Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
Genesis 1:1-2:1 [Adapted]
In the beginning, God created
the heavens and the earth.
The earth became chaos and emptiness, and darkness came over the face of the Deep – and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.
Then God said: “Light: Be!” and light was.
God saw that light was good, and God separated light from darkness.
Then God said: “Now, make an expanse between the waters! So that there are waters below and waters above.” And so it was.
God called the expanse sky.
Then God said: “Waters under the sky: be gathered. Dry ground: appear!” And so it was.
God called the gathered waters: sea and the dry ground: earth. And it was good.
And God called forth vegetation and plants and vines and fruits grew. And it was good.
Then God said: “Now, let there be lights in the expanse of the sky!” And so it was that God made two great lights, the greater to illumine the day and a lesser to illumine the night. And it was good.
Then God said: “Waters: swarm with living things! Birds: fly above the earth! And so it was. And it was good.
And God blessed the creatures of the sea and sky.
Then God said: “Earth: bring forth all kinds of living soul – cattle, things that crawl, and wild animals of all kinds!” And so it was. And it was good.
God then made humankind in God’s own image. God made humans to be stewards of all of God’s good creation.
Thus the heavens and the earth and all their array were completed. And it was good.
What a beautiful and poetic story to invite us into imagining the creation of the world and an understanding of God as creator. As a visual artist, I am drawn to this text again and again to watch the creative process unfold. First there is a void, nothingness, chaos, then a spark of inspiration, out of which structure and composition begin to emerge followed by further definition and detail work, until the entire work comes together in a stage of completion – or a stage that is complete enough to say it’s done and to hopefully declare it good! It rings familiar to the process I go through when I create a piece of art.
I find I can connect with this Creator aspect of God’s nature. And so when the you choose the sermon topic feedback came in and included the idea:
Dinosaurs and Noah – Why Does a Creator Destroy Their Creation?
I was simultaneously overwhelmed and intrigued.
And when I discovered that the sermon idea came from one of the younger participants in our community, I felt even more motivated to explore it. This is a big question for a young mind to ask, and yet the imagination of a young mind is often so expansive and unencumbered with the constraints of what we begin to accept as reality as we age, it is no wonder that a young mind wouldn’t be afraid to ask a big question! That space of curiosity is a holy space. One that we are invited into again and again as we encounter the world around us in and through relationships and in and through the stories of how others have lived in and encountered the world.
Some of those encounters are what we learn about through the stories of scripture. One of the well known stories of scripture, both within and beyond Judeo-Christian circles, is the story of Noah and the Ark. This is a story that, mostly because it includes animal imagery, is often depicted as a children’s story. Representations of it can be found on baby blankets, puzzles, games, stuffed animals, onesies, pencil boxes, on and on and on. And yet, when we actually encounter the story, we find that it is anything but innocent and cute. This is a story of vengeance and destruction, a story of broken relationship between God and creation. Which makes a jarring juxtaposition next to the children’s toys that so cheerfully display animals dancing into the ark.
I go back again to the wonder of children’s abilities and the way they can somehow manage to spaciously hold disparities like this in comfortable tension. As an example, for many children, dinosaurs are a beloved creature at some point. Dinosaurs were ferocious, giant beasts and yet we also find them imaged on children’s clothing, toys, books, and backpacks. Their wild fierceness, immense size, and the mysteries of what we do and do not yet understand about them capture the imagination. Their extinct status makes them non-threatening and invites us to embrace their raw power as something to embody through stomps and roars and their unique shapes as delightful designs for cuddly stuffed creations. This too is a bit of a jarring juxtaposition.
And these two topics, Noah and the dinosaurs have more in common than just being jarring juxtapositions in childhood. They both put on display the idea of mass extinction – they represent the reality that something that was, is no more and they invite us into the work of exploring the whats and whys of that reality. Which brings us back to the jarring juxtaposition of the question at hand: why does a creator destroy their creation?
A creator, by definition, brings something into existence. The act of creation is about taking shape, form, becoming. Where does destruction, tearing down, destroying, fit in relationship with that?
As I pondered this question, I turned to my own experience with the act of creating visual art and it didn’t take me long to find it. In the creation story we heard about the process of creation becoming from void, to idea, to possibility, to form. What is not explicitly revealed in that story is the process that that process of creation sometimes takes! There have been many, many times in my own creative processes where things have not gone according to plan. A line doesn’t lay the way it is supposed to, a texture falls flat, pigments clash, a shape creates unhealthy tension in the composition, or perhaps the paper or canvas rips physically damaging the work. Some of these elements can be dealt with, sometimes adjustments can be made and accommodations made for the unexpected turn. And sometimes, a piece just has to be let go, ripped up, thrown away. In those cases, I am a creator destroying my own creation.
