"Get In The Ark"
By Father James Gavrilos
Saint Mark Greek Orthodox Church, Boca Raton Florida
This has been one of those weeks that as a preacher you do not know where to begin. What text do you use? What explanations can we give? What answers can we find? And as I searched the scriptures for an appropriate text, I kept coming back to an Old Testament text. And my message this morning takes as my basic text the story of Noah and the Ark. In the 6 Chapter of Genesis, verse 11 following we read:
"Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said to Noah, 'I have determined to make an end of violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and set the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you and I will keep you safe.'"
As I studied this passage I thought about Noah's friends and neighbors. The Bible does not tell us a lot about friends and neighbors, but I wonder what they were doing while Noah was building the Ark. What were they thinking? What did they talk about at the dinner table every night when in the shadow of their homes crazy Noah and his sons hammered and sawed and built. The story gets even stranger in the 7 Chapter of Genesis when God tells Noah, "Now go into the Ark and shut the door and in seven days I am going to let the rains begin." I think about those friends and neighbors during those seven days, how they must have laughed and mocked Noah, their crazy neighbor. What would they have said, "Crazy old fool, fanatic! Weather comes in cycles. We'll be o.k. Why can't Noah and his kids be like the rest of the kids in the neighborhood?" And then the floods came and only those that were in the Ark survived.
My brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, the events of Tuesday morning have forever changed the American landscape, physically and more importantly, psychologically. Many of our congregation, those of you who have your roots in New York or New Jersey, know that forever the landscape of that city has changed. The skyline that you grew up with and knew so well has forever changed. But more importantly the American psyche, the emotional reality of America, has been forever altered. The events of Tuesday morning have forced us to confront some basic assumptions that you and I make about life and death, and more importantly the priorities that you and I keep.
Let's return to Noah for a moment. You see, for the early fathers of the Church the image of the Ark became a powerful symbol of the Church. For the early fathers, if you weren't in the Ark of Noah you drowned, you perished, you died. And hence for the father, if you weren't connected to Jesus Christ in the Church, you would die. The Church became the Ark and many of the ancient icons depict Jesus Christ holding a boat in his hands, holding the Ark, the image being if you aren't in the Ark you are going to drown. If you aren't in the Church you will spiritually die. There is no salvation outside a relationship with Christ. You have to be in the Ark if you are going to make it. What a quaint idea from a long ago time.
You know, friends, during the time that the fathers used these images, the goal of human life was not simply living a long prosperous life. The phenomenon of what you and I would call upward mobility is really a fairly modern and, dare I say, an American invention. To the ancient fathers of the Church a long life was not even a question. You did not expect to live past 45 or 50, anyway. And riches, most of the Church was spread through peasant lands. People weren't concerned about building a wealthy portfolio. The real goal of human life was salvation and only a dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ could guarantee salvation and hence if you weren't in the Ark you were dead. How very different those goals were from the goals that you and I and most of us hold today.
I began thinking as I worked through this reflection, what boat would we use today as an image of the Church. We probably wouldn't use an ark anymore. Many of us would use a personal pleasure yacht, a big boat with lots of fun things on it. We live in a culture that is dominated by fun, by entertainment. Life should be one ha, ha! I was literally stunned this week to hear discussions on whether or not the national football league should play its games. While they are pulling bodies out of the World Trade Center, we are supposed to go and do the wave because the Packers scored a touchdown. And people say, "well, we need a diversion". The coach of the New York Jets, Herman Edwards, said something wonderful. When someone told him that America needs a diversion; you guys should be playing football this week. Edwards said, "If you need a diversion take your children to church and pray." The illusion that life should be fun and one continuous party has been destroyed this week.
Maybe we would use a different image, a different boat to describe the Church today. We would use a water taxi that would take us from one place to another whenever we want to get there. We live in a culture that if it is not obsessed with fun, is obsessed with convenience. Make it easy! Make it quick! Make it short! If we were going to use the image of a boat to describe the contemporary world we certainly know who the captain would be. It would be us. We, you and I, as a culture, we just don't need God anymore. We have relegated God to Sunday mornings. We have become what a prime minister of England once said about the Church of England. In response to a question about the need for religion in the life of England, he said, "Well, religion is good as long as it does not interfere with our daily life too much." And so, we have relegated religion into Sunday mornings and we have become a secular culture, a culture that thinks we can do it all on our own. And one scarcely hears God's name mentioned in television, in music, in our art and in our thoughts. Were we to design a church that would meet the needs of the modern culture, it would be a church that was fun, that was convenient and a church that didn't spend a lot of time talking about God.
