Sunday, January 30, 2011

Justice Is in the Doing

Justice Is in the Doing

copyright © 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: January 30, 2011

Micah 6:1-8

For the Lord has a controversy with his people.

This is one of the all-time favorite passages from the prophets of the Old Testament, hands down. I’ve been asked to read it at countless funerals, at services of ordination, in the halls of government. Why do we like it so much? While it has the simple, straightforward appeal of a short moral exhortation, its implications are anything but short or simple. Today, I’d like to take time to consider the three imperatives of the Lord in the much-loved verse 8 of Micah’s words.

The prophet asks, “What does the Lord require of you...?” The answer sounds almost proverbial in our ears. But each word carries with it a lifetime of implications for us, and especially for our lives in the believing community.

When confronted with their own loveless relationship with God, and desiring to find a way to become close to God once again, the people asked if perhaps God would be pleased to have the best, the most valuable animals from their flocks sacrificed in the Temple instead of the runts they had been known to bring; or perhaps God would be pleased if they brought as an offering their year’s supply of oil, that precious commodity in the ancient world used for cooking, for lighting, even for grooming. Maybe if they brought a whole Jordan river full of oil...

No, there are three things the prophet said were required of us by God.

Do Justice

The Hebrew word translated as justice is mishpat.1 The command is not to love justice, to admire justice, to study justice, or even to seek it. The command seems simple and thoroughly straightforward. Do justice. Justice is not meant to be something people of God admire, it is meant to be something people of the covenant bother themselves to do, and that means doing even if the doing of it comes at great cost personally or to the community.

It won’t do to be justice-wishers or justice-hopers or people who are only quick to complain when justice is lacking.

Many people in 19th century America realized that for Christians to do justice, rather than admire it, wish, or hope for it, or gripe about it, enslaved people in the United States needed to be freed. But even many supporters of emancipation, people who wanted to do justice, balked when they considered the cost. We may forget that an immense portion of the agrarian economy of the United States had come to depend on slavery. The economic cost of dismantling that system was going to be tremendous, perhaps even crippling for thousands and thousands of people. And the social cost of moving former slaves toward a culture of freedom and participation in democracy would be fraught with unimagined difficulties, as we have more than come to know in the last 149 years. So, faced with the need to do justice, the majority of people instead continued for decades to seek some alternative to the doing of it by admiring it, or pretending it already existed in places where masters were kind to their slaves and slaves loyal to their masters. Only a wrenching, bloody war seemed able to bring it to an end.

Justice among people is one of the deepest desires of God, and we disregard justice at our own peril, not only spiritually, but socially, politically, and economically. An economy, society, or government built on foundations of injustice will not continue to stand. It will sow within its body politic the seeds of its own destruction.

Love Kindness

The Hebrew word translated as kindness is hesed. It is a very common and very important word in the Bible. The translation as kindness only gets at one aspect of its meaning. It is understood in other places as having to do with loyalty, faithfulness, and love itself. It is a word the Bible uses often to describe the very faithfulness of God, most frequently translated in regard to God as “steadfast love.” It is not sufficient to feel duty-bound to be kind. Kindness is an attribute worthy of our love because it describes the faithful, steadfast loving kindness of God toward us.

I often review sermons by a pastor2 who once told a story of her church’s youth group experience with loving kindness. They were from a suburban Episcopalian congregation back east. These were kids who were from well-to-do families, who, “to be fair ... did not know they were rich, because they had only each other to compare themselves to...” They probably thought all teenagers the world over get cars on their 16th birthday and senior class trips to exotic locations. Off they went one summer to rural Kentucky, to Appalachia, to be of what assistance they could in repairing an old log mission house in the woods. As often happens with such efforts, the local people came out to see what these folks were doing in their midst, and one in particular, a friendly teenaged boy named Dwayne, set about helping. He exchanged country life stories to wide-eyed city kids, who returned the favor with city life stories for equally wide-eyed Dwayne. Halfway through the week, Dwayne let one of the girls in the group give him a city haircut. He was transformed. Suddenly, any apparent difference between Dwayne and his new teenaged friends seemed magically to have disappeared. For the rest of the week Dwayne worked, played, and prayed with the group, becoming, for all practical purposes, one of them.

