Sunday sermon from August 18, 2013
Text: Genesis 6-9 (selected verses; the Noah story)
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
I have to admit to you that I have been nervous about this week. From the start of the summer, from the start of this journey through the opening chapters of Genesis, this has been the week circled in proverbial red on my calendar -- not, as you might imagine, Genesis 1, with its politically-charged relationship to evolutionary science; or, as you might also have considered, the murky waters of gender and sexuality that bubble up around the edges of the Adam and Eve story. No, from the beginning, it has been Noah that has been on my mind, really I think for three reasons. First, while the story of the flood and the arc is easy enough to paraphrase for Sunday School classrooms all over creation, from a Biblical point of view, it's a long, repetitive story without any obvious section breaks, which means that it poses its own kind of logistical challenge for its would-be preachers -- hence the somewhat piecemeal nature of our reading this morning. Second, again, while the Noah story does find its way into Sunday School classrooms all over creation, from a theological point of view, as God sends the water to destroy so much of his own creation, this is really a very difficult text to hear even for the most mature among us. Even if the would-be preacher can figure out how to read the story, it's not entirely clear that any of us should want to.
All of which would have sufficed to keep me on my toes this week, but I have to admit that for me there is a third and more personal reason for my hesitation, because I could read this story every hour on the hour, every week of the year for the better part of my days and still not know as much about flood water as those of you who have long called Amherst and Nelson your home. It's a couple of generations behind us now, but not so far back, forty-four years ago this week that Hurricane Camille, having flattened the Mississippi coastline and wound its way up towards Appalachia, scratched against the peaks of the blue ridge and brought upon this land a surge of rainfall whose equal none of us have yet to witness, twenty-seven measured inches, probably more in areas where it could not be counted -- according to the National Weather Service, "the probable maximum rainfall which meteorologists compute to be theoretically possible." Flooding and avalanche followed, and the body count, especially in rural areas, reached into the hundreds. Literally, I can only imagine the terror of it. So who am I to preach about the floods? Not when the story of Camille belongs so powerfully to some of you gathered here this morning, and I just read about it on Wikipedia.
Well, not just Wikipedia. Actually just north of where we live in Lovingston, right alongside Route 29, is one of those Virginia highway historical marker signs, specifically about the tragedy of Camille. It talks about the deluge and the loss of life that flooded the town where we currently live and put so many smaller communities completely underwater. But as tragic an event as it commemorates, I like that sign. On a beautiful summer morning it can be somewhat jarring to drive past it and think of the terror that once lay claim to that very spot, especially when the memory isn't mine, especially when the memory really belongs to a generation gone before. And I think of the thousands of people who have driven past that sign, the millions more yet to do so, that in generations yet to come, when all of us are gone and no one lives who bears the real memory of that tragedy, when Camille stops being a part of our living memory and starts being a footnote in the meteorological record, when the towns have forgotten and the hills have forgotten and the trees have forgotten and even the people have forgotten, that the sign still remembers. It says something about who we are, about what this place is, even to those of us who have no physical connection to the event itself. I like that sign. It testifies against the natural forgetfulness of time.
Israel, too, knows something about tragedy and time and memory. We are now ten generations into the family tree of Genesis, long enough for the story of the expulsion from the Garden to fade into myth. Soon enough the flood waters, too, will fade away, and the family that emerges from that arc will have nothing but themselves with which to remember the world they once knew. Generations later, the brutal reality of Egyptian slavery will once again threaten Israel's very existence, and with it the story of who they are and where they came from - in fact even scripture gives us no proper account of how the family of Abraham winds its way into the hands of Pharaoh. And centuries later, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, with Israel's very identity again threatened by life in exile and life in the Babylonian cosmopolis, or even later still, after they return from exile only to find themselves living again as a conquered people, Israel will time and time again face the kind of tragedies that threaten not just the people of Israel or Israel as a political entity but rather even the entire history of Israel, the entire memory of who they are and where they have been and who they have been.
And in the face of every tragedy, in the bondage of slavery and in the grip of wilderness and in the throes of exile, in every generation and for every generation, Israel tells this story, the story of Noah. This summer we've had so many stories that feel like origin stories for something or another, for creation or for human sinfulness or for human violence, but the Noah story is something different. It's not really a very good Sunday school story; it's not really about the animals; it doesn't really explain why there aren't unicorns. But it is about tragedy and loss and survival. It asks where God is in the waters. It asks where God is in the tragedy. When Israel tells this story they ask those same questions, but even more: when Israel tells this story, they're asking whether their very identity can survive against the flood waters that surround them. The poet says that the ocean has no memory. I think this is the terror at the heart of this story: that the waters of slavery or exile or persecution or destruction will not only destroy the people of Israel, but even its memory.
I think we get this, and not because of flood waters that rose nearly half a century ago but rather because of the flood waters that are rising around us day by day. They are not the waters of exile or persecution, but for those of us gathered in this Presbyterian body, for those of us who trace our religious heritage back generations upon generations, those of us who are even newly gathered into a body whose memories span back across the centuries, the flood waters of church decline, of denominational decay are beginning to trickle under our doorframe and leak into our basement. The diagnoses are all over the place: depending on who you ask the Presbyterian Church is either dying from the natural cause of an increasingly secularized culture or from the self-inflicted wound of its own theological convictions. It's either become so liberal that it has lost touch with its own theological and scriptural heritage or it's so conservatively stuck in the past that it can't adopt to a changing world; we can't agree on a diagnosis, but we can agree that the waters are rising, and quickly. And we ask what we can do to survive. And we ask what we can do to keep our story alive. And we ask what we can do to be remembered.
