From Exile to Hope: June 29, 2023

From Exile to Hope: June 29, 2023

June 29, 2023

The Story of Noah and Pride

By: Pastor Nate Mason

This is a story about Pride, because it’s important to remember why we celebrate Pride.  This story begins with Noah.  
The Story of Noah is not about genocide, it’s about a people surviving genocide.

This is an easy mistake to make considering all the, you know, genocide that was going on in the story.  It’s definitely not about animals.  I bet you don’t even remember how many of each animal Noah brought with him.  (Check Genesis 7:2.  You didn’t remember did you?!?!)  Also, some of those animals did not live happily ever after anyway (Genesis 8:20). No, this is a story for God’s people to help them endure the pain and suffering of cultural exile.

No natural born American can comprehend the horrors the Israelites faced at the hands of the Babylonians.  It has been over 150 years since war has been waged on American soil.  The brave men and women of our armed forces have witnessed the Hell that is war, but our children, our communities have not.  This is something we have not experienced. Praise God.  

To understand Noah, we have to connect to the emotional state of the Israelites when they started sharing this story.  

The Babylonians conquered Israel and about 1/4th of the population was relocated to Babylon.  Saying it like that sounds like I’m describing a round of Risk.  Psalm 137 does a better job of describing how it happened.  

By the Rivers of Babylon
we sit down and weep
when we remember Zion
On the poplars in her midst 
We hang our harps,
For there our captors as us to compose songs;
Those who mock us demand that we be happy saying:
“Sing for us a song about Zion!”
How can we sing a song to the LORD 
In a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand be crippled
May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
If I do not remember you,
And do not give Jerusalem priority 
Over whatever gives me the most joy.
Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did
On the day Jerusalem fell.
They said, “Tear it down, tear it down,
Right to its very foundation!”
O daughter Babylon, soon to be devastated,
How blessed will be the one who repays you
For what you dished out to us.
How blessed will be the one who grabs your babies
And smashes them on a rock.

This is by far the hardest, most raw passage in all of the Bible.  People are drawn to the “smashing babies on rocks” part.  Which is understandable because that is super messed up.  But it makes sense when you connect it to the “blessed will be the one who repays you for what you have dished out to us.”  This is a cry of grief coated in a thick shell of anger..

When Babylon conquered Israel, they killed, they burned, they raped, they murdered children.  Again, this isn’t something we have experienced in the US in over a century.  The Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem; Babylon was out to destroy the identity of God’s people.  

After the killing came the exile (then another round of killing and another exile).  Around 20,000 people in all were relocated.  These exiles were the craftsmen, the nobility, and the priesthood.  All who held the histories of God’s people, and any who could document their history, were pulled away leaving Israel bereft of any who could rebuild their nation and their identity.  

It was about 500 miles between Jerusalem and Babylon.  Along the way, any who couldn’t’ keep up, or didn’t serve a purpose, were “dashed against the rocks.”  Women and children were killed en masse.  They wanted the men to take a new Babylonian wife anyway to hasten their assimilation.  

When these broken people arrived in their new homes, the work of cultural murder began.  The exiles went about their days being constantly reminded that they were a conquered people, their culture was in its final days, their dependence upon a weak God is what caused their downfall.  

The Babylonians would tell the story of Gilgamesh.  Gilgamesh went to war with the gods.  The gods tried again and again to kill him until finally they decided to wipe out all of creation just to get at Gilgamesh.  The gods stirred up a great flood to wash the world clean.  Gilgamesh saw the storms coming and gathered up two of every animal and built a mighty ship to keep them all safe during the storm.  After weeks and weeks of flooding, the waters receded.  Gilgamesh had won.  The gods gave up and granted Gilgamesh eternal life. 
Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?

To the Babylonians, this story proved that their warrior traditions were superior to the Israelites dependence on a God that died with the temple.  

When the Israelites gathered, they would tell a different story.  Noah was called by God, not at war with them.  Noah built an Ark, not a ship.  In our minds, ark and ship are one and the same, but to God, an ark is a vessel for something sacred.  Think about the Ark of the Covenant.  When God wants to protect something they love, they build an ark.  The Ark was built without a rudder or a sail.  There was no fighting the storm like Gilgamesh.  When the trials were over, God put the rainbow in the sky as a promise that they will keep their people safe.  

The People in Exile Needed this Story

They saw themselves as afloat in the Ark during their time in exile.  The war and devastation of Jerusalem was their flood.  They needed the promise of salvation to come to give them hope in the moment.  

And you know what? It worked.  

The Israelites took the tools of their oppressors and made it their promise of liberation.  For decades the Babylonians would tell the people they were worthless, they were doomed.  For decades the people would remind each other that they were sacred, afloat in God’s ark, sustained by God’s promise.  Never underestimate the power of stories.  Woe to those who would try and deny God’s promise!  It doesn’t end well for those who try to destroy that which God has saved.  Think about it.  How many Babylonians do you see walking around?  When was the last time you met a Roman? An Assyrian?  The rainbow is there to remind us that God will protect the oppressed, the victimized, and the downtrodden.  That rainbow means business.
I love that the LGBTQ+ community has adopted the rainbow as their symbol.

For the majority of us cisgendered straight people, we don’t understand the flood our beloved LGBTQ+ siblings have survived.  Since the AIDS epidemic began, over 330,000 gay and bisexual men have succumbed to the disease.[i]  AIDS ravaged urban gay communities throughout the 80’s and 90’s, killing over 10% of all gay men in the country.  They didn’t have to die.  In the early phases of the outbreak, when the disease could have been contained and treated, the Reagan administration chose to do worse than nothing.  They mocked the dying.  You can look up audio and transcripts of White House Press Secretary Larry Speakes mocking reporters who ask him about the epidemic[ii], joking about his sexuality, and dismissing AIDS as the “gay plague and not our problem.”  The government waited a full six years before they gathered a commission to find a solution to the AIDS crisis… then completely ignored the commissions findings. 

