August 20, 2017 // The Good Book? Series // First Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “The View from 9,000 Feet”; Genesis 7:6-24; Genesis 8:13-22, 9:8-15

Intro
When I reached the top of Atalaya Mountain two weeks ago, my first thought surprised me. Perhaps you’ve had a similar thought, even without a mountain top view to instigate it. For me this thought came about 2,000 feet higher than where I’d started hiking, and 9,121 feet total above sea level, above Santa Fe, as my eyes swept the Sandia mountains to the left, lurking like great ghost ships in a prehistoric sea of gray and purple mist, and the tail end of the Sangre de Cristo mountains tracing the Rio Grande toward Colorado behind me and on my right. With the high desert stretching out below me, my first thought was, “We are so silly… We’re so arrogant… We humans… the audacity of calling us ‘one nation,’ under God or anybody else.” We are nations within nations, countries bleeding into countries through mountain passes, pouring down the arteries of rivers and streams. My eyes could barely take in one high desert plain and the multiple cultures it still cradles in New Mexico. We are not one. We are many. With many stories, narratives by which we live.

I.
That mountain-top view came back to me this last week as we watched multiple tribes within that one tribe we call citizen parade across our headlines and newsfeeds, each one motivated by differing narratives of who they are, how they got here, and what most threatens their future. Undeniably, these narratives we’ve seen in the news differ, in many cases conflict. We saw a Jewish rabbi in Charlottesville link arms with Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon, our UCC minister for Justice & Witness, who ministers in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was killed. We saw these stories connect. These and other clergy, people of differing faiths and no faith, queer and transgender, linked arms in Charlottesville, singing while facing off heavily armed self-appointed militia and white supremacists of all stripes. It wasn’t just the torchlit rally and fatal domestic terror attack last weekend that reminded me, but also the commentary in print, on air and online afterward as so many voices tried to interpret what happened and is still happening in our country. Each one reminded me… over and over… we are many. I questioned, over and over again: Where do we get our stories? These narratives we live by?

I.
What is our story here in Southern Oregon, in 2017, this place, this time? Or, as the great preacher William Sloane Coffin wrote to an imaginary young freshman just beginning college: Who tells you who you are? What’s your story? (Pause)

I.
In order to help us answer that question this week, in this time and in this climate, I want to go back to a story about another time when human beings were wreaking havoc on Earth. I want to go back to the story of the Flood. Do you know how this story begins? A mere six chapters from the Garden of Eden, the original paradise, the Creator has a SMDH moment. “Every inclination of of the thoughts of human hearts is only evil, continually!” God groans. (I think He was on the Brietbart web site or She was reading the Twitter feed of that woman whose handle is @apurposefulwife) Or whatever the prehistoric, prescientific version of those. God is sorry to have made humankind, the storyteller admits. “It grieved God’s very heart.” So, God vows to blot out from the earth all the human beings. As you do. If you are a deity back in the day. Primordial floods were popular options. They represented the chaos of the deep, which couldn’t be held back or contained. There were Sumerian flood stories, and African flood stories, and Babylonian flood stories. You have one in the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example. Usually, these flood stories expressed some divine judgement for how humans beings were generally mucking things up for one another and the planet. Usually in these stories, the gods were angry, sometimes people built a boat to survive, everything else dies, the gods are satisfied and get to start over with a clean slate. But this story in Genesis does something strange. It ends with God promising, “Never again.” It ends with God issuing a warning in the heavens… not to the people who better watch their backs lest the terrible rain start again… but to God’s own self. In the section Shiela just read:
This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature… for all future generations. I have set my bow in the clouds… When I bring clouds over the earth and my bow will appear in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
That weapon, that bow hanging in the sky, is not there to keep the humans in line. It’s not there as a divine threat. It’s there instead to remind God not to destroy the planet again, no matter how corrupt and violent the humans get. It’s there to remind God that God has promised to always preserve space for life, all life… this is really radical… even the drunk ones, as we find out shortly when Noah builds a vineyard and hits the barrel too hard. All life.

