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Freefall

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

March 10, 2019
Genesis 7:1-18

A Reading from Genesis

Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.”

And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him. Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth. And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

On the very same day Noah with his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons entered the ark, they and every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind—every bird, every winged creature. They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the Lord shut him in.

The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters.


What a difference a week makes. Last Sunday it was nearly freezing outside and now all of a sudden it feels like summer. And by strange contrast last week we were on the mountaintop with Jesus at the transfiguration — a sort of summer picnic story halfway through the Gospel, a chance for Jesus and his followers to get away from it all, and then of course this week we well back into the valley, on our way to Jerusalem, bound for the cross, bound for Good Friday, bound into Lent with all of its seasonal inevitability, all of it with the dust of Ash Wednesday still on our foreheads. This is how Luke’s Gospel turns — the Transfiguration immediately follows the moment when the disciples first hear Jesus predict his own death — and so a story which very slowly climbs up the mountain then starts to come down with determination and gravity. Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, and as John reminded us on Wednesday. There is now no other destination. All Lenten journeys end in the same place.

All of which means that I suspect it is worth asking what sort of journey this Lenten thing is supposed to be? What are these 40 days supposed to contain? What kind of trip are we on? I have to admit that when I hear the phrase Lenten journey I immediately conjure up some Biblical image of these road-bitten disciples following Jesus down the mountain and towards the city — it’s a walking pilgrimage, there’s a big group of us, lots of beards and sandals, sometimes it gets a little dusty, sometimes a little windy, sometimes the theme music from Lawrence of Arabia comes in. My Lenten imagination sounds a lot like going on Outward Bound somewhere. But there’s a difference between what these disciples experience and what we experience. They’ve heard Jesus predict his death, but they don’t know it for sure. They don’t know how this ends. The story hasn’t fully been written yet. They are living this thing in real time. We are remembering over and over. We are reliving over and over. We set ourselves towards Jerusalem over and over knowing exactly how it ends and exactly where it goes and exactly how little there is that we can do about it. We know that once this thing starts it only goes one place. This isn’t a road trip where you can pull over and stop the car.

It is perhaps instead a bit like setting off in an ark and waiting. This morning we heard only a chunk of the first part of the story of the Genesis flood, a fairly simple story when it’s reduced for Sunday school pageants and something more complicated when you try to read it from beginning to end. And today we’re not even reading the full resolution of the thing — we’re not reading a story about rainbows or covenants, we’re not reading a story about deliverance, we’re not even contemplating what 40 days of life on this ark could have been like surrounded by the whole menagerie of creation. The story we tell this morning is simply about a man being sent on a journey over which he has no control. “The Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” You can yes or you can say no, but after that you’re just going to float there and wait. “And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.”

Now one of the challenges of reading a story like Noah with our own contemporary lens is that we start to ask lots of historical questions that this text is not equipped to answer. Was there really a flood? Was there really an ark? Was there really an ark large enough to hold two of every species? When we say two of every species, are we also talking about like, micro-bacteria? And so on. And I just want to level with you right here and tell you that I think for our theological purposes, those are the wrong questions. I think that when we get into what Biblical scholars call the prehistoric narratives in Genesis — everything before Abraham shows up — we are in territory that is most richly imagined as a book of stories held by the later generations of Israelites that were trying to make sense of the God who had led them through the wilderness. So what does it mean to imagine Miriam’s generation telling this story? Deborah’s generation? Jeremiah’s generation? What did they find true in this story about the God who had been true to them already? What was it about their journey that they saw honestly reflected in Noah’s journey?

And I wonder if the answer to that isn’t something about trust. God has a pretty well-established habit of sending people out beyond their comfort zone, sight unseen — Abraham, Joseph, all of the Israelites trapped in Egypt. Later generations telling Noah’s story would see themselves easily represented by this man who obeys God’s call despite the total absurdity of it — waters covering the whole earth, all the creatures in your little boat — in fact the absurdity of it would only make the story more relatable, because sure enough God has also sent Abraham and Joseph and all the Israelites into their own absurd journeys. And yet, Noah trusts God. There’s no steering wheel on this boat. No depth finder. As soon as he says yes, Noah surrenders his agency. All he can do, forty days on the water, all he can do is trust. Trust the creator who sent him. Trust the creator who guided him. Trust the creator who decided all of this was somehow a good idea. Strip away all of the modern questions and this story is a story about trusting God. And even more than that. It’s a story about trusting the ark that God told him how to build.

This part is not incidental. As I said, we did not read the entirety of the Noah story — even before this morning’s reading, God has already instructed Noah on how to build this ark in the first place. And those instructions come in some detail — the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, its height thirty cubits, and so on. Now, again, we could ask historic questions — okay, seriously, how many animals are we talking about, and what are each of their space requirements, and how big is a cubit? But if instead, we read this story alongside Nehemiah in the Babylonian court, who is reading this alongside the stories of the people in the wilderness building altars for the arc of the covenant which exactly five cubits long and five cubits wide because God told them to make it that way and they did, and somehow Nehemiah will make it too even though he doesn’t have much control over the journey. But he can trust God. And he can the ways that God has equipped God’s people for journeys just like his. That’s what this story gets. It’s about trusting God, but it’s also about trusting the ark. It’s about trusting the altar, five cubits by five cubits. It’s about trusting what God gives us, and the instructions God gives us. It’s about going on a journey we can’t control. And trusting the equipment.

