A sermon preached on January 17th, 2010, based on John 2:1 – 11, on the Sunday following the earthquake in Haiti.
The great religious question that has loomed large over the past week was the one demanded by the horrors being suffered in Haiti: Where is God in all this?
The massive earthquake follows a long history of suffering in Haiti. Haiti began as a French slave colony, founded by people who had been brutally kidnapped from their homeland. Remarkably, these African-born slaves managed to throw off their slave masters and their cruelty. A long difficult history followed of poverty, failed government and corruption and political violence, as well as exploitation by rich business people come from the outside to make a profit, stripping the country of its resources, and leaving the land ecologically destitute – the majority of its trees cut down.
Haiti is a country that has suffered disproportionately to other countries from the AIDS epidemic. In recent years it has been ravaged by hurricanes. It is a land of orphans.
And now this horrible earthquake, leaving so many dead, maimed, homeless, grief-stricken.
Where, indeed is God in all this?
The question was helped along by the buffoon, Rev. Pat Robertson of the 700 Club, already famous for making wacky and cruel comments. He said something to the effect that all this suffering in Haita could be traced back to a supposed pact signed by the original slaves with the devil through which they sought the help of the devil in getting free from the French. The implication of Robertson’s statement was that the Haitians brought all this suffering upon themselves – that what we are witnessing is punishment for sin.
My first reaction to Robertson’s words was to ignore them as the commentary of a buffoon few can take seriously at this point. But to the extent that there are non-Christians who might hear his words as expressing the “Christian point of view,” I pause to offer some well-expressed responses from a couple of Christians leaders whose writings I admire:
Jim Wallis of Sojourners declared:
My God does not cause evil. God is not a vengeful and retributive being, waiting to srike us down; instead, God is in the very midst of this tragedy, suffering with those who are suffering. When evil strikes, it’s easy to ask, where is God? The answer is simple: God is suffering with those who are suffering.
Tony Campolo, who along with his son Bart have done a great deal of compassionate ministry in Haiti, wrote:
Haiti’s former dictator, Jean-Claude Duvalier, was a voodoo witchdoctor, and when he was driven from power it was widely rumored that he offered an infant boy as a blood sacrifice to Satan, and cursed the country with an evil spell to bring disasters and suffering upon the Haitian people. You may not believe in that sort of thing, but many Haitians do. Now we must show them that God’s love, expressed through sacrificial people, is greater than the forces of darkness.
Just after the earthquake, as huge billows of dust caused by collapsing buildings hung over Port-au-Prince, witnesses heard not only the moans of suffering people, but also the eerie sounds of hymns being sung by Haitian Christians. These are the songs of an undaunted people who are determined to defy Duvalier’s curse with their faith in God.
Help them to hope! Help their prayers to be answered! I don’t believe God called this disaster down on Haiti, but I do believe God’s grace and love, flowing through those of us who are surrendered to God’s will, can bring healing and redemption to our Haitian brothers and sisters. Please, please, please … do what you can.
At this point there isn’t much we can do other than give our money and pray.
In my helplessness, I surf the web. I came across a clip of the comedienne John Stewart, who happens to be Jewish, responding to Robertson. Holding up a large Bible, he noted what a big book Robertson had available to him as a Christian to draw upon as he attempted to respond to the great suffering of the Haitian people. Reading aloud a portion of psalm as an example, Stewart pointed out how many moving scriptures of comfort from which Robertson could have quoted. Instead, Stewart marveled at how Robertson managed to pass over all these potential scriptural selections to refer in stead to what amounts to an “urban legend.”
And so I pause here to quote from the opening of Psalm 46, which starts off referring to what sounds very much like an earthquake:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
If you read through the Bible you will find a persistent theme that suggests that God has a preference in fact for poor people – people like these destitute folk in Haiti. The central Old Testament story tells of God hearing the cries of poor, oppressed slaves in Egypt, leading them to deliverance in the Exodus from the rich and powerful Pharaoh. The Old Testament prophets consistently voice God’s concern for the overlooked poor and oppressed, and God’s judgment on those who would oppress them.
In the New Testament, Jesus is born into a poor, homeless people, with poor shepherds as his first companions. In his ministry, Jesus spoke of having not place to lay his head, and declared that it was very hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. He told a parable about a poor starving man named Lazarus who sleeps at the doorstep of a rich man, and how when the lives of both poor Lazarus and the rich man come to an the end, poor Lazarus goes directly into the embrace of God, while the rich man is held accountable for this refusal to take notice of the plight of his neighbor.
