Flood Stories

Sermon preached during the Season of Creation: (October 9, 2016)

Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-12
Psalm 104: 25-35, 37
Genesis 8:13- 18, 9:8-13
Matthew 6: 25-29

Flood Stories

In what is truly amazing timing, we are hearing the story of Noah and the flood this morning, as hurricane Matthew continues to impact the East Coast, downgraded or not, the wind and water and rain are impressive.

As I started to write the sermon on Thursday, my sister and her family had already loaded their car and evacuated their home on Hilton Head Island. On the early hours of Saturday morning Matthew decided that Hilton Head Island is indeed a tourist destination – and the eye traveled within 20 miles of the island. My sister and her family won’t return for another day or two, to assess how heavy Matthew’s burden really is, but they are safe and that’s a relief. Hundreds of others were not as fortunate, so many in Haiti were unable to get to safety. There’s devastation in Haiti, Cuba, and throughout the Caribbean, as well as the coast of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas; with water everywhere, powerful and deep, coastlines redefined, rivers jumping their banks, rain in sheets, so much rain, unfathomable amounts of rain. And the people who have evacuated had to wait it out. Those who had to rely upon the state to move them are sheltered in civic centers and schools, holed up with strangers; with their few belongings and their pets. I saw images of a pet caring area at an elementary school – turned into a shelter. Stacks and stacks of pet crates with volunteers feeding and trying to comfort the crated animals. Those volunteers need a medal – but it’s good to know we learned something in the wake of Katrina. We evacuate sooner, we get everyone out, and we take the pets with us. Which means we have to have the capacity to take the pets into the shelter, however traumatic a situation it is for the pets and everyone else – it’s better than the alternative. I know that Hurricane Matthew isn’t just a nifty sermon illustration. But between the images of the hurricane and these of the shelters full of people and animals, we have a vivid picture of our story, and hopefully we are no longer tempted to hear the Noah story as being one all about cute pairs of animals, suitable for decorating a child’s bedroom. This is a truly powerful flood story, about one man and his family, and the barest minimum of animals, because no one else survives.

Several years ago I stood before my first semester classes at St. Paul’s School for Boys and tried to teach this story. In our classroom we had an overhead projector that would show images from the class computer – and I had them read the story as the images showed on the screen. No matter which of my four classes experienced this story, two things were consistent. First, all the repetition in the story got on everyone’s nerves (we have taken some of the repetitions out this morning for the sake of time). And second, this is not a nice story.

The repetition is due to the way this story was edited in the 6th century BCE. There are two different traditions from which the first many chapters of Genesis are taken. In the first two chapters we see the two traditions sitting side by side, which is why we have two different Creation stories. In the first God speaks everything into being, and in the second (the story we focused on this season) God creates Adam and Eve and their descendants. In the case of the flood story, rather than put the two stories side by side, the editors intertwine the two traditions, and often that means that things are repeated, so as not to lose too much of either tradition. We have, on the one hand, ‘the far off, all powerful, speaks creation into being’ understanding of God, and on the other, ‘the near to us, walks with Adam and Eve in the garden’ understanding of God. And we experience both understandings in this combined and compounded flood story. A near to us, anthropomorphic God who shuts the door to the ark behind Noah and family, and an all-powerful far away God who puts his bow in the sky and makes a covenant with all humanity and creation.

Which explains the mechanical issues in the text, but what about the story? This is, at its core, a disturbing story. As I mentioned, in our class we used an overhead projector with the text on the screen so the boys could take turns reading it. And each slide had an illustration. For this story I found the images on a website that illustrates Bible stories through Legos. The Lego people slide show for this story is deeply troubling. As the ark is closed and the waters start to swell, there are people in the waters, swimming toward the ark. And as the waters rise even higher, there are Lego people floating by. It was gruesome and the boys loved it. And it served its purpose, it kept their attention and taught the story. Illustrating in Lego art that this is a hard story.

The problem is that on its surface, this story supports a really disconcerting understanding of the relationship of God to the realities of our world. As if bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. Because that is exactly what happens in the flood part of the story. Noah was considered righteous – right with God, and so God put Noah and family on the ark with the pairs of animals and shut the door. Closing them in, keeping them and protecting them. While God destroyed everyone else. Because they were not righteous. Essentially a handful of ‘good’ people are saved and everyone else is destroyed, wiping the slate clean so God can begin again.

Which supports a lot of really awful theology in our world. Good things happen to good people, and bad things only happen to bad people. So when I make it through the storm untouched (even though I didn’t evacuate) it’s because God saved me, because I’m a good person. And when something bad happens to people, then it’s okay, they must have deserved it. Those Lego people in the water, those suffering people in Haiti, they are somehow responsible for what happened to them. Thankfully, it doesn’t work like that. And that’s the core truth this story is trying to articulate for us, if we will follow it to the end. That humanity’s corruption was heartbreaking to God, and the solution, erasing everything and allowing it to begin again, was ultimately not a good solution.

Humans don’t change all that much. Even Noah turns out to be less than righteous. And his family members are pretty human as well. In the end of the story, with the ground still gleaming wet, God promises never to destroy all of creation again. Never to throw in the towel. Never to give up on us, despite our brokenness, our greed, our pride, our corruption. Despite how very human we manage to be generation after generation. God puts his war bow in the sky and promises to never destroy mankind and creation again. No matter how much we might deserve it. God has hung up his destructive bow, and it becomes a symbol of his promise to us, to be in relationship with us, no matter what.

It is not God’s will to save some and not others. It is not righteousness or justice to pick some over others. God’s kingdom is offered to all. Relationship with God for all. Grace and possibility for everyone. Even the most broken of us. Which is a lot of grace for a difficult flood story, when you think about it, but then again, floods are, by their nature, powerful stories of helplessness.

The people in Haiti and Cuba, and along the Southern East Coast will tell you it’s no small thing to look out and see water, water everywhere. And that getting to high ground is difficult and sometimes impossible. From all the coverage of hurricane Matthew, we have images of water and wind, of rivers overflowing, neighborhoods overwhelmed, and storm surge overcoming the coast… Hold those images, and then remember the truths of this story. God will never leave us without hope again. God has promised to never destroy humanity, to always be with us, in every helpless moment of our lives. It is not God’s will that we be in that place of helplessness. It is certainly not a punishment from God. God has promised it doesn’t work that way.

We can be sure that floods and hurricanes, and other devastation that happen on our earth are not actually acts of God. No matter what the insurance companies may call them. God doesn’t work like that.

So let us pray for those who have died, those who suffer from this storm, those who will be piecing their lives together for months to come… pray for those who are the least of us, for whom poverty will compound their suffering… particularly in Haiti and places where lack of sanitation and clean water may lead to disease. Do what we can to alleviate suffering from this and other disasters, knowing that we are in good company with God’s self, for it is not God’s will that people suffer.

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.”