Thursday, May 19, 2011

When the Levees Break

Yesterday, as I was returning to the church from a pastoral visit, NPR’s All Thing Considered featured a story about the music that came from the Mississippi Delta following the Great Flood of 1927. Perhaps you heard it. If you missed it but are curious, it can be found here. In the story, the director of Delta State’s cultural center identified one particular artist as the voice that for him captures the real spirit of the Great Flood. As he explained it, Memphis Minnie, who sang “When the Levee Breaks,” has a “plaintive nature to it that if it keeps on raining, the levee's gonna break; there's nothing you can do about it.” I wonder how that observation compares with the gospel.

In today’s gospel reading from the Daily Office (Luke 6:39-49), Jesus says, “Every one who comes to me and hear my words and does them…is like a man building a house, who dug deep, and laid the foundation upon rock; and when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it.” I wonder how that verbal image sounded to his audience. Was there such a house? Did they have specific examples in their own experience—houses which withstood desert floods? Did they nod their heads in agreement, sharing knowing looks with one another that silently said, “Yep, he’s right. Built on a foundation. Won’t fall.” If that’s the case, then the people of Jesus’ community must not have had floods like the Great Flood of 1927 or the current flood of 2011.

I’ll venture a guess that no matter how firm a foundation lies underneath a river house along the banks of the Mighty Mississippi the houses toppled when the levees broke. Or, if the house technically remained on its foundation, it was so thoroughly rinsed out by the flood as to be an empty, ruined shell. There are some metaphors (perhaps all) that find their limits in physical reality. But, of course, that’s not the point.

At our wedding, we had read Matthew’s equivalent of this gospel lesson—house built on the rock will not fall; house built on the sand will collapse. Although I probably didn’t make the connection at the time, we were married in September of 2005, which means that Katrina had recently flooded New Orleans, knocking row after row of shoddily built houses in the Lower 9th Ward off their foundations, swept into oblivion. Yet, standing at the altar, my concern was for other sorts of floods—spiritual ones, financial ones, relationship ones. And my prayer was that no matter how huge the tidal wave of chaos would be our marriage would be built upon a firm enough foundation (God) to withstand it. So far, we’re good.
But we haven’t had the kind of floods that come when the levees break. And there may be something that comes along one day that is so destructive as to shake our marriage off its foundation, but I don’t worry about that. I have a confidence that transcends the physical world. Even if the image won’t withstand our experience of Katrina or 1927 or 2011, we still hold on to it. That’s because Jesus is speaking of an even greater flood than any the world has known and is also reassuring us that the foundation is stronger than any that has ever been built. And the point is that no matter how wise a man is and no matter how solid a foundation can be, God’s foundation is stronger. And even though the floods that will come are more destructive than any physical inundation, God’s strength is greater.

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