At the end of the week, the group gathered for closing worship and celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and Dwayne joined them. When the group began to offer their own prayers, everyone had a chance to say something, and “quite a few of the prayers had to do with what a privilege it had been to serve the poor people of the area, upon whom God’s special blessing was asked.”

Afterward, Dwayne was clearly upset. Asked by the pastor about what was troubling him, he blurted out, “You all called me poor! I swear, I never thought of myself that way until you said it. I have all these woods to run around in. I have grandmama and a granddaddy who love me. I got a whole shed full of rabbits ... does that sound poor to you? ... You should save your prayers for someone who needs them.”

Striving for justice, they neglected kindness; unintentionally, surely. They discovered it is a too-narrow definition of poverty that equates it with not having enough money. The government is free to define poverty that way, but not believers. There is a special kind of poverty in riches, of the sort which asks whether relationships can best be based on the accumulation of things, rivers of oil, thousands of cattle.

Walk Humbly

The Hebrew words translated as walk humbly are halak and tsn. Some scholars of the Old Testament think the word we often translate as “humbly,” might better be translated as “carefully,” or “circumspectly.” Those suburban kids working among the poor of Appalachia had unintentionally sidestepped the humble part of their walk with God, when even in their public prayers they neglected to be careful, to be circumspect, just blabbing out their preconceived notions about the people they had been with for only a week. The key to this third admonition about the requirements of God is the word translated as walk. We are to walk with God, not on God’s behalf. Even a well-meaning walk with God that forgets to be humble, to be circumspect, can wound others without intention. But unintentional wounds are still wounds.

How difficult it is to recognize the need for a humble walk with God. I have often thought that the best thing we might do with new believers could be to store them underground for a few years to season them. Often in the enthusiasm of a newly embraced faith, the answers all seem so clear, and those who don’t see with that same clarity can too easily be dismissed as somehow lacking in faith. It takes years of faithful practice to realize what an immense and complex undertaking a life of faith can be.

We can become believers in a moment, taking as our own the call of Christ, but we cannot, in a moment, become mature believers. Christ can enter, cleanse, and forgive us in a matter of seconds, but it will take much longer for our character to be transformed and molded to his will. So when we receive Christ, a moment of commitment will lead to a lifetime of adjustment.3 It is humbling, but necessary, to come at last to know this.

Micah tells us that no ritual worship, no sacrifice of animals or time, no rigid adoption of moral rules and regulations will be sufficient to meet the requirements God sets for people of faith. But if our walk with God is humble – recognizing our own need for mercy – if we do justice in our lives and in the world around us – if we embrace kindness in our lives as if it were a long-lost loved one, then mistakes we make can be forgiven, transgressions erased, and we may know the God who sent Jesus so that all might finally see their sins washed away.

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1 Thanks to the New Interpreters Bible, Volume VII , Abingdon, 1996, p. 580, for helpful explication of the Hebrew words mentioned in this sermon.

2 Barbara Brown Taylor, “For Richer, For Poorer,” Christian Century, 12/9/98, p. 1188.

3 Apologies to John Stott. This is my paraphrase of words I have heard attributed to him.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Go Fish

Go Fish

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor

Third Sunday of Ordinary Time: January 23, 2011

Isaiah 9:1-4

Matthew 4:12-23

We have, from the hand of Matthew, two separate scenes from the early ministry of Jesus. They are separate, yet there is something that binds them together.

The first scene recalls a disaster that had swallowed up the Jewish people by the time Matthew wrote his gospel.

• The second scene seems to shift us abruptly to the call to discipleship of the fishermen, Peter, Andrew, James and John.

First of all, consider the disaster: the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. When Matthew wrote his gospel, probably shortly after the year 70 A.D., the Romans had recently run roughshod over Herod’s magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. No legions of angels had interceded on behalf of God’s chosen people. Nothing miraculous had happened. The Romans had done their worst and nothing had been forthcoming from the throne of God. It must have been an awful time. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, the fighting within the walls in Jerusalem and the Temple among the Jews themselves was almost worse than the devastation that the Romans wrought from outside.

The rebellion had happened almost by accident. The final Roman procurator of Jerusalem had goaded the people, torturing and killing them, deaf to the cries of the moderate Jewish leaders. Various radical groups began to react in a blind rage, and when the rebels began to occupy strategic points in the city, the moderates – who could see that the end of the battle would mean the destruction of all – were murdered by their own countrymen.

