Sunday, June 01, 2008

Today's Sermon: Noah and the Flood, a Love Story

Pentecost 3, Year A

Gen 6: 9-22; 7:24; 8: 14-19 (Noah and the Flood)
Romans 1: 16-17; 3:22b-31
Matt 7:21-29

You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you that our Old Testament story, that of Noah and the ark, is really a love story.

For most of us, who have heard it so many times, it feels like a children’s story. Noah, building the great big boat in his back yard. Happy animals, lined up two by two, walking up the gangplank. Great rains, with the boat floating around in the water. Then the rain abates, the sun comes out, the dove brings back a branch with leaves on it – that bit of new growth that the writer Frederick Buechner calls “a sprig of hope”- and the boat settles on top of a mountain. It’s not quite like what the movie “Evan Almighty” portrayed, with the ark settling at the edge of the US Capitol, but seems like a happy story. We read it as a story of great charm…but is it really?

Let’s go back to the words of the text. How does the story begin? “And God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.”

God is so angry with the way humanity is behaving that he is going to destroy them all. He is going to abolish everything he created, all those beautiful things that were part of the act of Creation we heard about a few weeks ago. God is deeply unhappy.

Have you ever been that angry?

You’ve seen children act this way – when my daughter was little, if she didn’t like what she had crayoned, she’d sometimes just scribble the whole sheet with the black crayon in frustration.

God sounds like he’s frustrated in the same way. Here he made this wonderful earth and all its creatures, and the pinnacle of his work was the creation of humanity…and humanity disappointed him.

Now remember, God had laid out the ground rules. If you don’t believe me, go home and read Leviticus and Deuteronomy in your bibles – long lists of what to do and how to do it.

Rules…not suggestions, not guidelines. Rules.

Now, the thing about rules is that they imply that something happens when you don’t obey them. It’s like a conversation I had last year with my friend Jack’s little girl Ella. Ella was three at the time, and the whole family was awaiting the birth of a new baby, a little sister for Ella.
When I saw Jack and Ella, I said “Ella, are you excited about the new baby?” “Oh yes, but you know the baby isn’t here yet.” “I know, honey, but you’re going to be a big sister soon! That must be exciting!” “Yes, but Daddy says I have to help. I have to be a good girl.” “Well, gee, Ella, I know you’re a good girl, that shouldn’t be too hard.” “I’m a good girl, but sometimes I misbehave. I don’t like it when I misbehave because when I don’t behave Daddy says there are CONSEQUENCES!”

Yes, there are consequences. That’s certainly the case in the story of Noah and the Flood.

The people misbehave, and there are consequences. God tells Noah what those consequences are: He is going to destroy everything.

Now, when people tell me they don’t like the Old Testament, because the God of the Old Testament is a vengeful God, this is the kind of thing they talk about. The people don’t follow the rules. God punishes them. It happens a lot in the Old Testament, because the people of Israel are, as the Scripture says, a stiff-necked people.

They’re a little like my son S, who’s 22 now, but when he was a teen and first got his driver’s license, he was convinced that he knew it all and didn’t have to follow my rules. One night he asked to borrow the car so he could go to a friend’s house. Frankly, I was happy when he began to drive, because that saved me from having to drive him everywhere, but there were upsides and downsides to letting him drive. He wasn’t always good about getting back in time. This particular night, I reminded him he had to be back by 11 pm, because our city had a curfew for teen drivers. I liked the curfew, because I knew I wouldn’t fall asleep until he got home safely. I reminded him “You know, driving is a privilege. If you want to use the car, you’ve got to follow the rules. Be sure you’re back by 11. Call me if you think you’re going to be late.”

You can guess what happened. He didn’t get back by 11. I had dozed off – my first indicator that something was wrong was when the phone rang at midnight. It was a police officer: “Mrs. T? Did you know your son S was out driving past curfew? We’re down on Military Road. Do you want to come get him and the car?” So my husband and I got up, drove down to retrieve the car and a very nervous 17 year old.

