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

GRIEF, ANGER AND GOD IN WEST VIRGINIA

Delivered 1/8/06
Text: Mark 1:4-11
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

I stayed up late Tuesday night, as many of you did. The Orange Bowl - Penn State vs. Florida State. The two great dinosaurs of college football, 79-year-old Joe Paterno and 76-year-old Bobby Bowden - the two winningest coaches in the history of the game - pitted in an epic struggle. Not exactly a battle to the death, but, as it turned out, a battle to see who could stay awake the longest. The game did not end until after 1:00 AM. It also turned out to be one of the few so-called BIG games that actually lived up to the hype. Back and forth it went. Both teams had the chance to win in regulation, but it went to heart-pounding triple overtime with Penn State finally pulling through, 26-23. TA DA!!! Past my bedtime but worth it!

It was an exciting night and one that did not lend itself to just turning off the TV and going to bed. I stayed tuned for the late news and got even MORE exciting news. Twelve of the thirteen West Virginia coal miners who had been trapped underground following an explosion earlier in the day were reported alive. Wow! Who woulda thunk it? West Virginia had already been the recipient of one miracle the night before when WVU had beaten heavily-favored Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Now this. All the reports up till now had been grim with little hope being held out for any survivors. The explosion could have killed them. Carbon Monoxide gas levels in the mine were at three times the lethal limit. There had been no responses heard by listening devices. It did not look good. But now there was news footage of an excited young lady running toward the little Baptist church where family and friends had gathered to prayerfully await any news. As she ran, she yelled that twelve of the thirteen had survived. A miracle. What else could you call it? It was exciting enough for me to get up and go from my office to our bedroom to tell Christie who had just turned the light out a few minutes before. "What channel?" she asked. Six. This was good enough to wake up for.

Over the next hour or so the news continued. Penn State's victory was terrific, but it paled in comparison. THIS was phenomenal. I went to sleep that night...or morning, actually... tired, but really happy.

As you know, the next morning it all changed. The report of twelve survivors and only one fatality had been botched. It was the reverse - twelve dead, one alive...barely...in the hospital in critical condition. What a tragedy! And made even worse by the false hope that we all had been given by the reports just hours earlier.

I watched the early morning news reports and listened as people tried to describe the emotions that had come to the fore. There were the shouts and joy and hallelujahs that had been the quick reaction to the initial report, then there were equally loud shouts of grief and anger when the truth was finally learned. Name-calling, even fist fights in the church as people reacted to the horror. The pastor said that folks had to rely on God in the face of this turn of events only to hear someone bitterly shout back, "Oh yeah, what has God ever done for us?"

How could things have gotten so messed up? Well, as West Virginia's Governor, Joe Manchin, who was in the church and was swept up in the initial wave of euphoria said, "I wanted to believe."(1) The governor left the church upon hearing the good news to go to the command post to be nearer the center of action, and as he was heading out, someone asked him whether the report was true. He replied, "Miracles do happen." Folks took that offhand remark as confirmation. Everybody wanted to believe it. I did. So who then, in the face of all that euphoria, wants to be the bearer of bad tidings? Who wants to be the one who says, "Sorry?"

One of the things I have noticed after years of seeing disasters unfold, natural and otherwise, is that there are lots of people who suddenly become theology professors in the face of them. That is especially true in a Bible-belt mining town that takes its faith seriously enough to count on the church to be the center of the community and the gathering place for any news. There is the governor's reference to miracles. There was the premature exultation of the young youth pastor who credited the wonderful outcome that was initially reported to the power of prayer. We have no word on his response when he learned that the prayers had not been answered as he had originally announced. There was the lament of the plaid-shirted fellow on CNN who was saddened that, after the initial fantastic report that all but one had survived, only three or four people came at the pastor's invitation to pray for the family of the one who had been lost. The rest just sat and celebrated. Then there was the distraught lady who said she was a life-long Christian but now she wondered if there really was a Lord - they had prayed for a miracle, had gotten one, so they thought, and now had it snatched away. There is a lot of GOD-talk at times like this.

I feel sorry for a lot of people in the face of this tragedy. The miners, of course. Family and friends who lost loved ones, certainly. I feel sorry for that poor fellow who is president of the company that owns the mine. People were furious with him for not getting the truth out as soon as he learned it, but I can see his perspective too. The initial report was good news, now the new reports are bad news - which report is right? Word of the first misunderstood report had spread prematurely; if word of the second is spread equally quickly, will that be incorrect as well? And as he said, "Who do I tell not to celebrate? We did not want to put the families through yet another roller coaster of, 'Well, some of them are dead, some of them aren't.' We couldn't go there. There's been too much emotional punishment already."(2) Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place! Yes, I feel sorry for him.

