Easter 4: Bringing the world into our ark

4th Sunday of Easter

Sermon by the Reverend Doctor Brutus Green

Based on readings: Genesis 7.1-5,11-18; 8.6-18; 9.8-13, Acts 9.36-43, John 10.22-30

Is it time to build an ark?

This morning notwithstanding, it’s been a disappointing May. Especially after last Summer, we might have expected better, and the eternal British optimism about the weather is currently being tested. But I’m not necessarily talking about the climate. The flood is one of our foundational stories that helps us understand the world, and so we should always be asking, “Does God want us to build an ark?” Now I don’t want you to think I’m turning St Margaret’s into a cult. I have not like Travis from Taxi Driver, started muttering to myself: “Thank God for the rain which has helped wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks. All the animals come out at night… Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

It’s funny how the human mind works. I was absolutely convinced that the quote was that ‘a hard rain will come’ but I think I’d conflated the line with the Bob Dylan song ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’, which Dylan wrote after spending too long reading newspapers in New York library around the time of the Cuban-missile crisis. About the song he wrote: "After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course.  It’s all one long funeral song.” And perhaps the flood as a story had a hold on Dylan’s mind. My favourite song of his is “Shelter from the Storm”, which has a very diluvian feel.

For me the Flood is not a story about the end of the world. Rhiannon and I do have a plan for if the zombie apocalypse hits, but the flood speaks more of finding and creating safe spaces in the ordinary world. As churches were designed to reflect the shape of boats, we are asked where we can offer, to those who need it, shelter from the storm.

You may have heard that this week a great hero of the church, Jean Vanier died. After serving in the British and Canadian navies, Vanier had trained as a philosopher, but then devoted his life to setting up a network of communities for people with developmental disabilities. There are now 146, 11 in Britain. His guiding ethos was that we should be living with the poor, not just doing good to them. And before it was cool, he was setting up ecumenical and interfaith communities, which put shared humanity before creed. At a time when our care for people with mental disabilities was particularly abject, he recognised a need and an opportunity. So visiting asylums he noticed that despite appalling conditions no one was crying, and he wrote: “When they realise that nobody cares, that nobody will answer them, children no longer cry. It takes too much energy. We cry out only when there is hope that someone may hear us.”

But while many great reformers see poverty and work to alleviate it, Vanier understood that we when live with weakness, we can learn from it. In his communities, those with perceivable disabilities live alongside those without. And speaking of growing old, he stated that he wished to use his age as a sign of the Gospel he had proclaimed: that God is present at the heart of weakness; that despite loss of mobility, memory and ‘even speech’ he might continue to proclaim God’s presence. In this vein he had said earlier: “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.” 

The network of communities is named after the first house Vanier set up in France, “L’Arche”: which means The Ark. A space to gather those who ought to be loved more, against the indifferent waters of the world. 

Probably the most important moral philosopher of the twentieth-century, Alasdair MacIntyre, wrote: ‘I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?”’ The story of Noah and the ark is significant because it shapes our imagination in how we think of and respond to overwhelming and surrounding danger and difficulty. How can we create a safe space for ourselves and those in our care in the midst of difficulty?

The question for us at St Margaret’s is how we bring more of the world into our ark. How within our resources and capability we extend our friendship and hospitality to widen our umbrella. Not least to our natural world, which whether two by two, or for astute listeners fourteen by fourteen has a rightful place in the ark. Rhiannon, attempting to read the Bible in one year, was outraged when she heard that the clean animals went in, not two by two, as the songs tells us, but 7 pairs at a time; with all the disillusionment of a child having been told that the tooth fairy was…  switching to euros. And if those unicorns have taught us anything, it’s that we should be especially mindful of the young at heart among us. 

But this story of the flood should challenge us further. It’s a story first and foremost about the judgement of the world. But the strange thing is that it immediately undermines itself. Ostensibly, we feel and identify with the wrath of God against a perverse and foolish generation. And like the old crowds at public executions we’re secretly pleased at the idea of judgement and retribution, not least because any judgement that falls not against us is a relief. Schadenfreude, the enjoyment of the pain of others, is first of all, the quiet joy that this did not happen to me.

But the gamechanger moment is the end. The promise, the covenant, that this will never happen again. As a myth, it’s the oddest thing. Myths for the most part are old ways of explaining how the world works. But the flood does the opposite. It takes the universal myth of the great flood – found across all cultures – that explains the judgement of sin and evil, but then says, Never. Never again will this happen. So any time a Hebrew might have been tempted to say “Look, here comes the end of the world!” Her friends would have to say – NO. God has promised that will never happen. And this is not least important because of who the perceived judgement is usually against.

So to return to Taxi Driver, Robert de Niro helpfully enumerates the various low lifes that inhabit the night: the drunkards, gamblers, fornicators, and he doesn’t get quite as far as the clergy in the diocese of Southwark – but there’s a very real socio-economic element to the judgement he speaks as he drives through a grotty part of New York. It is those at the fringe of society that are most liable to our judgement, and yet, as we know, those are whom Jesus chose to spend time with.

And as the rainbow shows the covenant by which promises he will never again cut off all flesh and destroy the earth, so Jesus promises he will not lose one of his sheep, and no one can snatch from his hand. So in reality, we’re all now living in the ark, and it’s time we learned better to live alongside one another, as we’re really in for the long haul.  So for us, today, let us think of how we can better connect with those who fall outside the net of our society. Let us look to how we can bring more safely into our ark. And let’s also think what more we can do to stave off the flood, and keep creation ticking along, two by two and fourteen by fourteen.