He was worried about what my reaction was, and he had good reason to be.

“What were you thinking! How come you didn’t come home on time? You know there’s a curfew.”

“Gee, Mom, I lost track of the time.”

“That’s no excuse. You broke the rules. You can’t use the car for a month!”

Suffice to say, I was pretty angry.

And in my anger, I imposed consequences on S for breaking the rules. But then, my husband PH, my wonderfully calm husband, quietly said, “Mibi, I’m wondering if S might come up with another punishment instead of being denied the use of the car for a whole month.”

PH knew that the consequences that I spoke of would be as much a punishment for us as for S, since we’d be the ones driving him to work and to other activities. He also wanted S to take some responsibility for his actions.

S proposed an alternative that meant that he couldn’t use the car for two weeks, but he would do some additional chores and errands. He knew he had done something wrong, he was required to pay for it in his actions, but he also knew that the punishment could have been a lot worse.

It was a moment of saving grace. A bit of mercy, while still recognizing S’s responsibility for his actions.

And it’s that saving grace that is God’s gift in the story of Noah and the Flood. Even in the midst of God’s towering anger, even as God was planning the destruction of the earth and everything in it, he stops. He sees one righteous man, Noah. He sees a shaft of light amidst the storm clouds of a deeply dysfunctional world. And he holds back, out of love for the possibilities of humankind. Instead of killing everybody and everything on the earth because of humankind’s misdeeds, he says, “I’m going to give them a chance to start over, and I’m going to use this human being to make that happen.”

Here’s a God who is not simply a vengeful judge, this is a God who so loves what He has created that even when his creation is misused, he still wants to give them another chance. It’s a moment of hopefulness, a moment of saving grace. He says, “Yes, I have to clean house here – these people have broken my rules in a deep and disturbing way - but I will give humanity a second chance.” And so he instructs Noah to build the ark, to bring his family and the animals aboard, and he allows that shaft of light to shine through the forty days of rainfall…a new beginning for humanity, a new beginning for the earth.

This is God’s great love story, to be willing to give a second chance when it seems we don’t deserve one. It didn’t just happen in Noah’s time. It happens to us every day.

Jesus talks about this in an oblique way in the Gospel today. He warns us that we will fall short of following the rules. He says if we only go through the motions of following him, we’ve missed the mark. If we don’t follow the will of his Father in heaven, even if we go through the motions by saying we’re Christians, we’re out the door. We haven’t built our house on rock, as Jesus says. He warns us that there are consequences for our actions. In the New Covenant, the focus is a little different: it’s not about the kinds of rules that are outlined in the Torah, in the Old Testament, where it’s about not mixing wool and linen and not eating pigs or shrimp. It’s about who we honor in our life. If we honor God, and let that be the guiding principle in our life, we’re on the right track, and we are welcome.

But that’s hard. We forget, we misstep, every day, often in little ways. Each time we make a rude gesture to the guy who cut us off in traffic, each time we contemplate the extra dollar because the cashier miscounted our change, each time we think unkindly of the relative who bores us with her endlessly repetitive stories, we forget who is the guiding principle in our life.
And that is frightening, because Jesus has told us in the gospel that if we don’t live in a way that honors His father, he will declare that he never knew us…he will deny us. And that’s the last thing we want, even though we fail and will most likely continue to fail.

And that’s where the words of Paul in today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans give us an insight on how God’s saving grace works in our lives today. Paul knows who we are, in all our weakness: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” but he shows us that shaft of light, he reminds us of that saving grace: because we believe in Christ, and because of Christ’s redemption of us by dying on the Cross, we are saved. We have broken the rules, and there are consequences. But the great gift of God’s love for us is that we are saved, in spite of our failures, because we have God’s son to redeem us. That is love, even when we don’t feel we deserve it. That is grace. And that is the promise that will hold us up when we most need it, now and forever.


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