A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA
Sept 11, 2022
Genesis 6:5-22; 8:6-12; 9:8-17
Introduction to Worship
Today we begin our program year, our Homecoming Sunday, with the story of Noah and the flood.
To our modern ears, it seems crazy to say that the entire earth was flooded. There is not enough water in the earth’s atmosphere to cover Cleveland, Paris, and Mt Everest.
But almost every culture in the ancient near east had a story about a cataclysmic flood. We have the story of Noah. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, from ancient Mesopotamia, in the oldest piece of literature still in existence, there’s a Noah-like story about a man named Utnapishtim who survived a great flood by building a boat and bringing his family and animals aboard. Sound familiar?
While it is impossible for the entire earth to flood, there was at least one cataclysmic flood in the ancient near east, and stories were told to make sense of a giant flood that covered the earth as they knew it. Google hadn’t been invented yet. We can’t fault them for not knowing that San Francisco, London, and Cape Town existed. The world, as they knew it flooded.
I suspect that’s still true today for people in Kentucky, or other communities that have recently had devastating flooding. It doesn’t matter if the whole planet has flooded. What matters is your whole world has flooded.
We still seek to derive meaning from the floods, and famines, and maybe even pandemics, that happen in our lives. I’m grateful you are here with us this day, on the corner of Fillmore and Jackson, as we seek to hear ancient stories in new ways this day.
Our Narrative Lectionary year begins today, not with the story of creation in Genesis, but with a story of destruction.
This story, where the earth is buried and drowned under the waters of a divine flood, is a part of our story and we need to remember our entire story, not just the uniformly happy parts. If we want to live authentic lives, open to transformation, we have to live into our whole story, as Victor talked about last week with psalm 139.
Chaos and destruction are a part of our story.
The divine destruction in the flood is a response to destruction and evil caused by humanity. God created the world to be good, beautiful, and a place of justice and peace. Humanity, on the other hand, seemed hell bent on destruction, from the moment we were left alone in the garden.
It is telling that by chapter 6 in the story of God’s people, they have strayed so far from God’s hope for them that major changes have to be made.
“The earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence…God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.” (Genesis 6: 11, 13)
In this story, the evil hearts of humanity are contrasted to God’s heart, which is grieved. The same word is used for “grieved” as is used to describe the pain Eve bears to give birth. Six chapters into the story, and humanity has contributed evil and pain. We have broken God’s heart.
In the first chapter of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes:
“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator….” (1:25)
This seems to sum up well the challenge of humanity as told in Genesis. We forget our relationship with the created world and with the One who created us.
It’s easy to read this story and wonder if God is vengeful. God buries the earth in water, deeper than the top of Mount Everest, after all. All of humanity is wiped out. All of the earth is wiped out, wiped clean.
A close reading of the text, however, reminds us that this is a story of a loving God, a God who doubles down on the promise to be in relationship with a humanity that has broken God’s heart and that has forgotten to be God’s.
Creation begins again with the people in the ark—people who are just normal people. There’s nothing perfect about Noah or his family. Noah is referred to as “blameless in his generation”, but some commentators point out his generation wasn’t so great. They led God to flood the earth, after all. And Noah will have some trouble the minute they get off the ark. Noah is not a perfect man, but maybe he’s perfect in his human imperfection. That’s good news for us, right?
God’s not looking for perfect people. God’s looking for actual people, with whom to be in covenant relationship. God recommits to humanity. This first biblical covenant is all about God putting limits on how God will be in relationship with flawed and broken humanity from here on out.
The limits are set on God,
not on humanity,
not on creation,
but on God’s own behavior.
‘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.’
I read the news today, of course, and am struck by how humanity still seems hell bent on destruction.
Hatred directed toward each other instead of love and acceptance.
Humanity has not, it seems, changed.
Thankfully God did.
Promising, with a bow in the clouds, to forever more be inherently connected to us, God binds God-self to a covenant that shows us the depth, the height, and the width of God’s love toward us.
I know the waters subsided and Noah’s boat found land, but I confess recent years have felt like we are still on a boat, floating over the surface of creation, waiting to find land, mourning the destruction we have wrought, the loss we have endured, the regrets we cannot address.
40 days and 40 nights of rain falling, and falling, and falling.
Looking out the window and seeing the known landmarks of our lives sink under the rising tide of the deluge, leaving us in an unfamiliar seascape, no way to get your bearings, no sense of where the ship is headed because the rainclouds even block out the lodestars by which we navigate the world.
What do you do with that time of waiting?
After you’ve tended to the animals on the lido deck, of course?
The flood is a Sabbath, of sorts. I think the world we’ve been in since I moved here 2 years ago has been a sabbath flood time too. This is the first “normal-ish” homecoming worship service we’ve had since I’ve been here! We’ve been in a time to wait and to ponder and to recognize you are still alive, even as all you know has changed. A time to pause and wonder about our role in the mess we see around us. A time to wait.
After all of that waiting time, when you don’t think you can ponder one more thing or take it one more minute, the rain stops.
The silence on the tin roof of the ark must have been deafening after that long fortnight of rain.
It takes a long time for that much rainfall to subside. After the rain stops, Noah sends out birds to look for land.
A raven goes out, flies and flies and flies, but finds no land.
A dove is released the next week. She can’t find land either, and returns to the ark, likely grateful to find a place to rest.
They wait a week and send the dove back out. This time, the dove returns with an olive leaf, a sign of peace. There is land again. The waters are subsiding.
