The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

WHEN FAITH FACES DISASTER

Delivered 9/12/04
Text: Luke 15:1-10; Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Hard to imagine. It has been three years now since the September 11th attacks. "Life will never be the same again," we heard over and over, and that prediction has more or less proven true, although probably not in the ways that any of the pundits assumed. Perhaps you saw "The Word on the Street" column in yesterday's paper - the question of the week was "Do you think America's war on terrorism has made our country safer?" The majority said "No."(1) And they are right. Life is not the same as it was three years ago, not so much because of what the terrorists did to us, but because of what we continue to do to ourselves. In many ways, we are still living in fear, and, in my estimation, rightly so. It does not take a Jeremiah to see that more is coming - as a nation we have not addressed the motivations of the terrorists, and in fact, by our government's responses, the problems have been exacerbated. It does not take a revelation from God to see that our problems are far from over.

This week, the 1,000th U.S. soldier died in Iraq, according to the Pentagon's own accounting, going back to the beginning of the invasion. Grieving those 1,000 lives has been made tragically difficult, since the public relations of war dictates that Americans should not see their soldiers come home in body bags. No photographs of flag-draped coffins. After all, war is best fueled by ideologies, slogans, and fears. The faces of victims throw us off. But it IS personal, and a funeral here in Warren tomorrow is a tragic reminder. Are we safer? Ask John Mallery's family.

On the other side of that coin, we are a nation that has changed in its understanding of our heroes. After 9/11, we saw our police officers and firefighters in a brand new light - one that was long overdue - as it came home to us that these dedicated men and women put their lives on the line for us, unheralded, every day. They have always deserved our respect and gratitude, and since the attacks, they have gotten a bit more of their due. That is a good change.

Speaking of Jeremiah, you probably recall after the 9/11 attacks, some of our more fundamentalist preachers who figure they are this generation's reincarnation of the prophetic voice managed to find television cameras to make it heard. They proclaimed to all the world that the attacks were God's judgment on America for our toleration of a list of social positions that were in conflict with their own - gay rights, abortion, prayer in public schools, anything supported by the ACLU, etc. You might also recall that the response to those remarks was absolute outrage from people with any brain at all.

As you can surmise (if you did not already know), I think their position was abominable - the events of 9/11 are certainly not a reflection of the God I have come to know in scripture, in experience, and certainly not in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. For that matter, it is not even the Allah that is met in the pages of the Qu'ran, despite what you hear from Islam's own radical right.

So saying, where IS God in all this? Read the Old Testament and you regularly find predictions of gloom and doom for a sinful and unrepentant people. You heard Jeremiah: "My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil; they know not how to do good...This is what the LORD says: "The whole land will be ruined..." And, yes, you certainly do find those predictions coming true - defeat in battle, years in exile, and so on. For that matter, you will hear "prophetic voices" most anytime some horrendous event occurs.

For example, those of you who grew up here in Pennsylvania no doubt remember your state history and the horrific Johnstown Flood of 1889 - on May 31st of that year, after days of rain, the South Fork Dam collapsed and unleashed a wall of water reaching up to 70 feet high that swept 14 miles down the river valley, carrying away steel mills, houses, livestock and thousands of people - more than 2200 dead. As might be expected, countless sermons on "The Meaning of the Johnstown Flood" were delivered. In New York the illustrious T. DeWitt Talmage, using the 93rd Psalm as his text ("The floods have lifted up, 0 Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice..."), told an audience of some 5,000 that what the voice of the flood had to say was that nature was merciless and that any sort of religious attitude toward nature meant emptiness. "There are those who tell us they want only the religion of sunshine, air, blue sky and beautiful grass," said Talmage. "The book of nature must be their book. Let me ask such persons what they make out of the floods in Pennsylvania," he thundered. Good question.

Not a few ministers chose to talk about the spirit of sympathy that was sweeping the country. The New York Witness, a religious newspaper, went so far as to say there was a "loving purpose of God hidden in the flood," which turned a great many stomachs in Johnstown.

But the theme that set the most heads nodding in agreement was the old, old theme of punishment from on high. The story of Noah was read from thousands of pulpits. ("And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt...And God said unto Noah, the end of all flesh is come before me...")(2) This was The Great American Flood; it had been a sign unto all men, the preachers said, and woe unto the land if it were not heeded. The steel town had been a sin town, and so the Lord had destroyed it; for surely only a vile and wicked place would have been visited by so hideous a calamity. Sounds like Falwell and Robertson, doesn't it?

