John 21: 1-7
Chilmark Community Church
November 6, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
This morning we are in one of our most beloved and intriguing stories in the early biblical narratives about how the human community came into being – – the story of Noah. Noah appears in the narrative 10 generations after the story of Adam and Eve. Much has happened in those 10 generations. When we pick up the story here we find that the great experiment that had caused God to stand back and look at all of creation and call it good has now run amuck. Part of the problem begins with an odd note that “the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were fair and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.” (6:2) The verse is reminiscent of the ancient Greek mythologies wherein the gods mated with human beings and a class of great heroes, neither divine nor human, were born. Genesis says that the Nephilim were on the earth in those days…these were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown” (6:4).
Biblical scholar, Aviva Zornberg, suggests that the function of God creating human beings has been usurped. Human beings now replicate themselves – and in so doing they replicate the divine image. But the image gets distorted. In the Garden of Eden, the two humans had desired to gain knowledge of Good and evil – – but by the time of Noah, humans seem to be unaware of the evil they have generated – -unaware of the self imposed evil under which they suffer. Evil overshadows all of life.1 The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. (6:5)
Zornberg cites Martin Buber: “man no longer knows or can discriminate between those radical opposites, fortune and misfortune, order and disorder that are experienced by a person – as well as that which he causes.”2
God is deeply grieved. What had begun in great beauty has deteriorated and God is painfully sorry. And so, like the occasional artist, frustrated and dissatisfied with the outcome of her efforts, God decides to destroy what God has created. “…and the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on earth and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said ‘I will blot out 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.”
And then, in a dramatic shift in tone, the narrative says: “But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” (6:8) And, if we were reading this to our children as a bedtime story, we might pause here and ask the kids “Why do you suppose, out of all the wickedness that makes God’s heart sad – why do you suppose Noah finds favor with God?” The story teller does not keep us in suspense.
“Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” (6:9)
Now – this verse has caused a lot of discussion among biblical scholars. They want to know what it means that Noah was righteous and blameless “in his generation.” There is much speculation. Was Noah truly sinless and righteous?
Or was his generation just so bad that it made Noah look good in comparison?
This is a truly contemporary question in a time when we are so often faced with trying to find the best choices and none of them feel really good. In a world that is filled with irony and shadows and hidden secrets – – how do we perceive who is truly “righteous and blameless” in our generation? Is it the person who is simply a little less murky than society in general? In a very real way, the question of how “righteous and blameless is Noah in his generation” presents a pretty contemporary challenge.
So – Aviva Zornberg identifies this as the over-arching question in the narrative: “Why Noah?”
God says: “You alone have I found righteous in this generation.” Zornberg suggests the “rational is apparently simple and ethically reassuring – Noah is different from his generation. They are full of evil. He is righteous.”3
Again from Martin Buber: “[Noah] is the first human being [in the biblical narrative] to be described by any epithet – -and [he] is the only human being in the entire narrative to be described as “righteous” both in direct encounter with God AND in the authoritative voice that begins the story in verse 9: “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age.’ The emphasis on Noah’s difference serves a moral purpose – – his difference justifies his exemption from the universal disaster.” 4
BUT – – and this is a big BUT – – as we continue to let Zornberg suggest a direction for our thinking: there is another reading beneath the surface of the text: Noah is chosen by God not because he is different – – he is chosen because he has found favor with God. In verse 8, before there is any mention of Noah’s righteousness, the narrative states that “Noah found favor in the sight of God.”
Now – we fast forward to the post resurrection narrative of Jesus and his disciples on the lakeshore. We have already experienced the devastation of the crucifixion which was preceded by, among other things, Peter’s triple denial of Jesus. Three times in a fire-lit courtyard, Peter refused to own his friendship and relationship with Jesus. We don’t have any descriptions of Peter being righteous in his generation. We do know that he was a human being who made both rich and poor choices in his lifetime. The choice to deny Jesus was devastating for him. Like all his ancestors before him, in a moment of fear he lost his sensibility of good and evil and was not even aware in the moment of how he was contributing to the creating of his own suffering. Crucifixion happened.
