An old story “remembered”

Gen. 6—9; Matt 7:21-29
4th Pentecost – 6/1/08
St. John’s Ellicott City – 7:45, 9:00, 11:15
The Rev. Rosemary Beales

“But God Remembered . . . “

As newspaper and newscasters have reminded us this week,
Today is the beginning of hurricane season.
If we needed further reminder, we got one yesterday in
the form of torrential downpour,
and I finished this sermon with the roar of driving rain in my ears
and one nervous eye on the tornado watches.

Who can remember hurricane season and forget the grievous storms three years ago
that changed landscapes, and lives, on the Gulf Coast forever?

So it’s fitting that our gospel story today talks about a great storm,
where “the rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against a house,”
and it fell apart in the storm.
Seared into my memory from those early days after Katrina
is the image of a makeshift grave, covered with a white sheet
and spray-painted with the simple, heartbreaking words:
“Here lies Vera. God help us.”

Those hearing Jesus’ words had images seared in their memories, too —
perhaps pictures of storms they had survived,
but certainly images of the other storm we heard about today,
the flood so great it overwhelmed the whole earth.

Steeped in the stories of their Jewish tradition, Jesus, and his listeners,
could not help but remember that storm,
and let the parable of the two houses build on its foundation.

The story is a story we remember, too — or THINK we do.
We know it so well that we can fail to really hear it.
Often we see it through one of two lenses our culture gives us.

The first is the story popularized in picture books, nursery decorations and camp songs,
the merry adventure of an old man and a raft of animals on the high sea,
and a rainbow at the happy ending,.
The second is a harsher story, in which an angry judge sets out to destroy
those who disobey his orders.

Neither of these is the story given to use in scripture,
the one Jesus and his followers remembered.

I imagine they remembered the WHOLE story,
not only the parts that our lectionary version gives us today.
The version we just heard rightly focuses on God’s promise.
But it also smoothes over [flattens out] some of the hardest,
and most healing, meanings of this story.
Notice in your bulletin how the citation skips across three chapters of Genesis,
picking up certain high points.
We are whisked from the construction and loading of the ark in Chapter 6 ,
to a one-sentence summary of the food,
to the sweet homecoming in Chapter 8,
when the earth was dry
“and everything . . . went out of the ark by families.”
We get the covenant of God with Noah and his family, and we get its fulfillment.

But what have we lost in this summary?
We’ve lost the passion, the sorrow, the wild grief, that drives God’s decision.
In the verse just before this passage, God sees the destructiveness
of human beings, and cries, “I am sorry that I have made them.”
The human heart, we’re told, is full of violence.
God’s heart is full, too – not full of anger, but full of sorrow.
Anger, wrath, vengeance — words so often associated with this story —
appear nowhere in the text.
Rather, we see our Creator experience grief —
expressed with the same word that Hebrew uses for labor pains.
God labors, in sorrow, to re-birth the earth.

All that emotion is missing from our first lesson.
Missing, too, is the drama and poetry, the despair and devastation,
when “all the fountains of the great deep burst forth,
and the windows of the heaven were opened.”

We miss the anguish and the awe of those on the ark when
“the flood continued 40 days on the earth [raising arms slowly]
and the waters increased,
and bore up the ark,
and it rose high above the earth.
The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth;
and the ark floated on the face of the waters.” [arms about halfway up]

We miss the experience of those NOT on the ark,
as “the waters swelled so mightily on the earth [continue raising till over head]
that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered . . .
AND ALL FLESH DIED.”

ALL FLESH DIED that moved on the earth,
birds, domestic animals, wild animals,
all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth,
and all human beings;
everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life, DIED.” [sweep arms down]

In our lectionary reading, we miss the direct, decisive action of God:
“HE blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground,
human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air;
they were blotted out from the earth. [washing motion]
Only Noah was left.”

When we miss all of this, we miss FEELING this story.

And you know what else is missing? The most hopeful phrase in the story,
the most healing phrase perhaps in the whole Bible.
It comes not after the storm, but in the midst of the storm.
And it comes in just three words:

BUT . . . GOD . . . REMEMBERED.

