Time Signature

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, September 17, 2017, the second sermon in the series “Composition 101.”

Text: Genesis 6-9 (excerpts)


I thought long and hard about whether to reveal my secret in this public way. But it seems important to share on this day when the heart of our reflection is about sin and grace and the grounding story is the story of Noah and the ark. Here it goes (and I ask that you show a little grace): I once sang and danced a cha-cha on stage, donned in a wet suit and scuba gear, complete with mask and flippers. The play was a children’s musical called “The Rainbow Express,” I was about 13, and my character was “Noah’s conscience.” The song was a caution against procrastination. “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Don’t you know that by tomorrow all this could float away?”


Though it’s usually funny to think about that memory, today we cannot fail to acknowledge that, right now, beloved members of our human family are reeling from floods caused by hurricanes. The destruction is widespread and, for many, the devastation is complete. When our worship team developed this series months ago, we couldn’t have known the upheaval in the earth that we would be experiencing right now.  But in some ways, it brings a greater sense of reality and perhaps urgency to our reflection.  At the heart of the story of Noah and the ark are big questions about human life, God, and what kind of world we live in. New York Times columnist, David Brooks (who is increasingly using his platform as a public theologian), reflected at length on the story of Noah in his most recent column[i], noting that it is one among many “flood myths” that circulated in ancient cultures around the world.


I remember when, as an undergrad, I first learned of the ancient Near Eastern parallels to and influences upon the Noah story—like the Epic of Gilgamesh.  It was a good lesson about how God’s wisdom is woven across cultures as human beings seek to make sense of the realities of life—including the often harsh realities of flood, fire, and wind. Some scholars believe that in response to a verifiable, historical, catastrophic flood the various myths emerged as an attempt to explain the “why?” of it all. In ancient cultures, the tendency was to believe that different gods controlled the various elements (sun, rain, fertility, wind, sea) and that when the gods were angry, they would produce or withhold natural elements as a form of punishment.  Emerging as it did in a multi-cultural context, it should come as no surprise that the ancient Hebrew version of the flood story in Torah and Christian Bible retains a heavy emphasis on that old understanding of God.


There is no way we will unpack all the challenge and blessing of the story of Noah and the ark today. But, this story is a “classic” of our faith and therefore fair game for our “Faith Remastered” theme.  And there is a primary thread in the story that makes it important to include in this “Composition 101” series.  Over the course of these weeks, we’re looking at the essential elements of our faith—the things that make up or “compose” our faith story; and we’re doing that using the metaphor of musical composition. Last week, we thought together about melody and harmony and the love song that is God’s creative love. That love song is the first foundation of our faith story. Out of overflowing love, God creates and recreates. And we, together with all creation, are made to sing, to love, to live, in harmony with God, with one another, and with the earth.


In addition to melody and harmony, a primary building block of a musical composition is beat or rhythm. These elements are organized within the framework of what’s called a composition’s “time signature.” A piece of music is divided into “measures” and within each measure there are a certain number of beats. There are time signatures with four beats, three beats, two or six beats per measure.  Each has a different feel and allows for different rhythms.  Time signature and rhythm connect with melody and harmony as key elements in a musical composition.


The composition of our core faith story includes these key elements: the “melody” of God’s creative love with which we are designed to sing in harmony; and the “rhythm” of God’s response when we fail to join the song or seek to silence the song.  We’ve explored the melody of God’s love through the story of creation found in Genesis 1.  And today we’ll think together about the rhythm of God’s response when we stop singing—through reflection on Noah, the flood, the ark, and the rainbow.


The beginning of the story of Noah and the ark is marked by God’s observation that “the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Gen 6:5) God sees that the earth is corrupt and filled with violence. (Gen 6:11) Clearly, God’s creation is not singing the song of love and harmony. Imagine the worst expressions of human violence, corruption, cruelty, sadism, and dehumanization through history and then imagine that as the reality in every corner of the world save one. According to the story, that’s the scenario God sees. And the storyteller draws upon the then-common understanding of how things work—of how gods work—spinning the tale of God’s broken heart, disappointment and regret, the story of God’s terrible decision to wipe out all living things and all but one “righteous” family by sending the waters of a flood. Water fills and covers the earth for a very long time. But as the water recedes and the remnant people and animals leave the ark, the story takes a turn.


“God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen 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. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’” (Gen 9:12-16)


There may be other versions of the flood myth that include a similar divine turn. The ones I’m most familiar with don’t highlight such a shift in God. 


In the column I mentioned, David Brooks focuses a lot on Noah, highlighting his rabbinic critics—mostly that Noah is passive and doesn’t push back on God or advocate for others.  I am not smarter than the rabbis and scholars Brooks mentions and I guess I generally agree with their assessment of Noah.  But it occurs to me that this story isn’t really about Noah in the largest sense—Noah isn’t lifted up for any just or wise action as a way to offer an example for other people to follow.  This story is trying to work something out about God.  God is the prime actor: God sees, sends, says, directs, remembers... And we can still get angry at the idea that God would do such a thing as wipe out almost all life on earth—even after acknowledging the ancient cultural influences on the narrative.  We can be outraged that, if God was going to wipe everything out, God should have completely started over with new human creatures who wouldn’t keep hurting each other and the earth (instead of stubbornly holding on to the original models). We can disagree with the way God allowed the creation to evolve, including as it does, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, the fact that life is so vulnerable, and that we humans are given so much responsibility.  God can take our anger and disappointment, by the way, so don’t worry about that.  A great deal of freedom comes once you realize, as Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches, that we can both be angry at God and forgive God for the way things are.[ii]  What our story today is working out is that, ultimately, our God may become angry or hurt or disappointed in us, but forgives us again and again.


In the beginning of the story, I imagine an even 4/4 time signature, perhaps played evenly and urgently like the beat of a war drum. It’s that old way of understanding God, that steady beat of punishment continuing as rain falls and water rises. But after the storm, the story moves into a new time. Perhaps it feels more like a waltz with its swirling 1,2,3—1,2,3...but whatever the new time, it is no longer the drum beat of violence, it’s no longer the beat of divine vengeance or capriciousness.  One commentator explains, “The sign of this covenant, God’s bow in the clouds, is precisely the bow of battle. Ancient depictions of a deity armed with bow and arrow are not unusual. To hang up one’s bow is to retire from battle. That bow in the clouds is the sign of God’s promise that whatever else God does to seek our restoration, destruction is off the table.”[iii]

Perhaps the shift was not so much in God, but in the evolving human understanding and experience of God.  Somehow our ancestors, in their telling of the flood myth, were moved to shift the time signature of God’s song, to experience a new rhythm, the rhythm of grace.  The rhythm of grace animates the melody of God’s creative love; this is the primary composition of our faith—God’s love and grace.  God makes a covenant promise to shower the world not with what we deserve, but with second chance after second chance after second chance.


Because God knows that the world could once again be filled with corruption and violence. God knows the price of allowing the human creature to endure, endowed as we are with the gift of free will that’s so easily tempted and turned toward ourselves and against the other. But God decides never again to respond to our selfishness with selfishness, to our power plays with power plays, to our destruction with destruction.  In response to our fault and frailty and sin, our God chooses to sing and dance to the rhythm of grace, to move in time signed with a rainbow and, ultimately, a cross.  Thanks be to God.



[i] David Brooks, “Harvey, Irma, Jose…and Noah,” https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/12/opinion/harvey-irma-jose-and-noah.html

[ii] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People

[iii] Elizabeth Webb, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1222