Sunday, May 1, 2011

Disaster Strikes: Asking "Why?" and "Where?"

I am indebted to Richard Schwedes, pastor of Portland Heywood Lutheran Church, and for one of the RevGalBlogPals, whose name is listed only as "Katherine," for their instructive guidance in crafting a sermon which addresses natural disasters.

The radio station I mention in the sermon is WAPI, and the telethon was put on by ABC 33/40. Please consider giving to the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and/or Presbyterian Disaster Assistance as efforts continue in providing relief from this week's deadly tornadoes.

Don't "give until it hurts." Give until it finally gets better.

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them,
“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know — this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
“Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

1 Peter 1:3-9
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith — being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Early this past Wednesday morning, many of us were awakened by tornado warning sirens. Some communities were hit by either a small tornado or straight-line winds (Tim’s property had some trees down, and they lost power), and at least one person was killed while clearing downed trees. It was bad, make no mistake. But it’s Alabama in the springtime, and to one degree or another, we’re used to it.

But nothing could have prepared us for what was coming that afternoon.

Before 3 that afternoon, a tornado slammed into the downtown area of Cullman. This one, as well as the massive EF-5 tornado that would devastate much of Tuscaloosa at a little after five, was caught on live television. That same tornado then set its sights on Birmingham. For awhile, it looked like the downtown area of Birmingham would be hit. The weather service even specifically mentioned my own community of Tarrant as a target.

In the end, the media was calling it the deadliest outbreak of tornadoes since 1932. Pleasant Grove was destroyed, as well as Pratt City, and Forestdale suffered extensive damage as well. It is safe to say that, even now, we do not know the extent of damage to homes and businesses in the Tuscaloosa or Birmingham area. Whole neighborhoods are not simply destroyed, they are missing altogether. And lest we forget, Huntsville, Hackleburg, Phil Campbell, Rainsville, Argo, Margaret, Odenville, Sawyerville, and many, many more communities were damaged or destroyed as well. At last count, 250 people are dead in Alabama alone, over two thousand, two hundred injured, and many hundreds are unaccounted for.

All of our families have been touched, to one degree or another, by damage or death from this tragedy.

As Christians, of course, our first thought is to pray: to pray for the victims and their families, to be thankful that we were not killed, our homes not destroyed.

But if you’re like me, after the prayers are said, a question hangs in the air, unanswered: Why?

Why did this happen?

This question has its sibling, of course: where? Where is God in all of this?

Why do some people suffer, and not others? Were the tornadoes really an act of God? Was God angrier with Pleasant Grove than with Tarrant? Or did God favor Hoover over Tuscaloosa? Does Montgomery hold a dearer place in God’s heart than Henager?
Oh, there are those who are more than ready to point out supernatural causes for natural disasters, folks like Pat Robertson, who was more than happy to blame Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti on the sins and shortcomings of the victims themselves (or their ancestors!). These folks are quick to grab hold of a text like Micah 5, which concludes with “I will take vengeance in anger and wrath upon the nations that have not obeyed me.” They’ll jump to Psalm 106: “Fire blazed among their followers; a flame consumed the wicked,” and then there’s always selected readings from the Book of Revelation!

I’ve shared my views about this kind of “preaching” before. I have no patience for it. It paints God as a malevolent force, bent on exacting retribution for real and imagined wrongs, not caring if innocents are destroyed in the process. What’s more, such a view blatantly ignores huge, well, slabs of Scripture, for example 1 Thessalonians 5:9 – “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Yet this kind of view, this idea that God causes tornadoes and earthquakes and hurricanes and tsunamis speaks to the natural tendency of human beings to invent explanations for the unexplainable, to place blame where none is deserved, all in an effort to make natural disasters on a scale like we’ve experienced this past week make sense to us.

Perhaps blaming God does, on some level, make sense psychologically… however, it makes absolutely no sense theologically, because the idea that tornadoes or earthquakes or hurricanes or tsunamis are instruments of God’s judgment and wrath ignores one very important, blatantly obvious, person: Jesus Christ.

