Monday, June 02, 2008

Sermon for June 1: Genesis Stories: Noah

Proper 04, Genesis 6:11-22; 7:24; 8:14-19, Psalm 46, Romans 1:16-17, 3:22-31, Matthew 7:21-29

Heidelberg Catechism Q 54: What do you believe concerning "the holy catholic church"?
A. I believe that the Son of God through his Spirit and Word, out of the entire human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, protects, and preserves for himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. And of this community I am and always will be a living member.

Now that Pentecost is behind us, the church calendar has entered what we call Ordinary Time. It’s called "ordinary" because we’re not in one of the two great seasons of Christmas or Easter, and Sundays are plain Sundays. Since our scripture lessons don’t have to relate to the seasons, we let the lessons follow the Bible books as they unfold. The gospel lesson will now just move continuously through Matthew.

And during Ordinary Time we also release the Old Testament lesson from having to serve as background for the gospel. We let the Old Testament lessons follow their own course and tell their own story. For the next few months we’ll be following the stories of Genesis.

I love these stories. We need to know them. We need to see how these Old Testament stories are gospel too, they are good news. My theme for these stories will be those phrases from the catechism, how from the beginning of the world, out of the entire human race, God was gathering, protecting, and preserving a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith. Of this community we are part. Those of us who are not Jewish have been adopted into this community, and these are the stories of our adopted ancestors, and how God dealt with them.

I said recently that the story of Noah’s Ark is one of the favorite children’s story of all time. To debate its narrow historicity is to miss the point. We hardly need reminding that catastrophic floods are facts of life upon the surface of this planet. The ancient editors of Genesis have described the flood as an undoing of day three of creation, resulting in the death of everything created in day six. I would say therefore that we can read this story not as ordinary history but as primordial and paradigmatic. Sort of like the Iliad of Homer. This story gets repeated all the time. The story tells us what the world is like, and what God is like, and what God wants for the world.

We see in this story God’s anger and God’s judgement and God’s purging and washing clean. We see God’s indignation at humanity for corrupting the world from what it should have been. We sense God’s frustration, and we can imply God’s private grief and suffering.

We see in this story how God’s judgement includes a plan for salvation. It’s not that judgement is from a nasty God and grace is from a nice God. They are both from love, for the God who loves the world is grieved at all our violence and corruption, and out of love will not abide it, but also out of love will not destroy it, but graciously will save it, with a method of salvation that serves God’s justice and the integrity of God’s judgement.
We see in this story the vulnerability and fragility of our lives and the lives of other creatures. We are companions with the animals, and we are all so small against the larger forces of the planet, which can kill us by the thousands and the millions without pity, even though these forces ethically are innocent.

We see in this story that God requires our connection with animals, and holds our species accountable for the fortunes of the planet and all its creatures. We are made for this planet, and our salvation is for the restoration of this planet, not for our escape from it.

Even though this story stands on its own and in so many children’s books, it was given to us as one chapter in the larger story of salvation, the story of the covenants that God kept making, first with Noah, and then with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and then with Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai. By means of these covenants God was gathering, protecting, and preserving a community chosen for eternal life and untied in true faith. We will be watching this covenant history unfolding in the next few months.

But notice today how God, through Noah, gathered the animals and protected them and preserved the future of life on earth. The animals were Noah’s congregation, a zoological community of faith, who all were rescued for life because Noah believed the gospel of God’s judgement and God’s salvation.

Okay. Now this. The storms and troubles of our lives are of three kinds.
The first kind is the ordinary trouble of the world, which is natural and ethically innocent. Cyclones and earthquakes and floods. The fragility of our bodies, that get infected, that get disease, and strokes and heart attacks, for no other reason than biology, and we are not exempt from biology nor from geology nor meteorology.

I said to you recently that we can know from Jesus’ Ascension that we are not to interpret such disasters and diseases as the judgements of God, but simply the fragility of life in a world in which the laws of nature do their job without regard for mercy or compassion.

The second kind of trouble is the extra trouble which humanity has added to the world, what Genesis calls the "corruption of the earth," because we have "filled the earth with violence." You could write the history of the last two centuries in terms of violence and our attempts to deal with it. Exploitation in all its forms is a kind of violence. We are continually reminded that when we answer violence with violence, no matter how good our intentions, at best we only divert it and mostly we compound it. And now our exploitation of the earth has begun to aggravate the first kind of trouble.

The third kind of trouble in our lives is the judgement of God. This trouble comes exclusively through God’s Word. God doesn’t send diseases and disasters to judge us, whether by tremors or by terrorists. At least since the Ascension, God is faithful to judge us simply and completely through God’s Word. And by our response to God’s Word is how we either condemn ourselves or save ourselves.

God’s judgements are the wake up call, and they make us sense our guilt and give us shame and trouble us. This trouble is designed to drive us to the very God who judges us. All our own devices for solving our guilt and shame are only swimming against the flood. God tells us rather to get inside the ark.

The solution to the third kind of trouble is by our faith—faith in what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ. Outside of that is only judgement. Faith is not your power to swim. Faith is believing the instruction to get your hind end into the boat. It’s not our faith itself that saves us, but the faithfulness of God. Faith is our investment in the faithfulness of God.

The solution to the second kind of trouble is partly by us but mostly by God. Our corruption is beyond our own capacity to fix it or solve it. The Bible’s conviction throughout is that God will have to intervene somehow. But at the same time we can disembark out the boat and enter back into the world and we can serve the world as Jesus did with love and grace.

The solution to the first kind of trouble is not ours to make. And though God promised never to destroy the earth again because of human sin, I don’t know that God ever guaranteed to prevent us from doing it ourselves. We are invited to expect a new creation, a new heaven and new earth, where God’s intention for the world will be just as physical and natural but perfectly hospitable to human life, and something of a Paradise. Of that we only have the promise and not the sight. But already we have loved ones who have disembarked upon that farther shore.

Where all these Old Testament stories will lead us to, at the end of Ordinary Time, is the story of Mary and Joseph, and their baby. That’s the story of when God the Son became a creature, and God became a passenger on the boat.

Because there was no room for them in the upper deck, they laid him down in the lower deck, in a feed-trough, in the fodder which Noah had gathered for the feeding of the animals. I think that’s why children love to crowd the animals around the baby Jesus.

We love it that the Son of God is deep in the boat with us and all the animals. And we love it that God the Father is the Noah of this great ark. We are meant, like children, to feel the story, in all our storms and troubles, as the story of God’s love, which will see us through.

Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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