The Second Sunday After Pentecost (A)
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina
11Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13And 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. 14Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. 16Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. 18But I will
establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. 20Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. 21Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” 22Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
Genesis 6:11-22 NRSV
The two-cubit shower
Since a meeting with Rich earlier this week happened to be scheduled right after a visit by one of the suppliers for the new building, I got to witness a tiny little bit of the research that goes into a project like this, and then Rich and I walked through the building for a few minutes. We noticed a couple of little problems, like the sink that’s too long and the door handle that’s too high—the types of things that inevitably happen in the final stages of a building project—and then we went into the men’s bathroom. You might have heard already that the shower is perfectly located for one man in our church: James Davis. Not Jamie Davis, but three year-old James. It’s about thirty-six inches off the ground, or to use the measurement system from Noah’s ark, it’s about two cubits high. It won’t be hard to fix, but actually, it might be good preparation for some of us: we hear that our ASP teams are staying in an elementary school, so we might need to get used to showering while hunched over.
I wonder if, as Noah and his family did their final walk-through of the ark, they found anything really ridiculous: walls too close together, doors that don’t go anywhere, holding pens for wolves and sheep right next to each other; you get the idea. After all, God was very specific about the outside measurements of the ark, but far less clear about the finer details. There is a theme of building in the scriptures appointed for this Sunday, and it’s tempting for me to think about the church’s new building as we read them.
Houses on rock and sand
Jesus’ story about building might make you want to go and check our new fellowship hall’s foundation, especially if you know how much fill it’s sitting on. As he finished the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the gathered people that hearing what he had to say isn’t enough. You must act on what he says and build your life upon his words. Let me read Jesus’ words from the Cotton Patch Gospels:
That’s why the man who hears these words of mine and acts on them shall be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. Down came the rain, up rose the floods, out lashed the winds. They all cut at that house, but it didn’t fall. It was on rock foundation.
And the man who hears these words of mine and fails to act on them shall be like an idiot who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the floods rose up, the winds lashed out. They all cut at that house, and it fell! And my, what a collapse!
When Jesus finished speaking, the people were simply amazed at his ideas, for he was teaching them like he knew what he was talking about. He didn’t sound like their preachers.
Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John…
(Clinton, New Jersey: New Win Publishing, 1970), 30-31.
It makes you want to rush home and put some cinderblock under your floor joists, doesn’t it? “Not really, preacher, because it’s pretty obvious Jesus isn’t talking about houses; he’s talking about faith. We get it already. If you have a strong faith and live right, everything will turn out right in the end.”
Behind the clichés
These stories get repeated a lot, and usually that’s the basic point. Have a strong faith and live right, and your house will stand up. Your life will be the one preserved through the flood. That doesn’t apply very well in real life. In fact, it sounds like perfect nonsense.
What happened to the wise man after his house stood up to the wind and water? He must have suffered at least a little damage, not to mention the fact that he watched the boards from his neighbor’s collapsed house float by his window, and he’s not sure his best friend made it. What happened when Noah parked the ark on a mountain and everyone got out? The rest of humankind was gone. The earth was destroyed, save for what they had in that stinking boat. Noah’s reaction was to grow some grapes, make wine, and get drunk, but who can really blame him? Go back and read the scripture again: his daughters didn’t get on that boat, and neither did all of the rest of the people he, his wife, and his sons’ families knew. If you look behind these clichés of faith standing up to the storms of evil, it isn’t hard to find real pain.
The Israelites knew that, but they sensed the presence of God, even in pain. I don’t believe that God causes pain, and I don’t think the Israelites believed that either. God enabled the flood, but it was because of the sinfulness of people, and in this story told by the Israelites, God didn’t destroy people who were known, but rather ended violence and corruption in the more abstract sense. We could argue about that a little, but one thing is for sure, they felt—as you and I often have—the comforting presence of God in the midst of their pain.
“Be still and know that I am God”
“God is our refuge and strength,” they sang,
…a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Psalm 46:1a, 1b-3 NRSV
Psalm 46, which we read together earlier in the service, calls God a mighty fortress: a refuge and help in time of trouble. If the right way to live is in an ark or a house built on rock, with strong shelter against the wind and rain of evil, then the psalm paints an image of what it’s like inside that shelter. It is God’s place. God is in the middle, and will not let this place be moved. There is an uproar outside, but God’s voice calms it. God is with us. Does God destroy? Yes. God breaks the bow, shatters the spear, and burns the guns. Be still, God says, so that you may know how great God is. The Lord is our refuge.
Here in the shelter
If my family wasn’t going to travel a few hundred miles this afternoon, I would have prayed for a mighty thunderstorm this morning, so that we could look outside, see the violence and danger of the world, and sense that we are in God’s sacred place. If there was a storm out there, from here in the shelter we could peer through the windows all the time, noticing the violence and evil in the world, living in fear that it might break through. Or we could turn our backs to the outside, bask in the glory of God’s presence, and forget that there is pain outside that causes people to lose hope because they haven’t found refuge in God. If we look outside all the time, we might lose our hope too, or we might forget that we belong in the presence of God. If we look inside all the time, ignoring the world, then we might start to think that God belongs to us rather than the other way around, and we will get so focused on ourselves that we’ll spend more time worrying about the two-cubit shower than all the people who have no clean water at all.
God doesn’t want us to do either. Even the ark had to land after forty days and nights—Noah still had 350 more years to live. And the wise man who built on the rock will surely come out after the storm has passed to help his neighbor rebuild. There is pain and evil even here at Union Grove, but we live together and bear pain together because of God’s promises to care for us. Part of the words Jesus said we had to not just hear, but base our very lives upon were the instructions to care for the sick and the poor; to live as people who are “not ashamed of the gospel,” but who know that “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith…” (Romans 1:16a-b). That message begs to be shared, and you can’t do that from inside the shelter.
Why must we bother? Look at the table. If ever there was doubt that God is with us in our struggles and our pain, then look to the table and remember the pain God suffered for us, losing and dying in one great tragedy, but at the same time, making the promise that is our foundation: that the world will never be drowned by its sin.
We are not saved for nothing. The familiar hymn reminds us.
Standing on the promises that cannot fail,
when the howling storms of doubt and fear assail,
by the living Word of God I shall prevail,
standing on the promises of God.
Standing on the promises I cannot fall,
listening every moment to the Spirit’s call,
resting in my Savior as my all in all,
standing on the promises of God.
R. Kelso Carter, “Standing on the Promises”
The United Methodist Hymnal, 374.
The promises of God are our shelter and our foundation, but they also contain the Spirit’s call. Be still, and know your God. Be still, and hear the call of the Spirit:
Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins,
and are in love and charity with your neighbors,
and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God,
and walking from henceforth in his holy ways:
Draw near with faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort,
and make your humble confession to almighty God.
From “Service of Word and Table IV”
The United Methodist Book of Worship, 44.