And the surprising reality is, that part of the creative process is usually healthy too. No, it is not life-giving for that particular piece of creation – yet, more often than not, those instances of things going awry leading to destruction offer me a growing edge to work with in a later creation. Perhaps the shape didn’t work well with that composition but on its own it creates an interesting space of possibility. Perhaps the texture didn’t work out as I was hoping or planning, next time I may try to create it with a different technique. Perhaps a ripped up piece of art can become the foundation for a collage that turns into something else entirely. Possibilities are present even in the midst of unexpected destruction.
The truth of the matter is, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.
That’s the optimistic part of me thinking about this question. That’s the part of my theology I cling to and choose to live out in hope – that suffering is part of a life-giving path. And I also acknowledge that suffering is still suffering and must be named, experienced and validated as well. We don’t get to the life-giving stuff of suffering by ignoring the pain and damage that comes in life. Jesus, just after offering this nugget of wisdom about a grain of wheat falling to the ground to yield a rich harvest, and at the beginning of the week that leads to his own death, also honestly says:
Now my soul is troubled.
Destruction is no fun. It is a breaking and a wounding. What are we to do with that?
I spoke with the 7 year old who submitted this sermon topic and asked them about their thoughts on the Noah story.
“What do you know about the Noah story?” I asked
“Well, there is a big boat and the animals go in two by two and the rain comes and it rains and rains and rains.” They said
“Do you remember why the flood happened?” I asked
“Because the people were behaving bad.” They offered
“How does that make you feel? That God would send a big flood to destroy people because they are behaving badly?” I asked
“Well, God didn’t want to choose to send it – it was the consequence of the people’s choices.”
Woah…I thought…this young soul doesn’t blame God for the destruction at hand – this young one is in the throes of learning about consequences in their own life and can see it at work in this story.
“Do you know what happens after the waters go down?” I ask
“What?” After entertaining the child with a delightful recounting of birds being thrown out the window of the ark three separate times to test the water levels, I finally get to the growing edge:
“It turns out God doesn’t like God’s choice.” I said. “Even though the people made bad choices, God also thinks that God made a bad choice in how God responded to the people. God is sorry that God sent the flood and so God makes a promise to the people and all of creation – everything – that God will not choose destruction as a response again. God says that even when people or creation make choices that are not life-giving, God will still choose to respond with life-giving love. And God puts the rainbow in the sky to remind us and God’s self to be mindful of the choices we make in our relationships with each other.”
“So was that the first rainbow then?!” They asked.
“Well, that’s the way the story tells it.” I say.
Destruction is not the preference of God for creation. God’s preference is life-giving creative presence. And yet destruction and suffering is part of the ongoing path of life. It has been and will continue to be part of the story of creation. There are many, many flood stories across cultures and around the world. Some folks would have us believe that this is all the story of Noah’s flood and that it was Noah’s flood that also killed the dinosaurs. I think it more likely that these accounts are of a variety of different experiences of people throughout history who experienced catastrophic events and needed ways to honor those events and perhaps process the growing edge that might be found in and through the change and suffering they endured.
According to the climate report put out the week before last by the UN we are truly on the edge of another possible cataclysmic event. Not due to the vengeance of a wrathful God. Due instead to our own choices and actions that have not been mindful of creation.
The Washington Post reported on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report:
“Humans have altered the environment at an “unprecedented” pace [and] catastrophic impacts lie ahead unless the world rapidly and dramatically cuts greenhouse gas reductions…Humans are fueling climate change. That much is “unequivocal.” The only real uncertainty that remains, it’s authors say, is whether the world can muster the will to stave off a darker future than the one it already has carved in stone…Humans have warmed the climate at a rate unparalleled since before the fall of the Roman Empire. To find a time when the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere changed this much this fast, you’d need to rewind 66 million years to the meteor that killed the dinosaurs.”
And so we come full circle to the destruction of the dinosaurs, which also were not killed off by a wrathful creator – but were not able to survive the environmental shifts that were triggered by a giant meteor striking the earth. Their deaths and the subsequent changes in the nature of creation opened the door for the Cenezoic Era (which continues to this day) and made a path for diverse mammals – including humans to become.
Humans, which, in scriptural creation accounts, are invited to become stewards and caretakers for all of creation. We humans, who are created as a reflection of the living, loving, life-giving creator, have instead become the destroyers of that creation.
Our souls should be troubled.
…And, as reflections of a creator who chooses life and love again, and again, and again, we also have the capacity to become the stewards of creation we were created to be. We too can learn from our destructive choices and turn towards life-giving choices in our relationship with creation. I welcome your thoughts on this during the discussion time – your ideas, practices, and actions we can all take to be better stewards of creation together.
Destruction has already happened, suffering has and will continue to be part of the story…and, with hope, curiosity, and creativity, may we lean into a growing-edge of change focused on creation care for the sake of God’s good creation.