Seven days more and the dove is sent out. This time, she doesn’t come back. She’s found life and a new start.
She no longer needs the shelter of the ark, the confinement of the ark.
I’ve been thinking of the birds this week. And the supreme act of hope and faith involved in sending them out from the ark.
All you can see around you is water. Everything you know is gone.
You have faith that this time of trial, this devastating flood, will subside. Such an act of faith, to believe in land when all you can see is water.
It takes time, though, for that faith and hope to be rewarded with signs of life.
We’ve been waiting more than years for Covid floodwaters to subside. We’re now at the time when we leave our covid ark, now that we no longer need it’s shelter in the same way.
I’ve heard the Noah story my whole life, but it wasn’t until hearing it now that I ever wondered if people were hesitant to leave the ark. I had always assumed that the minute the gangplank came down, that people and animals would have raced out of the boat.
“Get me away from those stinky animals!”
“I can’t wait to get away from everyone else’s noise, smells, and needs!”
Even the animals, I assumed, would have wanted to get away from each other. The prey couldn’t have been too relaxed penned in near the predator. If I’m a wildebeest, I don’t want to look over and see the lions licking their lips and planning dinner.
But now I wonder.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve felt a host of conflicting emotions as I’ve tried to walk off the proverbial covid shut down ark.
Yay! I get to be around people again! Ack! I have to be around people again!
Both are valid responses. Being here at Calvary with you, going to Warriors games, having dinner out with friends, traveling to see family and to see the world—all of those things have brought joy to my life in this past year.
But with that joy has come anxiety I never used to have. Am I safe? Should I be doing this? What is the risk right now? Is this a place where I want to wear a mask or does it feel okay without one?
And I suspect Noah’s family had similar concerns as they stood by the open door of the ark, with the land before them.
Yay! Land! Wait, is it safe? When God says the world was destroyed, what does that mean? Will my house, yoga studio, or church still be standing? Will we have to rebuild every single thing? Is everyone really dead? What will we find when we leave this ark?
The animals might have had their own anxiety. Did the wildebeest wonder—
Is the lion going to get me the minute we disembark?
Did the lion wonder—
Do I still have it? Has all this time in the ark taken away my hunting skills? How will I feed my cubs if I can’t hunt anymore?
Like Noah’s family, like the animals, we’ve been living with a level of anxiety and worry the past few years and I don’t know that we’ve recognized the toll it has taken on our bodies, minds, and spirits.
I invite you to pause right now. To close your eyes. Unclench anything you have clenched. Settle into your seat. Breathe. Breathe in. Hold it for a few seconds. Breathe out. Notice.
Whatever you notice and observe is okay. If you’re calm, if you’re jangly, if you’re worried, if you’re at peace, or if you’re some combination of the above. It’s been a season. Looking for dry land in the middle of a flood is exhausting work.
How can we build community here at Calvary to support each other while we figure out how to leave the ark and return out into the world? How can we hold hope for each other, when we forget what dry land looked like, and when we can only remember the destruction?
Because, ultimately, we are hope people. I’ve preached about this before. But our faith calls us to recognize despair when we experience it, but to see it as a way station on the journey, not the destination. We are hope people. We worship a God who chose to become one of us and who conquered death itself with the power of love. Our faith calls us to look for land when all we see is water.
How can we be hope people together as the covid ark settles onto dry land and we move into this new and unknown world?
The story of Noah’s ark is often used to decorate children’s nurseries and children’s bibles. While it has a happy ending, it is a gruesome sort of story to make children’s songs about. “The Lord said to Noah, there’s gonna be a floody floody…..” But I will continue to defend its use for children because of this most important lesson. God had the animals go on the ark in pairs. Nobody was alone in their anxiety—whether human, wildebeest, or lion. Everyone had a partner to get them through it.
This is a lesson I want the child in all of us to remember when we think of this story. We’re not alone in this life. I’m not talking about spouses, although a spouse could be one of your support people. I’m talking about family, friends, counselors, teachers, the stranger at the grocery store who reaches to the tall shelf to get you the jar of pickles you can’t reach.
And when we feel we are alone, when despair and worry seem to separate us from each other, maybe the sign of the rainbow in the sky can remind us to reach out and ask for help. Because we are not meant to face the anxiety of life by ourselves. God sends the animals two by two.
So, Calvary, here’s the question. Are we ready to leave the ark? Are we ready to strengthen the community we’ve known and to extend it to others? Are we willing to commit to the work of engaging our faith journey together in new ways? Are we ready to volunteer our time to support our Matthew 25 partners, to worship together, and spend time in fellowship and play?
I know there are lots of pressures on our time and talents. But I also know that meaningful community matters and is worth the commitment of our time to create, cultivate, and enjoy it.
When you see a rainbow in the clouds, and we remember how God made a promise to change and limit God’s own behavior on our behalf, maybe it can also remind us about the way we want to live together as we leave the ark.
God doesn’t promise humanity will change, that evil will vanish, or that life will be easy. God promises to be with us and for us in the midst of it all. God sends us to be with and for each other in the midst of it all.
The rainbow is God’s promise that God will remember the Covenant that flows from the broken heart of God, a promise of presence, of relationship, of life, of hope. A promise born out of the vulnerability of God, who is willing to fall in love, again, with humanity, willing to endure the pain of another broken heart.
How can we be reminders of that for each other, when we’re afraid to leave the relative safety of our isolation?
It’s easy to see the destruction of the flood. It takes faith to look for land.
I’m grateful to be on this journey with you. Let’s go explore this new world we’ve been given. Together.