Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sermon for August 12, 2012

The Ark Builders

When Noah was 600 years old, on the seventeenth day of the second month, all the underground waters erupted from the earth, and the rain fell in mighty torrents from the sky. The rain continued to fall for forty days and forty nights. That very day Noah had gone into the boat with his wife and his sons—Shem, Ham, and Japheth—and their wives. With them in the boat were pairs of every kind of animal—domestic and wild, large and small—along with birds of every kind. Two by two they came into the boat, representing every living thing that breathes. A male and female of each kind entered, just as God had commanded Noah. Then the Lord closed the door behind them. For forty days the floodwaters grew deeper, covering the ground and lifting the boat high above the earth. As the waters rose higher and higher above the ground, the boat floated safely on the surface. Finally, the water covered even the highest mountains on the earth, rising more than twenty-two feet[a] above the highest peaks. All the living things on earth died—birds, domestic animals, wild animals, small animals that scurry along the ground, and all the people. Everything that breathed and lived on dry land died. God wiped out every living thing on the earth—people, livestock, small animals that scurry along the ground, and the birds of the sky. All were destroyed. The only people who survived were Noah and those with him in the boat. And the floodwaters covered the earth for 150 days. But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and livestock with him in the boat. He sent a wind to blow across the earth, and the floodwaters began to recede. The underground waters stopped flowing, and the torrential rains from the sky were stopped. So the floodwaters gradually receded from the earth. After 150 days, exactly five months from the time the flood began, the boat came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. Two and a half months later, as the waters continued to go down, other mountain peaks became visible. Genesis 7:11-8:5

You have never heard the story of Noah until you’ve heard it from biblically illiterate Middle School students. A few summers ago, I was running a Bible Summer Camp for 60 Middle School campers.  We talked about the story of Noah’s Ark. Sure, we know about the flood and the rainbow.  But when I asked the kids why God flooded the earth, one Jr. Higher told our group, “OK, so there were these evil men who built their house on some sand, and they wouldn’t listen to God so God sent a flood and everyone who built their house on the sand died but everyone who like built their house on the rocks lived, except the flood came over the whole earth, so they died too.” Bet you didn’t know that part! We don’t always pay attention to the details of the story.

The story begins with God. Embittered. Full of regret.  Creation is a big mistake, so the earth will receive a cleansing destruction.  But the cure seems as bad as the disease. God says to Noah, “Build an ark. Collect representatives from creation. Gather your family and you will be rescued. What’s not on the ark will be destroyed.” I wonder what God’s voice sounded like to Noah. Sad? Disappointed? Weary? Did Noah think about trying to change God’s mind? No matter. It wasn’t long before the hills and valleys became nothing but dark water. I wonder what Noah must have thought after the flood–when he looked back on the months of awesome and fearful events. Did Noah have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome? After watching the Lord God destroy the world, after spending never-ending months on a big boat, what happened to Noah afterwards? In the years after the flood, when dark clouds rolled in and the smell of rain filled the air, did the old feelings come rushing back to Noah? Was he was filled with memories of being saved from death; being given a new chance by a loving God to be his people.

We don’t know. We can’t really infer much from the story. But this much I know. It was nothing like the pleasant scenes we see painted on nursery walls and cartooned in children’s bibles. Once the flood waters recede, the Ark is not surrounded by verdant fields and harmoniously singing birds. Have you ever seen the aftermath of a flood? It’s not pretty. Remember the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina? On August 29, surge waters started quickly flooding homes at about 8 o’clock in the morning. Residents sought high ground on their roofs. Many had to claw through their ceilings with their hands just to get to safety. By the time people got up there, the roofs were blown away. They had to dive into the water, clinging to trees, or grabbing onto debris.

Six months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, I took a team down to help rebuild homes. We talked to a woman named Paula. When the waters came, her house lifted off its piers and floated away. Paula survived by getting into a small boat that drifted by. She and her extended family spent the next 8 hours in the boat, clinging to the sides while they lived off candy bars floating in the surge. Paula owned 15 horses. Before the storm, she led them to roam in a large pasture. After Katrina, 8 were dead, caught up in trees or tangled in barbed wire. Paula’s house could not be rebuilt. She salvaged her house, board by board, so that the wood could be reused at her sister’s home.

If this is what a regional flood looks like, imagine the devastation in the aftermath of the mythical flood of Genesis.

Destruction and rebirth. Insecurity and Safety. These themes keep playing themselves out in our human story. We can see them today. Look and you may see the waters of destruction eddying all around us. It’s not a physical flood (although we are seeing more of that, too). I’m seeing a overflow of anxiety. I’m sensing a rising deluge of hopelessness among some people.  A fear that this is as good as it gets – that the best times have come and gone and we are on the downside of the bell curve. The world can feel inundated with random violence and senseless retribution, as we saw again with the shootings in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin.