And then there was sunrise on the lakeshore and a chilly, soggy encounter with the Risen One – – the thrice repeated question – – “Do you love me?” The thrice repeated answer: “Lord, you know that I love you.” The thrice repeated command: “Feed my lambs – – tend my sheep – – feed my sheep.”
Why Noah? Why Peter?
There is a midrash – a kind of parable- that give us something to ponder. To refresh your memory, the parable mentions Joseph (of the coat of many colors) and Potiphar, the Pharoah’s right hand man under whom Joseph gradually rose to power in Pharoah’s court. Joseph eventually marries Potiphar’s daughter. The midrash may move us toward the answer to “Why Noah? Why Peter?”:
This is like one(ehad) who was traveling along and saw another traveler (ehad) and sought his company. To what extent? Till he formed bonds of love with him. That is why it says here, “Noah found favor.” Compare this with “Joseph found favor in [Potiphar’s] eyes” (39:4). It is like one who was traveling along and saw another traveler and sought his company. To what extent? Till he gave him power….to what extent? till he gave him his daughter….To what extent? Till he could tell which animal is to be fed at the second hour of the day, and which at the third hour of the night.”
Zornberg explains: “The traveler’s choice of companion as narrated in the midrash is almost arbitrary. It is because The Traveler is One – – God – -Alone–Matchless – – that He seeks another – any one – so that He may love and empower and educate him. The anonymous hero, undeserving, finds himself married to the King’s daughter. In many midrashic parables, the King’s daughter is symbolizes as wisdom. The commoner marries the King’s daughter. But what is the intention of the end of the midrash? The acme of wisdom that Noah attains is a knowledge of the feeding schedules of the animal on the ark! …is this a satirical comment on Noah’s limitations, or a serious insight into the nature of the wisdom God has to teach Noah?5
God chooses Noah, not because he has achieved significant virtue or wisdom, not because Noah is righteous and blameless – – but because God seeks to convey to some one the knowledge of God’s Self.
Jesus chooses Peter, not because he is perfect , not because he is dependable, not because he is blameless and righteous. Jesus chooses Peter so that he can impart love and wisdom to him, so that he can empower and teach him – – Jesus chooses Peter so that he can convey to Peter some of his own self knowledge as the Son of God.
Why Noah? Why Peter? Both are flawed. Peter buckles at the knees at a most critical moment in the Passion narrative. It is hard to imagine any individual like Noah being totally blameless when the society of which he is a part is so utterly corrupt and evil.
Back to the Genesis narrative: God says: “…I am sorry I have made them.” But – – Noah found favor in the sight of God.”
This is a snapshot of what pure, radical, unmerited grace looks like. Grace – – it could be God’s middle name. The two stories affirm the central, life giving message of our sacred texts from start to finish: the Holy One, the Giver and Sustainer of Life, the Spacious One who gives us room to live and move and have our being – – enough room even to reject God – – to be sinful – – this God is a graceful God who desires to be in relationship with us – – at any cost. This God is a God who wants to love us – to empower us – – to teach us. This God is a God who trusts us so much that the Divine Life itself is entrusted to us – so we can participate fully in the life of God. This God entrusted the less than perfect Noah with the responsibility for saving and regenerating and repopulating the earth. This God, in the person of Jesus, entrusts the entire future of his ministry to the flawed disciple, Peter. That is GRACE writ large. And it will sustain us through anything. The stories both convey to us that God WANTS to accompany us – to love us – to impart wisdom to us – to educate us; and that God will continue to find the way to do that – – no matter how flawed we are – – no matter what. Beyond everything else today, especially today, as we live with the uncertainty and anxiety about what the coming election will mean, we can and we need to depend on this.
This is what we affirm when we come together at the communion table – that we are, indeed, loved. We are and we will be empowered to be God’s people in the world and we will be taught – -we will be given the wisdom we need as we depart from the table.
Blameless and righteous or not, we are assured of the gift of grace. Like Peter and Noah, may we rise to the occasion to receive it as fully as it is given.
1 Aviva Zornberg The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis Doubleday, New York 1995. P.38
2 Zornberg p.38
3 Zornberg P. 40
4 Zornberg P.40
5 Zornberg P. 41