While these ideas might fill a congregation on Sunday morning, they do not produce life-changing faith. They produce ideas. While these ideas might fill a congregation on Sunday morning, they do not produce saving faith. They produce religion. America does not need more religion. We have enough of that. America needs faith and we need it today like we have never needed it before.
My beloved in Christ, let us talk about faith this morning and where we find it and how we'll find it. I'm a parent. Like many of you I have 3 and one half children. Think about the goals we set for our children. We want the best for our children. We think about promotion. We want the best and so we give our time to our kids and we run them from trumpet to soccer practice to dance practice to computer classes to boy scout meetings and whatever else we can squeeze in and maybe just maybe somewhere along the way we may stumble into a GOYA meeting or a Sunday School class. Those things are certainly down in our priority list.
My beloved in Christ, we work harder to get our children into college than we do getting them into heaven. You see, a culture that is obsessed with fun, convenience, that no longer needs God, life and death do not mean much anymore. Getting them into a good college does. We think about protecting our children. This week is what I like to call an OZ experience. You all remember the movie, The Wizard of OZ, the great and powerful Oz. In the end little Toto opens up the curtain and we discover that that great and powerful Oz is really an illusion, a myth. This week was an OZ experience. We have operated under the myth, the illusion, that we can protect ourselves and our children. We operated under a myth that there were safe places. What place is safe? Where can I tell my children to go where they won't be harmed by some psychopath with a bomb. The myth that there is somewhere where we can be safe has been permanently destroyed this week. There is no where we can run and hide from hatred and violence and destruction. The curtain has been opened. The illusion has been destroyed.
But in the face of this illusion there is another reality because as we can' t hide from ugliness and evil and sin, dear brothers and sister in Christ, you must believe that there is nowhere we can hide from the love of God. Listen to what David says in Psalm 139: "O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me. Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar. Thou searched out my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. Thou dost beset me behind and before, and layest thy hand upon me. Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there. If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there I shall find you." The love of God is everywhere. God's love can reach down in the places we can only imagine. God's love can reach down into the depths of sin. God's love can reach down into the depths of despair. God's love can reach down into the depths of national mourning and grief. And yes, God's love can even reach down into the rubble of a collapsed World Trade Center. Even there, God's love can be found. And I'm not speaking of the miraculous stories that are just now beginning to emerge. Incredible escapes, acts of God, people who chose not to go to work. God's hand can even be found in a bombed out Pentagon. Many of you, especially those of you who have your roots in New York, know people who were in that building when it came down - co-workers, colleagues, family and friends, some of who made it out. And it is easy to see God's hand there, but there is a very dangerous implication. An implication that God's hand can only be found when people emerge safe and if they died then God must be absent. In times of crisis and trial we need faith, not religion, faith that God still loves us.
My dear friends, as clearly as I can put this, faith is demonstrated not in the absence of tragedy, faith is demonstrated in the face of tragedy. It is easy to believe when you escape. It is difficult to believe when you didn' t. And even there when life looks darkest and bleakest, we need faith. And where are we going to get this faith? Is it going to come magically? I have been a parish priest for eleven and a half years. How many times have I heard, "You don't need to go to church." So where are you going to develop faith? Where are you going to commit your life to Jesus Christ? Where are you going to bring your children up in the fear and protection of the Lord if not here? So many things that seemed so important Monday morning did not seem that important Tuesday afternoon. How many times have we pulled our children out of church for a soccer game, little league, school presentation, God knows what. How trivial those things seemed on Tuesday afternoon. I looked at my kids on Tuesday afternoon and thought what precious gift can I give these kids other than the gift of salvation. I can't protect them. I can't shield them. I can't keep them safe from a monster, but I can introduce them to Jesus Christ. I can teach my children that when things look blackest, God is still right there in the blackness with us, sustaining and loving us.
My beloved in Christ, God's hand can be found in the resiliency of the American people who will refuse to be beaten down by a vicious and cowardly attack. God's hand will be seen in our desire and in our will to rise up from the ashes and begin again. God's hand can be seen in that when things look the darkest, He graces us the most. When confronted with darkness, God said, "Let there be light." When confronted with sin, God said, "Let there be forgiveness." When confronted with hatred, God said, "Let there be love." When confronted with the cross, God said, "Let there be an empty tomb." When confronted with death, God said, "Let there be resurrection."
