There are some weeks when I get my sermon done quickly and easily. And then there are weeks when the Holy Spirit comes to the writing process a bit closer to Sunday. This week, I think I was just lost as to what to say. After the news of the devastating earthquake in Haiti and the days that have followed revealing heartbreaking images and descriptions of the suffering there, I needed to take some time to process everything. I almost scrapped these texts altogether. I had chosen them on Tuesday, before the earthquake. Of all the gospel stories, what on earth does the tale of Jesus turning water into wine have to say to us in light of such tragedy? It seemed frivolous at best and highly problematic at worst. But I continue to hold fast to the idea that I should wrestle with those texts which most challenge me, rather than run away from them.
If there had not been an earthquake in Haiti on Tuesday, I would have reveled in this text from John – proclaiming the ways in which Christ is present with us in the joyful celebrations of life – promising abundance and inviting us to see Christ in the more ordinary miracles of life.
And while I do believe this to be true – such a proclamation seemed inappropriate this week in the face of such sorrow and devastation. But I think this text still offers us something to think about today. So I invite you into some hard questioning with me. And while Haiti is the most recent event that has sparked this conversation, we are no strangers to struggles with the presence of God in the midst of tragedy and injustice.
What do we say when something like this happens? I have heard a variety of responses this past week. Some have resonated with my own thoughts. Some, quite frankly, have really bothered me.
Friday, I sat in a café, drinking hot tea and working on my sermon. Table of folks next to me talking. All of a sudden, the topic of Haiti came up. These conversations partners did not say much about it – just some quick remarks about how awful it was and then one of the women said with great comfort: “Makes you really appreciate what you have.” And everyone knowingly agreed. I wanted to jump up and yell! This kind of tragedy should not lead us to a place of contentment and quiet introspection about our blessings. It should make us angry! It should make us lament with the people of Haiti. Yes, it does make you want to be with loved ones and hold them and never take them for granted, but it is not a time to stop there. Just like my experience of reading this text from John after the earthquake, there should be something unsettling – something that seems out of place in the face of unspeakable disaster.
The wedding at Cana is John’s first account of Jesus’ public ministry. He and his mother are at a wedding. The hosts run out of wine. Jesus instructs the servants to fill the purification jars with water, which miraculously turn to wine, allowing the hosts to escape embarrassment and for the celebration to continue. Those closest to Jesus see this as his first sign, and we are told they know he is Lord. It is an intriguing miracle story that only John’s gospel tells. No one is healed. No hungry are fed. Instead, a big party is made better with more wine. This seems over and above what is needed. It does point to a sort of radical extravagance on the part of God. But such extravagance almost seems like a slap in the face when people are suffering.
I really resonated with the words of one scholar who wrote about this story long before the earthquake, but it was so appropriate this week. He said, “We see a world in need, and we believe in one who claimed to bring abundant life to those in need. In a world where for so many there is no clean water – let alone fine wine – where is the extravagance of God?” “It may seem like a travesty to turn a narrative about divine abundance into a trial of God, and yet, it is passages like this that one about divine extravagance that make God’s seeming absence in the face of poverty, suffering, and evil stand out. Because we trust that God wants abundance, we follow in the footsteps of the mother of Jesus prodding God for divine compassion and generosity:” (Feasting on the Word). ‘They have no wine.’ They have no clean water. They have no medical supplies. They have no way out of that rubble. They have no resources with which to rebuild.
As we often do when there is such monumental loss, many are asking Why did this happen? And still others ask: Where is God?
It’s the age-old questions: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do bad things happen to people who are already so deeply impoverished and struggling? Let’s look at some of the answers people have tried to offer:
-Some would quote Jesus in this wedding story from John, claiming that it is not yet God’s hour, so we have to just wait. God’s time is different from our time.
-Others might say that God relies on human compassion to do the will of God, so we are part of God’s presence in the midst of despair, not just by-standers.
-Last week Pat Robertson revealed a disturbing, but sadly common, idea that tragedy is the result of divine punishment for their sins. He claimed that the people of Haiti made a pact with Satan to free themselves from French colonial rule, suggesting that this earthquake was God’s natural and angry reaction. I could preach an entire sermon about the flaws and problems with this particular theology, but it does nothing to help the people of Haiti and frankly, gives people like Pat Robertson more attention than I think he deserves. But I will say this: God is not punishing Haiti. God weeps with the people of Haiti. Our Christian faith proclaims a God who became human to enter into the world and our suffering, not to cause it. And if we want to name where sin is present in this situation, then we should look at ourselves. One of my friends perhaps said it best: “the sin is not Haiti’s. It is the sin of the rest of the world for failing to care for them until now.” – Shawn Coons
-Even if God suffers with those who suffer, it is hard to ignore this nagging question: If God is so mighty, why doesn’t God prevent such terrible things from happening in the first place? Perhaps God is not able to prevent them. A pastor friend recently noted that all but one reference to God as “Almighty” in the NT occur in the book of Revelation. I double-checked, and it is true. “Almighty” refers to one who holds sway over all. We do affirm that God is sovereign and that all things are within the realm of God. But does that necessarily mean that God controls all things? Perhaps this bit of biblical trivia serves as an indicator for us. Perhaps God is not “Almighty” yet. – Perhaps God does not have sway over the fullness of all creation until we arrive at the glory of the new heaven and new earth promised in the book of Revelation.
These are just a few of the theories that have been put forth over the centuries, and some may be more satisfying for you than others. In the face of suffering, we continue to ask God, “WHY???” And truthfully -We simply do not know. But it does not mean we cannot ask our questions in the midst of despair. But we also should not waste precious time trying to place blame. We better serve God’s suffering children when we spend less time asking “Why?” and more time asking “What can I do?”
The passage from Isaiah for today begins with some excellent first steps of how we respond to injustice: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem I will not rest.” None of us caused an earthquake to happen. But the world’s silence on the utter poverty of nations like Haiti contributes to the increasing vulnerability of the people there when such tragedy strikes. Our silence about injustice is far more damaging than we think.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Where have we become silent on things that matter? How have we allowed tragedy and injustice to make us more thankful for the things we have, rather than outraged about the things others do NOT have? How can we help the Kingdom of God take root in places of suffering?
Isaiah offers beautiful words of hope to those who suffer and face oppression: You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her. . . for the LORD delights in you (62:4). How can we show the delight of the Lord to the people of Haiti? How can we show the delight of the Lord to our neighbors who suffer the cold because they cannot pay their power bills? For our friends in the community who have no homes? There are things great and small. We can pray. We can offer money. We can lament at injustice and name it – rather than silently give thanks that it is something that happens to THEM and not US. We can make health kits. We can provide genuine hospitality to our neighbors when we host Interfaith Homeless families next month. They may seem like small gestures, but they add up. No one individual or church can usher in the reign of God’s righteousness, but when we all work together, we can help demonstrate the love and grace of God in ways we could never imagine.
Where is God when such terrible things happen? I believe God is in the rubble of Haiti. And God is in our response. God weeps with those who suffer. And God delights in God’s children, rejoicing when we demonstrate radical generosity in the face of radical suffering. May we be a community who overflows with the abundant grace and love of God, and may we freely share it with others. Amen.