Boyle share a story about a former gang member named, “Jose.” 

“Jose works at Homeboy and one day,” Father Boyle said, “he knocked on my office door and came in looking oddly at rest, reposed.”

“My father died,” Jose said. “And I just found out.”

“Jose’s father had been deported to Mexico twenty years ago,” Father said, “Jose hadn’t seen or talked to his Father in all that time.”

But a couple of days before he learned his Father died, Jose called his father, because he learned his Father was dying of cancer.”

And then, in relaying the story, Father Boyle filled in the back story. 

“When Jose and his twin brother were eleven,” he said, “They’d made a pact with each other. They’d promised, “When our father comes home tonight drunk and starts to beat on our mother, let’s stop him. Let’s protect her.’”

Predictably, Jose’s father came home drunk and soon became violent, and Jose and his brother, just little guys, jumped on their Dad’s back, knocking him down to the floor, and then they climbed on top of him, pinning him down. 

After the initial daze, Jose’s father threw them loose of him. 

Then, he beat both of them. He dragged them out of the house by their hair. He threw them into the street. 

And then he screamed at them, “I regret ever bringing you into this world! I’m done with you! You’re no good to me! You’re dead to me! Don’t ever come back to this house again!”

They were eleven-year-old boys. 

And they never went home, again. 

They lived in a park a few miles away. 

“There was a big trashcan in the park,” Father Boyle said, “and at night Jose would pull the bag out of the can and tilt the can on its side, and he and his brother would slide inside it and rest in each other’s arms.”

Jose and his brother sold drugs to survive. They got caught up in a gang and spent half of their ensuing life in prison. 

“But one day Jose knocks on my door,” Father Boyle said, “and after telling me his dad just died, he tells me he’d called his father a couple of days earlier.” 

“I heard he was dying,” he told me with these big tears in his eyes.

“I heard he was dying, so I called him, because I wanted to tell him that I forgive him. I forgive him for everything, all of it.”

“And again,” Father Boyle said, “He looked so at rest as he told me about forgiving his father.”

Here’s my question—

Which of the two is more like God?

Who’s the better image of the Almighty?

Jose, who forgives the evil done to him?

Or his father, who beat him and then blotted him out of his life forever?

Is God the Father like Jose’s father? 

It sure sounds like it. 

Just four chapters, just one Bible page, after declaring everything “Very Good,” God declares:

“I will blot from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

“I regret ever bringing you into this world! I’m done with you! You’re no good to me! You’re dead to me! Don’t ever come back to this house again!”

It sounds like Jose’s father. 

And it doesn’t sound like the Son, like Jesus. 

The ancient Christians had a catch-phrase they used to think about God. 

In Latin, it’s: opus ad extra, opus ad intra; that is, who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ (opus ad extra) God is eternally in himself (opus ad intra). 

There is no contradiction between the two.

If the one born at Christmas is truly Emmanuel— God with us— and nothing less, then who and what God is in Christ on Earth, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.

If Jesus is the supreme expression of God, then he must have always been so. 

Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son. 

If God is Trinity, by definition, God has always been Trinity. 

Which is to say, God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. 

There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus, and there never will be a time when God is not like Jesus. 

God doesn’t drown you for your sins one day but die to your sins on another day. 

The Father and the Son are one. 

But again, God the Father sure doesn’t sound like God the Son here today in Jose’s story. 

The word in Hebrew is mabbul. 

The English word flood doesn’t really capture what the story wants you to see. Mabbul refers to Creation’s architecture as the ancients understood it, where a protective shield above the earth and a protective shield below the earth— the firmament— held back an infinite ocean of water, protecting Creation. 

“In the beginning God swept across the dark waters,” we pray at baptism. 

God pushed back the dark waters and then held them at bay with the firmament. 

And so, that Hebrew word mabbul— it isn’t simply a lot of rain. 

It’s literally God taking a hands-off approach to Creation and walking away and letting the primeval ocean pour in and drown all that he’d made. 

It seems unfair to all the animals considering that none of them can be guilty of the crime for which God condemns them. 

Animals cannot have evil in their hearts. And more tragic than the animals, what about the babies? 

Don’t forget, in the Genesis story this is nine generations and one thousand years after Adam. 

Eve’s offspring has been fruitful and multiplied. 

What about the babies that God throws out with the bathwater? 

Infants cannot commit violence and so they cannot be blamed for it. 

And isn’t it evil to visit violence upon a vulnerable child? 