Misinformation, a lack of basic knowledge, and ugly homophobia caused many HIV positive patients to be denied care.  They were turned out because no one wanted to get the “gay cancer.”  In many cities, the queer and lesbian community took it upon themselves to save the day!  In San Diego, the Blood Sisters organized blood drives to assist AIDS patients.[iii] Queer doctors in Utah continued to see gay men with HIV.[iv]  While those with privilege turned our backs, those who know what discrimination is like opened their arms.  That’s down right Christ-like.  

While the AIDS virus ran rampant, violence against all LGBTQ+ doubled in the 1980’s.[v] Doubled.  It was already a heavily targeted group, but the AIDS crisis put bullseyes on the backs of LGTQ+ people for every bully, bigot, and homophobe to take a shot at.  Studies claim that 83% of all LGTQ+ people will experience harassment or assault due to their identities.[vi]  Compare that to an average high school graduation rate of 74.2% at that time, we have to admit that we are more effective at hurting LGBTQ+ individuals than we are educating children.  

By the numbers, the trans community suffers the most violence.  Half of all transwomen will suffer sexual assault and rape.  A trans person will be five times more likely to die to homicide or suicide than their cis counterpart.  In fact, trans people are more likely to die violent deaths than active-duty marines (34 combined homicide/suicide per 100,000 violent deaths compared to 21.4 per 100,000)[vii]

This is all going down at the peak of televangelism.  Televised holy rollers took every opportunity to condemn the LGTQ+ community for “sinful depravity.”  This wasn’t an epidemic, it was divine judgment!  This hateful rhetoric spurred on the rising violence against people who were already suffering from disease and discrimination.  In response, the mainline denominations did little or nothing to respond to the homophobic fervor of the televangelists. 

I am proud that the United Methodist Church took an early and direct stance.  In 1983 we passed a resolution demanding the government invest more money and effort into stopping the spread of AIDS and finding effective treatments.  This resolution was initiated by the Good Rev. Dr. Donald E. Messer.[viii]  Rev. Dr. Messer is a good South Dakotan United Methodist.  We are a rare and wonderful breed!  Sadly, this is all we did for over 30 years.  It wouldn’t be until 2004 when we established a standing committee to address the global health crisis posed by HIV/AIDS, and it is perpetually underfunded.  We like the moral acceptability of fighting Malaria, and our lack of funding shows our underlying discomfort over diseases that can be sexually transmitted.  

This is just a splash of the flood that the LGBTQ+ community has survived.  This doesn’t even dip into the waters of structural discrimination, family trauma, public/media humiliation.  I just briefly discussed the largest threats to the LGBTQ+ communities’ lives and health.  I think that more than qualifies them to claim the rainbow as their own.  

I am writing this in hopes that the straight cisgendered masses out there will understand that celebrating Pride isn’t about flaunting sexuality.  It isn’t about “rubbing their gayness in our faces.”  It is not a festival of debauchery.  Pride is about celebrating all those who survived the flood of violence, hate, and disease.  Just like the ancient Israelites gathered while they were still in Babylon to celebrate still being alive and to remember God’s promise in the rainbow, the LGBTQ+ people and their allies celebrate pride for those same reasons.  

To any LGBTQ+ friends that survived the flood, I want you to know that you are sacred. 

You made it through the flood.  You’re here, and I am so damn happy that you are.  I am so very sorry for all that you had to endure.  I wish I could cradle you like I do my Noah, keep you safe in the ark of my arms from any further harm the world tries to throw at you.  I’m willing to try it.  Seriously.  I’m pretty big.  I bet I could cradle most of you.  But since I can’t cradle all of you, I promise I will do everything in my power to be your ally, your advocate, your friend.  I recognize that I am part of an institution that continues to discriminate against you.  I accept the guilt of association that comes with being a United Methodist.  I will grieve the actions of the church that I love, and would happily bare your ire if that helps you heal.  

You are floating on the Ark right now.  Like the Israelites, you are still in exile in Babylon.  Even though the AIDS crisis is closer to being under control, even though there is less institutional discrimination leveled against you, there are those who want to make it worse for you.  There has been a record number of anti-LGBTQ laws passed in state legislatures this past session.  Laws that deny you medical care, laws that legally erase your families, laws that deny your identity and humanity.  You need the rainbow and the promise it symbolizes more than ever.  Have hope.  There are far more people with you now than are against you.  You are sacred.

To Everyone Else

Remember what I said about those who try to deny God’s promise of protection to his sacred people?  They fade away.  They meet their own end.  I really believe that not supporting the LGBTQ+ community will be the end of our church.  I believe that if we don’t advocate for the dignity and humanity of ANY group, we cease to be the church and become a Sunday morning social club with a bigoted membership process.  This goes way beyond marriage and ordination; we cannot allow the systemic and interpersonal discrimination against LGBTQ+ people to continue. 

Who gets to be a pastor seems like a silly thing to squabble about when a trans kid can’t get appropriate healthcare or go to the bathroom.  The real church wouldn’t allow these kids to get hurt like that.  If we allow it, then we aren’t the church.  
We, the United Methodist Church, have a choice before us now.  Which way are we going to go?  Are we going to walk the path of Babylon? Will we try to deny the rainbows promise the way Rome, the Philistines, and so many others tried to?  Or are we going to embrace the rainbow and bring our LGBTQ+ siblings home from exile?  Joshua 24:15 comes to mind.  

[vii] Same source as the last citation and


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