On the Side of Children

Florence Track

Mark 9:30-37 NRSV

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:

Amen.

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 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.

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A Movement for Wholeness in a Fragmented World

DOC Identity

John 9:1-41 NRSV

Let’s think for a minute what it did for this poor blind man when the disciples began a theological debate over his blindness.

“So, they tell us that you were born blind?  Well, let’s get out our Bibles and Sabbath Day School Quarterlies, and see if we can find some theological reasons for your blindness. Of course, everyone knows it is because of sin. But since you were born blind, perhaps it is not so much your sin as much as it is the sin of your parents.”

Yes, I’m sure all of that theologizing and rationalizing and Bible Study did absolute wonders for that poor man. I am sure he really appreciated it!

But how often have we’ve been guilty of doing the same. For some reason, because we are Christian, we believe it is our holy responsibility to try to explain human suffering in light of our faith in God.

When the earthquake and Tsunami struck Japan several years ago, I heard some preachers say that God was judging that area of the world because Christianity was not the prominent religion.

         When the terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center Towers on 9-11, some preachers said that corporate greed was to blame.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and Gulfport, Mississippi, many blamed it on all the new casinos that had been built in along the Gulf Coast.

And whenever there is an outbreak of strong storms, especially strong storms with tornadoes, I have heard many Christians say, as I am certain we will hear them say in the next couple of months: “God must be trying to get our attention!”

For whatever reason, when suffering occurs, we believe that God must have had some pretty good reasons to allow it.

In the face of human suffering, two predominate responses are echoed by the church.

The first response is the one I usually hear from the TV evangelists. It is the response of those in our text this morning. God is sitting at the command center in complete control of every earthly thing that happens. God has got a plan for the world, and it’s a good plan, and we human beings need to trust that plan. Even if people suffer, we shouldn’t question the plan or God’s judgments. Because God’s judgments are always just. You just have to have faith and believe God has God’s reasons. God has a driving purpose for everything that happens in this world.

The other response comes from some liberal scholars. And that is one of silence. They say that God is completely unknowable. Life, and the suffering that comes with it, is utterly mysterious. It is ok to question God, to ask “why?” But we simply have no answers to any of our “why” questions. Silence.

Frankly, I find both of these responses to human suffering to be troubling.

First of all, those who believe God has some kind of divine, driving purpose behind every evil thing that happens in this world, in my estimation, paint a very evil, mean portrait of God.

And those who respond only with only silence, those who refuse to say anything or do anything in response to human suffering paint a very detached, indifferent portrait of God. God is watching us, but as Bette Midler sings, “God is watching us from a distance.” God is reduced to this mysterious abstraction devoid of any real meaning.

The gospels, however, paint a very different image of God through the words and works of Jesus, who we believe to be the incarnation of God—which means that if we want to know how God responds to human suffering, all we have to do is look to Jesus.

I believe the life, suffering and death of Christ teach us that when a landslide shook the earth in Washington State a few year ago, so quivered the very heart of God. Last year, as the flood waters swelled in Southern Louisiana and North Carolina, tears welled up in the eyes of God

As the livelihood of many were suddenly poured out, so emptied the very self of God. God was not causing the evil, neither was God unmoved by it.

This is where I believe our gospel lesson this morning is especially helpful. When Jesus is questioned about this man’s lifetime of suffering by his disciples, Jesus really doesn’t answer the question, but he certainly isn’t silent or detached.

Jesus responds by saying that this is a good opportunity, not for theological debate, not for some long discussion theodicy (the problem of evil), not to assign blame or responsibility; but rather, it is an opportunity bend to the ground, spit in the dirt, and get his hands dirty, so that the glory of God might be revealed.

Jesus responds to a fragmented world by becoming involved, even if it means some work, even if it means rolling up his sleeves, lowering himself to the ground, and getting his hands dirty to touch the places on others that most need touching. Jesus responds to a fragmented world by becoming a movement for wholeness—bending, stooping, humbling himself to the ground—working, touching, healing, restoring.

And with that, a huge argument ensues.

But notice that Jesus refuses to engage in the argument. Jesus doesn’t have time for that. Jesus is not interested in doctrinal debate or theological speculation. Jesus is interested in simply being there with the man, for the man; thus, revealing the peculiar glory and power of our God.

I think it is interesting that the great Southeast-Asian Tsunami of the last decade struck the day after Christmas. One of the world’s worst natural catastrophes took place the very first day after the church’s celebration of the Incarnation, the celebration of the good news that our God did not remain silent, aloof and detached from us. Our God came to the earth, became flesh, became a part of the earth, to be with us. Our God is a God who descends to us. Our God is a God who bends, who stoops to the earth to be for us. Our God is a God who has selflessly and sacifcially chosen to suffer with the creation.

The story of this healed blind man comes in the same Gospel of John that begins, “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh…and we beheld his glory.”

The great, grand glory of this God who became flesh with us is not that God is in complete control of everything earthly thing that happens, and it is not that God has an explanation or a reason or a driving purpose for everything that happens to us, but rather that God is Emmanuel, God here with us.

In the face of our suffering, our God reaches in and reaches out to us, bends to the ground, gets God’s hands dirty, and touches us.

And then God calls us to do the very same.

Every year as Holy Week approaches, I think about the worshippers of the Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Alabama.

It was Palm Sunday in 1994.

About midway through the worship service at 11:35 am, as the choir began to sing, a tornado ripped through the church building destroying it completely.

Eighty-three out of the 140 worshippers who attended the service that day were seriously injured. Twenty-one worshippers were killed. Eight of the dead were little children—children who had just walked down the aisle waving their palm branches.

There was absolutely no driving purpose, no theological explanation for that tragedy, except for the fact that we live in fallen, broken, unfair and sometimes senseless world where tornados, tsunamis, hurricanes, landsides, heart disease, dementia, and cancer can develop and arbitrarily destroy.

Thankfully, Christians from all over the world didn’t just talk about that tragedy in their Sunday School classes, trying to figure out if there was some reason God allowed it. They responded to that great tragedy by emulating the God revealed to us in Christ, by bending themselves to the ground, getting their hands dirty, to raise that church out of the rubble. Christians everywhere imitated their Savior by suffering with and being with the grieving. Doing whatever they could do to bring hope, wholeness, and restoration.

On the church’s website today, you will find these words:

 After the tornado, we received many gifts from all over the world. They lifted us up and helped us to know that we are not alone. Among those gifts were a banner and a painting of Jesus walking on turbulent waters. These and other gifts are reminders that God is with us through our storms, and with His help we will rise above them and be stronger because of them. We can now affirm the truth of the message that is contained on a plaque and in the words of a song: ‘Sometimes God calms the storm. Sometimes, …the storms rage, and God calms the child.’

And in the end, isn’t that much better than any theological explanation?

Let us pray together…

When Jesus was asked about the reason for human suffering, he did not answer the question. He did not get into a theological debate. He did not assign blame or responsibility. Instead, he chose to be a movement for wholeness in this fragmented world by bending to the ground and getting his hands dirty to bring about healing and  restoration. In the wake of the storms of our lives, may we do the same. Amen.