What do we think about “Acts of God?”

September 11, 2017

Bible Text: Romans 13:8-14 |

Well. It’s been a bad week.

  • The floods in Texas are now giving way to the mold in Texas.
  • Every western state is on fire.
  • There was a massive earthquake in Mexico.
  • And as we gather here today, Hurricane Irma is on her way to wreaking havoc in Florida.

 

All these things so commonly referred to as “Acts of God” – this sloppy theology that’s wormed its way into the insurance industry and our common parlance: If there’s no viable person you can sue, blame God. And I’d certainly like to defend God’s name from such slander. But that’s awfully hard to do when you come up to the pulpit right after hearing an Old Testament reading about that time God struck dead the firstborn in every household in Egypt. (This falling right on the heels of all those other plagues – those natural disasters God sent Egypt.)

Our world is filled with suffering that comes from these so-called “Acts of God.” And even if you blame the severity of these hurricanes on human-induced climate change, that doesn’t change the fact that hurricanes have always been around. Whatever complicity we humans have in our environmental crisis, it doesn’t change the fact that nature is violent – and sometimes hideously so.

At some point it’s only natural to ask why God would make a planet that can be so frighteningly destructive.

The most primitive (yet still ubiquitous) belief is that God is punishing us – that God created this world with a whole series of built-in weapons (earthquakes, hurricanes, whatever), to be conjured up whenever he gets fed up with us, as if Irma is surging up the state of Florida because somebody there baked a cake for a gay wedding. Or even more seriously (were you to read the Old Testament prophets with any sobriety), that the church is being punished for its failure to live out its identity in Christ with integrity. (That’s actually a far easier position to argue Biblically, although I don’t hear any dooms-dayers taking up that challenge.)

And, yes, I know there are plenty of stories you can point to in the Bible that suggest God use nature to punish people, including the plagues of Egypt. But there’s not time in this context to work out the complex theology of that story. Let me just jump to the end and say, I simply do not believe that is how God functions – as if the Divine Creator and Sustainer of this world could be so petty or mercantile.

I know it’s an ongoing temptation to view suffering in this life as some kind of divine curse. I hear it from people all the time: What did I do to make God do this to me? But for us in the church, if we want to understand the nature of God, our first source must always be Jesus. For the deepest wisdom of our heritage teaches us that Christ is fully divine. You want to know what God is like? Look first to Jesus. Look to Jesus before getting lost in those existential – yet legitimate – questions about the nature of God. And what did Jesus show us, but that he came to bless us, and not to curse us. That is the starting point of any theology about God.

And then there’s the second part of that ancient mystery. Not only is Christ fully divine, he is also fully human. And it is in Christ’s humanity that we see how to live in this world in the face of suffering – be it the so-called “Acts of God” or “Acts of our neighbor” or “Acts of our own self-destruction.” And what is at the heart of Jesus’ humanity? It is as St. Paul reminded us this morning: the fulfillment of the law is summed up in this one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9).

For when ideas and theologies are left unto themselves, they are never fully true. “The [only] proper habitat for truth is relationships.”[1] This is what the fully human one showed us. This is what the incarnate God in Christ showed us. Ideas and philosophies, laws of righteousness, are nothing until they are manifest in love – the kind of love that has determined to go and to act.

I was talking with Jonathan Webb the other day – the former soldier who spoke at St. John’s last year about his work with widows and orphans of war in Iraq. He told me about a recent conversation he’d had with his neighbors about befriending extremist Muslims in Baghdad. They were horrified by what he was describing. “Why are you doing this?” they asked. “Because I’m learning what it means to follow Jesus who told me to love my enemies and to bless those who persecute me.” That was all. His only response was that one ludicrous, impossible teaching. And they were stunned. They weren’t Christians (at all), but they immediately perceived the power and the integrity of the gospel when they witnessed somebody actually trying to live it out.

Following the way of Jesus does make all the sense in the world if we finally set our face to do it.

