Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday of Lent – February 26, 2012
May the Ark of God’s covenant be beneath us, Christ walk ahead of us into the deep waters of life, and the Spirit be the dove of hope above us. Amen.
Seven years ago, Hurricane Katrina, considered the worst natural disaster ever to strike the United States, caused catastrophic damage along the coastlines of Louisisana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Levees were breached by the surge, ultimately flooding about 80% of New Orleans.
Katrina is estimated to be responsible for $75 billion in damages, making it the costliest hurricane in United States history; the storm killed more than 1,400 people. Since then we have witnessed horrible tsunamis and other disasters. Flood waters and the damage they do are no laughing matter. So, the first lesson we hear from the Book of Genesis today, with its reference to the great flood, is not completely out of our frame of reference—though the world as we know it has never been afflicted by such a huge and pervasive catastrophic calamity.
We all pretty much know what happens in the Book of Genesis—the very first book of the Bible that means “in the beginning.” God makes a world and pronounces it to be very good. And yet, within just a few chapters, that same world goes from a life in a lush garden to life in the trackless waste of a barren landscape, from good to evil, from peace to violence. So God says, “OK, I’ve had enough. Let’s try this again. Let’s start all over.”
So God commands Noah to build an Ark and take two of every living species on earth aboard this vessel before God sends the flood to destroy the earth. By the way, did you know that Noah had the worst time with the chickens? Do you know why? Because they were using foul language.
Without a little humor, this is a hard story to stomach: God Floods the World. If we read those headlines in the newspaper, we’d throw it down in disbelief, wouldn’t we? “What kind of God does something like that?” we’d say.
Yet you may recall that religious right icon Pat Robertson attributed the devastation caused by Katrina to God’s anger and vengeance for the errant lifestyle of some people who live in New Orleans—not that this should surprise us since Robertson has blamed every disaster before and since on God’s wrath targeting certain groups of people.
Like many of us, I first heard the story of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood as a child and understood it as being literal—that it really happened and just the way the Bible says it happened. Some people still believe that we must take stories like this on face value—and that’s where we can find ourselves in deep waters (pardon the pun).
Our Anglican tradition, however, offers us the great tool of being able to look at the Bible through the lens of our ability to use our gift of reason and figure out what it means for us in our time. We read these stories as metaphor, as allegory, as parable. “Wait just a minute,” some will say, “that’s the Holy Bible you’re talking about.” But can’t a story be true without it being literal, without it ever having happened?
You may be familiar with the humorous stories Garrison Keillor tells about Lake Wobegon—tall tales and sweet stories about the citizens of this small Minnesota town where “the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all of the children are above average.” Keillor’s monologues capture the nuances of country life with eloquence and subtle humor—the luxury of rhubarb pie and the vapor lights of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility.
Did these stories really happen? Well, no, he makes them up. Are they true? Well, for some of us, they are because we recognize the characters and we find at least some element of truth in them. We may even recognize ourselves.
The portion of Genesis we read today is post-flood and contains God’s pledge never to bring on such catastrophe again. However, we can’t ignore the fact that the Book of Genesis includes the whole story. Where do we find the face of God—a God whom Jesus tells us is a God of love and tenderness and mercy—where do we see the face of that God in a story like this? Or in any tragedy or disaster?
The story of the flood was written during the Babylonian exile when the people of Israel had been forcibly removed from their homes and were facing a crisis of their faith. Why would God let this happen to them? All they could figure out was that God wanted it to happen to them. Just like many other people who have suffered over the centuries, the best they could come up with is that God was mad as hell with them.
Those who lived in the ancient world believed that everything that happened was caused by God or caused by one of the gods. There was no such thing as a natural disaster. The devastation of hurricane Katrina would have been interpreted as God’s wrath for the evil they had done.
This story does end in good news and that’s the part that we heard today—the after the flood story. God makes a covenant—an agreement, a pledge, a contract with the people of Israel that never again would the earth be destroyed. And God promises to give them a sign of that promise—a rainbow of splendid colors in the sky.
And the people of Israel, in the midst of the darkest hour of their history, as confused and as angry as they were about who and where God was, were able to come out on the other side, even as God did in this story, affirming that they and God would continue to walk together, would continue to live in relationship together.
Who among us does not struggle with our faith, with our belief in God and our understanding of why bad things happen? Who among us has not felt like the flood gates had been opened on us when we face great hardship and suffering? And who among us has not felt as completely alone as Jesus in the wilderness, facing doubts and uncertainties that confront us and tempt us to do what we know will not be good for us
There is a story that one night some of the prisoners in Auschwitz, one of the most horrific concentration camps of the Holocaust, put God on trial and found God guilty for allowing the Holocaust to happen. They condemned God to death, and then when the trial was over, the presiding rabbi said, “It’s time for our evening prayers.” They came out on the other side determined to walk with God, and God with them—in spite of their heartache, in spite of the distress and torture they experienced.
This is the first Sunday in Lent. If you have not yet decided to “give up” something—and even if you have—the one thing I urge you to give up is all lingering vestiges of fear-based religion that may have a grip on you and any notion that God wants you to be miserable, to dislike yourself, or to carry around the debilitating baggage of shame and guilt.
What the Genesis story teaches us is that God never withdraws from participation in our life, but decides, instead, to hang in there through thick and thin, to be involved in all of its darkness and in all of its wonder, in all of its paucity in all of its richness, in all of its successes and all of its failures. God covenants with us—stays in relationship with us—and with all of creation, pledging to walk with us through it all.
Several years ago, U2’s lead singer Bono, addressed the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., offering this perspective: “God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives… God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”
The happy ending of the story is that the rainbow will appear and a new world will be born. God still calms the flood waters of our unsettled lives helps us to build our arks for safety when we need them and renews the covenant God made so long ago—God’s promise to be with us through thick and thin. The question is what will our response be this Lent? Will we dare to explore what quality and intensity of life God is calling us to lead?