When the door to the ark finally opened and Noah stepped out with his family on dry ground, with each animal according to its kind and, as a tradition of the rabbis teaches, Noah’s wife with the seed of every plant of the old world in her pockets to sow in the new world, what did they feel?
After hundreds of years of building the ark, to the ridicule of his neighbors, what was it like for Noah to see the full, terrible truth of the prophecy he’d been given? After the face of the earth had been purged of all evil except that which they carried in their own hearts, what future did they expect? What did they promise to leave behind in the old world? What mistakes did they resolve not to make again in the new world?
The story of Noah and the ark is one of many ancient stories of world-ending floods, from cultures and civilizations all over the world. The story in our Bible is not the oldest version of the story of a great flood, not by a longshot. The disaster of the flood seems to have a special place in human memory. It is both myth and history. It is an event in a deep, unsearchable past and it happens over and over again today.
In the New Testament, the story of the Flood comes up in a few different places. Jesus warns the people who listen to him that the present age is like the age of Noah: men were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, and no one expected the disaster until it comes.
And in the first letter of St. Peter, we hear the ark as a type, an early image, a forerunner of the grace of baptism. You have been shepherded into the ark of baptism, Peter tells us. You will endure beyond this present age of God’s patience.
The flood and the ark. Disaster and surviving disaster. It is a terrifying theme in our Scriptures. But for people my age and younger, our adulthood has been marked by a series of disasters that were met with public and institutional failure. Natural disasters are one thing. There will always be extreme cold sometimes in the South and extreme heat sometimes in the North. There will be forest fires and earthquakes and hurricanes. There will be viral pandemics. The question is how resilient we are to disasters, and how effectively we respond together. This makes the difference between a natural disaster and a man-made one.
Hurricane Katrina was always going to be a bad storm. What shocked Americans in 2005 was how chaotic and inept the public response turned out to be. And this pattern was repeated over and over again. Wildfires. Floods in Missouri and Iowa. Hurricane Harvey. Hurricane Maria, leaving the people of Puerto Rico, all of them American citizens, abandoned and ignored for months. The coronavirus pandemic itself. In all of these cases, we’ve seen systems break down. People actually do very well. They look out for each other, they take in their neighbors, they help out. But governments, utilities, and private corporations seem to have lost the ability or the will to meet human needs in a disaster.
After Katrina, there was at least some accountability. The mayor of New Orleans and governor of Louisiana were both defeated for re-election. President Bush was not eligible for re-election but his popularity never recovered. We promised we’d do better next time. We promised we wouldn’t make the same mistakes before the next disaster.
But at some point we stopped promising that. And we apparently stopped expecting accountability either.
As I saw pictures of friends melting snow for water in Austin or taking down their fences for firewood, I thought about this. Who, in a position of authority and responsibility, was ignoring this humanitarian tragedy in our midst? Who was prepared to really learn from it? Who would help and who would run away from the scene? And would it matter? Would anyone who ignored the plight of Texans pay a political price? Or will we simply move along and forget about it until it happens again?
This brings us back to Noah and that second planting of the world. Natural disasters are, ultimately, human stories. Deforestation, climate change, loss of natural wetlands, neglect of infrastructure, inadequate public resources to respond to a crisis, short-sighted decision-making, denial, optimism bias, extreme inequality: all of these things reflect our choices, not the whims of nature.
Noah and his children will mess things up again almost immediately. Humanity will be just as heedless after the flood as it was when Noah’s neighbors mocked the big boat. Human sinfulness will prove so stubborn and so profound that the only fitting response will be the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God the Son. God himself makes clear that one flood will never be enough. Flood after flood after flood is never enough.
So God makes a covenant: never again will God send a flood to destroy all life. The inclination of the human heart is evil from youth, God observes just a few verses before what we hear today. No point in starting over every time it gets out of hand.
God will be faithful to this promise. God will not destroy. God will mend instead. God will stretch his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross far enough to embrace all humanity. God will make of the waters of the earth an ark that can expand to protect anyone. There will be disasters and chastisements and suffering until the last day. But there will be no second great Flood.
And as always it will be our role to reflect that faithfulness in those decisions that are within our power. To draw on the strength we have seen and known as individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches that did not need to be asked to gather supplies or to take people into our homes, and extend that to the structures of power we all share. Can we, who have been brought into the ark of baptism, act out of love even if the human is not worthy of that kind of loyalty? Can we insist on justice and accountability today even if tomorrow will create problems of its own? Can we be a mirror of God’s love for our neighbors? Can we commit not just to generosity but to making things work, to making a vision for a better future where we are not doomed to lurch from disaster to disaster, always waiting for the next shoe to drop?
When the doors of the ark opened and the new world began, the answer to all those questions was Yes. The answer with God is always Yes. And the answer today is still Yes. The question is whether we will do it.