Treading Water

This is the message I presented on 1st Sunday in Lent, 9 March 2003, at Tompkins Corners UMC. The Scriptures were Genesis 9: 8 – 17, 1 Peter 3: 18 – 22, and Mark 1: 9 – 15.


For many, I am sure that Bill Cosby is known more for his role as the father on the Bill Cosby show. But I knew of Bill Cosby when he was just a struggling comedian in the early 60’s. Because of his wit and humor, I quickly became a fan of the first of the many 60’s spy shows, “I Spy”. But it was still his humor and his description of things that I enjoyed then and still enjoy now. I saw him deliver the monologue about “Driving in San Francisco” and the images of his problems with a parking brake on the hills in that city came quickly to mind when I later visited and drove the streets myself.

But it may have been his rendition of the telling of Noah and the ark that made the deepest impression on me. For it was not simply a recitation of the Bible story we all learned in Sunday school but more of a dialogue that might have taken place between Noah and God as well as between Noah and his neighbors. The Bible doesn’t say much about how Noah’s neighbors would have reacted to the building of the ark and I am sure that words were passed between them. In fact, I am sure that at least one of Noah’s neighbors must have asked him what he was building and why he was building it. But, as Cosby pointed out, Noah wasn’t in a position to tell him.

As Cosby tells the story, the neighbor wanted at least a hint. And Noah’s reply, in the Cosby version of the story, was “How long can you tread water?” For a while, this reply became a way of telling others that they were on the brink of impending doom.

But there is more to the telling of the story of Noah, the ark, and the Great Flood than the by-play between Noah and his neighbors. There is the reason for the flood and the covenant that God made with Noah, and by extension, and we today.

The Great Flood of the Bible was God’s way of cleansing the world in a time when corruption and evil were greater than the efforts of the righteous of the time could overcome. God chose Noah and his family because, amidst the evil and corruption of the time, they remained righteous and loyal to God.

God’s promise to Noah following the flood was that He would never again destroy the earth by flooding and His sign to mankind of that promise would be the rainbow. It is important that we remember this, the first part of the covenant, because there are those in the Christian community today who claim the floods that ravaged the heartland of this country back in 1995 were a sign from God. The floods may be a sign of our stupidity and greed in trying to control the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers but they were not a sign from God or a punishment. God’s covenant with mankind, through Noah, was that until the ends of the earth there would be seasons for planting and harvest, day and night. Even though mankind had rebelled against him and caused him great anguish, God promised to Noah that the rhythms of the earth necessary to sustain life would always be maintained.

God’s covenant with Noah was a sign of a fresh start, a new beginning. With the new beginning following the Flood, God gave power over the earth to Noah and his descendants. It was a power that could easily be misused and many times has been. The people of this planet have long held the power to destroy this world, without the help of God. But it was also a power for good. The same powers and abilities that can lead to death and destruction are also the powers and abilities that can foster good and peace throughout the world.

But it was marked with the knowledge that God knew that the conditions of mankind had not changed; that the evil that was present before the flood still existed in the hearts of some. But the covenant also came with a warning. God warned mankind not to shed the blood of any person. And if someone did shed blood, there would be a reckoning. It has long been assumed that before the Flood, people were responsible only for themselves; now, God holds the community responsible for punishing wrongdoing.

If the community is to be responsible for punishing the wrongdoing, then it is also the community who should be responsible for the care of the people. Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to reach out to the oppressed, the downtrodden and the rejected of the earth. Yet, we look around and see that we ignore those to whom we should be ministering. (1) There must be at this time clear statements made, not by politicians or public leaders, but private citizens asking where the care of those less-fortunate will come from. Can questions concerning poverty, health care, housing and jobs be answered when the drumbeat of war drowns out all other sounds?

There is a collective responsibility to insure that this planet remains safe to live on; yet, we reward polluters and ignore the consequences of our own anti-environmental actions. We have allowed monies that should be going to the assistance of those in need to be slashed or eliminated; we have put the burden on those without to provide for their own well being.

This is a country that, on the outside, expresses a belief in God. This is a country that claims to have been founded on the values and traditions of Christianity. Yet, our actions speak against those values and traditions. The dignity of each individual and the respect for the well being of individuals are tossed out the window.

We have to ask ourselves what values and traditions we hold dear to our hearts. How can we claim to be a nation of peace when we espouse violence so easily? How can we speak of the freedom to dissent, publicly or privately, when the United States Congress passes laws that take away the most basic and fundamental rights, rights established in our Constitution?

Jesus treated everyone as an individual, even when society had cast him or her out; yet, we seemed to have forgotten this lesson. We are willing to treat an individual with less respect, simply because he is of the “wrong” ethnic background or because he doesn’t believe as we do. Those who speak out against the administration are called unpatriotic, even though that was one of the rights we sought for this country some two hundred and forty years ago.

We find ourselves rushing to the store and buying duct tape, simply out of fear but not knowing what to fear. Hope is no longer the motivating force in our lives; it has been replaced by anxiety and fear of the unknown.

But it was hope that Jesus gave to the downtrodden, it was freedom from fear that Jesus offers to us. Instead of reacting to fear and giving up hope, perhaps we should reflect on the lessons that Jesus taught us. Instead of creating situations that create fear, that take away hope, perhaps we should be working to bring hope back and take away the chance for fear to grow.

This should be a time when we should be building bridges – bridges of hope, understanding and cooperation around the world, bridges of fairness and equity, bridges of respect for the integrity of each individual, bridges of human and civil rights? These are the values that over the years that has made this nation great. Now we are isolating ourselves with massive shifts in foreign and domestic policy. Is it not in our best interest to be building bridges across the chasms that now separate us by shedding our arrogance and emulating the true heroes of September 11 who gave their lives helping others?

Nearly fifty years ago President Eisenhower warned us that “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” (April 16, 1953) We should do well to consider his words.

The purpose of Lent is to prepare for the coming of the Lord. It is not a time of sacrifice, of giving up something that we will regain after Easter. Rather it is a time when we should give of ourselves. Peter reminded us that just as the Flood cleansed the world, so did our baptism cleanse us of our sins and allow us the opportunity for salvation. Now we know that Jesus, who was without sin, did not need to be baptized. But he was baptized because it gave him identity with the preparatory work of John the Baptist and it showed us that Jesus was willing to die for our sins.

As we come to the communion table today, we are reminded that the reason for this supper was to commemorate that evening when Jesus’ ministry was passed to the disciples and to us. Jesus gave of himself so that we could live, free from fear and free from sin. We need to ask individually and collectively if we are willing to act in such a way that we give of ourselves as Jesus gave of himself. If not, then I am afraid that we may be simply treading water.

(1) Portions of the following paragraphs were adapted from the e-mail “Called to be Peacemakers” written on February 27, 2003 by Mary Lu Bowen and distributed to pastors in the New York Annual Conference on March 4, 2003.

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