And so the city fell into the hands of warring parties of fanatical revolutionaries who were at least as busy killing each other as they were fending off the Romans, willfully blind to the fact that even a united defense must eventually have failed. Like Ethiopian spears against Italian tanks in World War II, there was no winning against the superior power of Rome. The final walls were breached, and the city was laid waste from one end to the other.

Some in the tiny Christian community of Jerusalem managed to escape before the destruction. Most of these considered themselves Jews as well as Christians. They must have shared the numb feeling that all Jews felt upon learning that the fortifications of Jerusalem, crowned by the Temple, were no more. Many must surely have asked what could be left of faith in a God who could have abandoned his people so completely?

It is a question that for us, hundreds of years later, has perhaps some mild academic interest. Of course we know that the worship of God is not centered in any Temple made by human hands. But then it was a novel thought, an idea that was disturbing and threatening in its raw newness. Could there be life after Jerusalem was destroyed? Could there be faith?

Matthew recalled for his troubled congregation another time when the people of God must have asked the same question. He reminded them of the prophecy of Isaiah (9:1-4):

The Land of Zeb´ulun and the Land of Naph´tali,

Toward the sea, across the Jordan,

Galilee of the Gentiles

The people who sat in darkness

have seen a great light,

and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death

Light has dawned.

Probably not many of Matthew’s people knew precisely where Zeb´ulun and Naph´tali had been. They had been tribes of Jews that disappeared 700 years before, during another time of foreign invasion and devastation. But any memory of their names would have called forth a feeling of distress, the same feeling they were experiencing over the fall of Jerusalem in their own time, similar to what we might feel when hearing the word “Alamo” or that native Americans might feel in hearing “Trail of Tears.” It is a wounded, humiliated, powerless feeling, even for those who are separated from those events by many years.

It seemed that Matthew wanted to tie together the raw wound of the fresh experience of disaster that his people knew with a former time of disaster, as if to say that even in the face of unspeakable dishonor and sorrow, God’s hope can spring forth again. In the midst of faithless horror, faith can be born.

When no faith is found among the competing factions of Jerusalem, when one person kills another in the name of God, then God may well abandon us to our own horrors, but that doesn’t mean God has given up on humanity. It means that we must look for the work of God in a new, most likely unexpected place. In this case, Matthew talked about going fishing. He asked his people to look to the place where Jesus had begun his ministry. Not in the streets of Jerusalem or among the Temple officials there. He had begun his ministry in Capernaum, among the very people who had moved into the area vacated by the Hebrew tribes of Zeb´ulun and Naph´tali when they were carted off into exile 700 years before. He began his ministry among the mixed races of Gentiles and Jews in Galilee, among gentle, simple fisherfolk.

The end of the first scene in this little passage from Matthew gives us the opening words of Jesus’ preaching: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

Then, having reminded his listeners of the pitiable devastation that is possible, even for the things we cherish most, such as the Temple, Matthew shifted abruptly to the second scene: by the shores of the lake, he speaks to men who are about their fishing business, a model for emerging faith.

The call of Peter and Andrew and James and John shows at the very beginning what it must have meant for a person of Jewish background to come into the church. It did not involve a simple decision to change from this church to that, one religious outlook for another, choosing to be a Methodist instead of a Presbyterian. It meant the dropping of everything familiar to take up a whole new way of life. We are reminded that there is much to be given up if there is much to be gained. All four of the disciples dropped not only their nets, but their means of livelihood. For James and John, responding to Jesus’ call meant leaving their father Zebedee. Means of livelihood, even family, not to mention loyalty to the Temple, much may have to be left behind by those who choose to follow the carpenter’s son from Nazareth. There are wonderful words about this in a hymn that is no longer included in Presbyterian hymnals. It was pretty rarely sung in our churches because few people knew the tune. But I always appreciated the lyrics, and they are appropriate to pair with our our scripture readings today:

They cast their nets in Galilee

Just off the hills of brown;

Such happy, simple fisherfolk,

Before the Lord came down.

Contented, peaceful fishermen,

Before they ever knew

The peace of God that filled their hearts

Brimful, and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,

Homeless in Patmos died.

Peter, who hauled the teeming net,

Head down was crucified.

The peace of God, it is no peace,

But strife closed in the sod.

