July 16, 2017 Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
I remember it like it was yesterday. August 2005. Ryann and I were on a vacation in Savannah, GA. We had made a promise to each other that we weren’t going to be using our phones at all (and this was before the days that you could get email and Facebook on your phone). We were in a beautiful city, exploring the sights, enjoying delicious food. I only made Ryann take a tour of 3 historic churches while we were there. We wanted to be away, to be disconnected. We hadn’t even turned on the TV for the first few days we were there. But one afternoon we had a little bit of down time before dinner. And, out of habit, I turned on the T.V. Whoever had stayed in our room the previous week must have been of a different theological persuasion than we were, because the TV immediately turned on to the 700 Club hosted by Pat Robertson.
That’s when I saw it. A map; and right in the middle was a picture I had grown up recognizing. It was a hurricane. A big hurricane, in the Gulf of Mexico, heading straight toward my family in South Alabama. I turned up the volume and heard all about the power of this storm named Katrina. We broke our promise to avoid our phones, and I started calling everyone back home in Mobile and Fairhope to check on them. It was one of the most destructive storms in the history of our country. The death toll that it left was over 1,200 human lives. It ravaged such destruction that some places still, 12 years later, have not rebuilt. Entire populations were displaced. In New Orleans the storm lead to the horrors of the Superdome, Memorial Medical Center, the Danziger Bridge shootings—waves of human depravity, violence, and corruption.
Of course, I was in Georgia for those days, just watching on TV, but many of you were right here on the coast, living through the storm. I don’t have to tell you about it. You could tell your own tales of it’s destructive power. You could tell your own accounts of how “the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” And you could tell your own storm stories of the sacrifice, the bravery, the compassion, the righteousness of those who responded to the disaster not with their worst but with their best. You could tell stories of neighbors helping each other to survive, of complete strangers helping to rebuild, of countless volunteers who poured into our region answering the call to serve. You could tell tales about how this church sent mission teams throughout the community and into Mississippi to help however they could. You could tell about other church groups from all around the country who were graciously hosted here in our Bullard Building so that they could be a part of rebuilding through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the mission arm of our denomination. You could tell your own storm stories that illustrate these two truths: both the deep pain and the immense love of those days, tales of both tragedy and triumph.
In truth, the story of the flood and Noah’s ark is one of those kind of tales, weaving together both profound tragedy and moving love. This biblical storm story is as deep as the ocean depths. Of course, there’s one version of the story, the one we tell our children, that’s full of pairs of cute animals. In that version, there is just this big flood coming and tale is all about the nice old man who listens to God and save the animals. Don’t get me wrong; that’s not a bad story to tell them, because that’s what they can handle at their developmental level. It’s this version, this nice and happy version of the story, that we typically portray in our imagery and art. I checked this week and around our church campus I counted seven different places where the image of Noah’s Ark appears. We must think this is an important story!
What we usually don’t tell our children is how the story really begins. We wait until they’re more mature before they learn that the whole earth was corrupt. That all of creation, not just human beings, but “all flesh” was violent and destructive and perverse to its very core. That things had gotten so bad, that in the story, God is the one who decides to send the storm and the flood in the first place, to kill all life except the remnant left on the ark. That story of violence and punishment is harsh and hard to understand. And, the shock of this, this image of God can be strong that it does one of two things.
1) It can disillusion us and turns us and turn us away from our faith. Why would we want to love and trust in a God that is so vengeful and angry that he would destroy most of life. Why would we believe that a story like this has any value to our lives. That’s one response: disillusionment.
2) Or, for some of us, the portrayal of God that we see in this story and others like it can make us go the other direction. It can radicalize us. It can lead us to double down on our convictions and turn into fundamentalist—clinging with self-righteous death grip to our God of vengeance who punishes “those people” who we know are evil and wrong. It has led Christians throughout the centuries to justify acts of violence in the name of our God. It’s this kind of response to stories like Noah’s Ark that led folks like Pat Robertson on that same TV program to later claim that the destruction of hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment doled out against our sin. It sure would be nice if people who simplistically sling parts of the Bible as weapons remembered the whole story from which they were so carelessly choosing their arrows.
For the truth is this story isn’t just a cute story for children, and it isn’t just a moralistic tale of punishment. No, it is much much deeper than that. Right before the verses that we read this morning Genesis tell us that God is not angry or wrathful, in this story. No, God is full of sorrow at seeing what has become of his good creation. Gods is grieved, literally heart-broken. God’s love that was poured out in creation has been twisted and trampled upon.
Like a parent, lovingly grieved by a child who has grown into self-destructive patterns, so too is God lovingly grieved by what creation has become. Like a parent who cannot stop the rebellion of a son or daughter who is “old enough to know better” God lets creation destroy itself. That’s really what happen in the story of the storm and the flood. Genesis says that “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” The corruption in the created order implodes in on itself. The boundaries of the sea and sky break apart and God lets it happen. God lets us destroy ourselves, and it breaks God’s heart. But, like that loving parent, God does not give up all hope. God calls Noah to the work of building an ark, a big boat, a vessel of salvation, so that all life will not be lost. Creation will see a new dawn.
It has always fascinated me that Noah, this great hero of the faith, the one who’s name is forever remembered and attached to this story, really just builds a boat. I don’t mean to take away from the story. He is, apparently, the only one willing to listen to God and respond, but Noah doesn’t slay a giant or conquer enemies, Noah doesn’t risk life on a daring adventure. Noah, simply builds a big boat. That’s all that is needed. God will do the rest.
There’s a relatively recent Jimmy Buffett song, called “Boats to Build” that has become of my favorites. In it, Buffett sings,
“Days precious days, roll in and out like waves.
I got boards to bend, I got planks to nail,
I got charts to make I got seas to sail.”
[You can almost hear Noah singing this as he works…]
“I’m gonna build me a boat with these two hands;
It’ll be a fair curve from a noble plan.
Let the chips fall where they will, ’cause I’ve got boats to build.”
Early Christians saw in this story of Noah’s ark a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own journey of salvation, that brought about new creation and new covenant. Many churches, still today, are built so that the sanctuary is architecturally designed to look like the inside of a great boat. The image of the church as Noah’s ark is powerful. That’s our work. To build boats. To build community that welcome in all of God’s creation, to build community that God can use to preserve the new creation, to build community based on God’s promises, God’s covenant. In today’s broken world, we’ve got boats to build!
Finally, how does the story end? The God who loved creation enough to be heartbroken over its self-destruction, the God who loved creation enough to save a remnant of all life, this same God remembers Noah in the ark. God remembers the community of creation. God remembers and God keeps his promises. Like the loving father in the Prodigal Son, God does not forget or abandon but lovingly embraces his wayward creation and welcomes us back home. The waters recede. The God who loves creation makes a new covenant, to usher in this new creation. God makes a promise never again to let utter destruction be his tool punishment. God promises to hang up the bow—the weapon of war—to hang it in the sky as a reminder to us and a reminder to God of the covenant, the promise that our sin and brokenness, our evil and corruption will not have the final word, as a reminder that God’s passionate love will never let us go.
Friends, that’s the good news of the story, the good news of the gospel, that God’s covenant promises are true. And the great challenge of the gospel is to live in light of them. We’ve got boats to build.