21 February 2021, Lent 1 Download
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
I know I’m not the only one who has trouble with the story of Noah.
Why we teach it to children is really beyond me. I get that it has animals in it, and there’s lots of drama…and it’s a folksy way to explain why we have rainbows…and “why you’ll never see a unicorns to this very day,” but it’s a terrifying story. And what it says about the character of God…is hard to take. We proclaim that God is love, but here we see a wrathful, destructive version of that…and Noah the obedient servant, doing what he is told.
Rabbi’s in the Kabbala tradition tell a slightly different story about Noah and God.
They imagine Noah having a reaction that we can relate to…they say that when he emerges from those forty days and forty nights of torrential, devastating rain…when he looks out and sees the unimaginable devastation that has rained down upon all of creation, something stirs in him…and he cries out to the Blessed Holy One saying, “Master of the world, You are called Compassionate! You should have shown compassion for your creatures.” Isn’t that what a lot of us want to say? But these rabbi’s also imagine God replying to Noah and saying, “Foolish shepherd! Now you say this, but not when I spoke saying, “Make yourself an ask of gopher wood…I am about to bring a flood to destroy all flesh…I lingered with you…spoke to you at length so that you would ask for mercy for the world.”
Abraham does this, when God threatens to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, “what if there are fifty…what if there are forty…thirty…twenty…ten? Don’t do this.” [Genesis 18:20-23] When the Israelites make a Golden Calf, and complain about lousy food, and lack of water…and God threatens to destroy them Moses says, ”Did you bring us out here just to kill us? [Exodus 14:11, 17:3, 32:11-13] Don’t do this.”
The story of the flood and the ark and Noah takes up four full chapters of Genesis…and in all of that text, do you know how many times Noah speaks? Once…He speaks one time, at the very end, and the only thing he says is to curse on one son and bless another.” Noah never pleads for mercy…for anyone.
According to these rabbis, “The Blessed Holy One lingered with [Noah] and spoke many words to him; perhaps he would ask for mercy for his generation.” He says nothing, and so after the flood when he emerges and asks “why?” God says, why weren’t you concerned about this before? “As soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark,” God says, “the evil of the world did not touch your heart. You built the ark and saved yourself,” and so the rabbi’s conclude: Noah “did not care and did not ask for mercy. He just built the ark and the whole world was destroyed.” [source]
Compare that to Jesus in the desert. The ark a place of protection…a place “enclosed and tossed upon turbulent seas of sin and chaos and culture,” as one writer puts it…and the desert…is where demons and temptations and wild animals lurk … a completely open space that really “doesn’t seem safe” in the words of another young theologian.
Noah and his family spend 40 days in the ark; they are saved from the flood, but they emerge…unchanged…(or maybe traumatized)…They survive, but they are not transformed. Neither they, nor the world is really any better because of this ordeal.
Jesus, on the other hand, spends 40 days in the desert, and emerges to begin healing, teaching, and proclaiming the reign of God is here; he opens himself to danger…gives up his life and is crucified. He doesn’t survive…but is transfigured…and resurrected…and the whole world is…saved.
Are we building arks for our own safety…or are we venturing out into the desert?
The church has long been described as an ark…even the architecture, the long narrow part of the church…the nave…which comes from the Latin for “ship” is often designed to look like the hull of a ship…
An ark is protection…and the desert is danger…We’ve been in the desert…for a long time, now…We all know how dangerous it can be out there…and we all yearn for places of safety, and solace…And those places are absolutely necessary…absolutely vital…for our survival…and they can be temptations…to shut out the world…It’s tempting to build those bubbles where we feel safe and secure…but an ark which only protects those inside and cares not for those who are left out…can be more dangerous and more destructive than a desert full of demons and wild beasts.
This ark—this church community—must to be a place of safety AND transformation. In this ark, there must be opportunities for growth…and renewal…some solace…and some challenge. Lent is an invitation to experience a desert within the ark, to find sanctuaries in the desert…because transformation requires both.
Tammy had some great ideas for cultivating this in her sermon on Ash Wednesday. For reframing what we might give up, and what we might reach out for…if you missed it, I encourage you to go to the website and listen to it.
She asked, “what if, instead of fasting to bring our attention back to God, we make a Lenten intention to find God in the people around us”…The From Many, One conversation that the Living Stones Listening team will be introducing at social hour and encouraging you to participate in is a great way to do this…to practice finding God in those around you.
Or, what if “instead of fasting, we ask to be fed?” Spiritually, emotionally, socially…What if we intentionally seek and share God’s nourishment…by participating in one of the online prayer services we have, Morning Prayer or Compline, taking part in the Lenten Retreat hosted by the Daughters of the King…or simply, as she put it, “What if we are able to “fast” from our fierce independence, intentionally opening ourselves to feed and be fed by others around us?”
And how about sharing literal food with the over 700 families in Brookline who show up at the Food Pantry each week…(which is 4 times the number they served pre-COVID BTW)…if you have the means you could donate money to our Fund the Food Pantry drive in Lent, and share some of God’s grace and abundance and mercy with others.
We’ve been in the desert, it’s true…and it will always be tempting to build an ark, and keep the world at bay, but remember today’s lesson…Noah is secure. He doesn’t ask for mercy…he just builds the ark and the world is destroyed. Jesus goes into the wild places with a care for the least, the last, and the lost…and the world is transformed. The purpose of a spiritual path is not survival…it’s transformation. May this ark…this community of faith…remain a place of both security and transformation, not just for our sake, but for the sake of the world.