Some scientists have termed what’s going on as “societal regression.” It means that society is more or less anxious and orderly at different times in history. At certain times, there’s more anxiety in all people, which in turn raises chaos and irresponsibility in society. It even happens in non-human societies. One study at the National Institutes of Health noticed that when rat populations became overcrowded, there were instances of abnormal behavior. Mothers forgot how to make nests. Males gave up their nest guarding behavior and sat on the sidelines staring. The same forces affect human institutions. The more troubled society and its institutions become, the more anxiety its members react to. It is a brutal cycle. When we are under stress, it is hard to think clearly and to live according to principle-centered decisions that guide our behavior. We look for the quick fix that will bring some temporary relief to the stressors of life. We become focused on taking care of ourselves. For many, life becomes a matter of survival.

Think about the disasters that surround us on a daily basis. In these tough economic times, there are now 46.2 million Americans living in poverty. That’s about the entire population of Spain. During one of the endless Republican debates cycle, a CNN reporter asked one of the candidates what we should do if a 30-year-old man who chose not to purchase health insurance suddenly found himself in need of six months of intensive care. The candidate replied, “That’s what freedom is all about — taking your own risks.” The reporter pressed him again, asking whether “society should just let him die.” In the pause that followed, cheers and shouts of “Yeah!” came from the crowd. There has been a lot written and said about that moment, most of which is partisan. It was not really a Republican moment or a Tea Party moment, or even a political moment. It was a cultural moment. An American moment. A moment that exposes how comfortable we are with inequality, how low our concern is for our neighbor. People around us our suffering. They tread water as the floods refuse to recede. We’ve come to accept the hardship that surrounds us. We may not have been the one shouting “Yeah!” but do we condone it by our inaction?

That’s just one issue. We all know people are drowning in despair. Family members are fighting with one another. Children seem lost. Neighbors are isolated. People we know and love are broken, floating in a rising flood of anxiety, waiting for the next wave to crash upon them. Thinking about it gives me a headache and a heartache.

For Noah, God’s solution was build and ark – a vessel to bring life to a new generation. I believe God is calling us here at Christ Congregational Church to be ark builders for a new generation. Our job is to build a vessel of hope and promise. My question this morning is this: What kind of vessel are we building to bring the gospel to a hurting world?

Church buildings are a vessel, of sorts. In the past congregations said, “Come on board and listen to our beautiful music. Hear an inspiring sermon. Join a church board. Come to one of our classes. Become a church member. Come to us and you will find rest and peace.” It was good for a while, but it stopped working. That vessel does not fit the needs of upcoming generations.

Don’t get me wrong. I love church. I’m the biggest church advocate you will ever find. But I have a critique: at some point churches moved the prime focus away from the people around us who are in trouble. We got thinking that if people really wanted to get their lives together they would come to church. And when they get to church, they had better like the old hymns. They better like formality and liturgy because that’s the way we do it. Where has it gotten us? We live in a time when people are desperate for spiritual meaning, and mainline churches are leaking members by the tens of thousands every year. The truth is that you can come to church for years and your life can still be miserable. You can sit in these pews week after week and still feel like you are dying inside. You can sit in a crowded sanctuary and be the loneliest person on the planet. The challenge, as I see it, is that the church needs to cast off from the dock and get wet. Don’t expect people to just come here and get on board. It’s time to weigh anchor and take off into the watery chaos around us.

We are the ark builders, making a vessel that sail the storms of life. Our CCC ark helps everyone, everywhere to negotiate the storm by using whatever it takes -- whatever it takes -- to help people in trouble find peace.

I am proud of who we are becoming at CCC. In a time of fast-paced frenzy and overloaded schedules, we are building an Ark of Sabbath. 

In a time of random violence and war, at home and abroad, we are building an Ark of Peace.

In a time when the LGBT community is the victim of bigotry, at a time when we see some political and religious leaders denying equal rights to all people, we are building an Ark of Inclusion.

In a time when the pain of racism still throbs in our communities, we are building an Ark of Equality.

In a time when we are moved to serve our communities with greater compassion and accountability, we are building an Ark of Transformation.

In a time when more and more people are coming off bus to the doors of this church looking for a financial help, or food, or just a cup of ice to keep cool on a broiling hot day, we are building an Ark of Care.

In a time when we wonder what kind of world our children will inherit, when we wonder what the earth will look like if these flood waters recede, we are building an Ark of Responsibility.

In a time when we need to come together and take the risk of sharing our vulnerabilities and pains, we are building an Ark of Community.

And for anyone who feels pulled under by the currents of life, we are building an Ark of Care, and Ark of Healing, and Ark of Wholeness. So come, all you who are strong and you who are tired; you who have resources to share and you who need to receive; you who are losing hope and you who see the future’s promise, you who are tired of the fight and you who are energized by optimism. Come as we build this Ark together, and reach out to others who need what we are building.

Aqua Church by  Leonard Sweet, pp.
God: A Biography by Jack Miles, pp.
Michael Williams, ed., The Story Tellers Companion: Genesis.

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