Sermon: “The Fallout Shelter” (Genesis 6:9-22, 8:6-13)

The first year I was in divinity school, I lived by myself in a remote, rambling old house at the end of long dirt road.

There’s a lot of backstory to my being in that place.

But what I’ll say today is that I was very glad to be there, and my being there came at one of those times in life when I felt like the quiet would do me good.

And in many ways, over time, it did.

But not at first.

The house was full of furniture under slipcovers that had been there since the previous owner had closed it up for the winter in 1982 and not come back, and so it was hard to stay there and not feel like someone would see eventually the kitchen light on and call the state police.

Worst of all, that dirt road was long enough, and remote enough, and the house was big enough and creaky enough, and I didn’t have a television, so that at night, when there was a breeze coming over the mountain, it could get just a little spooky.

And it was on a night just like that when I discovered that the house had an abandoned fallout shelter.

Did anybody here have a fallout shelter at some point?

I only knew about them from those black and yellow signs that you used to see on buildings in Manhattan.

My dad grew up with someone whose family built one during the “Duck and Cover” era, and he remembered going down there to play and seeing shelves floor to ceiling with Chicken of the Sea and Spam and Army surplus MREs.

I’d heard about that. But that was all I knew.

And then one night in February, I realized that I was feeling unusually cold in the house. I went over to the thermostat and turned it up…the furnace didn’t kick on…so I went into the basement.

And it was there with my flashlight that next to the furnace that I noticed a door I hadn’t noticed before.

It opened into a cinderblock passage, just wide enough for one person, leading away from the house.  

About twenty feet later, it opened into a room that was maybe just a little bigger than the Church Parlor. Along every wall were shelves, or the metal brackets that had once supported shelves. In the middle of the floor was an old chair.

And I realized that I was standing under the hill beside my house.

Well, I was not standing there long…I can tell you that.

But in a place that was so remote to begin with, so set up for solitude, there was something about that room itself that was just so afraid. 

I was spooked. But the room itself was fearful in a way that I have never been.

And the more I thought about it, the sadder it seemed.

It meant that this rambling old colonial farmhouse that had started as a pleasant weekend getaway had been reimagined as someone’s final retreat at the end of the world.  It was hard to know what to make of that.

Now typically, when we talk about the story of Noah and the ark, we tell it as a story of God’s judgment upon the wickedness of humanity, but also of God’s tender care for the one righteous man who is left on earth.

And with all those animals, gathered two by two and stacked inside the ark, there is possibility that God is anticipating a re-launch of Creation—but if you read the story closely, you will notice that God never exactly promises that.

God promises that Noah and his family – and the animals – will all escape the flood.

Noah builds the ark, and God personally shuts the hatch as the rains begin.

But if you were Noah, you would have heard that final click with no guarantees about the future.

Maybe God’s plan was that going forward, Creation itself was going to be a smaller proposition—that from now on, Creation was to be limited to this ark, all alone, riding the billows of a formless void.

This floating fallout shelter was all that would be left. And actually, it seems as if, somehow, Noah is o.k. with that.

I say that because while it’s important to speak of Noah’s great faith, it’s important to name at least the possibility of his fear. It’s important to name the possibility that his dream is simply that he will escape the world as it falls apart, taking only his family with him, with an all you can eat animal buffet lining the shelves along every wall. The ultimate man-cave.

And aren’t there times when we want to do that too?

It’s a good weekend to ask that question.

This is a weekend when so many people in our community are just returning from special places—from refuges and retreats of all descriptions, places where “I’m soooo sorry, but there isn’t any cell reception, places where life in all its complexity can’t get to us for awhile.

Thank God we have those places. That’s what Sabbath is all about, and we live in a world where Sabbath is harder and harder to claim.

But there’s a big difference between going somewhere to disconnect and going somewhere to reconnect, and in our haste to get away, I’m not sure we always see that distinction correctly.

Along those lines, sometimes as I drive by those beautiful houses in the Greenwich backcountry, I wonder what it’s like for the families that live there.

Are those houses full of life and laughter, places to unwind and to reconnect with those we love at the end of a long day? Are they places where people gather, or where something creative has the space it needs to happen?

Or are they more like Noah’s ark, each one a place where someone has retreated to for safety from the world…a place to live cut off but secure, a table for one at the world’s most opulent fallout shelter?

I know someone who lived with his mother in a big old house in Hyde Park, Chicago. And things had gotten so bad between them at one point that for several months they communicated only by email, even when they were both at home.

They lived under the same roof, but each was riding the billows of the storm in an ark built only for one.

I don’t know what you call that. But you don’t call it being saved–salvation. You don’t call it election. You don’t call it being chosen.

The Bible’s vision of the world – God’s vision of the world – is always about not just us but others, too. Our faith is an extended argument that human flourishing is only possible in community. And so community making, and community keeping are the work of faithful people.

Maybe you can say that by loading his family into the ark, Noah is taking a stab at community keeping. Keeping his family afloat and all that.

To me, that’s not the important moment. To me, the important moment comes later.

Because at a certain point, the waters receded.

At a certain point, the ark came to rest.

The sound of the waves became the sound of the wind, and the movement of the hull grew gentle and then stopped.

But the ark, we’re told, had no windows. There was only the hatch that God had closed.

And so at some point, Noah has to decide if he’s willing to open the hatch and see what’s what. He has to decide if he’s going to stand pat or go all in.

For me, this is when Noah shows the greatest and most important kind of faith.

Faith is not when he goes in the ark. It’s when he steps out of it. It’s when he steps out into an empty, soggy world and begins to remake human society as best he can with the people he’s got and whatever tools are at his disposal.

That’s when his faith triumphs. That’s when our faith triumphs, too.

It’s not about being righteous enough that we get priority boarding on the ark; it’s about being faithful to great work of community making and community keeping, using whatever tools are at our disposal.

As another school year, and a program year begin, it’s a good time to ask ourselves if we’re going to stand pat or go all in.

This church could be an ark, or a fallout shelter—a place to retreat from our fears. Or maybe, like that old farmhouse where I used to live, it will be a pleasant weekend getaway.

But it could be much more.  And faith tells us that it should be. 

It could be the place where, with the help of God, we decide to get down to business.

A place where we learn how to change the world, one family at a time, one Bible study at a time, one office at a time, one mission trip at a time, one credit card statement at a time, one Youth Group meeting at a time, one phone call at a time, or one prayer at a time.

Is now the time?

Open the hatch, there, Noah, and see for yourself.

Welcome home, church.

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