The text for today is
the 62nd Psalm, and we just used it for our call to worship so I'll not
read it again, but you can read it (below):
1For God alone my soul
waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
2He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall never be shaken.
3How long will you assail a person,
will you batter your victim, all of you,
as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
4Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence.
They take pleasure in falsehood;
they bless with their mouths,
but inwardly they curse.
5For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
6He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
7On God rests my deliverance and my honour;
my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
8Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.
9Those of low estate are but a breath,
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
10Put no confidence in extortion,
and set no vain hopes on robbery;
if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
11Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
12 and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.
For you repay to all
according to their work.
Last Sunday, I was a little hard on the
Reverend Pat Robertson. Well, truth be known, I was very hard on
the Reverend Pat Robertson, I confess. For attributing to God
things like Ariel Sharon's stroke, and the destruction of New Orleans by
Hurricane Katrina, because I deeply believe that such claims are
irresponsible, inexcusable, and they are contrary to the gospel that I
know and proclaim.
But evidently, New Orleans mayor Ray
Nagin missed my
sermon. I don't know how he missed it, I mean that's why we
put it up on the web site J.
I do know that there are people elsewhere out there in the world that
read those things, because I hear from them every now and then from all
over the place. Recently I got an E-mail from a gentleman, I don't
know where he was, but he was responding to one of my sermons posted on
the web, happened to be the one on homosexuality, and was taking
exception with my viewpoint. He wanted to correct me and instruct
me on the true biblical morality. His E-mail address was
"OhMyFoxyFeet@anytown.com". And I thought, for some
reason, I'm just not going to take moral direction from someone who goes
by that E-mail address. I'm sorry J.
But at any rate, if you missed it, this
wanna-be T.V. preacher with a social conscience, Mayor Nagin, proclaimed
at the Martin Luther King celebration in his city, New Orleans, on
"Surely God is mad
at America. He's sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane
and its destroyed and put stress on this country".
Now if you think Mayor Nagin was merely
echoing similar claims made by the Reverend and the like, think
again. Because the reasons cited by Mayor Nagin for God's anger
were entirely different. Sounds more like something you'd hear
from the Reverend Jessie Jackson than a T.V. preacher. He said:
doesn't approve of us being in Iraq under false pretenses. But
surely he is upset at black America also. We're not taking care of
And hence the reason
for God's anger and evidently the destruction of New Orleans.
Now, the only thing
worse than preachers messing with politics (as if I would ever do
something like that J),
is politicians messing with preaching! It's like giving an 8
year-old a frog and a blender. The outcome ain't gonna be pretty.
attributions given to God seem to be rampant in the news these days,
giving God and Christian faith a bad name, I want to spend a little time
reflecting with you on God's power this morning, and then on God's
character next Sunday.
So let me first of
all articulate clearly why I categorically reject the notion that God
sends hurricanes or earthquakes or tsunami's, whatever, to punish cities
and nations as a manifestation of God's power.
First, in the case of
New Orleans. You'll recall that the area which suffered the
greatest damage was the lower 9th ward. Which is what? It is
the poorest area of New Orleans. Meanwhile, one of the
areas that suffered the least damage was the French Quarter, which is of
course the home of the Mardi Gras, and that's where the affluent and
everyone else goes when they visit the city. So I ask you -- does
that sound consistent with the God of whom Mary sang in the Magnificat
(Luke's gospel, chapter 1):
has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Or with the first
proclamation of the good news by Jesus in Luke's gospel when he said the
'spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good
news to the poor'. Or the prophet Amos, who says to the rich
rulers of Israel: 'Because you trample on the poor and take away
from them levees of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone but you
shall not live in them. You have planted pleasant vineyards, but
you shall not drink their wine'.
I don't know who's
God sent Katrina, but I do know this -- it was not the God of Amos or
the God of Mary or the God of Jesus.
Second, it astounds
me that those who attribute to God such things as hurricanes, be it for
so-called sense of morality (for the Reverend Robertson) or sense of
social justice (for Mayor Nagin), that they give no recognition to the
fact that it was people, not God, who built their neighborhoods
below sea level. It was people, not God, who built those levees
that failed. It was people, not God, who destroyed much of that
delta that serves as the buffer zone between the gulf [of Mexico] and
New Orleans. It was people, not God, who are the cause of global
warming which may very well be the reason why we are seeing the increase
So call the
destruction of New Orleans, if you must call it something, call it the
consequence of sin. The sin of playing Russian roulette with our
environment. But do not call it the punishment of God.
Third and last,
another story from the news that illustrates why I believe blaming God
for forces of nature is inexcusable. On palm Sunday in 1994, a
sudden and unexpected tornado hit the town of Piedmont, Alabama,
striking the Goshen
United Methodist Church in the middle of their morning worship
service, killing 20 people, including 6 children. Among those
killed was the 4 year-old daughter of the Pastor, Hannah Clem.
Asked why this happened to them, the Reverend Kelly Clem
responded: "We do not know why. I do not think 'why?'
is the right question to ask right now. We just have to help each
other through it".
If you want to know
where God is to be found in such times, it is not in the wind of
tornados and hurricanes, but in the words of a grieving Pastor and
mother. She was there, helping us through it. That is the
God that I believe in. That is the God this Psalm asks us to put
our trust in. It is this God that is there for us in the most
difficult times of our lives, who is our rock and our salvation.
