Monday, July 14, 2014

Noah on Mt. Ararat - The Floods of Climate Change

Sermon Series:  Mountaintop Experiences
Part One:  Mt. Ararat and Noah
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
Texts:  Genesis 8:1-4, 6-12, 11-17; Matthew 24:36-44
July 13, 2014

Mountains in the Bible were extremely significant, as they were for all  ancient peoples:  Mountains are naturally assigned religious significance and symbolism for three main reasons: 1) their height
projecting above the surrounding area, 2) the feeling of grandiosity and awe one experiences upon viewing a mountain from a distance; and 3) the vista of the sky and the earth when standing on top of the mountain that is unmatched at lower levels.

In fact, the ancient peoples of Egypt, Babylon and in the Mayan culture of South America thought so highly of mountains that they attempted to create their own.  Man-made mountains can be seen in the form of pyramids, ziggarats, and massive temples.  It was felt that by ascending a holy mountain, one could encounter the great sky-god.  Heaven and earth appear to come closest on a mountain.  So it is no wonder that sacred peaks figure prominently in the biblical story.

This summer we’ll be touring these lofty heights - beginning today with  Noah on Mt. Ararat, onto Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, then Moses on  Mt. Sinai and Mt. Nebo.  And we’ll end with Jesus’ “mountain of prayer” – the Mount of Olives.

Our tour begins with Noah on Mt. Ararat. 
Ararat is the tallest peak in what is now modern-day Turkey.  It is a dormant volcano, and its last eruption was on June 2, 1840. At present the upper third of the mountain is covered with snow and ice throughout the year.  The mountain is unique, because it is a year-round snow-capped mountain in the middle of a dessert.

The fact that it is named as the resting site of the ark after the flood indicates that Mt. Ararat was regarded as the highest point of the world in that region.  And with a height of (16,946 feet) above sea level, it is definitely one of the highest points in that area of the world.

One of the things I appreciate about the Noah story is its abundance of archetypes, or symbols, that are common themes in nearly all the world’s religions and cultures.  There are six of these archetypes in this story:  the great flood; the humongous sea-going vessel on the water (representing the womb carrying life across the birth waters); the lone hero/survivor in the face of total destruction; the mountain top; the dove and olive branch symbolizing peace and hope; and, of course, the rainbow, which has as many interpretations as there are colors, but for the biblical story, it symbolizes God’s promise and covenant never to destroy the earth again.

What you may not know is that the Biblical references to a great flood and Noah’s ark have remarkable parallels in many other archaic myths found around the world. The story of Noah's ark, as it is told in the Old Testament, is actually a reworking of an earlier Babylonian myth recorded in the Gilgamesh Epic.  The stories are nearly identical, save for the names of the characters.

In Greek mythology, there is a story of a eerily similar cataclysmic event in which a hero builds a boat to survive a great flood.  In fact, more than 500 deluge legends are known around the world on nearly every continent.   Why are there so many flood stories?   With so much similarity, historians have concluded that there must have been some global cataclysmic event very early in human history, maybe as early as 9500 BCE.

There are different theories as to what caused this global catastrophe.   Some geologists think there may have been a huge shift in those tectonic plates I mentioned earlier, causing devastating flooding.  Others posit that a comet or some other cosmic object impacted the earth resulting in earthquakes, volcanic activity and abrupt climate change.   But whatever the reason, there is little doubt that the earth was covered by a deluge that wiped out civilizations around the world, leaving only a remnant of humanity behind to survive, rebuild, and repopulate the earth.

 If any of you have been in our children’s nursery downstairs, you can see the painting on the wall of Noah’s Ark.  It is one of the most popular stories of the Old Testament.  Kids love the story because of all the animals floating together in a big sea-going zoo.  The ark theme is  popular for children’s bedrooms.  I remember shopping for baby stuff for my children and seeing an abundance of cute renditions of the ark with adorable animals poking their heads out of the windows and smiling from the deck.
But the story is really quite a tragedy, as the movie Noah starring Russell Crowe, has portrayed. But regardless of the film, if you actually ponder the logistics of getting all those species on a single seafaring vessel, it really seems quite absurd and impossible.  Just think about how many living creatures Noah would have had to collect and fit on that ark.  Here’s a list:

“7000 species of worms
50,000 species of arachnids
900,000 species of insects
2500 species of amphibians
6000 species of reptiles
8600 species of birds
and 3500 species of mammals
plus food for one and all.”   (Walker, Symbols, p. 85)

How big would that boat have to be?  Here’s the thing:  “The only vessel truly capable of holding all these is Spaceship Earth,” (Walker, Symbols, p. 85).  And this is where we begin to climb the mountain ourselves and get a different perspective on this sacred legend.  The story of Noah’s ark, while based on a true episode from ancient history, actually has significance for our planet today, especially in light of the current environmental crises facing our world.