Yet, brothers, pray for but one thing –

The marvelous peace of God.1

What had been cherished had to be set aside. When God’s spirit works, it often must work in spite of human reluctance, indifference, even opposition. Squeeze a balloon in one place and the air will fill into another spot. For a Jew to accept the fact that God could be working among the Gentiles was as difficult as the decisions of the first four disciples to abandon their way of life on the lake to go fishing for another sort of catch.

Isaiah spoke about those dwelling in a land of deep darkness, and I suppose we don’t have to be Hebrews in exile to know what deep darkness is all about. Those who have dwelt in a land of deep darkness know who they are when the Prince of Darkness taps them on the shoulder. We know who we are and we shudder because the land of deep darkness is the kingdom of annihilation and obliteration. It is the land where creation is reversed, and things that used to make sense begin to dissolve back into their original chaos, the place where the loving hand of God on nature is not necessarily replaced by an evil hand so much as by no hand at all: no guidance, no love, no order, no creation, just deep darkness and chaos.

Anyone who has walked into a room once occupied by a loved one who is now gone, seeing the half-read book on the night table, the pajamas hung in the bathroom, the eyeglasses on the dresser, the medicines in the cabinet, the clothing in the closet, anyone who has had to pick up their life with that kind of emptiness cutting a big hole in the middle of it, knows where the land of deep darkness is. The one who has experienced the falling-apart marriage, the still-born child, the approach of retirement when there seems to be so much more to do, these know where the land of deep darkness is.

To all of us who have visited the kingdom of darkness and dread a return trip, Jesus extends an invitation to go fish. While it may seem like an option, the call to discipleship is not some choice we make among other alternatives, but turns out to be the only alternative to the land of deep darkness, for no other loyalty springs forth from the kingdom of heaven. Jesus called those four fishermen to a new kind of fishing, and in the process of responding they discovered that all other loyalties are temporary, none endures, not family, not Temple, not career, not nation, not even life itself. No, an invitation from Jesus to go fish is an invitation to follow the only one who leads forth from the land of deep darkness toward the great light.

Albert Schweitzer once wrote,

“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me.” And sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”2

God give us the courage to rise and follow as Christ calls our names by the lakeside.


1 William Alexander Percy, Copyright 1924, LeRoy P. Percy.

2 Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, p. 403.

© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Getting Wet

Getting Wet

A Communion Meditation

Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Baptism of the Lord: January 9, 2011

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan

to be baptized by him.

I have prepared a sermon for you this morning. And inasmuch as this is the Sunday of the year when we recall Jesus’ baptism by John, I am going to deliver the sermon I have prepared. But also, inasmuch as I learned late yesterday, as did many of you, of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 17 other people, resulting in the immediate deaths of 6 – including a nine year-old girl – at a sidewalk meeting outside a grocery store in Tucson, I am not going to stop with the closing words of my sermon. As I tried to make sense of what took place yesterday, I happened upon an article written after the tragedy, by The Rev. Dr. Diana Butler Bass for an online magazine called Beliefnet, which I plan to read for you when I conclude the sermon I have written. I found Dr. Bass’s words very much on point both for a Sunday celebrating the baptism of Jesus, and an extraordinary day when events call us to take a hard look at who we are as a nation on this particular day in our history.

So … in Matthew 3 we have what at least one scholar has described as the “first anomaly in Jesus’ ministry [which] is but a foretaste of the great absurdity to come: that the Son of God will suffer and die on the cross to accomplish salvation.”1 For what must be significant reasons, the gospels all report that sinless Jesus sought John’s baptism, which Matthew reports was “for the remission of sins.” Jesus no more needed sins remitted than he deserved the punishment of execution on a cross, but he submitted to both in order to take on humanity fully, not out of necessity but out of obedience.

Even if we don’t know or appreciate the things Robert Fulghum has written, we’d still have to admire the unique titles he chooses for his best-selling books, the first of which, in my memory, was All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. One of his stories from a subsequent book, carrying the promisingly enigmatic title, Uh-Oh, stays in my mind.2 It involves an elementary school class, the annual springtime class play, and a singular individual in the class, named Norman.

The teacher announced one morning that the play she had chosen for the class members to perform was Cinderella. The usual chaos ensued, every hand went up, waving madly, as all the students fell to begging for an important part. The girls all wanted to be Cinderella, the boys wanted to be the handsome prince. Naturally, not everyone could play those parts, so the teacher made other parts, like the ugly stepsisters and the king and the members of the royal court, seem sufficiently attractive that the children accepted them willingly. After assigning all the usual parts, and some she had created from her own fertile imagination, there remained one quiet boy without a part.