During the 1950’s, jet engine technology advanced rapidly, the United States Air Force began to worry about what might happen if test pilots working with cutting-edge vehicles at high altitudes needed to suddenly evacuate. The problem, as the Air Force already knew, was that in thin atmosphere, bodies in free fall had a tendency to go into a spin that could be fatal. So while they were testing the highest and fastest engines, they also started testing the highest and best parachutes — actually a new kind of parachute system called a drogue chute, a small, differently-shaped chute that didn’t really slow the rate of the fall but what it could do was deploy early and automatically in case the test pilot became unconscious, and more importantly, it could stabilize the body and keep it from entering this dangerous spin. The program was called Project Excelsior, and mostly it consisted of one guy, Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger, whose job was to be lifted up into the air to high altitudes and dropped into a free-fall, over and over.

On August 16, 1960, he set the record. Wearing his pressurized suit, riding in this open gondola underneath a 200-foot helium balloon, Kittinger gradually rose to a record altitude of 102,800 feet over the New Mexico desert — about three times the normal height of a commercial airline flight. It is not quite astronomically true to call this the edge of space — you’ve still got a ways to go in that regard — but Kittinger could see the curvature of the earth for hundreds of miles in any direction. He even stayed up there for a while, twelve minutes of simple drifting high above the wilderness. And then, at the appointed hour, he steps off the edge. At this point, the rest of the story has a certain inevitability to it. His journey only goes one direction. The question is only how comfortable he will be along the way — and how well the equipment will work. And sure enough, at about 96,000 feet, his drogue chute opens and does exactly what it’s supposed to do. Kittinger free falls — without spin — for four minutes and thirty-six seconds, still a record. And then then his main chute opens, and he lands safely on the desert floor. Just another day on the job.

I wonder if this, as dramatic as it sounds, is not what a Lenten journey really feels like. We climb to the mountaintop. We mark our foreheads for death. And then at some point we step off the edge, in faith. We leap off the edge, in faith. We put our trust in God. And we put our trust in the equipment. This is the thing about Kittinger’s story. Because of his jump, because of his journey, there is not an ejector seat made anywhere in the world that does not include a drogue chute set automatically to deploy in case of emergency. As we gather here, explorers around the world are going higher and faster because he was there before, because he made a way, because he made the equipment work. And fifty-two years later, in the fall of 2012, when an Australian daredevil named Felix Baumgartner decided to break Kittinger’s record for highest freefall jump, when he stepped out of his own capsule even closer to the edge of space — he did it with a drogue chute attached to his back. And he did it with Joe Kittinger’s voice on the other end of the radio, sitting on the destert floor, and guiding him in. This is the journey. It looks like free-fall. It tastes like ash. We are all going to the same place. But we’ve also all been there before. For generations we have been there before. We are all going to the same place alongside those generations who have been there before. And our equipment is field-tested.

So here’s the scope of it. This Lenten journey, we are talking and preaching about Lenten journeys. There’s something sacred in the Bible about these forty-day periods of time — Noah on the waters, Moses on the mountaintop, Jesus in the wilderness, something sacred enough that it forms the very liturgical tradition of Lent itself — forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday. Note that if you check that math, what it means is that Sunday mornings are themselves not part of the 40 days. Lent is actually something that happens during the week. Lent is what happens when you step out into the world, this inevitable free fall towards Holy Week, towards Good Friday, from the ash to cross to  empty tomb. If you would take that first step with me, be warned: it is not easy, hurtling towards the ground with ash on your forehead. It is not meant to be. But on Sunday mornings, here in this place, as we fall, as we tumble, you will find shelter. You will find spiritual food. You will find the voices of all those who have fallen before. You will find the fellowship of all the saints falling together. And of course, you will find equipment for the journey.

Some of it will be very practical. On the tables outside the sanctuary you can find copies of this year’s Lenten Devotional from Austin Seminary and I commend it to you as a way of hearing the voices of those who have fallen this way before. Some of our equipment is more foundational — the feast of the communion table meant to remind us of the resurrection meal that awaits us even on the other side of this ashen moment. But this Lent in particular, with these stories in particular, I want to equip you with something a bit more particular. Just a single word, from one Sunday to the next, a word for each of these forty-day stories. Maybe each week, the word becomes part of your devotion. Maybe it becomes part of your prayer. Maybe it just bounces around your week in unexpected ways and you can bring it back here next Sunday well-worn and broken in. Whatever you do with it, the word for this week is trust. As Noah sets off in trust. As we step out in trust. As we all follow along in trust. If you would take the step, I would send you into this first full week of Lent with that word on your lips and in your heart. And next Sunday I will look forward to circling up with you in the middle of the air. And stabilizing together. And holding on together. And trusting one another as we fall. And trusting God, who has sent us that way. And trusting for the time when we will get back up again, by the grace of God, and in the promise of Jesus Christ.

Amen.