Go Out of the Ark

Genesis 6-8Psalm 46 Romans 1-3

Over the next few months, I'm focusing on the topic of Stewardship. The texts are going to follow the lectionary on three tracks. The first is Genesis, these rich stories that begin with creation and take us through the accounts of matriarchs and patriarchs. The second is the Psalms, paralleling OPC's current Christian Education conversations. And the third is Paul's letters, picking up on our last Adult Education class.

We begin with the familiar story of Noah and the Ark. It wasn't long ago that I learned that the shape of the "nave" in a sanctuary (the part between the "chancel" and the "narthex") is taken from the Latin word for "boat"; in classic architecture, it's the ark turned upside down, a reminder of God's desire to protect us. There are these incredible instructions that come in the middle of the story, as God is telling Noah about what is going to happen, the building details which indicate the size and shape of this huge vessel. There is something about the care of the building that leaps out of the text here.

The whole reason for this is precipitated by a creation which has descended into corruption and violence. And it is this violence which will lead, ultimately, to destruction. All but a few will be spared, and those will be in the nave of the ark. And so, even as there is this fierce judgement of God, there is also this gentle suggestion of hope, that there is a future for which God desires for all of creation.

It's kind of a sidebar, but it seems relevant to point out that there are many who would choose to see current natural disasters in light of the great flood, as some kind of divine punishment for sins and grievances. There's John Hagee's pronouncement that Katrina was God's judgement against the modern Sodom of New Orleans; or Sharon Stone's statement that the Chinese earthquake was "karma" for their treatment of Tibet. That kind of thought is dangerous to me, because it intimates that somehow John Hagee or Sharon Stone can know the mind and intention of God.

In Genesis, we have the benefit of God's words to Noah; and there we do see that it is the rampant violence of creation which has brought this destruction upon itself. But somehow, Noah is set aside and preserved from it. And there in the ark, along with his family and that hopeful remnant of creation, there is protection, sanctuary against the raging storms of the world outside. Again, a word of caution: that doesn't mean that people of faith will face no suffering; faith doesn't give you a "no tresspassing" sign on your lawn. There is suffering. Imagine being cooped up for a month and a half with two of every animal and all that they can create. But it does mean that God desires wholeness for us. And we see that most clearly when the rains stop, the flood subsides, and creation begins again with a hope for that wholeness.

We're starting to talk about a Capital Campaign at Oglethorpe. And there is this dance about doing so. On the one hand, I see in the Genesis passage this clear sense that care is to be taken for our sanctuaries, our places of refuge from the storms of the world. Whether that's in a public building like a church, or a place in our own homes that we can "escape", or somewhere else where we can know the power of God's protection. And we should take care that these places be ones of aesthetic beauty, where we demonstrate in our care of the number of cubits that we exhibit our love and appreciation for God.

But there the dance takes another step: these places, wherever they might be, cannot exist for their own purposes. We are about building the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Oglethorpe or Presbyterianism or an institution. These places exist as places of refuge; and as such, they also must exist for God's purposes. Because eventually, we're going to have to go out of the ark.

Our Campaign committee is meeting with groups over the coming months, asking several questions. The most obvious one seems to be what building improvements would you like to see? That might make the most sense, and as we talk about a Capital Campaign, that is the one that pops most easily to mind: elevators, front door configuration, landscaping, resurfacing parking lots, redoing roofs, and so on. But here's the question that needs to linger with us: why? Why would we need a particular improvement? What would it actually say about who and what God is calling us to be and do? How is it that our care and shaping of these sanctuaries, these arks, shape us for that inevitable journey back down the ramp and into the rest of the world?

Let's put it another way: what is the character of this community, this congregation? What does the building we inhabit say about that character? A friend of mine is pastor of a Presbyterian church that prides itself on its sense of welcome. They sit on the main street of their neighborhood, grand white columns flanking large sanctuary doors. But on Sunday mornings, they remain closed. The members all know how to get into the church; you park in the lot, walk past the trash cans, through Fellowship Hall, and up the staircase into the back of the sanctuary. Their building belies their sense of being a community of welcome.

In my time at Oglethorpe, I've noticed a similar pattern. One member told me about coming to Oglethorpe one Sunday morning looking for a church home, heading to those bright red doors, opening them, and hearing Korean. She headed over to St. Martin's for a couple of years, until she found out there was an English-language community here, too; she even found the door to get in. What does it say about us if our front door is hidden from site, and even then, rarely open?

Don't get me wrong. I rave about our character of welcome. There is this incredible balance of what we do here, seeking out visitors and welcoming them into our midst, and not with that sense of desperation which grips a lot of communities. There is a genuine sense of openness about our community. But the trick is that you gotta figure out how to get in the building.

So as we ponder that question of stewardship, how is it that we translate these cubits into modern lingo of the care of our building, let us remember that we've gotta get out of the ark eventually. And what we're going to see isn't pretty. We tend to domesticate the Ark story, thinking of the adorable animals on a boat with Noah and family. Remember what has been happening outside all this time. Flooding. Destruction. Death. It doesn't take much to imagine what the horrific scene must have been like upon exiting the Ark.

The world remains a place of violence, a place where, in the words of Paul, all have sinned and fallen short; even those who deign to enter the Ark. So as we leave this place, our worship continues as we live into Paul's words at the beginning of our Romans' reading, to share the gospel, the good news, without shame.

Paul's challenge was mighty. Here he was, writing to this church in the heart of the empire, a church he himself did not plant, but which looked to him for wisdom. And as he talks about coming to be with them, at the place where he eventually met his end, he speaks about coming there without shame to preach this gospel.

The word gospel is more loaded than we might initially think. In its context, in the Roman Empire, it meant the good news that Caesar was Lord. The people over whom the Roman Empire were to be grateful for all that this Empire had brought them. But then there is Paul, reclaiming this word and framing it in the context of Jesus as Lord, supplanting Caesar. There is this fierce political implication to Paul's theology of the gospel.

So what does it mean to preach the gospel? It means to remind the world that God shows no distinction. There are no tribal differences, no national boundaries in the eyes of God. The grace of God offered in Jesus Christ may have begun with the Hebrew people, but did not stop at their doors. It carried on into the Gentile, non-Jewish world. There is no distinction because all have sinned and fallen short; therefore all are welcome to this gift of grace. It isn't something we earn through our good deeds, but something we receive because of God's goodness.

And ultimately, this gospel is the power of salvation. It is what holds the possibility of wholeness out to an aching, groaning, corrupted, flooded world.

So, my fellow shipmates, let's make our way out of the ark, to set our feet on solid ground. Let's open its doors and head down that ramp we came up. And when we come back here to get out of the storm once more, let's invite all flesh to join us.