With no additional suggestion left in mind, the teacher asked a dangerous question: “Norman, what character would you like to play?”

Norman answered without hesitation. “I’d like to be the pig.”

“Pig?” responded his stunned teacher. “But there is no pig in Cinderella!”

Norman smiled. “There is now.”

And sure enough, there was. And the pig became the hit of the show. The rest of the story is pretty cute too, but I am just sticking with the idea of a pig in the Cinderella story for the moment.

I had an old seminary professor who used to say that the church is meant to be a safe-house for sinners, but that bringing sinners into the church – which means all of us – is like bringing a pig into a fancy parlor. It’s not the pig that gets changed. It’s the parlor that is changed, of course. The arrival of a sinless Savior to receive the baptism of John is like a parallel truth. Bring a sinless Messiah into the world and it’s not the Messiah that gets changed. It’s the world.

The people who were coming to John at the Jordan to be baptized were seeking a baptism, as Matthew says, “for the remission of sins.” They wanted to be part of the redeemed people of Israel, but when they thought about it, redeemed people all looked to them like Cinderella or Prince Charming, and when they saw themselves reflected in the mirrors of their hearts, what they saw were pigs. So they came to John, hoping somehow to rejoin the chosen people on an equal footing by baptism.

It turns out that since the Messiah came, there are no pigs among the people of God. No matter who we are or what we have done, there is a path blazed by one who was sinless, giving us access to the throne of God, the kingdom of heaven.

On the ecclesiastical calendar, today is called “The Baptism of the Lord.” It is a day meant to be remembered on this day every year, the first Sunday after the day of Epiphany on January 6. It is scheduled every year because it is so important to remember that we are baptized people. Baptism is not just a sweet little ceremony occasionally performed in worship. It is meant to be a remembrance of the dying Savior who came that we might all know the promise of new life. Jesus invites us to reflect that we are baptized, and be glad. In him we are a royal priesthood, lived out in his call to humble service.

As you exit the sanctuary this morning, you might want to think about going out by the side doors so you can pass by the baptismal font up here. I invite you to do just that, if you like, to touch the water and remember that you are baptized, cleansed by the one who knew no uncleanness. Remember you, like Jesus, are baptized. And be glad!

And be glad? Those were the words with which I planned to end my sermon. But yesterday’s events in Arizona caused me to rethink leaving things there, and the following words from Dr. Diana Butler Bass seemed to me to provide help in sorting out the kind of baptism to which we are called as modern American Christian people:

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords: Speaking for the Soul

by Diana Butler Bass


Saturday January 8, 2011

The Sunday after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, my husband’s family attended their Presbyterian church. They went with heavy hearts, expecting the pastor to help make sense of the tragedy. The minister rose to preach. The congregation held its breath. But he said nothing of the events in Memphis. He preached as if nothing had happened.

My husband’s family left church that day disappointed; eventually, they left that church altogether.

This Sunday, many Americans will go to church. A sizeable number of those people may be hoping to hear something that helps them make sense of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the others who had gathered at her sidewalk townhall in Tucson. Some pastors may note the event in prayer and some may say something during announcements or add a sentence to their sermons. But others might say nothing, sticking instead to prepared texts and liturgies. Many will eschew speaking of politics.

That would be a mistake.

Much of American public commentary takes place on television, via the Internet, and through social networks. We already know what form the analysis of the assassination attempt will be. Everyone will say what a tragedy it is. Then commentators will take sides. Those on the left will blame the Tea Party’s violent rhetoric and “Second Amendment solutions.” Those on the right will blame irresponsible individuals and Socialism. Progressives will call for more gun control; conservatives will say more people should carry guns. Everyone will have some sort of spin that benefits their party, their platform, and their policies.

But who will speak of the soul?

Since President Obama has taken office, many ministers have told me that they have feared addressing public issues from the pulpit lest “someone get hurt.” Well, someone is hurt--and people have died--most likely because bitterly partisan lies have filled the air and most certainly because some unhinged individual killed people.

At their best, American pulpits are not about taking sides and blaming. Those pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words. I hope that sermons tomorrow will go beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness. Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans--how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.