One of the people I do NOT feel sorry for, strangely enough, is the pastor of that little Sago Baptist Church, the Rev. Wease Day. No question, he is a busy man these days, and I certainly pray for strength and sustenance for him as he goes about his work. But I do not feel sorry for him; truth is, this is the moment for which his theological training has prepared him. At the candlelight vigil on Wednesday night, Pastor Day said the days ahead will bring funerals and mourning for the victims, but he insisted they must also include a celebration of the lives that were lost. Absolutely. And they will also bring reminders of the truths of the faith that get us through moments such as these. My prayer for him is that he goes about his work in such a way as to convey God's love and concern that we have come to know in Jesus, and that he be the kind of messenger to that community that gives life to the beatitude that says, "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted."

And just where was God in all this? Right there. With the miners as they came to the end and scrawled notes to their loved ones. With the families and friends as they waited for word in the church. With the rescuers as they went about their frantic task. Our faith never says that God will keep us from trouble, only that when trouble comes, we are not alone. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me."(3)

Perhaps it is providential that the Sunday following this tragedy is the one the church sets aside each year to remember the Baptism of the Lord. As you Bible scholars have no doubt noticed, for all the emphasis that you and I place on Christmas and the birth of Jesus, scripture does not. We find the Christmas story twice: Matthew and Luke. In contrast, there are at least six books that talk about Jesus' baptism - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, and Romans. Hmm. There is a message there.

Scholars say that Mark's gospel is probably the earliest of the four in our New Testament. His first mention of Jesus is the baptism. Jesus comes to see his cousin John out in the wilderness. John is living an ascetic life amid sand and snakes but preaching a message so compelling that he has achieved first century rock star status and, as the text has it, "The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him." Standing there in the notoriously muddy water of the Jordan River, John offered a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."

Did Jesus need that? No. The church has insisted from the beginning that Jesus was without sin, so, no need for repentance or forgiveness. No wonder John described him as one who is "more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie." If anyone could skip this particular mud bath it was Jesus. But he does not skip it. Jesus willingly steps down into the brown water to take on the same mud as the rest of us.

Then, as our lesson has it, "just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens TORN APART...not just "opened," the Greek schizomai means SPLIT, RIPPED, SUNDERED...and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. The voice from heaven, "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." Great image! It is as if God the Father is watching from above at this fantastic moment and in divine euphoria rips and tears the very fabric of the universe to lay claim upon Jesus.

This changed everything! Jesus' baptism ushered in a new baptism. Christian baptism became not just a washing away of sin, as John's baptism was, but the baptism that brings a special relationship with God. Why? For no reason other than God chooses to do it.

Martin Luther is one of the most fascinating characters in the history of the church. Very human, very down-to-earth. A man subject to all the doubts and fears of any of us, and perhaps even more so. Martin Luther had a lifelong habit. Each morning, as he arose, he would make the sign of the cross on his forehead and say to himself, "Remember, Martin, you are baptized." When he found himself in the depths of despair or confusion, he cried out, "I am baptized." Intriguing. Not, "I believe," because, as those who struggle with what happened in West Virginia have found, there are times when we do not know whether we believe or not. He did not say, "I am a Christian," because that can mean wildly different things depending upon who is making the statement. No. "I am baptized." This is one done deal. God did it. A relationship was established that, regardless of the ups and downs of life, will never change. I have been claimed. I belong to God. "I am baptized."

Back in the '90's, the dim and distant past, some Presbyterians decided that they missed the learning opportunities that had been provided for their parents and grandparents in the Shorter Catechism. It had fallen into disuse because the language was archaic and was simply not attuned to the religious education needs of modern students. So a request was made of our General Assembly to come up with a new catechism to meet the needs of a new generation. The results were presented and approved in 1998. Three catechisms were presented, actually: one for general use, one for confirmation students, and one for children. I love the way the catechism for children begins - "Question: Who are you? Answer: I am a child of God." Wonderfully simple. This is a new generation's way of saying with Luther, "I am baptized."

It is with great sadness that we mourn today with the grieving and angry families and friends of those who died in the West Virginia mine. We are in this mess together with them, as is our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. After all, we have been baptized, an event we will recall once more in just a few moments. That is where we find strength for the struggle, courage for the crises, and hope for the future. We are part of God's family, each of us God's own child, never alone, and nothing can separate us from that love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord all the days of our lives.

Amen!

1. New York Times, 1/5/06

2. ibid.

3. Psalm 23:4

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