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Sun, Jan 12, 2020

A freshly plucked olive leaf

Duration:18 mins 52 secs

Our Second Reading for today comes from the Book of Genesis, chapter 8, verses 6-19. Last Sunday we began the year with the beginning of the Book of Genesis - the structured and ordered account of creation. We saw how God put bounds around the chaos and created both chronological time with seconds and minutes, months and seasons; and kairos time - those appointed moments when God breaks in full of grace.

Such a promising beginning, but we quickly we discover that human beings do not like being mere creatures. They insist on being like God. A cycle of violence begins and continues through the generations to the point where, “the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” Out of this grief, not anger, the Lord decides to flood the earth, to return the world to a pre-creation like chaos, and to begin again with Noah.

We join the story this morning after Noah and his family have built an ark, they have gathered all the animals of creation, and the Lord has shut them inside. The windows of the heavens open and the fountains of the deep burst forth. Chaos returns. For forty days and forty nights, the waters rage. Let us join the story here as we hear this Word of God.

6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made 7 and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9 but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; 11 and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.

13 In the six hundred first year, in the first month, on the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying. 14 In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. 15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. 17 Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” 18 So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. 19 And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

If we are honest, this is an odd story to put on the walls of a nursery. It is easy to turn this story into a sweet account of an old man smiling on a boat surrounded by friendly animals. And yet, this is a story about death and deliverance; about evil and unchanged hearts; about the chaos that always threatens God’s people. Is “God destroys the whole earth with a flood” really the first story we want our youngest children to learn?

Perhaps not for our children, but it is a story we need to read again and again. For as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written, “The reality of chaos is not an ancient memory of peoples too primitive to think otherwise. It is as contemporary as human experience today.”

Take a look at the world in which we live. Can you feel the chaos threatening? There are devastating fires burning in Australia. Earthquakes hit Puerto Rico leaving thousands homeless. We have been, and maybe still are, “this” close to war with Iran after the United States assassinated an Iranian military general and in the resulting tensions Iran mistakenly shot down a passenger jet with 176 people on board. In our country, impeachment still dominates the news. The first to cast votes in primaries and caucuses are less than a month away. The campaign by both parties and all the candidates feels like it has been going on forever. That is just the news from this week. Can you feel the chaos threatening? Maybe it is already here.

In the first draft of this sermon, I turned next to struggles and issues for individuals and families in our congregation and community. I began a list - one example flowed into another and another and another and another; the list just kept growing and growing until I was overwhelmed. And I realized that you could each provide your own list of struggles and issues with children, teenagers, and students; adults, jobs, and aging; illness, loneliness, and abandonment; death, uncertainty, and loss. Yes, I know you feel the chaos threatening. It may be already here.

Perhaps that is why, as I read our scripture text for this morning, I was drawn to the first dove released by Noah. The rains had fallen. The waters had risen. The waves had tossed. But now, the rain had stopped and Noah opened the window of the ark. He had hope that God had not forgotten them, so he sends out a dove. But the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. The dove returns. Nothing but water could be found by this messenger of hope.

What do we do in that moment? That moment when the chaos has returned? That moment when we look for a bit of assurance, something to hold onto as the waters roar and foam, and all we find is water? The moment when the dove returns empty for the chaos seems to reign?

In his ministry with children through his television program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, Presbyterian Minister Fred Rogers sought to help children with moments like this - when things seem out of control, when natural disasters occur, when death and destruction dominate the news. To the children who watched his show, Mr. Rogers would say: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Yes, look for the helpers. Look for those who are seeking to make things better; look for those who are participating in rescue and recovery; look for the helpers.

That is wonderful and true advice that we can share with our children in moments when chaos seems to reign. Look for the helpers. And when chaos threatens us as adults, it may be what we need to hear too. But let that not be the only word we hear, for when the chaos threatens, we are not called only to sit back and wait for the helpers to arrive. God calls us to be the helpers as well. That is part of why we are ordaining and installing elders and deacons this morning. They are called to be helpers for this church and this community. My friends, when the chaos threatens, when the dove returns with no sign of dry land, do not wait alone. Reach out to one of the elders or deacons; call one of your pastors. Look for the helpers.

Well, seven days after he sent the first dove and it returned empty, Noah tried again. He sent out the dove from the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf. That freshly plucked olive leaf was a sign of new life, a spark of hope, a kairos moment for God had not forgotten them after all.

As Christians in the midst of chaos, we have those moments too. Sam Wells, former Dean of Duke Chapel, has written:

Christians have a word for the process by which they see beyond conflict and find an identity not immersed in enmity; by which violence is recognized, acknowledged, and named; by which the sin through which Christians fall short is distinguished from the evil by which they have been engulfed; by which wounded parties seek to tell a truthful story, make penance, and try to establish an agreement that articulates the wisdom needed to prevent a resumption of embattlement; by which they enter into repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and resurrection. The word for that process is ‘church.’”

In the midst of the chaos, the church, the people, you and me, this community of faith can be a freshly plucked olive leaf.

Yes, there is hope even when the chaos threatens. Often it is not easy to find or hold onto. In fact, it can be quite painful. In the third season of the Netflix series The Crown about Queen Elizabeth and her family, the third episode dramatizes the Royal family’s response to the October 1966 disaster in the Welsh mining town Aberfan. An avalanche of coal waste twelve feet high slid down a rain-soaked hillside, sucking everything in its path into the chaos: landscape, buildings, an entire schoolhouse. 144 people were killed; 116 of whom were children sitting at their desks in the town’s one school.

Queen Elizabeth, who today calls her delay in visiting her greatest regret, did not visit Aberfan for more than a week. Her husband, Prince Philip, does go on behalf of the family on the day of the funeral for 81 of the children. In the episode, Philip stands somber with the crowd of mourners, who sing the hymn, “Jesus, Lover of my Soul,” as they bury a long row of tiny coffins. The hymn is #440 in your hymnals and I invite you to find it.

That night, Philip tells his wife of the “extraordinary” experience, the grief and the anger — at the Coal Board and at God. “They didn’t smash things up. They didn’t fight in the streets. They sang,” he says. “It’s the most astonishing thing I’ve ever heard.” It might have been the most moving and true episode of television that I have ever seen.

In the face of the chaos, they sang. The dove returned empty and together the church gathered and they sang.

Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high:
Hide me, O my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide. O receive my soul at last.

The people of Aberfan sang and for each other they were a freshly plucked olive leaf.

My friends, the chaos threatens. It may be already here. We desperately need something to hold onto, a moment of hope, a freshly plucked olive leaf.

Look for the helpers. Be a helper. Hold on to one another. Be the church. Lift up your voice and sing. God has not forgotten you.

And never forget that you are a freshly plucked olive leaf for me.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray as we sing together the first verse of “Jesus, Lover of my Soul.”

Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high:
Hide me, O my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide. O receive my soul at last.

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