Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, "Liminal Lent: Noah," Genesis 6:11-14, 17-22, 7:1-2, 17-24, 8:1-14
Genesis 6:11-14, 17-22, 7:1-2, 17-24, 8:1-14
Liminal Lent: Noah
I’ve struggled this week with my sermon. In part, I’ve struggled because Noah’s Ark is a hard story. Even though we love the imagery of all the animals together on the pretty boat, such that it is not uncommon to find children’s nurseries decorated in ark themes, such that you can buy a “Precious Moments 2 by 2 Noah’s Ark Night Light” set, what precipitates the need for an ark, of course, is the destruction of most of humanity and creation by God. Oof. Corrupt and violent adults, yes, but also their children and infants and all creatures too. What sense can we make of that? What hope can we find in that?
And then, of course, I’ve struggled because, in some strange connections to our end-of-the-world kind of scripture text, we are experiencing our own world-changing event right now in this coronavirus, COVID-19. Schools are canceled and events are canceled and trips are canceled and some places are canceling worship services and people are panic-buying everything, sensible or not, and people are being asked to work from home, and as always, the most vulnerable in our society are the most at risk both from the virus itself and from the devastating impacts of a world that runs on commerce grinding to sudden halt, and people are scrambling to make plans for childcare, and plans to buy food and pay bills, and we’re afraid to cough or sneeze lest people start avoiding us, and even when you are a person who keeps their cool most of the time, it’s been hard not to be anxious and worried and if nothing else, at least inundated with news about the virus, overwhelmed with information and opinions and warnings. Who has time to think about a sermon in the midst of that, right?
Remember, though, that our theme in worship this Lent is Liminal Lent. Liminal, remember, is a word that literally means “threshold,” like a doorway, and it refers to that in-between-ness of being not quite in one place or another. Not quite in the room you left or the room you’re entering when you’re in the doorway. Liminal time and space is about the in-between times, the seasons of transition between this and that. And our focus is on how God speaks to us in liminal seasons. That’s why I chose Noah’s Ark for this sermon series when I was planning, and chose specifically not for us to read about what leads up to this story, and not to read about the beautiful, rainbow-marked covenant God makes with all creation at the end of the story, but to instead focus on the middle of the story. The transition time The liminal season, where Noah and his family and the creatures he takes with him are most definitely in the “in between,” in between the world they once knew and whatever will come after. And so, I think Noah and company is just the right story for us to hear, because our whole world suddenly seems to be in a liminal season.
So, what can we learn from the middle of Noah’s story? I think for me, at least, one of the first things I had to learn, or perhaps remember, when I was reading these texts, is that the flood isn’t just forty days and nights like we often think of it. Yes, the actual torrential raining part is forty days. But Noah and his family are on the ark for a long time. The whole story of Noah takes up several chapters in Genesis, and even just this middle section is quite long, isn’t it? If you add together all the stretches of time mentioned in these chapters, Noah and company are on the ark for a little over a year! This is a long liminal season. There is a lot of waiting involved. And what particularly strikes me in the text is the part near the end when Noah opens the window and sends out the raven. They are so close to being able to get off that boat, but they’re not quite there yet. They have to wait for the land to dry. We read, “He waited another seven days,” and then again, “Then he waited another seven days.” How difficult must it have been to wait, still, when they felt they were so close to the end of this liminal season?
Remember, we’ve talked about how tempting it is to jump ahead when we’re in a liminal season. People, we tend not to like the middle place, the transitional season, the in-between time. And so sometimes, we want to rush ahead to the finish, to wherever it is that we feel like we’re on solid ground again. I think about my attempts at creative writing when I was younger. My old brother Jim is an excellent writer, and for years in a row he won the local short-story writing contest for his fiction entries. I loved his stories. And I wanted to be just like him in everything, so of course, I tried writing stories too. I wrote a nice, detailed beginning in my stories, if I do say so myself! But I had trouble with the middle. I didn’t have patience to develop my story. I couldn’t wait to get to the ending. And so I’d short-change the middle - which is of course actually the heart of the story - to wrap things up neatly. But the end of a story isn’t meaningful or satisfying without all the hard work of development that comes in the middle! Or I think of my early attempts at gardening. I really wanted to grow carrots. And I knew how long they were supposed to take to mature and be ready for harvesting. But I was so impatient - and I just wanted to peek a little and see how they were doing. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to pull them up a little and just check, and then push them back into the soil, right? Turns out, you can’t constantly uproot a plant and expect it to keep growing! In the in-between times, friends, we have to wait. And sometimes wait and wait and wait some more! Life unfolds in God’s good time, not ours. I promise, jumping ahead will not get you the results you’re hoping for. If you find yourself in a liminal season, and you know that it is not yet time for the next step, wait with God. Ask God for patience. Wonder what God is teaching you in a season of transition. Listen for God’s voice. And wait.