Sunday January 9 is the day on which many Christians celebrate the Baptism of Jesus: “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Jesus’ baptism in water symbolizes life, the newness that comes of cleansing. But there is a darker symbol of baptism in American history: that of blood. In 1862, Episcopal bishop Stephen Elliot of Georgia said, “All nations which come into existence… must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood.” Baptism as water? Baptism as blood? Baptism accompanied by a dove or baptism accompanied by the storm of revolution?

American Christianity is deeply conflicted, caught between two powerful symbols of baptism, symbols that haunt our political sub-consciousness. To which baptism are we called? Which baptism does the world most need today? Which baptism truly heals? Do we need the water of God, or the blood of a nine-year old laying on a street in Tucson? The answer is profoundly and simply obvious. We need redemption gushing from the rivers of God’s love, not that of blood-soaked sidewalks. If we don’t speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.


Diana Butler Bass holds a Ph.D. in religious studies from Duke University and is the author of A People’s History of Christianity: the Other Side of the Story (HarperOne, 2009), and the best-selling Christianity for the Rest of Us (HarperOne, 2006).

1 Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Advent-Epiphany, Marion Soards, et. al., Abingdon, 1992, p. 106.

2 Uh-Oh, by Robert Fulghum, Ballantine Books, 1991.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Weather God?

Weather God?

Second Sunday of Christmas: January 2, 2011

Copyright © 2011, Robert J. Elder

Psalm 147:12-20

He sends out his word, and melts them;

he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.

Some of you know that for years I have made a practice of setting my annual plans for preaching in the summer during a study week, usually in the month of July. During that week, in the slow pace of summer, I look over the scripture lessons for Sundays in the months to come, beginning with Advent. It is a glance toward a future which cannot be known; even so I try to plan for a word to speak in those coming weeks. So it was that in the summer I made initial plans for this Sunday, what is often referred to in churches as a “low Sunday” because it comes in the weeks following such a high holy day as Christmas. I looked at the Psalm for the day and decided it was an intriguing text, another of the Bible’s many references to God as the Lord of creation. Even so – and I think this is vitally important for our understanding of the nature of God – it presents God as being continually at work in creation, rather than sitting back, no longer actively involved with what has been created.

Anyone who wants to think of God as Creator must, from time to time, come to terms with ways in which this good creation of God sometimes includes hurricanes, lightning storms, and – just a few weeks back – a tornado in tiny Aumsville Oregon. The earth on which we “live and move and have our being” is capable of unexpected events, from the moderately interesting to the completely terrifying, like modest eruptions on Mount St. Helens, or unimaginable destruction as with tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides and hurricanes. Those who commonly state flatly that they prefer to worship a god of nature – most typically in the pleasant surroundings of a golf course or on a sunny day of fishing by the riverside – must come to terms with the fact that nature itself is a capricious and temperamental god, capable of brutal, senseless destruction, as we frequently witness in locations around the planet. If we plan to worship the daffodils, we must also take into account the volcano. No wonder the Bible is always careful to distinguish between God and God’s creation. I have, in some weeks, found in words from I Kings no small comfort in the face of mounting death tolls from natural disasters. There, the prophet Elijah discovered that God was not to be found in the earthquake, wind or fire, but in the still, small, reconciling voice of God’s word.1

We do believe this about God’s work in the created world: that God is still at work in an unruly creation, that the work of creation is not finished and is still under way, and it truly is work. At the very least, calamitous events are calls to God’s service in aiding those who are victims through no fault of their own. Psalm 147, in verses just prior to those read today, declares the way we know we are in the presence of the God of creation, because the true God is one who

gathers the outcasts of Israel,

[who] heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.2

If we are to be people of the Word, we cannot believe that natural disasters we witness in the world express the intention of God for the world. It is a question that is continually asked of course. Once, following a natural disaster in Southeast Asia, I remember hearing on CNN one woman who spoke for many when she appeared on screen asking, “God, what have we done to make you so angry?” Was this event, as legal documents sometimes state, an “act of God”?

We have to be extra cautious about ever claiming to know the intentions of God in such complicated circumstances, and especially careful in casting about for reasons God might be judging others, when Jesus' chief advice about judgment had to do with self-reflection.