Sadly, for most of us Christians, we prefer to modify Jesus’ teachings: we soften the difficult bits; we explain away the costly bits. We substitute the culture of our churches for the substance of our Christ. And in the end we lose the best that Jesus has to offer. Why? Because what we really wanted all along was to keep on living the way we always have, with just a sweet, Christian glaze on the surface. We’re too afraid to grasp the revolutionary, extraordinary beauty of the Gospel: Love God and love your neighbor. Without excuses, without fear, without compromise.

Love God and love your neighbor. I know the loving God bit can be tricky because – for all our heart’s yearning for God – it can be an allusive thing to love what we haven’t seen or experienced. And there is often a lot of unlearning about God that needs to take place if we are to discover the truth of who our God is. But the “love your neighbor” bit? Well that one’s fairly easy: you just need to love everyone who isn’t you! And if you think that’s too hard, well, just pick one who you think is difficult to love; decide to center your heart on nothing but their well-being (if only for a moment); find something extravagantly generous and tangible to do for them; then do it. And then decide if loving your neighbor is actually as hard as you thought it would be. Because, honestly, I think the hardest part is actually choosing to do it. But once we do, Jesus is right there beside us, cheering us along.

And I can testify here. Time and again when I’ve been in conflict with someone I find it incredibly difficult to stop my mind from circling back round to defending myself, to refining the rightness of my position. And when I’m doing that, it’s always all about me. But when I have the wherewithal to shift my intention away from the argument and on to a practical way to bless them – something totally separate from the conflict – the power of the conflict dissipates and all my energy begins to desire their well-being.

When the storms of life hit – be they literal or figurative, be they a hurricane or a divorce – the first question we need to deal with is not existential questions about the nature of God. This typically leads to blaming God and excusing our own despair and bad attitude. No. the question we need to ask is, “Will I choose to live like Jesus?” After all, there were storms in Jesus’ day that he never explained. But he did reach out and save the one who was drowning.

The first thing we know about Jesus is that he entered this world, and lived this life and confronted the real  storms of life with compassion, courage, and an unwavering posture of unselfishness. The secret to living the fully human life is to choose an active posture of blessing the other.

Face the storms with a commitment to generosity. At a very practical level I would say, yes, Harvey and Irma are extraordinarily destructive, which means we must all consider an extraordinarily generous, and costly, response. Our sisters and brothers in Texas and Florida and the Caribbean are desperately in need of help – a help that we are capable of giving, even if means depriving ourselves of something.

And this pattern holds true in all the storms of life. Turn your back towards bitterness and fear, and set your face towards love – practical, generous, tangible love – and discover the power of Jesus’ humanity bursting forth within you.

And with this premise, I’d like to update you briefly on the result of the parish survey we took last spring.

The vestry reviewed the survey. They met with their ministry teams to plan and to plot. And then they spent a couple days in June sifting through all this data, all these dreams.

And in the end, it all boils down to this same basic idea expressed in the opening lines of the Five-year vision document:

The call of Jesus is clear:

To be truly human is to love God and to love our neighbor. As we plan for the next five years of ministry at St. John’s we earnestly desire to become authentically Christlike in all we do.

Of course there are programs and policies and budgets and stains on the carpet that all need to be dealt with. But the only reason any of these things matter is if, beneath it all, we’ve decided to be a community that wants to be like Jesus.

Is that a tall order? Sure. But what else are we here for?  And please hear me: It’s not about a never-ending guilt trip for when we fail to be like Jesus. There’s always mercy. Always. It is mercy that we eat and mercy that we drink every week at this table. But do you see? even that pardon for our failings becomes the destination in our strivings: to become like Jesus as those who seek mercy, forgiveness, and the restoration of life in all we meet.

There will be more to say about this five-year vision in the weeks to come. But for today it is sufficient simply to pray, “God, help us to become like Jesus. Amen.”

[1] Josef Pieper, as quoted by Richard Rohr in Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, p. 183.

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