The lectionary reading that happened to fall to this Sunday was this peculiar story about the first miracle of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of John, in which he turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Hearing the news of the earthquake, my first reaction to this Gospel story was that it wouldn’t have been one of the ones I would have turned to in this context. The story can almost come across as trivial –water turned to wine so a wedding can go on.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke the miracles that Jesus performs most commonly arise in response to human suffering: Jesus multiplies the loaves to feed the hungry masses; Jesus heals the sick and the lame. In John’s Gospel, it’s different. The miracles occur as “signs” intent on revealing – to those who have eyes to see – the glory of God.
Maybe at such a time as this, it is precisely the glory of God of which we need to be reminded.
The passage starts off with, “After three days…” It’s easy to jump over this little detail, but John is intent on reminding us of something. “After three days…” Where have we heard that before? Oh, yes. On Easter, at the resurrection. The women went to the tomb, and there they discovered that the violence, suffering and death they had witness as Jesus was nailed to the cross was not the final word.
They discovered that Jesus was alive again.
John tells us that the first miracle Jesus performed was a part of a wedding feast, a grand celebration, an occasion of joy. He made ordinary water into delicious taking wine. It was a time for laughter and dancing.
Something profound is being said here.
If we were to ask, What is the fundamental problem we human beings deal with in life? I suspect we would answer by pointing to the presence of suffering. This is so much terrible suffering. And that is true.
On a practical level this answer leads us to focus our attention on minimizing pain and suffering and maximizing pleasure, comfort and earthly security.
What if, however the fundamental problem in life isn’t so much the presence of suffering, but rather the fact that we so often miss the joy. We miss the glory.
Remember that joy is not the same as mere pleasure, or even “happiness.” Joy is something deeper that has a way of showing up in strange places, like a stable in Bethlehem. Said the angel to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of a great joy…”
What if worst than having to endure suffering is to go through life and miss the joy?
As Christians, we live out of the resurrection: out of a love and life that is greater than the death that ravages this world. Joy is intended to be our hallmark.
As I surfed the web this week, I found a lot of discussion about what’s wrong with Haiti – not so much from a religious point of view, as from a secular point of view: why haven’t the people of Haiti been able to get it together politically and economically, the failure of which has left them so vulnerable to the earthquake? These are legitimate questions that will need to be addressed in the years to come as Haiti is rebuilt.
But I have a suspicion, to which I rely on the testimony of Tim Tyler and others who have experienced life in Haiti up close, and that is that even as there is more suffering in Haiti than there tends to be in the United States, there may also be more joy as well. Even as there is so much “wrong” with Haiti, I suspect that people there know better than we do how to be in the spirit of the wedding of Cana.
At the moment, the people of Haiti find themselves in a time that calls for weep rather than rejoicing. But in time joy will return, and I expect that Haitians know better than we how to rejoice. They are better at beholding the glory than we are.
There may well be a lot of things that people can hear God saying in the midst of this tragedy, but to us up here in the United States, perhaps God is saying, “Wake up!” We who so anxiously seek to fortify ourselves against suffering – we’re missing what life if all about. Life is a precious gift, and even though this gift is often very painful, it is also full of joy and laughter. It is not about hoarding and obsessing about security; it is, in fact about dancing. And perhaps the dancing begins by letting go our tight, fearful grip on our money so as to help those who are in great need.
Recently I was asked to write a short paragraph by way of a biographical introduction of myself for a theater group that is doing a public reading of one of my plays. I wanted to say something concisely to this secular group about the church of which I am the pastor; since my identity is so tied up with this community. This is what came up to me to write in my bio: “I have been the pastor of the Parsippany United Methodist Church for twenty-one years, where the mission statement begins, “In a hostile, hurting world, we reach out to share kindness and laughter.”
You don’t find the word “laughter” in too many mission statements. I think we’re onto something including this word in our description of what we’re all about. It truly is a “hostile, hurting world,” but deep down there is a great laughter underneath everything – God’s laughter – and we are invited to laugh along with God.
I met with our youth this past Friday night as they had their sleepover in the church. We prayed together in the darkness of the sanctuary by candlelight. The people of Haiti were in our hearts and minds. I wanted to read something from this big book to finish with. I chose these words that come from the very end of the Bible:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
(Did you catch that? In the ultimate healing to which all of creation is headed, it will be like a wedding celebration.)
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’
(Revelations 21:1 – 6a)