Well, we can build an arc. Churches love to build arcs. My wife serves as the assistant rector at a large church outside Charlottesville, and they have a fabulous playground that includes a luxurious, wooden, probably handmade, absolutely beautiful arc playset. There's a long ramp that the kids can use to walk up into the arc, and they can walk around the bow and through the cabin and play in all its nooks and crannies. The kids love it; the parents love it. It's a siren song for that most coveted of all church demographics, the young family, and of course it is the object of envy of any visiting pastor who can only marvel at its likely price tag, and as for me I only wonder whether it will be enough for that congregation to survive the flood waters of our times. Churches love to build arcs. Think of all the things we could preserve in an arc -- if the foundation doesn't crack, and if we shore up the ceiling where it leaks, and if we double-check all of the window seals. In some ways I wish this morning we were having our scheduled outdoor worship, but perhaps it's even more appropriate here, where we can hear the sound of the raindrops on the rooftop and I can show you the walls and the ceiling and the floor ask you if you think they will hold off the water as the flood comes in, if you think that this building and that this sanctuary will preserve the memories of the faithful life of this congregation even as the world changes and changes and changes. Even inside this sanctuary, we are totally exposed, and the tradition we carry with us and the way of life we carry with us is very much under threat by the waters of a changing world. No wonder churches love to build arcs.
But here's the thing. The arc doesn't save Noah. I mean, it managed the waters for one hundred fifty days, so I suppose you wouldn't find cracks along the prow. In fact I suspect you could give that arc a completely thorough examination and you wouldn't find the first problem with its craftsmanship. But the arc doesn't save Noah. No, the desolation of the flood is merciless. The text spends eight solid verses elaborating on the theme; by time the story finishes killing off the birds of the air and the flesh of the land and all the domestic animals and wild animals and swarming creatures and etcetera and etcetera and etcetera one could almost forget about Noah and his arc. In fact that was always the threat, that Noah and his family and his story and Israel's story and all of their stories and all of their traditions and their whole way of life would vanish somewhere into the ocean that has no memory, that God in the midst of his destruction, in the midst of the frenzied wrath he sends against creation, that God would forget his promise. But then God remembers. That's what it says: "God remembered Noah and all ... that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided." It's not the arc that saves Noah. And it's not the arc that saves the memory of everything that went before. It's God who saves. And it's God who remembers. The ocean may have no memory. The waters may seek to wash everything away. But nonetheless. God remembers.
In the face of the destruction and loss, in the face of losing their very identity itself, Israel tells this story, a reminder that even if they themselves forget, even if the waters threaten to wash even the memory of who they were off of the face of the deep, God remembers. But what's more, God's memory is the ground of great promise. After the waters recede, and after Noah and his family set their feet on dry land, and after God hangs the rainbow in the sky, the promise he makes is couched in the language of memory: "When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." God says, "I will see it and remember the covenant." For all of its talk of the past, for all of the talk of not letting its memory slip away, at its heart this text is profoundly about the future, about a future in which the people of Israel, the children of this covenant, the children of God, have no cause to fear the water because God remembers, and nothing held safe in the memory of God can ever truly be destroyed. For all of its talk about destruction and desolation, for all its talk about the ravaging of all things, at its heart this text is profoundly rather about hope, about hope grounded in God's remembering of all God's children, of Noah and his wife and his sons and daughters, of all the sons and daughters of Israel, and even for us, for all our sons and daughters, for our next generation and the generations yet to come, for all of us bound by a covenant whose memory lives not in our hearts or by the work of our hands but vouchsafe in the power and grace of God who loves us even unto the ends of the earth.
So we stand here exposed. Even in the belly of our own best-constructed arc, we stand here exposed. Truth be told, despite our best efforts, it will be no match against the storm. The world is changing quickly, and the religious landscape is no exception, and as much as I want to stand here with a vision of the concrete foundation and the waterproof siding and the rigid, weather-worn building that the next generation will inherit, truth be told, it may rather look like something we cannot possibly conceive of. When the waters fade from view, it may look like a whole new world. I cannot promise that this church or any church can easily survive the flood. But God's church, God's covenant, the story of God's children, the story of who we are does not die. The story of who we are, children of that covenant, children of grace, children of God's love, the story of who we are, regardless of how dutifully we carry it forward, regardless of how comfortably it sits upon our lips, regardless of how well we plant it into the soil for generations to come, the story of who we are does not die, no, the story of who we are survives and thrives and echoes to the full contours of the future of creation, because come what may, God will remember.
A very close friend sends her children to bed each night with the invitation to remember who they are and whose they are. I love that line. Remember who you are and whose you are. I hope that as they hold that line in their memory, that it keeps out the flood. But I also know that it's only half the story. Because even if they forget, no mater what, God will remember. God will remember their story, as it is our story, as it is Israel's story, as it is the story of all of the children of God back to the first sign of the first covenant of promise, back to the rainbow that hung in the sky as testimony against the natural forgetfulness of time. It is a story built upon the foundation of God's grace. It is a story sealed by the power of God's mercy. It is a story covered by the richness of God's love. And it is a story bound for a promised land where the milk and honey flow and the water stays at bay.