And isn’t that exactly what this God does here on a global scale? 

And would it be any more justifiable if there had been only a single newborn in Noah’s day? 

“The water covered the peaks of the highest mountains,” Genesis says. This isn’t local news; it’s an ecological apocalypse. 

Thanos only killed 50% of the population, and, just in case you haven’t seen the Avengers movie, Thanos is the villain. Yet, Thanos is even more merciful. Thanos just snaps his fingers and half of everything disappears. 

But God does it slow. 

Drip, drip, drip. 

A slow, soggy holocaust.

Notice— 7.1:

Noah doesn’t even know why he’s building the ark until he’s finished it and God tells him to get on it with his family. 

God doesn’t even trust Noah to close the door behind him; God shuts the door behind him. 

Why?

Because Noah would be tempted to rescue others?

Which is to say, because Noah is more merciful than God?

And what sort of god is this anyway?

He changed his mind?!

But God, by definition, can’t change. 

God is immutable. 

“God is the same,” Scripture says, “Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” because God is without beginning or end.

He changed his mind? 

He got so upset he decided to waterboard all of creation? 

That doesn’t sound like the capitol-G God. 

That doesn’t sound like the Father whose fullness is the self-offering, enemy-loving, peace-declaring, cheek-turning, sin-forgiving Son. 

Jesus Christ, the Book of Hebrews declares, is “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” 

Jesus Christ is of “one substance with the Father” the Nicene Creed confesses, as light is from light. 

“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”

Okay, so where is the God who looks like Jesus here?

Because this god— admit it— sounds more like a pagan god. 

It turns out—

In order to find the God who is Jesus Christ in this story, you have to know how this story is different. 

You have to know what makes this story different because— pay attention, now— this story of the flood is not unique.

And you have to know a date, 587 BCE. 

That’s the 9/11 of the Bible. 

That’s the year Babylon invaded Israel, destroyed the temple and left the promised land in smoldering ruins as they marched God’s chosen people back to Babylon in chains, where they were sorely tempted to believe the violence visited upon them was the vengeance of a holy God, that God was punishing them for their sins.

Exiled in Babylon, the Israelites learned a story told by their captors. 

A scripture story, the Epic of Gilgamesh. 

See if it sounds familiar:

The “great gods,” seeing the sorry state of mankind, planned to cause a great flood upon the earth. 

The gods swore one another to secrecy about the destruction they would send upon mortals. 

But the god Ea breaks their secret, whispering the news through a reed wall to a mortal whose name means, “He Who Saw Death.”

Ea commands the mortal to demolish his house and build— you guessed it— an ark.

So, the mortal and his workmen construct an ark with six decks and nine compartments and a hull 120 cubits on each side. 

When they finish the ark, the mortal loads his silver and gold into the ark, along with his family and his workers and all the beasts and animals of the earth. 

And then the thunder god rumbles and the storm gods converge and the lightening god flashes, shattering the dry land like a clay pot, and then the torrent of rain falls. 

The rains last six days and six nights. 

On the seventh day, “He Who Saw Death” releases a dove to search for land, but the dove flies back to the boat. He releases a swallow, but it comes back. Finally, he releases a raven, and it does not return. 

After he exits the ark, he offers a sacrifice and the aroma of the offering pleases the gods and they swarm to the source of the scent where they discover some mortals have survived. 

The god Enli becomes enraged, “How do these mortals live? No one was supposed to survive our annhilation.”

The ark and the animals, the flood and the reason for it— it’s all the same. 

Notice though what’s different—

The rainbow.

There’s no rainbow. 

At the end of the Noah story, after Noah offers a sacrifice and the aroma is pleasing to the Lord, God sets a rainbow in the clouds (literally, God hangs up his anger) as a sign of God’s promise never again to destroy his creatures because of their sins. 

You see what Israel did, right?

When they were prisoners and slaves in a foreign land (not the Promised Land); when their temple had been razed and their homes destroyed and all the promises God had made them (to be their God no matter what) seemed broken beyond repair; when they had every reason to believe that God was punishing them for their sins, for their unfaithfulness, for not holding up their end of the covenant, they take Babylon’s story of the flood. 

A story with gods just like that— angry, wrathful, fickle gods, gods who mete out their vengeance with violence, gods who dole out what we deserve. 

They take Babylon’s story of the flood, and they stick a rainbow on it at the end. 

“I’m not like that anymore,” God promises to Israel. 

