Sermon: Biblical Migrations – Noah And The Ark by Ana Levy-Lyons

2019 November 10
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Biblical Migrations: Noah            

Ana Levy-Lyons

November 10, 2019

First Unitarian, Brooklyn


Approximation of Scripture Reading (Genesis 3-6)

It’s a few years into the humanity experiment and God is looking around, bummed out. “This is not at all what I had in mind when I made the adam – the human. First I give them everything they need – the most beautiful garden, flowing with sparkling clean water, bursting with plants of all kinds with delicious fruits – and what do they do? They have to go and eat from the one tree I said they can’t eat from. I give them one modest limit on their use of my natural gifts and they blow past it immediately. And they won’t even take responsibility for it – Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. They had enough; they had everything, and they didn’t realize it. So I kick them out of the garden. I have to. They can’t handle it.


Then, as if that’s not bad enough, you know the two brothers, Cain and Abel? Well Cain kills Abel. Murders him, just like that! My Abel. The one I made and loved. Dead. And I only know about it because his blood cried out to me from the ground itself. Because Cain is not taking responsibility either. He keeps saying, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ over and over. As if he’s not. I’ve had it. I’ve had it! I’m starting over.”


Sermon Part 1

When God decides to shake up the Etch-a-Sketch and start over with this world, the vehicle for preserving life is not a boat, it’s a box. I know it’s always portrayed as a boat in the picture books, usually a very lovely wooden boat with a bow and a stern, a port and a starboard, lots of windows, maybe with oars and maybe with sails, with all the happy-looking people and animals hanging out on the deck. But in the actual text, the life support system that God instructs Noah to build is just a big, multi-story box. There are careful instructions for the shape and dimensions of the box, so many cubits high and wide, the edges sealed with pitch. And it is to have only one window.


This window has been a mystery over the years because the Hebrew word tsohar that’s usually translated as “window” in this story doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Bible. So you can’t really know what it means. Some rabbis have said that Noah is told to put in a skylight; others say it’s a radiant gem that glows with its own inner light. Maybe even Noah doesn’t know what a tsohar is. But in order to save himself, his family, and all of life on earth, Noah (who is 600 years old, by the way), is told to build a box with one mysterious light source, get everyone to climb in, with no ability to guide it, and surrender to whatever happens. And he does it. They all do it. And once everyone’s inside the ark, the text says, “God closed it for him.”


It’s a really scary image. Especially as the flood waters start pouring in. To be a human in that ark, in that box, would have been to be drowned in helplessness. And maybe that was the point. Maybe that was the spiritual education that humanity had to undergo. Because when you think about God’s profound disappointment in humanity – it was because of our abuse of the gift of human agency.


From an initial state of harmony with the natural world where we were given everything we needed, the first humans took more. Our sense of entitlement to take and take with no limits alienated us from the land. We were exiled from the garden and then it says that the land became hostile and “sprouted thorns and thistles” at us. And in the story things just got worse from there. With the new pressures of scarcity, jealousy and greed cropped up. Brothers fought. Cain murdered Abel and then refused to take responsibility for it. The earth itself protested and cried from the ground.


We now have a picture of humans at war with the earth and one another. We are obsessed with controlling our environment – taking beyond our limits – the grabbing and the claiming of the fruits of every tree as ours for the taking. And then the violence against another human being – taking a life that does not belong to us, taking beyond our limits, extinguishing the divine spark where we have no right to tread. Murder is the ultimate form of control.


We may say that this story is myth – no 600-year-old man ever built an ark and saved humanity from a flood. But the deeper story of our obsession with control – control of nature and each other – bringing on the floodwaters… is no fiction.


Sermon Part 2

It’s described in the story, just like we had it here, water coming in from above and from below. “The fountains of the great deep were split open and the apertures of the skies were opened,” until the entire earth, even the tallest tree, even the tallest mountain, was covered with water. It was a good day to be a fish. And if you were a human or other animal on the ark, you had won the lottery.


But God had driven a hard bargain. If you want to survive and come out the other side of this, you’re going to have to give up the illusion of control. You’re going to have to surrender some of your agency and that’s going to be really uncomfortable. You’re going to have to let go and let God. You’re going to need to rely on faith, as you’re floating like a twig in the open ocean, with only a luminous gem to orient you.


This is a lesson that we humans have to learn over and over again. Especially grown-ups. We try so hard to control our lives, impose our will on the world, and sometimes even on the people around us, sometimes even on our kids. We try to make them do what we want, partly for their sake, but partly for ours. We try to shape our partners and friends into who we want them to be and ignore when they try to tell us who they are. We look around at the world, run calculations, and think to ourselves, “if I could only get X or get rid of Y, then I’d be happy.” And eight times out of ten it’s not true. And the more we try to control and force instead of allowing and seeking gratitude for what we have, the more that happiness slips just out of our reach.


And so sometimes, somewhere in the galaxy, a giant re-set button gets hit. Sometimes God or life imposes this on us. Or sometimes we get to the point where we shake up the Etch-a-Sketch ourselves, lift up our hands, unclench our fists, and say, “I give up. Let the waters come.” And as we are rocked and rolled in the waves, we have to find faith that a deeper wisdom has the reins. And we might feel flooded with gratitude, flooded with sorrow for what we’ve lost by trying to force things, flooded with joy for all that we love. And then, when the storm subsides, we might send out a dove and another and another – little tendrils of hope, little earnest efforts to connect with others and with the land. And finally we might venture out of the ark to see how we’ve changed.


In the story, Noah, his family, and all the animals emerge from the ark after their ordeal to find a sparkling new earth. And the first thing Noah does is make an offering of gratitude. Like so many of us who’ve been through hell, he is thankful to be alive with his family and needs nothing more. God is moved by this transformation, and says, “You know? I think I’m not going to do that again. All the rest of the earth’s days, seed and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night will not cease.”


And as a symbol of that promise, God sets a rainbow in the sky. So that every time we see a rainbow, we can remember and relax and let go. It’s going to be okay. We don’t have to control everything, we have so many blessings already, the world is hurting, but it’s also sparkling and beautiful.


Today, in the time of climate change, when we see the floods coming, we need the rainbow more than ever. We need hope. We are longing to hear that God will keep the promise – that the rainbow will be bright enough – that we will be strong enough to keep our covenant with the earth and with one another. And that the floodwaters will not overwhelm us. We are hungry to hear the story of that promise over and over. And that hunger, that longing, that hope, in case you were wondering, is why there are so many songs about rainbows.


Song: The Rainbow Connection (lyrics in the Order of Service)

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