A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on February 18, 2018 (Lent I, Year B)
I sometimes get invited over to visit and bless newborn babies. It’s a job perk and one of the great joys of what I do for a living. There’s nothing quite so life-affirming as holding a newborn infant in your arms; and there’s nothing quite so stage-in-life affirming as handing the child back. Occasionally, especially if it’s a first-born child, the proud parents will invite me in to see the nursery. In many cases they painted it themselves and assembled the furniture and it’s clean and bright, and they like to point out, probably because I’m a priest, the Noah’s Ark mobile that hangs above the crib. The cute animals dance around the ark, and there’s music that plays, and the colorful rainbow hovers over the entire blissful scene.
And I compliment them on the set up and am genuinely happy for this new young family, even if they have no idea what they’re getting themselves into. But as I stand amid the serene setting and gaze upon the mobile, part of me always thinks to myself, “Have you actually read the story?” Yes, there’s a rainbow involved, and animals marching two by two, and a dove with an olive branch. But in addition to all that, nearly every living creature is wiped off the face of the earth! It’s a story with death and destruction and is that really what you want your newborn looking at as you rock her to sleep?
Actually the story of Noah’s Ark is, like so many Bible stories, complex and rich in nuance and theologically profound and exciting and maddening and ultimately offers insights into the nature of God and humanity’s relationship with the divine. When we actively engage with Scripture, themes emerge that move us beyond the surface of the text and into the very heart of God. Which is why we’re always encouraging you to wade into it and read it and be transformed by it. And, yes, this is a not-so-subtle plug for our four-part adult education series on the Bible that begins this morning.
But today, as we enter into the season of Lent, I want to talk about the imagery of the ark. It’s interesting that this story is handed down to us as Noah’s Ark. I mean, why don’t we call it, Noah’s Boat? Or Noah’s Ship? In English translations, there are actually two arks in the Bible. There’s Noah’s Ark, of course, but there’s also the Ark of the Covenant, which was a chest described in great detail in the book of Exodus, that contained the original tablets of the Ten Commandments. Moses himself had it built to God’s specifications and it was carried by the Israelites as they wandered through the wilderness for 40 years as the physical manifestation of God’s presence. Once they entered into the Promised Land and built the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant was kept in the Temple’s most sacred spot, the Holy of Holies.
In Hebrew, the two words translated as “ark” in English are different. The Ark of the Covenant translates more like “chest,” which makes sense. And the word used for Noah’s boat is used not just for that massive floating zoo but also, interestingly, in one other place. It’s also used for the small cradle upon which Moses’ birth mother sent him afloat among the reeds. So the same word used for Noah’s Ark is also used for the ubiquitous Moses basket.
But I love the idea of an ark as a place of refuge. That’s why we call it Noah’s Ark rather than Noah’s boat. It offers shelter from the storm. But beyond that, all three of these arks point to refuge and salvation. The Moses basket was used as refuge and salvation from slavery and certain death for an infant born under an abusive system in Egypt. Noah’s Ark was used as refuge and salvation from the wickedness of humanity and led towards Covenant with God. The Ark of the Covenant held the Law, the way to relationship with God for the ancient Israelites, refuge from uncertainty, and salvation as God’s chosen people. Some see the ark that is the Moses basket as a foreshadowing of the manger, another ark-like structure that leads us to refuge and salvation.
Whatever our circumstances or stories, we all crave sanctuary and refuge, safe places where we are protected and nurtured. Maybe it’s because it is our birthright — we come from the ultimate place of safe haven, the womb. And we seek the sanctuary that often remains elusive throughout our lives.
This past week amid news of another school shooting, the first instinct of parents everywhere was to protect their children. To keep them safe. To provide shelter from the chaotic and scary world that swirls around them. It’s a reflective action of every parent and it’s not just parents of young children, either. I had parents of children in their early 20’s express the same concern to me; the desire to protect their kids and keep them out of harm’s way. One of the most painful aspects of parenting is the realization that you cannot always be there to keep them safe. That evil does exist in this world and tragic things can and do happen.
I think one reason we come to church is that we seek safe haven from the storms of life. We crave the safety of an ark. And, frankly, this place even looks like the hull of an ark if you look up. Which makes sense as it is a place of comfort, a place of sanctuary, a place of peace.
But we can’t just hunker down and stay inside the ark. Noah and his family eventually had to get out and create a more just and peaceful world. We can’t stay inside the womb, or our comfortable homes, or even this church. We need these places to be inspired and rejuvenated and recharged. But the spiritual life is all about finding balance between seeking sanctuary and going out into the midst of the storm to make a difference. It’s not easy to leave the ark, but leave we must.
At the end of every service we are dismissed to go forth into the world, carrying with us the strength and courage that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. We can carry the comfort and stability of the ark of our faith with us. That centeredness, the rootedness that comes with having a place of sanctuary doesn’t stay here. In this sense the image of that other ark, the Ark of the Covenant is helpful. We can carry the presence of God with us wherever we go. As we go through life, whatever befalls us, into whatever wilderness we find ourselves, we remain in the ark of God’s care. And that’s the good news of this day and of this week.
Maybe the new parents I meet have figured all this out. Perhaps it wasn’t the cute cuddly animals that drew them to the Noah’s Ark mobile but the story of the ark and the sense of refuge it offers. In this sense, there could be no better symbol to hang in a child’s bedroom or in our own hearts.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018