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Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. And when the Lord smelt the pleasing odour, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease.’
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 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.’ 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. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ 17 God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever.
Really, there is not worldwide communion. There may be the rites of worldwide communion. There may be goodwill the world over but there is not fundamental communion between human beings the world over, and it manifests in terribly unequal ways.
Multiple speakers talked about the difference in how Ukrainian refugees have been received, and how African refugees have been received. The Ukrainian refugees, by and large, have been helped to find housing or have been housed in hotels. African refugees, hundreds and hundreds of them, have landed on the street and when a call went out to the churches and the city to find places (for them) to stay, essentially five churches – maybe a couple more – stepped up and all of them were black churches, mostly of Pentecostal backgrounds. All of them.
Even the people who work for refugee and housing agencies who were able to identify empty city buildings – schools that are no longer in use, municipal buildings that are no longer in use – and went to the city asking if they can be turned into temporary shelters, they were told no, and they were told no because of a document produced in 2002 that sets a series of codes and regulations for shelters, even temporary ones. And so, as a city, we have essentially made the choice to let these people stay on the street, as opposed to under a roof, and winter’s coming.
Now, if we nestle that crisis into what’s happening to the world at large, we must come to a point of understanding that fundamentally the same thing is happening to all of us.
(A picture of New York City flood is shown.)
(A picture of the flood in Nova Scotia this past July is shown: people being rescued from malls and streets with boats.)
(A picture of Libya, just three weeks ago, is shown.)
(A picture of Toronto, in late June, is shown.)
(Finally, a picture of a rainbow emerging from a dark sky is shown.)
We think that the rainbow is produced in the moment of beauty, but if there is to be a rainbow in our world, if there is to be a new covenant, if there is to be a restoration, it’s going to happen against a backdrop as dark as this one.
You know, being a good liberal Christian and listening to the passage from Genesis, I balk at the line that says every human heart is evil from youth. Interesting line in an interesting location in the journey of a human being.
Children come into the world with a profound sense and experience of unity. A profound sense and experience of oneness. One of the reasons I think children are so fascinated with animals is because they have a kind of participation mystique with them – they are one with the other creatures.
I had the amazing experience of having both my boys when they were either 6 months old or born, living in Fiji amongst an array of people who went from white to light to dark, and there was absolutely no sense of difference between those kids. But something happens to us when we are adolescents around; I don’t know if it’s junior high years or high school years, where that original perception of unity and oneness is broken and the systems of the world – economic systems, political systems, religious systems, cultural systems – start to come into us like software and shape us, and you can see the deep human communion into with which we were born into the world disappearing. So, I don’t balk at the line anymore that the human heart is evil from youth because it’s not original sin, we’re not born into evil, but as far back as these ancient Hebrew scriptures, the writers were identifying that the systems that run the planet are fundamentally unequal and destructive and they embed evil.
Have you ever noticed that evil is the word live spelled backwards, in English?
Sometimes something you’ll use in a children’s story is the most profound line. We start living backwards, and there have been these great attempts to renew it, to make life better, and so far, that’s not working. When you can go into a crisis, like the housing crisis for African refugees, and see that the decisions of the city and the province and the federal government run exactly contrary to the values that all of the politicians at those levels espouse and would like to live out of, but we still find a way into doing exactly the opposite of what we say we want to do – we’re living backwards.
And when the United Church is closing two congregations a week and sitting on billions of dollars of real estate and all the other mainline churches are the same, and you have black refugees in the streets because there’s no housing. None of us want it to be like that but we are living backwards entirely in the opposite direction of the values we espouse.
Both of our scripture passages today – one from the first book in the Bible and one from the last, the Alpha and the Omega, Genesis and Revelation – articulate a vision of hope through water after a great and terrible period of turmoil.
Let’s be honest friends, this summer showed us that the beginning of the Anthropocene Era is upon us, and we are going through a great and terrible period of turmoil. We are not going to fix the world. After a 150 year process of being in love with technology and technocratic thinking and believing that we can fix the world, we have to surrender to the fact that we can’t.
So, where does the turn begin?
The more that I live in this faith of ours, called Christianity, and experience this beautiful and tragic world of ours, and return to the story of the flood, I come to see the water that fell for 40 days and 40 nights as God’s tears. It’s not God’s rage, it’s not a decision by some punitive God out there to destroy everything, it’s not a strategy; although sometimes the scriptures are written that way, it is God having His/Her/Their heart so fundamentally broken by what’s happening on their Creation that they cannot hold back their tears and the world is awash with them!
So where do we go?
We go down to the river to pray. We go down to the river to pray. In the biblical traditions, the Union psychological traditions, and in mythological traditions the whole world over, the river is a place you go when life isn’t working, when you’re living backwards. And like the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan (river), you go under the water, and you let the way you’re living be washed away! Then you come back up through the surface and when you look, an African refugee and a Ukrainian refugee look exactly the same! And the question we ask is, how can there be refugees? And we start living forward.
But I have to say – and this goes for me too! – we’re not going to think and strategize our way out of this. The new way of being is not going to be born until humanity fundamentally does what God did, which is empty our hearts of all of the pain and all of the hurt and all of the repressed guilt and all of the knowledge of what we’re doing and let our tears pour forth together, as though we were going to drown the world. Let United Church tears, and Pentecostal tears, and Baptist tears, and Muslim tears, and Buddhist tears, and Hindu tears, and Atheist tears, run off our faces, down our bodies, off our shoes and into the streets, going down to the river to pray, under the surface until we wash away the ways of living backwards, and we come up together, knowing that we must live forward!
And, if we cannot do this, we are not entering into worldwide communion. And so, as we come to the table today, please do not think I’m saying you, Chuck (congregants in the pews), have to figure it all out, and the whole thing rests on the quality of your thinking, feeling and doing. Instead, what I’d say is, Chuck, reach over and take Bill’s hand, if he’ll let you, and feel the human unity in your knowledge that we’re in trouble, and give each other permission to weep.
As we come to the table today, let’s come prepared to go down, fully immersed into the river to pray, letting go of our control and ready to come up and have the one who was willing to die on a cross for us, show us a way to live forward. May it be so.