I.
This story we have of the Flood, Noah’s story, is one of those people point to as evidence that the Bible is primitive, barbaric, violent, and deeply out of touch with our current predicament. For what it’s worth, it’s not the story I would pick to paint onto all the church nursery walls the world over. This third Creation story also illustrates how we can miss the forest for the trees in our sacred texts, how we can miss out on the spiritual nourishment they could offer. Over and over, I see people slip into two deeply worn ruts: On one hand, you’ll have the literalists, the ones who build a literal ark so they can prove God had a design for exactly where to store all the elephant dung. (Don’t try to ask them where the 1,240 species of bats on the planet lived.) On the other hand, you’ll have the literalists who talk about stories like this one with disdain, with an eyeroll and a snort of disbelief that “People still believe this stuff” while offering Shakespeare limitless artistic license and depths of meaning. I’m a little tired of both, honestly. There is always something more going on in the Bible, Rob Bell writes. Yes, it has the marks of human fingerprints all over it. These are stories that people told in their time and their place. But there is also always something more going on in the Bible. In the case of this Flood story, it’s not the human corruption or the flood that is unusual. It’s the God in the story… a god who wants to relate, a God who wants to save, a God who wants to live in covenant, a God who promises to withhold the power to destroy all life. This was a mind-blowing new conception of deity at the time. (Yes, it is very similar to other Flood stories. But it also changes the story, for the people who were shaped by it, including Jesus.)

Trans.
How is this Book supposed to help us now, when we may even be pining for a little divine judgement… at least of “those people”? When we might secretly have our fingers crossed that Jesus arrives on “an electric narwal of judgment” during the solar eclipse to take care of this mess once and for all? How are these stories supposed to help us now, when we see not only scripture texts but also words like “Christian” used to hateful ends?

I.
As I asked myself that question this week, I went back to Santa Fe, to the mountain top view there and to the people with whom I spent time in conversation there. One of my favorite things about the workshop I attended that week is how it draws people — artists, writers, musicians, and teachers — from so many of the micro-countries within our one. We had three native Mississippians in my memoir class, which is a higher concentration of Mississippians than I’ve ever been around. We had stories from Barry Moser, and artist and illustrator from Alabama, who writes in his memoir about growing up in a family steeped in racism. We had a Latinx director of an art museum in Montana who was thinking about how to plan exhibits that will connect with the rural farmers in her community and also open their empathy toward outsiders. We had at that workshop a helping of Seattle academics and Portlandians with completely out-of-control facial hair, cowboy-booted Denverites and New York critics. We always have a little bit of everything. In each region of these debatably united states, the stories we tell ourselves vary.

I.
Gareth Higgins, a film critic who grew up in Northern Ireland during “the troubles,” as they call them, led a reading one afternoon in which he shared a children’s storybook yet in the works, with the working title Cory, Dory and the Seventh Story. The most important question we all can be asking right now is, “What is it like to be you?” And using a fable about animals, he began to tell a story about the stories we live by: the story of Domination, the story of Revolution, the story of Purification, the story of Isolation, the story of Victimization, and the story of Accumulation — all ways in which human beings try to make meaning, try to find their place in the story of this world. Of course, he didn’t use all those words. He used fluffy woodland creatures. In the final story, the seventh story, the story changes. It’s no longer human beings who are the protagonists, trying to make things work and control events. Love becomes the protagonist in the seventh story, the story of the evolution of Love. And as he finished reading, Higgins asked, What’s your story? Who tells you who you are?

I.
Jesus’ story isn’t the only true spiritual story. It’s not the only story that can save, that can give life, but it is the story I’ve been coming back to over and over, especially in this world, with theses headlines, with these events, because there is always something more going on in the Bible. The nature of that something more saves my life and guides me, daily. Signs last week proclaimed “Love Trumps Hate,” but I know the nature of that love through the life and ministry and family of Jesus. These sacred stories do not give me all the answers. They weren’t able to decide for me whether or not I should have gone down to the Plaza last Sunday night in solidarity with Charlottesville. But these stories do remind me who I am. And right now, if I didn’t have Jesus and scripture right now, I would not be able to do anything but stay home and eat sheetcake, and I know that would be a betrayal not only of my non-white friends this week, but of every neighbor Jesus tells me I should love as I love myself. It was the Jesus story that helped me hear a local friend say last weekend, “I’m really struggling. If anyone is up for gathering on Sunday, I’d appreciate it.” It was the Jesus story that helped me go down to the plaza just to listen, even though I have mixed feelings about how much good rallies at the Plaza do here in Ashland, to hear what it’s like for someone else in this world right now. What’s your story? What’s our story?

I.
My hope is that as we listen this week and in our world, we will let those stories connect to one another and shape one another and become part of the story of Jesus that I believe is the story of the evolution of love, the story of a power that will withhold its ability to destroy in order to preserve life.