August 27, 2017, at La Vita Bella nursing home in Dickinson, Texas
(all residents were rescued shortly after this photo was posted on social media)
Sunday’s sermon, September 3, 2017.
There is a part of me that feels the need to say something this morning about the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. Such unimaginable destruction; such mass confusion and chaos; such pain and agony– dozens dead, thousands without shelter, limited access to food and water, and an entire major city in trouble. And the heartbreaking photos; like from that nursing home of helpless old people just sitting in their wheelchairs as the water rose around them. And the heartbreaking stories—the four children and their great-grandparents swept away in their van as they tried to escape, the policeman drowned on his way into help, and the little toddler found clinging to the body of her drowned mother to name only a few.
We gather here this morning, as we do every week, to hear about God. But where is God in all of that pain? Could not God have done something about that destruction? I am a preacher of the Word of God, and this is the time scheduled for me to preach, and there is indeed a part of me that feels the need to say something this morning about God and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey.
At the same time, there is something in me that does not want to say anything at all in the face of that suffering is so far away. Here in Minnesota we have just enjoyed a week of weather that is about as good as it gets anywhere. Unlike many thousands of people in Houston, I have not been hungry or thirsty this week, I have slept in my own bed, and I have not had to wonder if my loved ones are safe. I could not imagine writing, in the comfort of my dry office, a neat and tidy explanation that would answer all the questions about God that a person of faith in Houston might have at this time.
There are things that can be said from the context of our faith, and, I do not think that the presence of suffering, even mass suffering, disproves the existence of God. If I did not have some Biblical and theological ways to help me understand God and human suffering, I would not even be a Christian, much less a pastor. So yes, there are things that can be said.
But now is not the time for extensive theological expositions. Rather, I think now is the time to do what God recommends in Psalm 46:10, which is to be still. God says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” That is the verse that came to me first as I thought about what I should say this morning. There is a part of me that feels the need to say something, and, there is a part of me that feels the need to just BE STILL in the face of such awesome destruction and agony.
I have had four funerals this summer, and only one was for someone who the Bible would call “old and full of years.” None of those funerals were times for light and easy words about God, but also were times one would wish to just ‘be still’ like the Psalm says.
However, you don’t pay me to just ‘be still.’ Pastors are called to preach, and along with God telling us to ‘be still’ at times, the Bible also says God’s Word must be preached in good times and in bad. “Preach the Word,” Paul told Timothy, “In season and out of season, encouraging with great patience and careful instruction.” So at funerals and after hurricanes, someone has to speak God’s Word.
But there are some things that must not be said. And in the face of such ongoing agony, one must not offer any easy explanations, as if in doing so, we could let God off the hook. We do believe God is all powerful, and while God may not have directly sent that hurricane to do what it did, He certainly could have stopped it. But God did not stop it, and I will not attempt to tell you why. I do believe there is an incomprehensible complexity to how God has chosen to rule His world, and one sermon is not enough time to explain it, nor is an entire lifetime enough time to fully grasp it. The Lord says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Perhaps that is all we should say today. We might want to rush to defend God from those who might misunderstand how this all works. But God is God, and does not need to be defended by the likes of you or me. And we do not have to say anything to get God off the hook. God is God, and is not on anyone’s hook. The Bible says it is we who must answer to God. God is not obligated to answer to us. (continued…)
Psalm 46:10a — (The Lord) says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
II Timothy 4:1b-2 — I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.
Job 16:6-7a — If I speak, my pain is not relieved; and if I refrain, it does not go away. Surely, God, you have worn me out.
Do not let the floodwaters engulf me, or the depths swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me. Answer me, Lord, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.