* * *
“But God remembered Noah, and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark,” the story says.
And God used them to recreate his world, to co-create God’s dream.

“But God remembered” is a phrase that could form a refrain through all of salvation history,
as human beings forgot their creator and wandered away from God.
as Israel forgot its covenant and went weeping into exile;
as followers of Jesus have glued their eyes on glory
and failed to take up our cross.

Whenever we forget, God remembers.
As we’ll recall in our Eucharistic Prayer today,
“Again and again, he called us to return . . .”
and calls us still, because God remembers.

And where our memory is partial and flawed,
God’s is broad enough to embrace the whole world.
A part unspoken in the story of our prayer can also be expressed in the simple truth:
“But God remembered.”

For I am convinced that when God remembered Noah,
God also remembered all the OTHER people,
all the other creatures, all the other forms of creation
that had NOT been on the ark.
Overwhelmed by the rising waters of the flood, all those fields and mountains,
all those green, growing things,
and all those creatures in whose nostrils was the breath of life,
appeared to be lost.

“But God remembered.”
In the heart of God, NOTHING is lost.

There is an explanation of this truth in science,
a physical law called the conservation of matter.
As best I can understand it, this law means,
“Everything must go somewhere.”
In any physical or chemical change, matter is neither created nor destroyed
but merely changed from one form to another.
That’s a physical law, created by God and explained by science.

Theology explains it this way:
In the heart of God, NOTHING IS LOST.
Everything, everyone, continues in another form.
Everything changes, and nothing ends.

After the flood, all that God had created was returned to God’s heart, washed clean,
to be renewed and recreated for God’s purpose, God’s dream.

Noah, in his righteousness, was preserved —
not as his reward, but FOR GOD’S PURPSOE.
When God looked at the violence in the world,
all the ways that people had wandered far from the purpose of God,
he also saw Noah, a righteous man.
And what was that righteousness?
Not that Noah obeyed every commandment,
which, after all, were not yet handed down,
but simply this: Noah walked with God.
Noah lived in right relationship with God, made himself available for God’s use.
So God used him!
God preserved Noah and his family, to become his partners,
dream his dream, and renew his earth.

Which brings us back to Jesus’ parable of the great storm.
Like all his parables, it’s
a vision of the dream of God that Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven.

It’s possible to see the kingdom of heaven as the reward that we might one day receive
in return for a righteous life,
on earth.

I see it differently.
I see the kingdom of heaven not as an ark that will bear us away
from the earth that God loved enough to weep over, and to wash.

I see the kingdom as something right here, already begun yet still coming.
Like Noah, we have been commissioned as co-creators,
Preserved for God’s purposes.
Through Jesus, we are granted a share in God’s grief,
a portion of God’s passion for all that appears to be lost.

And that’s what I think Jesus wants us to remember when he promises that
“anyone who hears my words and acts on them” will be building on solid rock.
Acting on his words means first remembering –
Remembering God’s stories,
Remembering Vera and all God’s people,
Remembering all God’s creation,
And remembering that God will help us.
God will help us act in God’s name
in this hurricane season and all of life’s storms.
Because God remembers.

Amen.

About threegreatdays

The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales is a Godly Play Trainer in the U.S.; an Episcopal Priest; Chaplain at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia; a Godly Play Practitioner since 1996; and a mother and grandmother. Every day I get to be with 400 children at school and on weekends when I'm lucky, with my four terrific grandsons and three lively granddaughters. As a Godly Play practitioner, I want to spread the word about this life-giving, Montessori-based way of nurturing children in the Christian story and life. Godly Play, the creation of the Rev. Dr. Jerome Berryman and his wife Thea, is used in many denominations and in many countries, and has been translated into at least seven languages. This blog is not an official publication of the Godly Play Foundation (see www.godlyplayfoundation.org) but seeks to be a clearinghouse for ideas and experiences of teachers, trainers, and parents. Join the conversation!

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