And so, where do you and I go from here. As you and I enter this Art, this Ark of salvation, we come to this Liturgy this morning and every Sunday and we come for one purpose and one purpose only, to recommit our lives to Jesus Christ because in the final analysis that's all we've got. If you have never committed your life to Christ, today would be a good time to start. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat it matters not today what side of the aisle your congressman sits on. I and the rest of America commend our president, George Bush, for declaring Friday a national day of prayer. May we all stand a little taller knowing that our president said, "In the time of trial, we need God." Not religion. We need faith and God. We need to set aside the trivial nonsense that has occupied us for so long. We need to set aside our trivial obsession with fun and entertainment, with wealth, with promotion and protection and we need to focus just one hour on God and making God real in our lives and the lives of our children.
My beloved in Christ, I think everyday should be a national day of prayer and remembrance. This Sunday morning is our parishes day of prayer and remembrance. As you and I pray the rest of this Liturgy we need to see the hand of God. We need to see the hand of God working in this community. We need to see the hand of God working in the lives of our children, but before we can see that hand we need to give Him our heart. What lessons will we take away from this awful week in our history? One lesson certainly is that this world is fallen. This is a world that is under the power of sin and the devil and no amount of fun and entertainment, no ha, ha, laugh, laugh television show is going to change that. The second lesson that we come away with this week is that we need faith, life-changing, saving faith, in the power of Jesus Christ. We need to commit our lives to Christ and turn over to Him our salvation. Third, we better come to accept that there are difficult times ahead. As I look around, some of you have seen combat. Some of you in this congregation have seen warfare. The reality is that most of us have not. My neighbor, who happens to be here this morning, and I had a conversation in which we said our generation is cashing checks that your generation wrote. Our generation has never had to fight for liberty and freedom. Our generation has never had to fight for those things that we hold basic to be American. We may have to now. Those of you who have been in combat need to stand up and tell us right now it's not going to be easy. Life is not a TV show. Warfare is not a video game. It's not going to end in thirty minutes. Someone is not going to push a button and magically make the bad guys disappear. And when things are going bad, you and I are not going to just shut off our computers. We reset and start again. There are some difficult times ahead. There are going to be some difficult times facing this nation, this military and all of its people. But if we have faith in Jesus Christ, if we commit ourselves to Jesus Christ, if we get in the Ark, there is a chance that we might live eternally. If we get in the Ark no matter how stormy the waves get out there, in here we will be saved. If we commit our lives to Jesus Christ, my beloved friends, there is a chance that you and I will get through this most difficult time facing our nation. And perhaps we will emerge a stronger more devout people. Perhaps we will spend less time watching television and more time playing with our children. Perhaps we will spend less time making money and more time spreading joy. Perhaps we will spend less time searching for diversions and more time on that which is essential. Perhaps we will spend less time gossiping and more time praying. Perhaps we will spend less time in shopping malls and more time in churches. If we don't then you and I, my friends, are just as hollow and empty as the New York City skyline is this morning. God is placing before us an opportunity for faith. We are in a national crisis and as I have shared with you before, in Japanese the word for crisis is a combination of two separate words, remember the Japanese use word pictures, and the word picture for crisis is the combination of two individual pictures, the word for danger and the word for opportunity. So this is a national crisis. There is danger on the horizon. There is danger in the weeks ahead. There is danger for our men and women who serve in the armed forces. But if there is danger, there is also opportunity. May this be for us an opportunity to get into the Ark, to make faith a priority. Faith is not just one of the many commitments. It is the commitment. Faith is not just one of the many choices. It is the choice. If we are ever going to have faith, not religion, life-saving faith, then you and I have to put Jesus Christ first in our lives. He needs to be first in our families and in our children. You and I have relegated our church and our faith to just one of many commitments. I get up on Sundays and I look at the table and I see what's on there - Little League, scouts, drama, soccer and I pick and choose and if there is nothing else I will go to church. That kind of faith will not sustain us in the days ahead. That kind of faith will forever look for diversions, fun and convenience. As you and I face another national crisis we need faith, faith in Jesus Christ. And if you have not committed yourself to Christ, I invite you to do so this morning. I invite this congregation to focus on every word of the Liturgy as we pray it, to dedicate your life to Christ all over again, to dedicate your children and invite your children to dedicate their lives to Christ, invite your wives and your husbands to dedicate their lives to Christ, even invite your neighbors to dedicate their lives to Christ. If you have not set aside all the cares of this life so that we can receive the King of all, during this time of national crisis, this would be the time to do it.
My beloved friends, this is not a church, this is not a building, this is not a structure, this is an Ark. This is an Ark and the storms are blowing and the flood waters are crashing over us but if you are in the Ark we'll find safety. Welcome to the Ark of your salvation.
Sermon of September 16, 2001
Reverend Presbyter James Gavrilos
St. Mark Greek Orthodox Church Boca Raton, Florida