In the Gospels, Jesus, God-With-Us, does not incite the storm on the Lake of Galilee; he calms the storm. He soothes the fears of his disciples. If we believe that Jesus truly reflects the nature of his Heavenly Father, then what we see in Jesus is a loving and merciful God who would not cause tornadoes to come, lives to shatter, and human beings to go missing.

Indeed, the Gospel of John tells us that "This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” (That’s John 3:16-17 from “The Message” version)

Make no mistake, God does judge us, but most of the time that judgment comes through the Word.
We are judged when we look to Scripture and discover therein that we are living far from what God expects.

That judgment isn’t intended to destroy us, but to compel us toward relationship with Christ, understanding that only in Jesus can we truly live God’s life.

But the question remains: If God did not cause these events, why did they occur?

The short answer is sin.

Now, we often view sin as an action, something we commit, but sin is more than just an act, it is the nature of this world. This world has been infected and affected by sin, and Scripture teaches us that it is because of sin that we have trouble in the world. Natural disasters are not a product of a wrathful God, they happen because it is the nature of the world we inhabit, period. It is a sad truth that, as long as we live in this world, our life can never be truly peaceful. Yet we have hope, because we serve a God that, in Christ, has conquered this world of sin! Hear the Word of God, from John 16:33 – “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

God wants to save us, not judge us!

God wants to give us hope, not despair!

But knowing that, what does it mean, in this specific context, when in our Epistle reading today Peter speaks about suffering trials, about having our faith tested by fire?

Were those who lost homes, families, and their very lives being tested? Is the natural disaster itself a trial by fire?

I want to suggest… no, that’s not so. I want to proclaim to you this morning that where we who follow Christ are tested – where we who call ourselves “Christian” are tried – is not in the event, but in our response to the event. In this world of sin, things happen, and very often these things are horrible beyond words. How we respond to these very bad things as Ambassadors for Christ either brings praise and glory to Jesus Christ, or proves that we do not believe what we claim to believe.

The tragedy that this state has endured this week begs description. The response continues to be so overwhelming that it leaves me gape-mouthed in wonder.

I have held hands and prayed with a first responder, a battle-hardened veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan as he wept openly, mourning the fact that his team, searching for survivors in one twisted pile of rubble after another, found no one alive.

And I have watched as a graduating nursing student, someone who was in my youth group not too many years ago, gave her time and energy to the victims of the storm.

And I have seen car after car after car line up as armies of volunteers descended on them to unload donations – so much water that the local Wal-Mart sold out, so much food and soap and diapers and batteries that they broke a trailer! And I’ve seen these trailers, seven so far, hauled off directly to the hardest hit communities.

I’ve seen churches open their doors wide, offering meals to whoever wants them, and teams of volunteers with chain saws going door to door to remove trees from roofs.

I’ve seen a local radio station suspend their regular programming, giving up day after day of revenue from national programs in order to provide people a venue to call in, ask for assistance, and offer assistance. I’ve seen a television station organize an almost impromptu telethon and raise over half a million dollars. I’ve seen our own Presbyterian Disaster Assistance commit to being in the area, and helping wherever possible, for the long haul.

And I’ve fielded offer after offer of assistance from Twitter and FaceBook, arranging for donations to be sent to shelters and relief organizations from as far away as Chicago and Texas.

People have been offering help where they can, with the resources they have.

Disasters will happen – some will be huge, affecting many thousands of people; others will be much more localized, affecting a family. In times of need, will we point fingers, will we turn inward, or will we respond like Matthew 25 Christians? “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Let us pray:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.


  1. That's a home run, John. I'm weeping as I type this!

  2. Well done! A hard day and a hard sermon to preach. It is all in how we we put on the Imago Dei, or do our hearts become hard and cold? I like the way in which you've incorporated healing passages of scripture. Perhaps that's a good way to begin to hear the good news again, to realize that God is always there, even when we are so hurt and banged up we can't feel the Mother/Father's presence.