Sermon: Stories of Humans and the Earth: Noah’s Ark
Those of you who went to Sunday school or Hebrew school when you were kids may have happy images in your head of Noah and the Ark – the smiling giraffes and cows and lions going, two by two up the ramp into the big boat, Noah and his family waving like they’re going on a cruise, and of course the end of the story when the flood subsides, you have that post-rain wet sidewalk smell, and everything is all sparkly, clean, and new with a beautiful rainbow in the sky. This is how it always looks in the kids’ picture books. But the reality of how it’s described in the text and the reality of modern day floods is not so happy. As we’ve just seen in Haiti and the Bahamas and Florida, we are getting storms and floods today that are increasingly biblical in their proportions and nobody is smiling and waving.
This is the first of a series of sermons I’ll be preaching this year on the relationship between humans and the earth. We’ll be exploring six stories, one drawn from each of our “sources” of Unitarian Universalism. For those of you who aren’t familiar with these Sources, you can find them listed on the inside back cover of your order of service. These are the human spiritual and intellectual traditions from which we draw all of our material as Unitarian Universalists – our sermons, our music, our prayers, our readings, and our practices. One of the sources is “Jewish and Christian teachings” and we are beginning with that source. Judaism and Christianity are the grandparent and parent of our faith. Our ideas about the relationship between humans and the earth were birthed in those traditions.
One idea in particular has resonated through the millennia: that at root, humans and the earth are one and the same. In the beginning of the Biblical origin myth, God takes a handful of earth (in Hebrew, adamah) and breathes life into it to create the first human (adam). Adamah, adam. The adam has no gender, no race, no language, no religion, no political affiliation, it’s not a Yankees fan or Mets fan; it is simply an earthling – a creature made out of earth and infused with the spirit, the breath of God. The adam later splits into two and develops all kinds of characteristics and does all kinds of things, good and bad, but it’s so important to remember that the Jewish and Christian traditions envision that there was a pre-social time – a time before we created culture or were shaped by culture – a time when we were literally one with the earth.
Through the generations we’ve sensed that the earth is our essence – it’s our home, our origin and our final resting place. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. When we bury a loved one’s body or sprinkle ashes in a sacred place, we feel that we are returning them to their source. And it’s true of course. Earth becomes plants which become our bodies either by eating the plants directly or indirectly through animals. And when we die, the remains of our body become the earth again. Even if takes a thousand years because we’ve embalmed and encased the body in caskets within caskets, trying to fend off the inevitable, eventually we return to the earth. The late Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church pointed out that English has the same connection as Hebrew does between the words for “human” and “earth.” He used to say, “the most beautiful of all etymologies is human, humane, humility, humble, humus.”
So what happens to the earthling in the Genesis story? The earthling is given a garden, the text says, with every kind of tree that is beautiful and good for food. There are four rivers running through it to water the garden – a kind of natural irrigation. It is a paradise where the earthling, like a baby, is given everything that it needs. The earthling is also given limits on its use of these natural resources. Using only part of what’s here will be more than enough for you, God says. As most of us know from the story, that doesn’t go so well. The earthling becomes two earthlings and they succumb to temptation to take more than the bounty they’ve been given. They get cast out of the garden and life for the first time becomes hard. Now they have to work the earth to grow food. And things just get worse from there. Jealousy and greed crop up. Brothers fight. Cain murders Abel and then refuses to take responsibility for it, saying the famous dismissive line, “Those comments were made over ten years ago!” – I mean – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The earth itself speaks up. God says to Cain, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground!”
And then there’s the flood. The Genesis text introduces the flood story by saying, “And God regretted having made humankind in the earth. And God’s heart grieved. And God said, ‘I’ll wipe out the adam whom I’ve created from the face of the earth, from human to animal to creeping thing, and to the bird of the skies, because I regret that I made them.’” This is really an astounding thing to appear in the opening chapters of the foundational text of Jewish and Christian traditions. It’s so painful. Like a parent saying, “I’m sorry I had you.” It’s the worst condemnation possible. The text says that God saw humankind’s “badness” on the earth that “every plan devised by humanity’s mind was nothing but bad all the time.” And when God explains the flood to Noah, God says it’s because “the earth is filled with violence.”