Which is Israel’s way of saying that the true God has never been like that. 

And maybe that’s why Israel changed not only the ending to Babylon’s story, they changed the name of the arkbuilder too. 

From, “He Who Saw Death,” to “Noah.”

Which means rest.  

Comfort.

“I heard he was dying,” Jose told Father Boyle. “So I called him, because I wanted to tell him that I forgive him.”

“And then out of the blue,” Father Boyle said, “out of the blue Jose suddenly shifts gears and he says to me: “You know something, Father, I’m really enjoying the person I’m becoming here, like I’ve never enjoyed anything else in my life.”

“That’s a good feeling, isn’t it?” Father Boyle asked.

“Oh God, it’s the best feeling in the world” Jose replied. 

Unpacking what Jose had told him just then, Father Boyle explained, “That’s the sound of someone inChrist.“

 

That’s it. 

That’s where Christ is in the story.

“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”

Christ is the ark. 

Christ is our ark. 

“That’s the sound of someone inChrist,” Father Boyle explained.  “That’s the sound of someone inside the ark of Christ’s Body, the Church, transporting him from his old life to a new one, where he can love, forgive himself, forgive those who’ve done him harm, and find a new identity.”

“Jose is working now,” Father Boyle added. “He has a lady friend— He has a reason to look towards his future. He’ll leave our program in 18 months, and the world will rage and storm all around him, but this time he won’t be swallowed up by it. The world and its troubles might toss him and to and fro, but he’s inside now. He’s safe, at rest in Christ, and he’ll be okay.”

Many of you have messaged me to ask for the funeral sermon for Joshua, the 6th grade boy in our community that we buried this weekend. He died of cancer. The sermon is by no means adequate. I can only pray by its inadequacy it testifies to how there is no ‘explanation’ to a child’s suffering apart from a suffering, incarnate God.

As the school choir planned to sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow” I chose Genesis 9 to pair with Matthew 18.1-6 for my texts. At a time when many grumble about public schools being antagonistic towards churches and when many lament the alienation between black and white communities, Josh’s tragic death proved the begrudgers woefully wrong on both counts. Both school and church partnered to shepherd Josh to the grave, and his funeral service proved that the name of Father, Son,  and Spirt unites many of us in a way that transcends color or culture.

Two weeks ago tomorrow, when I first went to visit Josh in the hospital, Josh’s bed was decorated with sheets of printer paper scrawled in different colors with sharpie-written Jesus speak:

“Thy will done.”

“In my Father’s House are many rooms”

“Let the little children come…”

The faith papers were arranged around him like flowers. Josh had written them.

Joshua knew his bible. And why should he not know his bible backwards and front? Josh didn’t just enjoy music and video games and basketball; Josh wanted to be a pastor when he grew up too.

If I’d had more time with Joshua I might’ve tried to talk him out of being a pastor. After all, it’s not a gig that pays very well but, then, Josh is smarter than me and he already had a plan figured out for that wrinkle.

He thought Richard should go to med school, become a doctor, and that way Richard would earn plenty of money to support his little brother the pastor.

The truth is-

Josh already was a pastor. To you all.

Josh already was a pastor.

He played the peace-maker among his friends, with his siblings, and even to his parents.

Everyone’s takeaway attribute about Josh was his kindness and kindness, in the bible, is what St. Paul refers to as the fruit of God’s Spirit. So St. Paul would agree Josh was already a pastor.

Ever since he got sick last March Josh was the one who consoled his Mom and Dad. He’s the one who calmed their fears and worries. He’s the one who comforted them in their grief. He was their pastor.

And he was the one who gave me the words to pray over him that Sunday in the hospital.

That same Sunday some of Josh’s classmates from Stratford Landing were here at church for our sixth grade confirmation class.

They were learning about the Book of Genesis, at the very beginning of the Bible, and they were at the part in the story, just after the story of Noah, the part where God calls Abraham and makes his covenant-his promises- with Abraham.

I wish so much Joshua had been here at church that Sunday instead of in a hospital bed. I wish Josh had been a part of our confirmation class that day. Whenever I teach our confirmation lesson on Abraham, I act out the story with the kids.

“I need a volunteer for the lesson” I always say.

If Josh had been in the class that Sunday I’m sure I would’ve seen a kid wearing a Redskins jersey and sporting a sideways, wise-guy grin shoot his skinny arm up in the air to volunteer.

