Sermon: Sustaining Life on Earth (what Noah knows)
After all Noah went through to get to where he was, and to save what he had, you’d think he’d be more anxious to hang on to it, and not let it go.
Of course maybe after being locked into the ark for almost a year with all those creatures, he was happy enough to be able to open the door, lower the gangplank and let them go free -- see them leave his floating house, so he and his wife could have a break. Empty nest? Oh, yeah!!! You gotta love it!
But to kill them! Even just some of them. Within days -- maybe hours, of setting foot again on almost solid, still-very-squooshy ground, Noah marks the end of the Flood by sacrificing some of the better of the animals that have survived the whole ordeal with him.
Or is it maybe the only way?
Sacrifice is something we don’t always understand well. Often in stories like this we see it as a ritual act to satisfy the demands or appease the anger of a powerful god -- a pagan kind of thing in which if we give God this, God will let us keep that -- and if we don’t, God may feel slighted or injured and just take it all from us.
It really is a pagan kind of thing -- like a giant Mafia protection racket, with God as the godfather exacting a tribute and enforcing all our submissive loyalties. Or like the way we often talk about war, as the sacrifice of a few to the demands of the day for the survival of the many -- as though it’s a good thing, always necessary for the world’s well-being. Or the way we sometimes do economics, when the poor become collateral damage -- a necessary sacrifice suggested economists -- the priests of our time, for the well-being of the whole -- or at least for the comfort of the rest -- the propertied majority of a country or the privileged minority of the world.
This understanding and practice of sacrifice is quite pagan in the way it paints God as a jealous Mafia don, puts God and the gods of war in the same family, and puts God’s seal on systems that make the rich more important than the poor, and makes the poor disposable. And it’s right to wonder: is this any way make life on Earth sustainable?
Is this what Noah teaches us? Is this our spiritual DNA as heirs of Noah on the face of Earth?
I hope not … because there is a whole different meaning to sacrifice that is much more healthy and life-sustaining.
Do you notice that in the picture of Noah’s sacrifice there is no image of God? We see a rainbow … a sky mostly clear with just a few non-threatening clouds … and the smoke of the sacrificed animals rising up the heavens. But we see no image of God, and that’s entirely in keeping with Old Testament theology and practice … with the practice of the people of Israel not to make any images of God. Because who are they … and who are we, to think we can fathom the mysteries of the holy … comprehend the fullness of the divine … understand the real and final meaning of reality?
And that is what sacrifice is about in the best and most life-giving sense. It’s an act of remembering that we are not God and that what we have is not just our own -- that the Earth and all that is in it could just as easily not be, as be -- that ultimately nothing is ours to possess -- that whatever we have we hold in trust -- and we don’t even always know what’s best to do with it.
How tempting it must have been for Noah, his wife and their family, as they disembarked and set foot once again on Earth with all the surviving creatures, for them to think they were now in charge, that now it was up to them and only them to make this work right, that now they should take control and set down some rules and get themselves elected king and queen and royal family and hang on to this thing for all they worth and forever.
An exhilarating thought? An inspiring challenge? An exhausting burden? A proud illusion? Probably all of the above, and also at its heart a deep and universal temptation … that Noah at least at this moment of sacrifice is able to resist.
Because this sacrifice is Noah’s confession that he is not in control, that what he has done is not just of his own design, that what he has and what he has saved are not his to hang on to as possession or reward. In his sacrifice he says, this really is all gift. It’s originally made and ultimately held in the hand of a graciously loving God that I cannot even begin to comprehend. I let go of control to the greater design of this God -- whatever it is and will be, and I trust it.
Isn’t this how we live our lives at best? Isn’t this the way to run the world, and to sustain all life on Earth? To take our part in caring for what is and helping it survive, but always within the framework of not being in control, not making all that is our possession, letting ourselves be just one faithful part of the overall picture that’s painted by a creative and redeeming God greater than all?
Sometimes we choose this way. Parents do it with their children -- looking for and nurturing the good that is breathed into them by God, encouraging and seeking their growth, but without controlling, without imagining they know all that their kids should be or do, holding them lightly rather than tightly, and at a certain point -- maybe many points along the way, letting go and letting them be whatever they need to be.
Sometimes we do it with ourselves. This past Friday morning I woke up at 3 or 3:30 -- fully aware, with that disturbing clarity that comes at that time of the morning, while all is still dark, of a number of things I had done wrong over the few days before -- some mis-steps and bad choices here at work and at home -- none of them new, but all of them adding up to deep anxiety, regret and guilt, a sense of hopelessness.
In the dark of that moment I was tempted with two plans of action. One was to get up and start working -- just work all the harder at plans and schemes, take more control and work harder at what I hadn’t done right. The other was to turn over in bed and try to think about only good and pleasant things -- to escape into some kind of dream world and not have to face the mess I had made -- to make the world into something I could handle and be comfortable in.
After stewing for maybe ten or thirty minutes, I got up. Not to work, though. Not to just keep working harder at what I’d already worked too hard at. I got up to pray. I found a quiet place to sit, where I could look out a window at the darkened world beyond me, and I asked very simply for a sense of God’s presence with me and within me.
It began to come. The worries and anxieties also came up, of course. But as each came into my consciousness, I acknowledged it for what it was and then put into the sea, or maybe the stream of God’s presence that was flowing around and into me. Instead of hanging on to all the concerns and anxieties, all the mistakes I had made, I let them go … and as I did that, after half an hour or so, I began to see a bit of a way forward -- a good way, a new way, a few good next steps that could be taken -- not by my ingenious design, but by the creating and redeeming love of God.
There is a wisdom and a love and creative good will for all life that is greater than we are -- greater than any mistakes we make -- greater than any confusing twists and turns that we experience in life’s journey. And sometimes we choose to let go control and open ourselves to it.
Other times, life forces us to it.
In a way, this is what happened with the renovation of the Upper Room. It was 7 or 8 years ago -- maybe even 9 or 10, when we realized something had to be done to the room. It was a great room that had served the church well since it was built, but it was in disrepair and needed to be fixed up.
So we talked and made plans. We surveyed the congregation and came up with all our best thoughts. We raised funds and got grants. And after some stewing and wrestling, we started work on fixing our ark. We replaced the wiring, spent some time on the entrances, then got ready to insulate and repair and repaint the old high walls that were there. We had the project in hand. We were not always entirely happy, but we were committed to do what we needed to do.
And then the economic downturn happened. Money had to be redirected. Work came to a stop -- for a few long years. It was taken out of our hands. We had to sacrifice the project and let go of our plans -- as sad and morale-sapping as that was.
But in that break -- in that time -- that sabbath time maybe, of having things taken out of our hands, and of having to let go and wait, what happened? A new idea for the room came forward. A new vision for its design came to light -- from somewhere, through one or two people open to quiet and reflective thought, to a Council of people who know how to listen to wisdom beyond their own, there came a vision for the future of the room that in all our best busy-ness and commitment, we hadn’t imagined … but which immediately spoke to us all, which we now love, and for which we are very thankful.
When we let go control -- or it’s taken from us, there’s a chance of openness to a greater wisdom. When we hold what we have lightly rather than tightly, there’s a chance of its goodness and life being sustained. When we remember we are part -- but only part, of an incomprehensible mysterious good, we are free to share in it and share it more easily with others.
The sacrifice that needs to be made, and that Noah made the day he got off the ark, is the offering of what we have and who we are to the good will of the God who is always creating and redeeming the goodness of life that we are given as gift.