Monday, September 05, 2005

Hurricane Katrina Sermon

Like most of you, I’ve been consumed with the news coming out of New Orleans this week. A disaster area turned into the unthinkable when the levees broke around that city and engulfed 80% of the city in water, sludge, and chemicals. We’ve all heard the stories of disaster and despair, and today we come together to celebrate the Lord’s day.
When faced with natural disaster, there are numerous theological statements made by our response. Some believe disasters like this are the will of God, designed in the infinite cosmological omnipotent mind to somehow bring about good and faith. Some believe such an occurance has nothing to do with God, but only of human foolishness and neglect. My interpretation of this kind of occurrence is shaped by a theological perspective that strikes the chords of my heart as true: It is called “Process theology.” One of the major tenants of Process theology grows out of the Wesleyan insistence on the “free will of humankind. My interpretation of natural disasters is informed by the idea that God loves us so much that God is willing to abide by our free will to accept God or not. Much like a parent who comes to the realization that her teenager has come to a decision making age, God’s power is manifested in a persuasive pull rather than a coercive push.
The question of “why would God let this happen” does not concern me as much as the question of “would God let me let this happen without doing anything about it?” You see, the question of “why would God let this happen” is a product of our grappling with God’s relationship with a world that has the freedom of choice. If I believed in a God who acted coercively, then the question of why God could do something to stop the suffering and toil we witness in the gulf, in Iraq, or other parts of the world---why God could do something about it but chose not to would be what theologians call an “ontological problem” That is—a “problem with God.” You see, our usual notions of omnipotence or “all knowingness” and perfect love come into conflict when we suffer these moments of crisis and hopelessness.
The idea that “God’s got a plan,” rings hollow in my ears when I hear about newborn babies washed away in the filthy water, or about hordes of people driven to rampage when deprived of food and clean water for 4 or 5 days. It just doesn’t seem to satisfy my despair when I hear about 1000 people trampled and drowned when trying to flee from the rumor of a suicide bomber in Iraq. I can believe that God has a plan, but I don’t think I can believe God intended for those things to happen so that the plan could work itself out. Instead, I believe that God has a vision for the future. God has a great vision and plan, but it involves me taking the cues given me in subtle and sometimes magnanimous ways. God has a plan, but God doesn’t “push” it into existence by manipulating world events. Instead, God responds to the glory and despair that we face with a seed. This seed lures us toward the best possible outcome for our current situation. It is revitalized and renewed with every breath. We must be attentive to God’s whisperings in the silence.
Like Elijah, we must look beyond the storm and the fire, we must be patient to hear God’s voice in the ringing of our ears when the tumult is over. God is asking us to participate in the Creation of a new, better world. God asked Adam to name the animals that God had made. Likewise, God involves us in the creative act. Instead of getting bogged down in the interpretation of God’s supposed “action” in the form of an “act of God,” we are instead called to be a listening people—attuning our ears and eyes to the silent inspiration after the storm. It was not uncommon for God’s people to hear him in the fire or the wind or the thunder. Elijah knew a rich history of his people doing exactly that. Notice that each of the signs he observes in the cave are metahphors for God’s presence that were to be expected. It was as if Elijah was witnessing a highlight reel of God’s presence in the world. But, instead Elijah listens with some creativity. Instead of jumping to conclusions, Elijah listens in the silence. Elijah listens with ears attuned to the persuasive pull of silence. We are called to do the same.
During this week, many of us felt a call to action. We are in the process of responding to the needs of those who are entering our community in a desperate situation. God is calling us to harness the empathy we feel sitting in front of our televisions and direct it into an outpouring of love and compassion for those in our midst. In today’s scriptures, Paul proclaims our purpose as Christians is summed up in the simple commandment to “Love our neighbor as ourselves.” He tells us to “owe no debt but the debt to love one another.” He calls this a debt because God first loved us. Even in the midst of our self-obsessiveness, even in the midst of our self-loathing, God loves us to our cores. God knows the depths of our doubts and our fears and our stubbornness and our sinfulness and God loves us without reservations.
It is because of this love that we are compelled to broadcast that love in the world. We owe it to our brothers and sisters to love one another. We owe it to one another because we can love God back with the same disregard to reservation for sin and through our unqualified love for our neighbors. It doesn’t matter to us what kind of people they are simply because it doesn’t matter to God what kind of people we are before God loves us. God loves us in the midst of our sin and struggle.

Paul also tells us to “wake up” to the reality of God’s love in our midst. Paul tells us that our salvation is nearer at hand now than when we first became believers. That is, every moment contains the possiblilty for the renewal and zeal that we first felt when we figured out how to live like Christians. That moment is now, brother and sisters. We are being asked to love like it is a new and novel idea. We are being asked to create possibilities for God’s salvation alongside God. We are being asked to respond to the persuasive pull—we are not being pushed into a pit of predestination.
Last week, Moses heard the call of God from the burning bush to minister to God’s people for God. Moses was awakened to his identity as a liberator and leader of God’s people. He may not have thought he wanted the job, but God laid it at his feet. If we’d read the Romans passage, you would have heard Paul’s message to “outdo one another in showing honor….(read the rest)” Paul gives us a template here for being a church. We are asked to live out the Gospel with such vigor and commitment that we rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
Well church, I don’t know that I even needed to prepare a sermon today: The message that we’ve been hearing from Paul lately rings with crystal clarity for me in our present situation. There are people right down the street who could use our shoulders to help carry their load. They may have arrived here with nothing, but they carry heavy burdens on their back. Let us not shrink from the opportunity to proclaim God’s good news through our actions. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel wherever you go….if you have to, use words.” Let us remember that God’s compassion and grace can shine through us even if we can’t find any meaningful words to say to people experiencing grief like few of us have.
Let us not be “haughty and claim to be wiser than we are.” The images on our news have often shown people behaving in ways that seem disgusting and reprehensible to our comfortable morals. Before we jump to judgment of people based on the reporting of a news media whose common moral compass is “if it bleeds, it leads,” let us instead take a moment to consider the desperation of the people whose tragedy has become our conversation piece.
Imagine everything in your home of sentimental value….see in your mind those wedding albums, your child’s first pair of shoes or his or her baptismal gown. Imagine the family heir looms, the trophies that held memories of pride. Now imagine those things washed away in the muddy filthy water. Imagine your helplessness and despair. Now imagine that the meal you ate before coming to church this morning was unwittingly the last meal you would be able to have before this coming Friday. Imagine the sight of people dying because they could get their medications and having nowhere to put them but out on the sidewalk, only feet away from where you and your children sat, trying to pass away the time.
Perhaps we should have some humility about what depths we might sink to if we were placed in that kind of situation. I don’t know how I would react when faced with such a desperate situation. I would like to hope that I would remain sane and civilized, but if I really try to get inside their skin, I don’t know if I could. Let us face the work of Christ with the same spirit of our Master. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit gives us strength and courage to show the love of God to whomever crosses our path. As we come to the Lord’s table, let us come confessing our sins and looking for the quiet inspiration of God. In the simple elements of bread and wine, we celebrate God’s presence among us. In the simple provisions that we have accumulated for our neighbors, we embrace God’s presence and open the eyes of those in despair to its beauty.

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