After the Storm: Do-overs, Covenants, and the Enduring Nature of All There Is

1950-92-7-CXSermon delivered by the Rev. Alison Cornish at Faith UCC, State College, PA, September 20, 2015

Just to be reminded of the story … a few details that the children might have missed

Gen. 8.20-22  Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.

As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.

Gen. 9.8-17  Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “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, as many as came out of the ark.  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.” 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.” 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.”

Perhaps like many of you, I was first captured by the story of Noah and his ark as a child – all those great toys, and books with animals to examine and name, and imagining the quantity of rain, the small boat bobbing on the waves.  And as I aged up a little, that gifted – and we know, too, complicated and flawed – comedian Bill Cosby created his stand-up midrash about Noah and the Lord, filling in the scriptural gaps, and finally giving an obedient but scripturally-silent Noah his 15 minutes of fame … And still later, I was equally captivated by the stories of the archaeological and anthropological search for the remains of the ark, and scientific evidence of the flood and its damage.  But it was in seminary that I finally embraced this story as one that has come, for me, to be the theological basis for our relationship to the world in which we live.  That comes actually after the storm, after the sealed-up ark of humanity and animals comes to rest on the mountaintop, after the dove returns with an olive branch, after God has essentially effected a ‘do-over’ of creation – pushing the reset button.  God then issues a most extraordinary series of assertions, affirmations and promises:

1.  God accepts that the ‘inclination of the human heart is evil from birth’ – that is, human sinfulness is real, it exists, and cannot be eradicated – yet, even so …

2.  God will never again curse the ground, never again bring about a flood to destroy the earth and its inhabitants – and furthermore,

3.  Not only will God not seek to destroy creation, but God will ‘stick with creation,’ not abandoning it – so,

4.  God makes a covenant with every living creature, the birds and the animals, and the earth itself, AND

5.  It’s God’s own responsibility to remember and abide by the covenant – thus the (rain)bow in the sky.

Five remarkable, extraordinary promises.

And what’s humankind’s part of the deal?  God actually doesn’t expect much –

1.  Go forth, be fruitful, and multiply

2.  Yes, have dominion over the animals, but have reverence for life, including that of the animals to be consumed

3.  Do not kill one another

Now, it is not my task or intention to question whether God has lived up to God’s part of the covenant – but I will note, the earth seems still to be here, spinning on its axis, floating through space, pulled and pushed by gravitational forces, all so amazingly perfect and aligned so that life, as we know it, has the conditions to thrive.  And we are still here, with all our oh-so-human flaws and gifts. And rainbows do, in fact, appear in the skies the world over.

But it is my task to ask … how well has humanity kept our side of the covenant?  For even if we are not exactly all the direct descendants of Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, we know by both the knowledge of our minds and the wisdom of our hearts that we are one people interrelated and interdependent … our fates interwoven, our actions – and their effects – interconnected.  And, as people of faith in our covenantal tradition, we know the importance of keeping promises; as we say in Unitarian Universalism, ‘of walking together, in love.’  How goes it, for us, I ask, ‘after the storm?’

Well, the going forth, being fruitful, and multiplying – we seem to have caught on to that pretty well.  Some might say we’re over-achievers in this area.  Our population growth on this planet has gone beyond simple multiplication to a point where the very real question is – can the planet sustain such a burgeoning – and consumerist – population? And, perhaps even more critical, will the billions of people have an earth to call home given the cumulative effects of our current ways of living our lives by expending massive amounts of fossil-fueled energy in order to heat and cool our homes, move ourselves from one place to another, grow our food, and produce our stuff for living?

We are in the predicament we’re in not just because of the size of our population, but also because we have also lost sight of God’s second condition – that we are to have reverence for life. Plenty of theologians – as well as those who quite honestly know little about theology but love to cherry-pick from the scriptures – have taken the directive to ‘have dominion’ to mean ‘it’s all yours to do with as you wish’ – that humans are the pinnacle – (well actually some humans, for we know, too, that other humans have been intentionally impoverished, oppressed and marginalized) but that it’s humans that are to reign over creation – to dominate (a distortion of Genesis’ to ‘till and keep it.”)  And all those animals and birds and fish that were ‘into our hand delivered’ means that we also own their habitat – their air and waters and rangelands.  This is what Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical Laudato Si’, has called ‘the crisis and effects of modern anthropocentrism.’ Not only does this violate the true order of life – God, then people – but it distorts what we know as the radical interconnectedness of all of life. We are a part of the vast web of life – a part, not apart – we breathe because trees also breathe – we live another day because the rivers and oceans also live another day.  The soil, rain and sun conspire to grow our food – the seasons of the earth’s rotation around the sun move us from planting to tending to harvesting.  What we need now, instead of more dominion, is, quoting Pope Francis again, ‘an integral ecology’ – ‘an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.’