I think we can also learn about being willing to be foolish for God. Some years back, the movie Evan Almighty came out, a follow up to Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty. In Evan Almighty, actor Steve Carrell plays a modern-day Noah. He’s newly elected to Congress, and looking to change the world, but he’s also looking to get ahead, to make a name for himself. And then he’s told to by God to build an ark. He doesn’t get an explanation, just a command that he slowly, reluctantly, bit by by starts to follow. Everyone else thinks he is ridiculous. They mock him. They shun him. But he holds firm, and eventually, through a strange series of events, his building the ark helps uncover corruption in his community. The movie is a comedy, but it points to a good question: Do we follow God even when it means everyone else will think we’re being foolish? Noah’s actions must have seemed quite foolish to those around him. But Noah was righteous - that means he had a “right relationship” with God, that he let God’s ways be his ways. And so Noah and his family are the ones who enter into a liminal season, a season of uncertainty, of unknowing, a season of seeming foolishness. And they are the ones who are part of a new covenant with God.
Being willing to be a fool for God is a theme we find in the New Testament, in the writings of the apostle Paul. He says that he and his co-workers are fools for Christ. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” he says, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." The idea that being put to death on a cross could be an act of strength and power seems foolish. But we know that it demonstrates the world-changing love of God. I was thinking of a t-shirt I had in high school that I loved. (Steve, it would be right up your alley.) It had a group of colorful fish all swimming in one direction, and then the ichthus, the Christian fish symbol, swimming in the opposite direction. And it said, “Go against the flow.” Sometimes - maybe even much of the time, following Jesus means going against the flow. It means being a fool for Christ. It means building an ark when it is dry, dry, dry. It means launching into a liminal season of unknowing, just to follow God, when you have firm ground beneath your feet right where you are and leaving that firm ground seems ridiculous.
We also learn that in a liminal season, when we seem lost in the middle of nowhere, God remembers us, always. At Bible Study this week, that’s the phrase in this text that stood out to Amber Ormasen: “But God remembered Noah.” Noah and his family might have felt forgotten on the earth come the 5th month of being on that ark. But God does not forget us, or forget our plight, or forget what we need, or forget where we are or where God is taking us. Even when we feel lost and adrift, God knows where we are.
I think it can be easy to focus on the destructiveness of the flood in Genesis, and all the people lost. But I don’t think that’s meant to be what we take away from the story. Instead, I think we’re meant to see that when God could have chosen to completely abandon the experiment of creation altogether, God decided that humanity and creatures and creation should continue on, that God could try with us again. And even after that, after the flood is over, God decides never to take the same path again to confront our sinfulness. Biblical Scholar Patricia Tull writes, “What if God saw the mess humans made and decided to stop forgiving? What if God, grieved at human violence, tried one solution that turned out not to work either ethically or practically, and then tried something else, deciding never again to give up on humans, but instead to take a long, patient, forbearing path with us? As a result of this choice, the story implies, divine grace surrounds us. It’s the air we breathe. We have never known a moment in which God did not forgive evil, sustaining us on pure grace; no moment when we weren’t, on some level, getting much better than we deserve. And we can’t take that for granted.” (1) God remembers us. God loves us. God doesn’t give up on us. If you’re feeling lost and adrift, please know that God knows just where you are in the midst of the waves around you, and that God will bring you to the dry land. But in the meantime, until the ground is ready for you, God will be with you on the ark, in the waiting, in the transition space, in the liminal season, in the uncertainty, an anchor in the chaos.
These are liminal days. Most of us have never experienced a season quite like this. What do we do in this strange time? We wait on God, here in the middle. We commit to being fools for Christ, loving and serving others when the rest of the crowd tells us to think only of ourselves. We trust that God remembers us always, and in just the right time, will plant us back on dry land. Thanks be to God. Amen.
- Tull, Patricia, “Commentary on Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13,” The Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3214.) Emphasis mine.