The Private Intellectual
Ecclesiastes-Based Real Estate Advice

Monday, January 18, 2010  

Out from the Covers
This week's sermon. A few explanatory notes:

1) I do consider all of the good things in life to be God's blessings and I give thanks for them daily. However, the point I'm making here is that none of us in the rich world earned or deserved anything we have relative to others and that the global distribution of wealth, health, and security in no way reflects God's will for creation. What arguments like Pat Robertson's tend to justify is not just the disaster itself, but the underlying radical inequalities that make it so deadly.

2) There is such a thing as the wrath of God. I have felt it and it is real. Sin is serious business and it is not a good policy to defy God. That is not what happened in Haiti, though, and there is no element of divine justice in their suffering.

3) I mention our ELCA colleague with some trepidation--I did not want to make this tragedy about us. It obviously isn't. I mention this story to underline the point about Christ at Cana and the vision of God that it discloses.

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

By now you have no doubt all heard about the devastation in Haiti and seen some of the heart-rending images of the dead, injured, and homeless. It is a kind of devastation that most of us are probably unable to conceive of. A natural disaster can happen almost anywhere, but Haiti of all the countries in our part of the world is perhaps least able to endure the consequences of a major earthquake. It is a desperately poor country. For many years it has suffered from misgovernment and civil unrest. It is ravaged with HIV and AIDS. There is a shortage of clean drinking water. More recently there had been hopeful signs in Haiti, but under the best imaginable scenario the country was a long way off from attaining even ordinary poverty.

When disaster strikes such a place, recovery is not just a matter of feeding and sheltering the homeless, saving the lost and injured, burying the dead, and getting to work on rebuilding. That work is agonizing enough. But what Haiti will endure is still much harder. Haiti has lost much of its infrastructure for whatever government it had. The parliament building literally collapsed. Schools and hospitals are now ruins. The leader of the Catholic Church in the country is missing and feared dead. The skin and bones and nerves of society are just gone.

Now this is truly a trivial thing to discuss given the scope of the disaster, but if we don’t discuss it at church I don’t know where we can. Within hours of the earthquake, with living and dead alike still buried in the rubble and the screams of children still going unanswered, American televangelist Pat Robertson made an argument--a claim, really-- about why this had happened. Back when Haiti was a colony of France, he said, the people of Haiti got together and promised to serve the devil if he would rid their land of the French. Since then, Robertson claimed, Haiti had been cursed--his word--with all kinds of sorrows.

Perhaps this is the kind of thing that makes you throw up a little bit in your mouth when you hear it. It’s a misrepresentation of history. It’s a repellent minimization of human suffering and a slander against God to boot. You probably don’t need any theological arguments about why this is a bad thing to say. And indeed, people from all over the map have been condemning Robertson’s statement--which sounded eerily similar to things he and others said after 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina.

But the backlash has not been universal--as you’ve probably learned if you’ve bothered to wade into this discussion online. There is an argument behind this statement about how God works in the world. In its clearest and least offensive form, the argument goes something like this. Since humanity fell into sin, the world has been subject to violent upheavals and catastrophes like earthquakes, floods, droughts, and so on. But God has been merciful. For those who trust him and lean on his Word, God extends a covering of protection. Those are exact words I’ve seen used to make this argument. The faithful will be protected from untimely death and destruction. When you defy God or refuse to walk in his ways, on the other hand, that covering is removed.

This picture of God bears only a passing resemblance to what the Bible has to say on the matter. But I can well imagine how tempting it might be to people living in a rich, relatively safe place in the world. We naturally like to imagine that if we are rich, healthy, and secure, that it is because we have deserved it in some cosmic sense. Those who lack any of these blessings have somehow brought it on themselves. We don’t like to imagine that a disaster could really afflict both wicked and righteous; that it could happen without any reason; that we might not be able to make sense of it. For religious people, it can be hard to get past the question of how and why God has acted in a given case if not to protect those he favors and to judge those who reject him.

And the world you and I live in really does offer something like a covering of protection. Our water is safe, our hospitals are good, our cars are engineered to protect even the most reckless of drivers. Our buildings are built up to code. None of us is persecuted for our faith. Is that how God shows his favor? Is all of that comfort and security where God is at work?

In short, no. God may be in some sense the cause of natural disasters. But God does not send conquering armies and slave ships across oceans. God does not imprison a whole nation in poverty. God does not build substandard housing over a fault line. God does not herd millions of people into rickety slums. God does not pollute anyone’s water. Human beings do these things. Human beings tolerate these things.

One small--one infinitesimally small--part of the tragedy concerned some Lutheran seminary students who decided to spend their January in Haiti. A husband, a wife, and the husband’s cousin were in a building that collapsed. The wife and cousin made it out safely. The husband did not. Ben Larson was a young man with a whole life ahead of him, as they say. He decided to leave the protective covering of his North American upbringing to go spend some time with God’s people--people who can take almost nothing that we have for granted. He surely knew that it was a dangerous place, though how dangerous he could hardly have guessed. And he died there, one of perhaps 50,000. “The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “(that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus)...out of the realm of finite into the realm of infinite possibilities.”

In today’s Gospel, the mother of Jesus pleads with him to provide more wine for the wedding feast. It was not a small matter, since running out of wine brought shame not only on the family but on everyone who had helped to provide for the feast. Weddings were community events back then. If you ran out of wine or food, it meant that you were not just short on wealth but short on friends. Jesus at first refuses, saying that it’s not really their problem and that his hour, his time to be glorified, has not yet come. With each sign Jesus performs, you see, the authorities become more inflamed against him. For Jesus, to provide the miracle wine was to embrace the hour of his glorification--his death on the Cross. For Jesus, to provide this wine was to step out from his protective cover of anonymity. It would eventually mean rejecting the cover of relative privilege he enjoyed as a man and a Jew in a society where status flowed from just such identities. And what does Jesus do? Does he hide? Does he scold the unlucky bridegroom for having unfaithful ancestors? Does he chide him for lack of confidence in God’s providence and leave to his shameful fate? No, of course not. He saves the feast. He takes the first step out of the covering of protection and into God’s glory.

That is the God made known in Jesus Christ--not a God who withholds protection because of an imagined insult; not a God who shows wrath through the wailing of children or good favor through the size of a bank account. Rather, God is being made known even now in dangerous acts of self-sacrifice and ordinary acts of generosity. God is suffering with those who die and striving with those who bring aid.

And we will need to call on God repeatedly after the immediate crisis fades and we find that we have become responsible for Haiti’s fate--something I regret to say has become inevitable. We will need to push for some Haitians to be admitted to our country as guest workers to give Haiti’s economy a chance to recover. We will need to advocate for continued attention to the reconstruction efforts as attention wanes and patience grows short. This will not be work for seminarians and saints. It will be work for all of us. It will require all of us to step out of the false cover of protection our world gives us and into the only real security: the fellowship of Christ. Christ waited all his life for the hour of his glorification. In this last age, the hour for Christ to be glorified in us is always now.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:21 PM
Thanks Ben! I really appreciate your take on disasters. Preaching disaster is one of the difficult tasks we face, and this is well done. Thanks again. Bonnie
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