Joshua wasn’t self-conscious at all, after all, so I’m willing to bet his hand would’ve been the first to go up.

If Josh had been in the confirmation class that day, then I would’ve picked him out from all the other raised hands and called him forward so that he stood in front of me with the crowd of students around us.

And then I would’ve put my hands on his shoulders, and I’d set the scene for Abraham’s story. But before I did, I’d probably need to stop and look down to the boy standing there in my arms and I’d probably need to ask: ‘Wait, tell me your name again.’

And he would’ve said: ‘Josh.’
‘Josh,’ I would’ve said, ‘today you’re Abraham.’

And he probably would’ve shot me his sideways grin and said: ‘Cool.’

Then with my hands on his shoulders, I would’ve told the story of God calling Abraham to come near and look up at the stars in the night sky and to imagine that all of those stars in the sky every one of them was like a promise of God.

A promise that would come true for him.

With my hands on Josh’s shoulders I would’ve explained how those stars were signs of the all great things God wanted to do through him.

——————————

The next night, the night he died, I held Josh’s head and I rubbed his hair and, with my voice caught in my throat, I whispered a prayer: ‘Father, receive Josh into your Kingdom. Receive him, God, with the same love and joy we have for him.‘

That’s what I said, but really what I was praying was: ‘God make it not so.’

God make it not so.
And that’s been my prayer since that night.

Sylvester and Alice, Richard and Caleb and Elizabeth-

There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to bring Josh back.
And there’s nothing any one of us here wouldn’t do to make you whole again. And just because that sounds impossible doesn’t mean every last one of us won’t try.

Ever since I let go of Joshua in the hospital room, I’ve wanted to one-up Job. I’ve wanted to shake my fist at the sky. I’ve wanted to curse and shout at God.

Because it’s not fair. It’s not fair.

I think even Jesus Christ would agree that those may be the truest words we can speak in this sanctuary today.

I know I speak for everyone when I say I don’t want to be here. I don’t want any of us to need to be here. Because I want Josh to be here still.

I want his sideways smile and warm, wise guy grin to greet me on the Stratford Landing sidewalk.

I want his skinny arms to shoot basketballs on the playground with my son.

I want him to go to college and realize the potential God gave him.

I want to advance to the next level of Sonic and get old enough to play Mature Rated Xbox games.

I want him to sing at the Kennedy Center again, as a teenager, when he knows firsthand the romance in the love songs he could sing so well at 12.

I want Josh.

I don’t want to wade through questions that will never have answers.

I don’t want this grief that right now feels more real and nearer than our faith.

And I don’t want to celebrate memories.

Because there weren’t enough of them.

And there are too many dreams still remaining.

——————————

These last two weeks I’ve realized there’s not a lot of which I’m certain. I can’t answer the question: ‘Why?’

I don’t know why Josh is not here.

  • I don’t know why God calls this creation “very good” yet so often it feels “very bad.”
  • I don’t know why God can’t create a good world without cancer in it.
  • I don’t know why the prayers of mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and friends and teachers and neighbors go unanswered.

I can’t answer the why question.

And anyone who tells you they can answer the why question is a liar.

I can’t answer the why question, but I can tell you what is the wrong answer to the why questions.

God.

God’s not the answer to the why questions.

Why did this happen to Josh?

Why did Josh get sick?

Why did Josh die?

I can’t answer those why questions, but I can tell you that God is not the correct answer to any of them.

Josh would know. Josh was a pastor. Josh knew his bible.

So you can bet that Josh knew the scripture passage Stephanie read today from Genesis 9. Josh could tell you that what’s important about the Noah story isn’t the when of the flood or the where it happened or the how of Noah getting all those animals inside the ark.

No, Pastor Josh could tell you what’s important about the Noah story isn’t the when, where, or how. What’s important about the Noah story is the who.

The Book of Genesis isn’t trying to teach us about an ancient flood; it’s trying to teach us about the heart of God. And from that heart God makes a promise to Noah and to all of us. “I will never bring hurt and harm to any of my creation,” God promises.

And Pastor Josh could explain to you that in the Church we call a promise like that from God “covenant.” That is, neither Noah nor any of us have to do anything in order for God to keep that promise.

“I will never hurt and harm any of my creation,” God promises, “and just in case you forget I’ll put a rainbow in the sky as a sign of my promise.” 

When suffering and tragedy comes to you, let the rainbow help you remember, God says, I will never do anything to hurt you.

That’s the heart of God.

