The sermon title was written long before Katrina hit New Orleans, and I make no claim to prescience. I like coincidence, however.
I chose the title because Noah’s ark was built for survival, not for sailing, not for exploring, not for making a big journey. Sometimes we need an ark—a safe, dry place to wait out the storms that happen in our lives. Should I say, “The inevitable storms?”
The story of Noah’s ark is one of those wonderful myths that are deeply imbedded in our collective consciousness—and, unfortunately, one of the myths that some confuse with historical, rather than spiritual truth.
You know the story. God (or should we now say, ‘the Intelligent Designer’) woke up one day, broke through his denial, he saw the fatal flaw in his design–humans were incapable of living together in peace. Realizing the mess he had made, he decided to destroy the whole thing in one big flood, after which he would start the over.
He searched creation until he found a righteous man, Noah. “Noah was a righteous man in his generation,” Genesis says. God told Noah to build an ark, 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high: according to my calculations that’s the exact measurement of this sanctuary. (I made that up, but it sounds so intriguing, doesn’t it.)
The design for Noah’s ark didn’t include a sail—there was no rudder, no anchor, no compass; a strange design for such a big boat on such an important mission—the mission was to preserve life on earth!
The big boat was not built to go anywhere—it was built for shelter from the storm–forty days and nights of heavy rain.
What does that mean: he was a righteous man in his generation? All we know about Noah is that he did what he was told. He didn’t ask questions. He was an obedient servant. Noah wasn’t a Unitarian. In fact, Noah wasn’t a Jew—the Jewish religion started with Abraham, presumably a direct descendent of Noah.
Abraham, was a righteous man in a later generation; Abraham spoke up demanded to know why God was about to bring destruction to Sodom; he argued with God, demanding justice from the creator.
After the rains, Noah sent one of his two to search for dry land, but the dove came back empty handed, so to speak. This happened a few times, until one day the dove finally found a fresh olive branch, indicating that the water had receded, so they could begin the task of rebuilding.
The olive branch is an emblem of peace. God put a rainbow in the sky as a symbol of making peace with humanity, through Noah. He promised never to be so destructive again.
The other ark in the Bible is the ark of the covenant—the sacred container of the Ten Commandments, which symbolize order. Without order there is no freedom—there’s simply chaos–basic survival, lacking civility.
Today’s date, 9/11 – is synonymous with uncivilized violence—a violation of the most basic contract between humans.
Katrina was a violent storm that uncovered things we’d rather not look at. There is just a very thin veneer covering up some unattractive things about New Orleans, and our nation. A veneer uses a deceptively attractive outward show to conceal something crude and unattractive.
There is, for example, a thin, deceptively attractive (to some) veneer that protects the White House from something crude. The president and those he has appointed to provide leadership failed us. Katrina flew in like a big bird and destroyed the thin veneer.
There’s a thin, deceptively attractive veneer that covers up the racism that is still rampant even when hidden from view; it was uncovered by Katrina.
The thin, deceptively attractive veneer that covers up the gross economic disparities and social injustices in America was uncovered by Katrina.
There’s much about America that is attractive and solid—not a deceptive veneer: the outpouring of genuine concern for the well-being of those left homeless and the staggering grief we share for the enormous suffering, is solid.
Noah was a righteous man ‘in his generation.’ What does it take for us to be righteous in our generation here?
The righteous person in our generation should not to be quiet and simply follow orders. The righteous person in our generation, at this place and time, must be willing to question authority and to demand accountability by those who failed us. They didn’t fail those in the midst of the flood, only. They failed all of us; this is our country; these are our people. And we had to witness the ineptitude when the veneer was removed, and we were embarrassed and disgusted.
It will take years to rebuild New Orleans and the other places devastated by Katrina. It will take years for us to rebuild our faith in the institutions that failed the victims and us.
It will take years, and it will require sacrifice on our part–economic sacrifice, and the willingness to engage in the struggle for peace, freedom, justice and equality. The willingness to speak up and speak out, risking censure by those with a Noah mentality.
Unlike Noah who built an ark for temporary survival, we must build the nation – stop covering up the shameful soft underbelly of racism, poverty, and inexcusable blundering failures of our elected leaders.
The disaster that resulted from Katrina’s destructive forces should have been no surprise to those in charge, anymore than the planes that flew into the World Trade Center on September 11 were a surprise. Anyone paying attention could and did predict it. But there was a thin veneer installed over the looming disaster by those who cared more about protecting their political and economic stronghold on America than they cared about truth-telling…which would have required some sacrifices instead of tax cuts and high-sounding phrases.
We have a great covenant which calls us to ‘dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love and to help one another.’ We carry it in a sacred place—the human heart.
We’re here today to be reminded of that great covenant and the challenge it represents. It’s what makes us a religious community—a community of faith; it’s what turns this place into a shrine; and in a more personal way, it’s what makes us human—the ability to be in creative relationship.
Noah built an ark for survival; Moses built the ark of the covenant; we’re continuing that work—we have a place of shelter, a place to retreat from the storms in the world and the storms that sometimes batter us in our personal and family lives.
Today we rededicate ourselves to the sacred work, the place where the human meets the divine, and though it is beyond our capacity to name it, it is within our capacity to respect it and it is the responsibility of each of us to preserve, protect and defend it.
This is our sacred task. May this Homecoming celebration remind us of the blessing we have here, and the task which remains before us—to keep this faith alive.