In fact, it’s not just the environmental crisis.  It is a convergence of global crises swirling into a perfect storm on the horizon.  The cost of our primary source of energy - fossil fuels - is draining the world economy as it is simultaneously coming to an end.  The explosion of the human population is about to reach unsustainable levels.  Financial crises have swept across our human society.  And, yes, ecological issues regarding water supplies, global warming, garbage and pollution are threatening the health of the planet itself. 

Add to this the accompanying threats of terrorism and war as a result of these basic conflicts over land and resources, and you can see that we are, once again, facing a flood of catastrophic proportions.  
A flood of people, a flood of poverty, a flood of violence, and yes, the actual flooding of the coastlands and river beds around the world. But this time the flood is not coming from God.  It’s coming from humankind.  As Jesus alluded to in our Gospel reading, we may, indeed, be on the verge of the end of an age.

What does this mean for us?  And what does this mean for the church in the decades ahead.  We’re going to see our lifestyles radically altered in the coming years.  There will be drastic changes in how we live, what we can afford, and what we do to survive.  And for many people, it will be a matter of survival.  In fact, for a large portion of the world’s people, it already is a question of basic survival.

The Church, then, must serve as an ark, not just for humanity, but for all Creation.  All species of plants and animals should be able to find refuge through the holy ark of the Church.  And this is already happening.  More and more, we are seeing religious communities “going green,” as they come to view ecological issues as justice issues for the poor, and for the voiceless among God’s creatures. 

In terms of more immediate danger, there is also the urgency among religious communities to be prepared for disasters when they happen.  In fact, Lutherans have an entire division devoted to this called Lutheran Disaster Response.  What’s great about LDR is that not only do they arrive on the scene when disasters hit, but they stay with communities long after the media spotlight has moved on.  They remain committed to the people and neighborhoods in need of help until they have restored their lives and communities. Also, our own church has a local disaster fund to help people in need right here in our community.  

When God warned Noah about the impending disaster, we’re not told how many other people God tried to warn, but who did not heed the call to prepare.  Even Noah’s urgent pleas to his neighbors to prepare were laughed off as the crazy doomsday scare tactics of a lunatic.  In the same way, the warnings of climate scientists today are often dismissed, ridiculed, mocked and silenced.  People of faith must add their voices to the calls for immediate changes in our energy policies, carbon-burning lifestyles and industries, and financialization of our local, national and global economies that is causing the waters of injustice and poverty to rise at unprecedented rates.

And when there are catastrophes, the ark of the Church must be there to assist people, restore some sense of sanity, provide aid and relief, and help to rebuild.  We’ve seen that happen over and over again, whether they are tsunami victims in southeast Asia, AIDS orphans in Africa, flood victims in New Orleans and along the Mississipi, or victims of the hurricane that struck our area 3 years ago.  The ark of the Church is there for them, sending forth the dove of peace, and pointing to the rainbow overhead promising God’s ever-present care.

Yes, today we are on Mt. Ararat to take in the view, to remember the story, and to be reminded that God does indeed care for us.  It’s the mountaintop experiences of faith that help to sustain us in the dark valleys of fear; in the emergency rooms waiting for medical care; in the deserts of poverty waiting for relief; and in the hot, crowded ark praying for ourselves and all the creatures hoping to survive along with us.

Whatever flood you are facing in your life right now - keep your eyes on the mountains in the distance.  Keep your eyes on the sky.  And be on the lookout for rainbows, even as the rains of the flood begin to fall.  Because God has promised to be with us, no matter what we face.  And that promise is refracted by millions upon millions of tiny prism droplets in the sky, forming the colors of the rainbow that fill us with hope once again.  Amen.






Sources:

Walker, Barbara G., The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred
Objects, HarperSanFrancisco, 1988

Walker, Barbara G., The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets,
HarperSanFrancisco, 1983

2 comments:

  1. Minha fé vai além da historia. Paulo de Tarso, o universal São Paulo, do alto do Ararat divisava Braz, o universal São Braz, seu irmãozão em Cristo do outro lado da fronteira Turquia-Armênia…:)

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    Replies
    1. I believe this comment is written in Portuguese. If this translation is correct, in English it would be (and corrections welcome): "My faith goes beyond history. Paul of Tarsus, the universal Saint Paul, from the top of Ararat, was the one who distinguished Braz, the universal Saint Braz, his brother in Christ on the other side of the border between Turkey and Armenia."

      Thank you for posting your thoughts.

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