Sermon on Genesis 9:1 -17 for April 22, 2018, Earth Day
Gen. 9:1 -17
God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. 2 The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4 Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5 For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.
6 Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image
God made humankind.
7 And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.”
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 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: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 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. 16 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.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
I can remember when I was a boy, our family visiting my uncle and aunt in Kansas in the summer. They lived out in the open country where there was almost no light pollution. My sister and I would lay out on the grass at night, looking up into the sky more full of stars than we had ever seen back home in Ohio. We would watch what they called heat lightening. The sky would light up again and again, far off in the distance, too far away to hear the sound of thunder; we just saw the flashes appearing with amazing intensity. It was all beautiful, literally awesome. I had the feeling of both being very small and overwhelmed on one hand, and of complete peace, on the other.
Our Tradition: Creation is Good
We come from a tradition that does not think that the stars or the lightning are gods, as the ancients did. When we look up, we have nothing to fear. We believe in the goodness of this world. Genesis chapter one tells one version of our creation story in which, when God makes the world in a sequence of increasing complexity, God keeps calling it good, good, good, and finally, very good.
God, we believe, is the ultimate source of all creation. God is the ground of being through which all creation exists, from the big bang until today, from the quanta minutia to the dark holes of nearly infinite space. This means, for us, that God who is Transcendent – beyond the range of normal human experience, is manifest, made evident, in the immanent, in everything that is. Nature is not god, but God is present in all of nature, from the carbon in the stars to the same carbon in our human cells.
Rejoicing in Creation
So our Judeo-Christian tradition calls for rejoicing. Our scriptures are full of wonder and amazement at the glory of God on display all around us. In modern language, we might say that seeing the utterly transcendent in the immanent world calls for a dance party!
When we read, for example, Psalm 19 “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” all we can do is say “Yes, they are!” – still, after, probably the three thousand years that separate us from the one who wrote those words, maybe after laying on her back, looking up at the sky, on a hillside on a summer evening in Palestine.
So today, we celebrate Earth Day in gratitude and praise for the source of both all of this awesomeness and beauty, and the source of our capacities to receive it, our physical bodies that see and smell and taste and touch and hear all of this magnificence.
Humans and God: Complicated
To be human is complicated. While we are lying on our backs looking up at the stars, we do feel connected with the transcendent. But getting up, walking back to the house, getting ready for bed, brushing our teeth and putting on our pajamas, we quickly become absorbed in the world of the mundane. It is possible to drink innumerable glasses of clean water without reflecting on how blessed we are to have it; how our very lives depend on it. It is possible to live beneath the shade of trees for a long time without noticing anything transcendent about the light shining on their leaves.
Humans have struggled to understand how we relate to the transcendent realm that we sometimes sense strongly, that sometimes overwhelms us, and at other times, completely lose sight of. Almost universally, it seems, humans have intuited a relationship between our behavior and the transcendent realm. We told stories about the gods. For a long time, humans thought of the relationship between us and the gods like servants’ relationship to masters. The gods wanted our service. They wanted our sacrifices to feed them, or to honor them.
And humans, being what we are, religiously interested, but also prone to slothfulness and inattention, often served the gods inconsistently. So, since most of them were nature gods, they demonstrated their displeasure through disruptions in nature. Storms sometimes wrecked crops, plagues decimated flocks and herds, floods swept away villages. The gods were petty and vindictive, capricious and violent.
Our Creation Story Alternative
It is in that context that our Jewish ancestors in faith told another, alternative story. They began the story with a transcendent God who brings forth a physical world in goodness and abundance. God blesses Creation with fruitfulness. God makes humans in God’s own image, pronouncing us good, and blessing us with an unspoiled garden of abundance.
Our story also includes the disruption in that goodness and unspoiled original condition because of the uncanny propensity we have to make self-interested choices, to our own harm, and to the harm of others. It is as if we were surrounded by forbidden trees whose fruit attracts us, even when we have already eaten our fill.
So where does that leave us, with God? Remarkably our story is about a God who comes to us even after the calamities our self-interested choices have caused, and renews relationship with us. This is what the conclusion of the flood story is all about. I take this story as a parable.
God wants a good world. In plan A, God creates a perfect world and blesses it. But things do not go so well. So, in plan B, God begins again, only this time with just the good guys. Noah and his family ride out the flood in the ark to restart the world on a firm basis of goodness.
The Covenant after the Flood
When the flood waters subside and the good people are about to begin a new round of human existence, God reaffirms the goodness of creation by making a covenant. It is not just a covenant with the humans, it is a covenant with all living things. God says,
“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you.”
God promises never again to destroy the world in another flood. As a reminder of this promise, God makes a sign in the sky.
“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.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
It is good to notice two ideas here. First, let us notice and consider how many times the parties to the covenant are named as God and “every living creature” or “all flesh” – a total of four times. God’s concern is not exclusively for humans, but is much wider. God’s concern is for the whole biosphere. Every living creature is included.
Second, it is good to notice that the sign of the covenant is not called a rain arc, but a bow. A bow is a weapon. But if a bow is a weapon, towards which direction is it pulled? Clearly, the bow points away from the earth, upwards, towards the heavens – towards God. This is called an oath of self-cursing, like “cross my heart, hope to die.” It is God saying “May I be cursed with an arrow to my own heart if I ever break this covenant.”
In spite of anything and everything we humans are and do, God is for us, not against us. That means so much: whenever you are burdened by guilt or shame, know this: God is for you. If you are making choices that hurt you, or others, or the planet, then God wants to lure you back to goodness, but not with condemnation and judgment. God’s tools are not guilt and shame but irresistible love. That is what Jesus clarified for us over and over. Why do we have such a hard time receiving it? We call it grace: God’s goodness to us, not as a reward for our goodness, but the unearned result of God’s essential character, which is love.
God and All Creation
But that’s only one side of the story. Besides what this means to us as humans, the same can be said for God’s orientation to the world of creatures. God wills the good of all creation. God loves all of creation. God wills the flourishing and wellbeing of every part of the phylogenetic tree.
So we can say with confidence that when we humans do things to diminish or endanger the habitat of living creatures, this must be displeasing to their Creator. So, according to NASA, when global temperatures rise to a height not seen in 40,000 years, when the ocean’s acidity increases by 30 percent since the beginning of the industrial revolution, when the ice caps melt, the glaciers retreat, and sea levels rise, when weather extremes and storm intensities increase, we recognize that we are on an unsustainable and un-faithful path.
Given our tradition and our understanding of God’s covenant with creation, we are not the kind of people who turn a blind eye or who deny what the whole world-wide scientific consensus has concluded. We are people who believe that science itself is a way of understanding the physical world that God created, and therefore we welcome science. We believe that all truth is God’s truth. And so we are committed to being the kind of people who make lifestyle and public policy choices, not for short-term interests, or solely economic interests, but the long-term interests of this good creation that God has made and left us stewards over. We want to live according to the vision and the values of the God of the covenant with every living creature.
So we are here today to celebrate this good creation. We are here to acknowledge that we encounter the transcendent, the divine, in and through the immanent physical world of nature. And this is cause for, at least rejoicing in spirit, if not an entire dance party.
On a practical level, and because the mundane world of everyday concerns does, so often, turn our attention away from wonder and awe, we need help. We find help in things like the poets who help us reorient ourselves and our senses towards the depths of beauty. For me, the poet Mary Oliver does this with great skill and regularity. So I want to leave us with and excerpt of one of her reflections. This is the poem “Messenger” from her collection, “Thirst”.
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird–
Equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the calm deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect?
Let me keep my mind on what matters,
Which is my work,
Which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.