The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
February 18, 2018
Genesis 9:8-17; I Peter 3:18-22
This past week, I noticed an article in the New York Times (perhaps you did, too) about the Church of England’s Lenten initiative that encourages the faithful to make plastic products the focus of their Lenten discipline of self-denial. They have an online resource that I highly recommend, it includes a daily calendar of Bible verses related to the preservation of God’s creation paired with a proactive, small step that people can take to be better stewards of the earth. As vast tracts of trash, much of it plastic bags and bottles, form in the oceans; as microbeads in personal care products harm the fish who ingest them as wastewater makes its way to the sea; as mountains of trash that do not decompose clutter the landscape, this Lent Plastic Challenge encourages Christians in many ways to reduce plastic waste: to use razors with removable blades rather than disposable razors, to use bar soap rather than a pump-able liquid, to bring metal cutlery with you rather than be given plastic forks, to download music rather than buying CDs, and much more. We need look no further than this morning’s text from Genesis to be reminded of the infinite value in which God holds all of creation, and not just its human members.
For the covenant that God offers after the great flood is not simply to Noah and his surviving family, but to all the human family that will proceed from them, and to all the animals that will be descended from those who came off the ark. God’s covenant is with, as God says, “all flesh.” Every human alive today and who will ever be born is a part of God’s covenant, no matter what their religion, whether they have no religion, no matter what choices they make in how to live their lives, no matter what their identities might be. We all are included in the covenant. The same is true for the rest of the animal world—tarantulas and kittens, squid and parakeets, great white sharks, fleas, termites, the Great Blue Heron. By making a covenant with all that has flesh, God sanctifies it all. And what is holy to God, shall we not also bless, honor, and preserve?
It is really an extraordinary covenant that God offers to all the animal world. Covenants, by nature, are two-way instruments, but this one is not. God makes a covenant without expecting us to take any reciprocal responsibility. God is making an eternal promise, God is extending a free offer with no expectations in return. In the human world, “free offers” aren’t—you will get a bill for the magazine subscription. But the one-way covenant that is extended to us by God is genuine and it is everlasting. God is promising never to destroy creation again, no matter what. There is nothing, even the most despicable or inhuman, that people can do that will result in God’s destruction, and God knows, we have been brutal. This one-way covenant will stand, through eternity, with no exceptions.
We, the blessed recipients, have so much we can learn from God as we reflect on this covenant. First, it provides an example of God changing—God having a change of mind and heart. This covenant, you might say, didn’t come to us cheaply. It came on the heels of the greatest genocide ever—God’s decision to destroy all living things except those on the ark, to wipe out all others and try to start anew with a family that had some integrity and virtues to it. After the earth is restored and the family is restarting its life, God is reminded that they are going to continue to fall short of God’s hopes, that they will fail, that they will sin and do evil, and God changes God’s mind about what to do. God will not destroy but will help the people where they are. Let us take God’s change as a model of how we might change ourselves. The one eternal God is not fixed in how to be and what to do—God is dynamic, flexible, open to growth and to making new choices. Who are we, then, not to do the same? We can, therefore, always be asking ourselves how we can be evolving in our understanding, in our decisions about the rightness of our own actions—asking ourselves if what we are doing is truly meeting our good objectives, meets the criteria of our faith, and then changing course as necessary. God changes, God refines, God is flexible and dynamic, and we can be, too.
A second thing we can learn from our Creator from this covenant is how to be expansive in our thinking and living. God’s covenant is radically inclusive, extended equally to mosquitoes and medical doctors, to giraffes, to children whose only food is what they glean from picking from our landfills. There are no divisions of worthiness here, but a covenant extended equally to all. Just so, we can choose to live as expansively to see the whole created order as worthy of our love and care. The many life forms in the oceans are suffering from the toxicity they’re ingesting from the disintegrating plastics we have tossed out. Our friends in the Church of England have this kind of expansiveness of care and responsibility at the root of their Lent Plastic Challenge. We need to ask ourselves who and what we don’t already see, how our actions may be hurting them, or how our inactions might be hurting them. Our compassion is to be limitless, even if our resources are not. In this way, we reflect the compassion of our God for all flesh, and we nurture that all-embracing compassion within ourselves.
I’ve said that God changed, and that we should be open to change within ourselves. In particular, God saw that nothing good had come of destruction—God’s reset of the world through the flood did not eliminate the sinfulness and evil in the animal world, and so God decided against violence and destruction. God put the rainbow in the sky as a reminder to self—not to us humans but to God’s own self—that God had made a one-way promise never to destroy again. The bow in the sky is an allusion to violence—the bow of an archer. Here on campus, we have cannons that are buried barrel-down in the soil as a statement of the end of war. The bow in the sky is the same symbol—it is God’s reminder, not so much to us but to God’s own self, that the violence is fully over, that a settlement has been reached, that weapons are to be put out of reach, decommissioned, disabled, and never used again. This is a third important thing we can learn from God in the story of the rainbow—that we are to forswear violence and destruction. Our worlds won’t suddenly become perfect, but our work of healing the world and responding to evil will be done without our weapons. We hang them in the sky. We decommission them, defuse them. We are to end our verbal violence against those we want to overpower, whether it’s cruelties said to family or colleagues or threats uttered to enemies from our mouths, our Twitter accounts, everywhere. God repudiated violence in the face of ongoing evil and so can we.
A fourth lesson we take from the example of our God is to sometimes refuse the power we truly have at a time of genuine grievance. God gives away the power to destroy that God has—God no longer will destroy even when thinking that such destruction is justified. It can feel to many people like complete anathema to put limits on our own abilities, our own power; we spend our lives trying to add to our power, to our capacity to make every situation end our way. With God as our example, what if we gave away our power sometimes in order to create a fairer, more level playing field? Or to do good, not in the short term, but the long term? A poignant irony to me in our post-flood text is that God is shown to decide never to destroy the earth again, but today it is humans who have that capacity, too, and we aren’t promising anything. Our nuclear weapons, the climate changes we are causing—we are now absolutely empowered to do what God has sworn off. Not only do we now have the power to destroy the earth, we also have powers unknown when our Iron Age Genesis text was written to do things like end human hunger and environmental degradation. Let us learn from our God about the right use of the power we have—never to destroy, always to save.
A fifth and final lesson that our God instructs through the rainbow is one of total grace and mercy. These are the great gifts to us from the God who will not destroy us no matter how far we stray again. Shall we not, then, extend grace and mercy to all, no matter how far we believe them to be from the good? Who are we, the recipients of grace and mercy, not to extend it also to others? How duplicitous, not to extend the blessings we have received without earning them to people who are no better or worse than ourselves. Grace and mercy are what the rainbow proclaims, and thank God for it!
Let’s opt in to this covenant! We don’t have to—God made it a one-way transaction—but let’s respond to God’s grace and mercy by becoming full parties to the contract. Let’s use our lives to stake out our partnership in a covenant of grace and mercy with God, the initiator, and with all other parties—that is, every person on earth, and all creatures of every kind. The rainbow is in place to remind God of God’s own faithfulness, but let’s be faithful too. Let’s make the rainbow a reminder to us as well—in fact, let’s create an infinite number of mnemonic devices, sights and sounds that remind us that we are covenanted to God and to all flesh in a pact of grace and mercy. Let’s see those signs in rainbows, crosses, mosquitoes, stars, grasses, hot fudge sundaes, everywhere. Let’s see them in one another. Let’s start today.
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