Noah is an exception. It is said that Noah “walked with God.” He’s described as a “righteous man, blameless in his age.” Now, that’s an interesting way to put it. Blameless in his age. The “in his age” sounds like a qualifier – like people who say that so-and-so is honest for a politician. It’s not entirely a compliment. Noah isn’t blameless in an absolute sense; he isn’t perfect. He isn’t a saint. He’s just pretty good relative to his times which apparently are pretty bad. He’s real. He’s good but he’s real. He walks with God. He’s trying. And so God chooses him and his family to survive and pass those pretty good genes on to the rest of humanity.
But God chooses him for an even more important function as well. God chooses Noah to build the ark. Now in those children’s picture books, the ark is always a pretty wooden boat with lots of windows, but what Noah is instructed to build is really just a giant box. God gives very detailed specifications– so many cubits wide and long and tall, seal the edges with pitch, three stories, one window, and a door on the side. And bring in two of every living creature to be protected from the storm. Two elephants, two mosquitoes and two of everything in between. Noah is also supposed to bring in every type of plant that is good for food – presumably food for humans and animals which would pretty much include every type of plant. Every kind of seed would need to be there so that the plants could regenerate. So Noah is given the responsibility for bringing the entire living biodiversity of the earth into the safety of the ark.
You would think Noah might find this a little burdensome. Even a little unfair. You would think he might complain, “Hey, I’m not the one who ate the fruit from the tree I wasn’t supposed to eat! I’m not the one who was jealous and manipulative! I haven’t been violent! I’m not the one who killed my brother and then denied it! I’m not the one who caused this flood! Why should I have to clean up a mess that I did not make?” That is the $50,000 question for today’s age as well. Why should we have to clean up a mess that we did not make? The parallels between this ancient myth and our real life story today are chilling. In each, it is human wrongdoing, misuse of natural resources, and violence that brings the threat of destruction to the earth. In each, the destruction threatens not only the humans who caused it, but all living creatures. In each, the destruction is to be carried out by means of flood – storms, a deluge of rain, and a powerful rising of waters. And in each, it is only through the actions of imperfect people willing to take responsibility for cleaning up a mess that they did not make that life can be saved.
On the Jewish calendar, we are right now in the midst of the high holidays. Rosh Hashanah was last week; Yom Kippur is this week. For Jews, this is the turning of a new year and a time to take responsibility for how one has been showing up over the past year for loved ones, communities, and the world. One of the central prayers of the Yom Kippur service is known as the Al Chet prayer. In this prayer the congregation takes responsibility for a whole list of sins and asks forgiveness. I read a contemporary version of this in our prayer time earlier. In listening to it, you may have noticed that we haven’t actually done all of the terrible things on the list. At least I hope we haven’t. Maybe we haven’t obeyed criminal orders or confused love with lust in the last year. But the practice is to take responsibility for it anyway, collectively, as a community. And then to commit to doing everything possible to make things right again. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
If Noah is a hero because of anything, it’s because of this. He takes responsibility even though he isn’t guilty. He does everything he can to make things right again. We haven’t personally, singlehandedly made the choices that caused the storm in Haiti last week. But it was likely made more severe by the choices of our age, our time. We haven’t personally polluted the earth or the oceans. But the economic systems in which we participate have. None of us caused global warming. But the people of our generation and our parents’ generation did. And it’s up to us to take responsibility for it. There is no singularly evil person who deserves all the blame. And there is no saint, no one blameless in an absolute sense, no one perfect singularly qualified to fix it all. There is only us – good in our age. We each walk with the God of our understanding in our own way and we try.
In the modern version of building an ark we don’t have the benefit of detailed instructions. It’s a lot more complicated these days. But we do have the wisdom of the stories of our traditions – stories that paint for us a picture of a different relationship with the earth. We have the ancient teaching that we are adam – made of earth and not separate from it. We have the vision of a beautiful garden in which we live simply and in peace, taking no more from it than we need. And we have the inkling of what it means to care so much for every person, every species, every form of life on this earth, that we bring every single one into our circle and into our ark of compassion. May we be blessed, like Noah, with the courage to clean up messes that we did not make and the strength to weather whatever storms may come our way.