Hurricane Florence was first predicted to come ashore in southeast North Carolina and then take a take a northwestern path. This was a dire prediction for my friends and family who live in northeastern North Carolina as they were prepared to experience the most dangerous quadrant of the storm. It looked like Florence was going to take the same path of Hurricane Floyd, the storm that flooded our home in 1999.
However, just a couple days before the storm made landfall, the prediction changed. It was still going to come into southeastern North Carolina, but then it would take a turn towards the south before moving westward before heading North. It was this change that spared my friends and family living in the northeastern part of the state.
Last Sunday, I read the following post on facebook:
It is not that the weatherman missed the prediction. It is that God spared us from the worst.
The statement immediately received nearly 50 likes and drew comments like:
God answers prayers.
God answers prayers. And not just prayers, but prayers in numbers.
God protected us.
We are blessed.
I understand in part why they posted it. Things could have been so much worse, and they were grateful, and they were grateful to God..
However, I could not help but to think: “I hope no one in Wilmington, Fayetteville, New Bern, Lumberton or Kinston reads this.”
Then came obvious, disturbing questions:
Were the prayers from the people living in those devastated cities not answered? Or were there was just not enough people in those cities praying? Did they have a higher number of people praying in northeastern NC?
If God could spare northeastern NC by turning the storm, why didn’t God just turn the hurricane out to sea before it made landfall and spare everyone? Did God favor one side of North Carolina over another?
I suppose many would tell me that I am not supposed to question God. “God has God’s reasons,” they say. “It is just God’s will and we have to accept it,” they say.
But I am not the first one to ask such questions. In Luke 13, we read people asking Jesus if the Galileans who were massacred by Pilate were killed because of some sort of sin in their life. Or if the Jews were killed when the tower of Siloam fell, perhaps during a storm, because of something they did or did not do. Jesus emphatically answered them: “No, I tell you.”
Throughout time, it has been very popular to believe that it is always God’s will if someone comes to power, no matter how horrible that person is. It is God who causes earthquakes, sends tornadoes, and steers Hurricanes, sparing some while destroying others.
This very popular but what I would call very “twisted” theology becomes even more disturbing when one considers the children.
On Monday of this week, in Union County, North Carolina, where Lori and I both attended college, the body of 1-year old Kaiden Lee-Welch was found. According the sheriff’s department, she was swept away in rushing waters from a creek that had overflowed.
Last Sunday, in Dallas, North Carolina, just a few miles from where Lori was born and raised, 3-month-old Kade Gill died after a tree fell into a family’s mobile home and struck the boy and his mother as they sat on a couch.
The very first death I remember being reported occurred soon after the Hurricane made landfall on that Friday in Wilmington. A 7-month-old baby was killed, also by a tree that fell into a home.
What kind of God steers a hurricane on a path that kills little children? It is certainly not the God that is revealed in words and works of Jesus, the one who welcomed the children, the one who said that it was better for one to tie a millstone around one’s neck and be cast into the sea than to cause any child to stumble.
So, why do so many still insist that God is the reason that some are spared from Hurricanes and others, even little children, are not?
I believe this morning’s scripture lesson possibly holds the answer.
Mark 9:30: “They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;”
He didn’t want anyone to know the truth. Perhaps he was afraid that like so many Christians today, they could not handle the truth. The truth that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him….”
Verse 32: But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
One reason some of us insist God is sending and steering Hurricanes is that we still have a difficult time accepting the truth that God suffers. We do not understand the suffering of God, and we are afraid to ask him. We are afraid, because if God is a God who suffers, then those of us who are created in the image of God, are also created to suffer.
I believe that God’s hand can be seen in the desolation of Hurricane Florence; not causing or controlling the storm, but in those who suffer while responding to the storm—the firefighters, police, paramedics, soldiers, doctors, nurses, pastors, counselors and utility workers; those who have left the comfort and safety of their homes to give of themselves to serve their neighbors in need. The hand of God can be seen the suffering servants of God who are doing all that they can do to bring healing, peace and restoration.
Verse 33 & 34: Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’
But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.”
And there it is.
Perhaps this is the true reason that people are quick to say God controls the path of Hurricanes. People still like to make the argument that they are the greatest—
“I am great, for God hears my prayers. I am great, for God spared my house. I am great, for my home did not flood. I am great, for no one in my family was killed. I am great, for I am not suffering.”
Verse 35: He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’
Jesus says, “No, I tell you, avoiding suffering is not an indication that you are great. No I tell you, being in a state of comfort and safety does not mean you have God’s stamp of approval on your life. No, I tell you, being spared from a storm is not a sign that you are blessed.”
No, I tell you, if you want to be great, if you want God’s stamp of approval, if you want to be blessed by God, you must be willing to sacrifice, put yourself last, place the needs of others ahead of your own needs, be a servant, suffer with those who are grieving, agonize with those who feel forsaken, betrayed and powerless.
Verse 36 & 37: Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’
In other words, Jesus said: Do you want to be great? Do you want to be on the side of God? Then, don’t take the side of the powerful, the privileged and the protected. Instead, always take the side of the most vulnerable among you. Take the side of children who are so precious and fragile, whose lives are threatened or lost. Take the side of women who have been unheard, whose lives are disregarded and degraded. Take the side of victims who have been blamed, whose lives have been disrespeceted and diminished.
As the Proverbs declare:
Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9).
So, where was God in Hurricane Florence? Contrary to popular theology, God was on the side of those who experienced the worst of the storm. God was on the side of the children who were swept away. God was on the side of the babies who were crushed. God was on the side of the elderly who drowned. God was on the side of forty-two of God’s beloved who died in the storm.
Where was God in the storm? God was on the side of Windy Newton and Nicolete Green who drowned in the back of a sheriff’s van as they were being transported to a mental health facility. God was on their side feeling their fear, knowing their terror, experiencing their confusion, tasting their deaths.
What was God doing during Hurricane Florence? God was suffering. God’s self was being broken. God’s self was pouring out. God was grieving with those who lost their loved ones, hurting with those who lost property, agonizing with those whose homes were destroyed, distressing with those whose livelihoods were lost.
And the good news is: because God was present, so was life—life—hopeful, abundant and eternal.
God was there to begin the holy work of transforming the anguish into peace, the despair into hope and the deaths into life.
And God is with all of us who choose to follow the Lord in this holy work. God is with us when we become suffering servants, putting the needs of others ahead of our own, giving sacrificially to Hurricane relief through our church, planning or supporting mission trips to the devastated areas.
And God is with us at this very moment. Because as we gather around this table in communion with Christ, we are joined with the trials and sufferings of all people.
This morning we pray that through Christ we too would be with those who endured the wind, rain, and flooding.
As we come to this Table, may Christ’s presence be known to all those who are suffering from the storm, just as He makes His presence known in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup – at this Table and around the world, in every nation, among every people.
These are the gifts of God for God’s people! After we sing our hymn of communion, let us receive them with joy, gratitude and hope.