Thursday, March 29, 2012

Following God When the Floods Come

This is the first of my Alegent Health sermons, preached a few weeks ago. The text is the story of Noah, from the Easter vigil service, and the well-timed epistle of Peter from that past lectionary reading that makes a juicy "epilogue" to what happened to people who died in the Flood after Jesus came. Noah's Flood from Gustave Doré Bible engravings

Genesis 7:1-5, 11-12, 17-19, 21-24 8:1
Then the Lord said to Noah, "Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground." And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.

…In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights... The flood continued forty days on the earth; 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. The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; ...And 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. 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. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided;

1 Peter 2:18-20a
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive,
he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

Following God When the Floods Come
Last week, my friend Kim spoke of the challenge of following “God on a Mission” this Lent. Over the next few weeks we’ll continue to follow “God’s story” through the Bible, reflecting on some of the scriptures read since ancient times on the Easter Vigil- a special service where many people became Christians. Before receiving their Baptism into the faith, a beautiful service of Darkness and Light led the whole church through the “Journey” of God’s saving mission through history. It is our hope that these stories will help OUR Alegent community better see where God is leading each of us this Lent .

Now for our first story of the Flood… I must admit, with some humor that I wrote this message during that scary downpour last night! This story has some challenges though, and I don’t just mean the weather—we see here a side of God that is hard to feel “safe around.” I used to love the story of Noah as a kid because of the animals and the drama—but as a religious ed-teacher friend pointed out recently, it’s really a very “grown up story.” How do we reconcile the God of Love brought to us by Jesus with a God who would wipe out all life on Earth? We are told, before this point that humankind has become evil on a level that is unimaginable—though perhaps places from our own time, like Nazi Concentration Camps might give us just a hint. Still, does that justify God’s killing innocent children, plants and animals too?

These are hard questions, and I personally have tried to make sense of it by wrestling with the thinking of the people who wrote this story. Modern science tells us that the ancient world did in fact have many dramatic, worldshaking floods at the end of the last Ice Age, as ice melted and sea levels rose. Peoples around the world have Flood stories and, whether or not one believes in a literal Biblical-flood, it seems the ancients—from the Middle East to the Native Americans—faced disasters that “washed their whole worlds away.” The ancient peoples tried to understand the actions of their Creator as the Chaos of the natural world turned their lives upside down. However what’s interesting is that many of these stories focus less on the tragedy of Floods, but then of their beliefs in the kindness of the Divine in leading them through to new life on the other side. Even if God punishes or simply allows suffering in this world, God ultimately saves and brings new life. Another ancient tradition of the Church, based on the Bible’s letter from Peter (1 Peter 3:18-20) even suggests God did not forget the people killed in the Flood; Instead, we are told in 1st Peter that Jesus preached to the “imprisoned spirits” of those very people who died in the Flood, alongside other Old Testament characters after his Resurrection, perhaps even giving these people God punished another chance for His Salvation. The ancients believed God was full of surprising mercy and hope, and this helped them cope with the hard questions.

What speaks to me most in this story, then is not just struggling with the “Why’s” of the Floods and Chaotic places of life, but in also finding hope in this God of Surprises. We indeed experience many “Floods” in our world today, places where the Waters rush in and leave no easy answers. From man-made horrors like violence in Syria and the school-shooting this past week, to Tornados and Earthquakes last year, our world suffers from no shortage of Chaos. It also strikes in smaller but no less devastating ways, from crises of sudden illness or loss in our own families, to the daily struggles we as Alegent staff face to address the Financial, Ethical and Community problems our Healing Institution must confront to fulfill its mission. The Bible gives us the startling image of “waters that cover the highest mountains,” and surely some of our problems must feel that way some days!

We are told that “God remembered Noah and all the animals with him in the Ark.” But in these moments we wonder “does God remember us today?” Our lives can be hard. But the message of Jesus, as we begin this Lent remains the hope that God did not just remain in the sky, sending down Floods but became one of us, to share our struggles and lives in the most surprising of ways. In Jesus we have a “God-with-Us,” who promised that works done and lives touched for God matter, and to have faith our struggles will eventually break out into a new day, a world with no more tears but alight in the Love of God itself. That’s God’s Mission, a Mission God invites each of us to be a part of today. I pray we might each take strength from this promise when the Rains come. Amen.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

God's God's Hope for a World of Exiles

As a Chaplain Resident this year with Alegent Health, I've been asked to preach a few Lenten sermons and I've decided to share them here. Alegent is a joint Catholic-Lutheran compassionate faith-based healthcare network across Nebraska, and which includes special concern for underserved and needy populations. This sermon is part of a series about "God on a Mission," echoing Alegent's new brand motto and following God's story through the various Old Testament readings of the Easter Vigil.

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners

God’s Word Has Been Sent Out… It Shall Not Return in Vain

Passages: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Isaiah 55:1-11
In our passages today we receive images of hope-of God calling thirsty, starving people to waters of life, and of God's promise that the Word he sends out will not return empty, but produce much life. These words of hope, however must have sounded shocking to the people of Israel who, in this time were pitiful refugees, languishing in the Babylonian empire which had conquered them several generations before. They had lost their homes, their king, their beautiful temple, and above all the Promised Land God had given their ancestors. They were a broken people, who had come to see themselves punished and hated by the God who made promises of land and hope to their ancestor Abraham.

But to these very people, literally without money and thirsting for the waters of lost milk and honey God promises a new covenant, an Everlasting Covenant that will bless not just them, but nations all over the world. These people, who were surely seen as outcasts and failures by their Babylonian captors are told peoples they do not even know will run to them for blessing. God reminds these people, at their lowest point of a bigger picture, that God's mission is not finished, and that that mission has a wider embrace than they had perhaps been able to see when they had all the comforts of their own land. God is going to so bring them home- but when he does, He's going to do even bigger things. They'd better get ready!

Our psalm, too echoes this, speaking of God bringing in his redeemed from all corners of the world, or all 4 of the directions, as some of my Native American friends would say. When it was first written, perhaps the psalmist only thought he was speaking of his own people- but in later times the Jews, and those Christians who would follow came to believe God's message was meant to be a blessing for people of every tongue, race and continent. Just when the night seemed darkest, God had a new word for us. As Christians, many of us believe Jesus, God's Word made flesh was the most surprising expression of that- God coming to us as HIMSELF as a human being, to win victory through death itself.

What does that mean to us today? John Steinbeck's novel "East of Eden" captures an older Biblical image of Exile from paradise, that all human beings are struggling to live in an imperfect world, a place of unfinished stories that leave us all feeling "homeless in Babylon" many times. As people working in healthcare, we are especially aware as people come to us with broken bodies, or thirsting for care they can afford in a world with so little bread. So much of the work done here, behind the scenes makes that healing ministry happen. But even as we seek to heal others, we must face the broken places, the invasions of grief, loss and disappointment in our own lives and families. We face those questions that strike so many faithful people-- "How could God let this happen!?" and "Where is God when it Hurts?!" We all face our places of exile, sorrow and despair, when we fear life has lost its purpose or, even worse, that God has left us alone. But God's message to us today is still a message of hope to exiles. That as we approach Lent's darkest hour, Jesus' own long night, we will see again a God who has been there, who has himself faced death as one of us, and come out the other side to give us a hope and a promise that will never fade. Though the nights are still long, God is STILL speaking to exiles and bringing healing water into our world today. And still calling us to Come, and Follow Me.

-Kieran Conroy, MDiv Omaha, Spring 2012