I also recall hearing from the usual gaggle of self-proclaimed broadcast religious leaders who declared that the horrific events of 9/11 were somehow God's judgment on the sinful actions of certain scapegoat groups of people in our country. Of course, these were the same people who in 1999 predicted that a "Y2K" cataclysmic shutdown of computers around the world would lead to the return of Jesus, and for his part, Jerry Falwell said at the time that he was stockpiling food, sugar, gasoline, and ammunition.3

(I have to wonder what sort of God such a person worships. It seems clearly not to be the God of the Psalmist.)

“So far I haven't heard of any imams preaching a similar message about the victims of the tsunami. And I suspect I won’t – primarily because many, if not most, of the victims are Muslims. I feel confident of this because I’ve noticed the tendency of imams – and I suspect preachers of all faiths – to cite the wrath of God when they’re talking about other people’s flaws. For example, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Jerry Falwell suggested that God allowed the attacks as a warning to the nation because of its “moral decay” and said Americans should have an attitude of repentance before God. He specifically listed the ACLU, abortionists, feminists, gays, and the People For the American Way as sharing in the blame.”

(Dr. Hassaballa went on to say) “This attitude deeply angers me. To say that terrorist attacks are a divine “warning,” or that a hurricane in Florida is God’s “revenge” for the U.S. invasion of Iraq or “punishment” for the sinners of Florida is simply callous.

I want to ask the imams: Is it the “wrath of God” only when non-Muslims are victimized? I don’t get satisfactory answers to questions like this during a typical sermon. And I disagree with them (and clergy of other faith of this ilk) because their approach strips us of compassion for the suffering of other human beings – which is completely contrary to the principles of Islam.”

…and of Christianity, as we know. Dr. Hassaballa went on,

“No doubt, both the Bible and the Qur’an are full of stories documenting how the rebelliousness of a people caused their destruction. We should heed the lessons of those stories, but we should never let ourselves become heartless. Just because God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their iniquities does not mean we should have no compassion for the victims of a Florida hurricane – or of an Asian tsunami.”

Is it only God’s vindictive justice when people unlike ourselves suffer? A hurricane or earthquake or Pacific Northwest mudslide, which takes the lives of a handful or a hundred thousand people of any faith is equally tragic, because each of those who suffer and die are people made in the image of God.

When Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was in prison and you visited me,” the disciples responded asking when he was in such circumstances. Of course, little did they know he would one day be in just such circumstances with no one to feed him, and certainly no one to visit him during his brief imprisonment before his crucifixion. But he declared that when we do these things for the very least, we do them for him. I take note of the fact that he did not specify what faith these “least people” should have before we attend to them in their suffering.

If you want to know my personal thoughts on natural disasters, I have come to believe that the creation of God is still a work in progress, that it is not yet a finished work, and that natural disasters, whatever else they may be, are not expressions of God’s particular will concerning those who suffer the effects. There is still a force in the universe that is resistant to the creation of God’s good world.

Perhaps the judgment that lies in such circumstances, if there is to be judgment, has to do with our relative willingness or unwillingness to respond with compassion and care and generous, even sacrificial gestures of assistance for those who suffer.

Once, during his teaching ministry, people approached Jesus asking about the will of God in tragedies. They asked him about a recent event when a tower under construction fell –probably due to an earthquake – and killed eighteen people. They wondered, had they deserved it somehow? Jesus said,

...those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you... 5

Jesus did not equivocate. “No!” he said. Natural disaster is not an expression of the will of God. We encounter the words of the Psalmist originally directed toward a people who had been overrun, carried off into exile, held for 70 years, and finally allowed to return to a devastated homeland. They were depressed, dejected, dispirited, downhearted, but then they heard a faint song ministering to them in their distress:

The Lord is the one who “gathers up the outcasts of Israel,” who “heals the brokenhearted, who binds up their wounds.” This God whom the psalmist praises is awesome and powerful, it’s true – but this God is also committed to tenderness and mercy and asks his people to be the same. Those who fear the Lord do not flee from the divine presence; rather, they seek God out, offering up, as in our psalm, their sincere gifts of praise and their acts of mercy to a merciful creator.

I’ll end with a little paragraph that Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite authors, once wrote:

“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”6

Copyrght © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1 I Kings 19:9-12

2 Psalm 147:2-3

3 Caryle Murphy, "'Millennium Bug' A Matter of Faith," The Washington Post , 11/23/98, B-1.

4 Will the Imams Remain Silent?, available on ,

5 Luke 13:1-5

6 Wishful Thinking, Harper & Row, 1973.