Or as Martin Luther wrote, 'A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark
never failing. Our present help amid the flood, of mortal ills
But 'why?' is
precisely the question we should ask. Not 'why does this bad thing
or that bad thing happen?', but why can we place our trust in this
God? Especially in light of all those bad things that do happen
from which God does not appear to protect us. And the answer is
given at the conclusion of the Psalm, when the Psalmist says 'there are
two things we know about God: first, that God is powerful, and
second, that God is loving'. And it is here in this juxtaposition
of these two chief attributes of God that we get confused, causing us to
falsely attribute to God that which is not God's doing. And the
whole problem is that we consider power to be the greater force of the
two. And therefore assume that is the way that God operates, and
we have to explain God's working in the world in terms of power, so that
when tragedy strikes and a 4 year-old is killed by a tornado, or a frail
senior citizen drowns in the attic of their New Orleans home, we ask
'why?'. And we question not is God all-powerful (as we should),
but we question rather is God all-loving (as we should not).
Having made this
assumption that power is the greater of the two forces, we are forced
then to describe God's love in terms of power, sparing this person's
life or not sparing that person's life. And you see, that's
backwards. It results in a distorted image of God. Because
it is love, not power, that is the greater force. Therefore we
need to describe God's power in terms of love, rather than God's love in
terms of power.
For God so loved the
world, he gave his only son. You see, that's not just an act of
love, it's an act of power guided by love. It is love with
power. Love without power is sentimentalism. It accomplishes
little. But power without love is tyranny. It might
accomplish much, but rarely of any good. God is the one who brings
these two things together -- love and power -- two things that are often
opposed to one another in the world, and God brings them into perfect
harmony. Not as an act of power, but as an act of love. Love
for the world and love for us. And so I want to challenge us to
think of God, first and foremost, as all-loving, rather than as
And I want to speak,
then, of that love as the only way that makes sense. And as the
primary meaning of the life and death of Jesus. It is love, and
not power, that is the primary force that brings two people together,
out of which often comes into the world a new life. It is love for
our children, not power over them, that creates a healthy environment in
which they can grow and mature. It is love for nature, not power
over it, that protects the environment from human folly. It is
love for our enemies, not power against them, that will bring true peace
to our world.
One can rule the
world with might and power, but we can only rule hearts with love.
I can force my children to do what I want (at least I used to be able to
force them!), but what good is that for when they grow they will be on
their own? It's only through love so that what I want they also
freely choose, that I can then hope to have the greatest impact
throughout all of their lives.
And from the life of
Jesus we can clearly see that God's way of being in the world is
expressed through calming storms, not causing them. Healing
illness, not spreading it. Sharing food and wealth, not hoarding
them. Laying down his life for others, not taking the lives of
others. This is love's power. It is the greatest force in
the universe. And it is only when we see God as all-loving, rather
than as all-powerful, that we will ask the right questions about how
God is present in this tragedy or that, rather than why God
allows this or that to happen.
One final story to
illustrate this power in very real and tangible terms, from the
Mennonite tradition. It
comes from John Roth, who, like most Mennonites, is a pacifist. He
was attending a conference in Hamburg, Germany. At the end of a
long day, he boarded a commuter train. It was late at night, he
was the only passenger in the car when an elderly and apparently
mentally disabled man got onto the car in tattered clothes, followed by
four rough-looking teenagers with tattoos and chains and other foul
instruments. And they began to insult and ridicule this obviously
mentally disabled man. Shouting obscenities at him, and one of the
teenagers had a can of beer and shook it up and sprayed the foam in his
face. From there things quickly escalated and they began to kick
him and beat him about the face. And John looked on in horror at
the scene unfolding. What could he do? "I am not a big
person", he wrote, which is an understatement. He had no
particular training in self-defense. As a pacifist he certainly
carried no weapons. How could he stop this senseless violence and
not become a victim himself? As he felt the anger mounting he felt
something even more powerful -- fear. To intercede, he knew, would
put his own life at risk. John wrote about this experience after
9/11, in a little book entitled "Choosing Against War".
He equates his feelings of anger, fear, and sense of helplessness with
those felt by all of us on that terrible day in September 2001.
"How", he asks, "in the grand sweep of God's actions in
history, should we respond to our new sense of fear and
vulnerability?" What do we have to learn from Christ in response to
such violence? The one thing that kept coming back to John
was a chorus from a song that came from the Iona community in Scotland:
be afraid, my love is stronger
My love is stronger than your fear
Don't be afraid, my love is stronger
And I have promised, promised, to be always near
What would it mean,
John wondered, if we took those words to heart as Christians? If
we really loved in a way that showed that love is stronger than our
fears. That it is stronger than hate. That it is stronger
than the power of violence and the violence of power.
On that night,
speeding out of Hamburg, John whispered his prayer: "God,
calm my fear. Show me the right thing to do". And
without really thinking of what would happen next, he got up out of his
seat. Calmly as he could, he walked purposefully toward the old
man being pummeled by the teenagers and called out in his best
German: "Hans? Is that you? Hans, how are
you?!" [Which if you stop to think about it is kind of an
absurd question in the situation, asking of a man who's being
beaten]. But that caused a moment of confusion, provided an
opening for John to intercede, and he said to the elderly man "It's
been such a long time, will you come and sit with me, catch me up on
your family?". Well, he escorted Hans to the safety at his
end of the car, as the four attackers stood dumbfounded. What
luck! Only one other person on the train and he knew the old
man! [They weren't too smart]. And Hans was equally
perplexed as he slowly responded to John's questions. And before
long, his would-be attackers lost interest and got off the train.
They continued on their way, Hans' stop came, and he mumbled a word of
thanks and shuffled off to the quiet and peace of the night.
That is God's
power. The greatest force in the universe. We have a name
for it -- we call it love.