So far, I would say we are doing less than stellar on our side of the covenant.

What about the last directive – do not kill one another?  The personal violence that characterized the Primeval History of Genesis before the flood is recorded in the scriptures as returning pretty soon after the flood.  And we know all too well that it is with us still today – whether as domestic abuse, or organized crime, or war, or police actions – person-on-person violence and death is all too much ‘with us.’ But if we continue on the theme that I have suggested this morning – that the covenant with Noah is not just personal, but universal – it’s about how we are interconnected, not separate – then we have to also look at this command in the broadest of terms.  And this is where each and every one of us has to come to terms with the responsibility of living in these times of ecological destruction and a rapidly changing climate – and the consequences of our actions, for the truth is – climate change means what is ‘just living life’ for some is causing violence and death for others.  An emissions-spewing power plant located in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood. Mining coal and copper within the boundaries of sovereign Indian nations. Damming rivers for hydropower, flooding villages and fields and hunting grounds. The deaths are legion – sometimes actual, but also in the losses in relocation from homelands, the end of livelihoods, and ways of living life.  We do this because we still think we are separate from one another; that our actions – and inaction – have no real effect on others, on the neighbors and strangers in our lives.

We cannot go on this way.

Humanity is in desperate need of its own ‘reset button.’

Or, perhaps, we could see that, in fact, we are already in the midst of a ‘rebooting.’ This is the thing about the climate crisis. It is the storm, and it is well underway.  And there will be a changed world because of it … as storms intensify, and waters rise, and glaciers and permafrost melt – our common home will be different – the ‘Eaarth’ as Bill McKibbon coined in his book title – not “Earth” – to remind us that our planet is already different.

What won’t be different is God, and God’s covenant with us.  God’s hesed – God’s steadfast love for God’s creation – including humanity – cannot be moved.  It is promised; indeed, it is there for us each and every time we choose to remember it is there – and even when we don’t.  It is immutable.  God keeps promises. God walks in love. God also suffers when we suffer, and feels sorrow when Creation is desecrated.  God has promised to stand by creation, even when it is so clear that human behavior has deeply, adversely impacted the created order.

Our task ‘after the storm,’ after the reset, is not only to remember the responsibilities given us in the covenant with Noah, but also to follow God’s lead … by promising to walk with a flawed humanity, and to never again destroy the earth, God self-limits, restrains God’s own power and freedom.

We are made in God’s image. And there is something of the divine in each of us. How is it that we have not also learned the self-restraint that is needed for all to live in ways to preserve our collective health and well-being?  How have we forgotten that we are to be co-creators with God?  As Cosby said at the end of his insightful bit of humor – “you and me, God – it’s you and me …” We know about the promises God made to us – and that gives us the responsibility to keep our end of the deal.  This Creation would be incomplete without us – but it is also within our reach to corrupt it so that it is lost for all.

We have the power to overwhelm the covenant God established with us, to bring terrible suffering and destruction upon Creation, but in my heart of hearts, I don’t think there’s a person on the planet who really wishes for that outcome.

Pope Francis contemplates some of these questions in his encyclical, and I quote him, for I believe he, too, is calling for something like a ‘reset button,’ a chance to be recalled to our best selves, our true nature – flawed, yes, but also loving, creative, smart, capable creatures. Pope Francis writes, as he addresses every person on this planet –

… all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom.  No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to God’s grace at work deep in our hearts.  I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.

Perhaps another way of saying this is – perhaps the global climate crisis – the ‘storm’ – is not so much about humanity saving God’s Creation – as Creation effecting our salvation – recalling us to our own, God-given loving, sensible selves?