Right in the middle of the scripture Sylvia read, Noah looked out the window of the ark, and he saw the dove swooping toward him. And she had nothing in her beak. And she looked exhausted. Noah reached out the window so she could land on his bony finger, then he cupped his other hand around her and brought her back onto the boat. And what you’ve got to understand is this is the worst possible news. Something has gone horribly wrong.
I would believe you if you told me that Noah flew into a rage! If he went and cursed the bird and the God who made her, that would make sense. Because what if they’re all going to die on this boat!
Instead, on the worst day, Noah reaches out in tenderness, and he rescues the dove. That’s the first miracle.
Today is the second Sunday of our sermon series on the story of the Great Flood, and what’s happened is the storm finally stopped.
The sky has entirely emptied itself. The crashing of the waves has gone quiet, now the ark has stalled out on the tops of the mountains. I know that sounds like good news. Any sailor will tell you getting stuck out in the stillness of the sea, that can be more terrifying than a storm, it’s where ghosts appear and men lose their minds.
Now Noah, and his family, and all the animals, have been stuck for weeks. After Noah sent a raven out the window, he went up and waited and watched for the bird, but all he could see was nothing. We’ll never know what happened to that raven!
Next, Noah sent a dove out the same way. Day after day, he waited and watched for the bird. This time, she did come back, but her beak was empty and her heart was pounding. This is exactly what Noah was afraid of.
You’ve got to believe me when I tell you, Noah did everything right. He built the ark just like God commanded. He kept up his end of the deal. This is when God is supposed to rescue Noah, but suddenly God has gone quiet! All Noah can see in any direction is the gray of the sea and the sky. There’s no word from the LORD. There’s no sign of hope.
If the first miracle is that Noah manages to rescue the weary dove, the next miracle is Noah decides to wait seven days and try again, and I can’t tell you what made him do this. Being stuck on the water for seven days is an eternity; it’s all the time it took God to create the heavens and the earth. Now the Bible tells us Noah waited for seven days, and what I want to know is:
What’s the difference between waiting and giving up?
If you have ever lived through grief, or depression, or… life, then you know the exact spot where Noah was standing. We know what it is to go out and look and all you can see is the gray. There should be a sign, but there’s exactly no sign of hope. There’s exactly no word from God.
If you have lived with depression, you know this is when it tries to sell us its signature lie. That’s the one that goes: the present is permanent. This is all there will ever be. The throbbing pain will never subside; the tears will never dry up; the gray will only go on.
Sometimes people think, it’s no wonder a person in this kind of anguish would want to die. But maybe you don’t even want to die, maybe what you want more than anything is to live, but that’s precisely what’s so out of reach. Because what you’re doing now is certainly not living! And how are you supposed to keep going…
I’ve shared this with you before, but I’ve long been fascinated with a theory posited by poet and scholar Jennifer Michael Hecht. She had a number of friends who died by suicide. And as it turns out, that’s not just a horrifying coincidence. Researchers have identified that a person is at higher risk of suicide if someone close to them has died this way. It’s like there’s something that makes suicide contagious.
With this in mind, Jennifer Michael Hecht decided to ask: What if the opposite is also true? When someone goes up to the edge but then chooses not to die… When someone considers suicide, then decides to stay alive instead… What if that choice is just as contagious? Every time a person decides to hold on and get help, they’re making it more possible for somebody else to stay alive.
If you are struggling and considering suicide, there is help. I’m asking you to reach out to me, or Mary O, or Nancy O, or call the National Suicide Prevention lifeline. That phone number is: eight hundred, two, seven, three; eight, two, five, five.
I wish I could tell you exactly what Noah was thinking when he made the choice to wait seven days then try again. I know this decision was a miracle. I know it matters that we notice how others are holding on, because we could learn this from them, because somebody who loves you is watching you and they could learn this from you…
You might know, something that Reverend Kuenning used to say was: On the worst day, you’ve got to tie a knot in the rope, and hold on tight. Some of you have told me how helpful this image has been.
Well come to find out, this was not just a metaphor for Reverend Kuenning. When he worked for Heifer International, his job was to accompany a herd of cattle traveling by ship! He talked about having to go down into the hold when the cows were giving birth, and the ship was rocking, and the only way to stay on his feet was to hold onto a line (a rope). For him, holding onto the rope became a vivid expression of faith, and we can see why.
A few years ago, Anthony in our church published a book that shines a light on how he survived more than two decades in solitary confinement. These days Anthony is working to advocate for limiting the practice of how solitary is employed. The title of Anthony’s book is Rope of Hope. The work is throwing a lifeline to those who are locked up where all you can see in any direction are walls. This rope is our insistence on remembering the ones stuck inside the gray. They might feel like they’re forgotten, but they’re not. We will remember them.
But here’s the thing. The rope that Anthony is issuing is the same rope that saved Rev. Kuenning’s life on the ship full of cows, the same rope he brought back to us as an offering of faith. It’s the same rope that Noah held onto when he prayed to God and heard nothing back.
You want to know the difference between waiting and giving up, it’s this rope. It’s helping each other learn how to hold on.
Because we know what happened when Noah tried this. After waiting an eternity, he dispatched the dove, and this time. This time she found a plant! She soared back to the ark with the promise of life in her beak, and it changed the whole story. All this time, Noah was part of the miracle that God was working, but Noah didn’t even know it! And all I’m saying is if this could happen to Noah…
All I’m saying is we don’t even know what the Holy Spirit has gone and gotten up to when there is no word, and no sign, and only the gray. And it could be this is when the LORD is counting on us to help with the miracle. God keeps doing this, even when she’s off working in the background. God keeps turning death into life.
In closing, I would like to share with you a poem from the collection Emerge: Blessings and Rituals for Unsheltering. It’s by Mary Luti. If the United Church of Christ had a poet laureate, I’m pretty sure it would be Mary Luti. She offers this hymn, this prayer to God:
When Noah set a dove to fly
across the ebbing sea
to seek a sign of life’s return,
he waited patiently.
Not knowing if she’d find a thing,
he waited patiently,
and prayed the dove along her way
toward unknown mystery.
And as she winged her way on prayer
toward unknown mystery,
already you had freed the land
and planted olive trees.
Already, as she circled high.
you’d planted olive trees,
already made the branch she’d take,
it’s green and silver leaves;
Already made new earth a jewel
of green and silver leaves,
while Noah still in patience prayed,
still scanned the cloud and breeze.
Our patient prayers are like the dove
that scans through cloud and breeze
for signs that in foreseeing love
you’re planting olive trees.
We hope she’ll bring a branch, but more,
we ask for faith to know,
that while we’re praying unaware,
the trees you’re planting grow.
Imagine if the tenderness in your soul could make you reach out the window and hold onto the little bird who needs help. Imagine if you could hold on with your own hands because we learn this from each other, and we’ll help you, and we need you, and you know what: There’s about to be a miracle! Hold on.