It was a line of reasoning which many people were quick to accept, for at least it made some sense of the disaster. But, according to historian David McCullough in his classic book on the flood, it was a line of reasoning which met with some amusement in Johnstown, where, as anyone who knew his way around could readily see, Lizzie Thompson's house of ill repute and several rival establishments had not only survived the disaster, but were going stronger than ever before. "If punishment was God's purpose," said one survivor, "He sure had bad aim."(3)

That brings to mind the onslaught of Hurricane Hugo in 1988 that did such damage in the Carolinas. If you recall, those were the days that saw the downfall of Jim Bakker and his PTL ministry brought on by the fraud which had been perpetrated on unwitting time-share purchasers at Heritage, USA, and was finally exposed by the investigative reporting of the Charlotte Observer. That esteemed theologian Tammy Faye Bakker said the damage from Hugo was God's judgment on the city that had brought down her husband. She never did clarify, though, why the storm had damaged the steeple of First Presbyterian Church but had left the Charlotte Observer building untouched. Bad aim again? Hmm.

So saying, there really was never much mystery in anyone's mind in Johnstown about the cause of the flood. George Swank spoke for just about everyone when he wrote, "We think we know what struck us, and it was not the hand of Providence. Our misery is the work of man." The same can be said for what happened on September 11th or just days ago at that awful massacre at the school in Russia. This was not God; this was man...and at man's worst, we might add.

Then what about all those hurricanes this year? Somebody has to ask what did Florida do to have this giant KICK ME sign on its back. Is this God's judgment? A certain ilk is going to think so. Several years ago televangelist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson was reinforcing this view of God when he warned that the city of Orlando might well face a direct hit by a hurricane because it permitted the display of rainbow flags out of respect for gay people. Said Robertson: "I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you." Good ol' Pat.

Fortunately, in our day we have come to see that there are other explanations for why we have these disastrous storms. Hurricanes arrive, not because God has a habit of punishing evil senior-citizen mobile-home-park dwellers in a land devoid of snow or ice, but because the prevailing winds, ocean currents and frontal zones combine in ways that make tropical storms more likely at this time of the year. The same is true of earthquakes, tornadoes, or floods. All of these are directed by the forces of nature. This is so in good times and bad and without respect to the moral climate or condition of the people who happen to be living in a region where disaster strikes.(4)
The God we meet in the pages of scripture is not this vicious, violent terrorist that some people want us to see (and terrorist really is the best word for that kind of god). Instead, we meet a very different God in the stories of Jesus like the ones that we read in our lesson. The scripture begins by saying that Jesus critics sneered, "This man, this Jesus, receives sinners and eats with them, that is, parties with them."

In response, Jesus has these little stories. "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the 99 in the open country - vulnerable to wolves, wandering off, and other all manner of mischief - and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders - just a lost child - and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Come party with me; I have found my lost sheep.'" Well?

"Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house, rip up all of the carpet in the living room, move all of the furniture out into the front yard, then move all of the heavy appliances out of the kitchen into the front yard, and search relentlessly until she finds it? And when she finds it, she comes running out into the yard, calling to everybody up and down the street, "Come party with me! I found my quarter!" Now which one of you would not do that? You know the answer: none of us would do that. None of us.(5) But Jesus says God would. "I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

When faith faces disaster. In which God is your faith? A God who sends airplanes into buildings because he is miffed? A God who blows 100+-mile-per-hour winds through impoverished Caribbean islands and Florida trailer parks? Or a God who is SO concerned about our ultimate welfare that the safe return of even the lowest and least among us is cause for a heavenly party? Not a hard choice, is it?

I am told that in Johnstown, there is an Episcopal Church - St. Mark's - that was already in existence in 1889 when the flood hit, wiped out the town and killed so many, including the rector of that church and his family. When the flood waters receded and the church was cleaned up and reopened, the survivors decided to engrave on the altar a verse not commonly carved into altars. Song of Solomon 8:7 - "Many waters cannot quench love." The verse goes on to say, "neither can floods drown it."(6)

Amen!

1. Warren Times-Observer, 9/11/04, A-5

2. Genesis 6:13

3. David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood, (New York : Simon & Schuster, 1968), p. 253

4. Charles Henderson, "God and the Hurricanes," http://christianity.about.com/od/adultchristianity/a/godandhurricane.htm?nl=1

5. William Willimon, "Outrageous Parties," http://www.sermonconnection.com/SermonConnection.aspx?id=2

6. Carlos Wilton, "The Bridge Is Love," sermon preached at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church, November 2, 2003

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