And Josh believed- enough to want to give his future to it- that that heart of God was revealed to us again and perfectly so in Jesus Christ.

That in Jesus we see that the heart of God responds to our lack of faith with Christmas. God doesn’t reject us; God comes among us in the flesh.

And in Jesus we see that the heart of God responds to our sin- to our cross-building- with Easter. God doesn’t punish us; God raises from the dead.

I can’t answer the why questions about Josh, but I can testify that God- the God Joshua loved- is the wrong answer to them.

Let the rainbows help you remember.

——————————

I can’t answer the why questions. But the one thing I do know, the one certainty I can lean on, the one question I can answer isn’t why, it’s: ‘Where? Where is Josh?’

The where question comes up several times in the Gospel stories. It happens more than once where the disciples interrupt to ask Jesus questions about heaven.

The disciples, like a lot of grown-ups, always want to worry themselves with questions about heaven, like: Who’s in? Who’s out? Except when it comes to heaven, the disciples just assume they’ll make the cut. After all, they’ve earned it.

The disciples don’t doubt they’ll make it to heaven, but they want Jesus to tell them their place in it. They want to hear Jesus tell them that one day they will sit closest to God’s throne.

They want to hear Jesus reassure them that of all the creatures in the world they are the most cherished.

“The disciples asked Jesus: Who is the greatest in the Kingdom?”

And Jesus responds-
Jesus responds by picking a child out of the crowd.

Matthew doesn’t say- maybe Jesus picked the child out at random.

Or maybe…maybe the little boy in the crowd was a boy who loved to participate. Maybe he was the sort of little boy who never tired of helping and who was everyone’s best friend. Maybe Jesus picked him out of the crowd because his skinny little arm was the first to go shooting up in the air when Jesus said: ‘I need a volunteer for the lesson.’

And I imagine the boy in that crowd he might’ve had a Redskins cap on top of his head.

Jesus calls on this little boy and calls him over.

And Jesus puts his hands on his shoulders. Matthew doesn’t say- but maybe Jesus starts to explain, starts to answer the disciples’ question, but then stops and asks for the little boy’s name.

‘Josh’ he says.

And then to all the grown-ups who think they have things figured out, to all the adults who think they have the answers to life, to all the disciples with their assumptions about heaven- Jesus tells those grown-ups that if they want to get into heaven, then they have to be like this little boy.

That if they want to know heaven they have to know this little boy. They’ve got to get to know this kid.

This kid who’s:

kind and innocent and consoling who always tells the truth and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body

so alive and curious it reminds you life is a gift

You’ve got to know this kid, Jesus says.

This kid who could make any parent seem like a great parent and who made you look forward to the kind of parent he would be one day.

This kid would could remind you why you wanted to be teacher in the first place.

And who could make every rotten day as a principal seem worth it.

You’ve got to know this kid, Jesus says.

If you want to get into heaven, Jesus says, if you want to know about heaven then you’ve got to get to know this little boy. 

No, you’ve got to become just like him. 

It’s going to be hard for me to read these Bible passages from Genesis 9 and Matthew 18 and not think of Josh in the future.

And on the one hand, that terrifies me.
And on the other hand, I think that’s the way it should be.
Because Josh was filled with a spirit that could’ve only come from Jesus Christ.

——————————

I can’t begin to answer why Josh isn’t here, but I do know where Josh is now.

I know because whenever anyone asks Jesus about heaven in the bible, Jesus responds by saying ‘You’ve got to know this kid.’

Whenever Jesus talks about heaven, he doesn’t say anything about billowy clouds or streets of gold. He never points to Peter and says: ‘You’re going to be manning the gates for eternity.’

No, he talks about kids:

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

‘Let the little children come to me, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ 

‘Let the little children come to me…Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 

And then at the end of the Bible, St John paints a picture of a day when tears and sadness will be no more.

And at the end of that passage is a picture of God with children.
I can’t answer the why question. But I do know where Josh is now.

Somewhere else in the Gospels Jesus says the door to heaven is ‘small.’

But I think it’s small in the sense that its like 4 1/2 feet tall.

Because when the disciples ask about heaven, Jesus says it’s kids like Joshua who are the greatest in the Kingdom.

And there’s another time when they ask Jesus about heaven.

Jesus says heaven belongs to those who mourn.

Those who cry. Those who grieve. Those who ache. Those who wish it weren’t so.

And that may not be good news, but it does means we’ll see Josh again soon.