January 17, 2010

Sermon for Epiphany 2C/Haitian Earthquake

The preaching landscape changed drastically this week as the world changed at 4:53pm on Tuesday, January 12th. As you've no doubt heard and seen over the past several days, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck just 10 miles south and west of Haiti's capital city, Port au Prince. Devestation of this magnitude is unfortunately matched in our collective memory by events like the Christmas Tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina a year later. Natural disaster like these literally change the world. Earthquakes move the ground so drastically that the earth spins differently on its axis. Hurricanes, as you know, move sand and water and create new beaches while destroying old ones. And when these events happen, they change the way we look at God. This week is a prime example. In just a few seconds the outpouring of God's extravagance in Jesus turning 180 gallons of water into wine becomes a source of discomfort as we ponder why he wouldn't use his energy to maybe stop earthquakes or lift the people out of poverty and substandard construction. How ridiculous is it that the first sign Jesus performs in John's Gospel, the one that solidifies the belief of his disciples revolves around Jesus making enough wine to keep a week long bender going for a while longer?
It is just hard to wrap our minds around such ridiculous extravagance, especially in the light of extreme need, horrific images of death and destruction, and knowing that so often it is the most vulnerable, those who God promises to protect; widows, orphans, prisoners, the poor- it is these people who are affected the most severely by events like the Haiti earthquake. Our savior whipping up some flashy magic to turn water into wine is, quite frankly, a little bit off-putting five days after a major humanitarian crisis. But even in the midst of our discomfort, there are words of hope. Even in a story that makes no sense today, there is wisdom.
The first of these lights shining in darkness comes from the lips of Mary. We have no idea why she is at this party and know even less about why she cares so much that the banquet has run out of wine, but she approaches her son, who she knows to be special, and let's him know of the unfortunate situation. Unsure as to why the wine issue affects him, Jesus dismisses his mother's worry, and then, as she walks away, she mutters something to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” And they do. They take the six jars and fill them with water. They take a glassful out and take it to the chief steward. They do what he says even though it makes on sense, and it pays off; the party can continue. As a story, Mary's direction keeps it moving, but as Scripture, Mary's suggestion to “do whatever he says” speaks to us strongly today. Aid organizations all over the world have snapped into gear and planes filled with doctors, nurses, medicines, heavy equipment, search and rescue teams, and myriad other specialty items are flying into Haiti around the clock. All of this, from the planes that carry cargo to the people who help to the ibuprofen they carry costs money. A lot of money. It also requires people skilled in many areas from search and rescue to demolition to medicine. And as the transition from search and rescue transitions to the recovery of bodies and ultimately to rebuilding, the third world country of Haiti will need support from the whole world to keep another earthquake from resulting in the same sort of catastrophe again. Maybe Mary's word to the servants is a word for us. “Do whatever he says.” Many of you know what it is like to have your world change in an instant. Hurricanes Frederick, Katrina, and Ivan are not that far removed from us. Many of you know what it is to receive help from total strangers. And all of us know the abundance of living in freedom in the first of first-world nations. What is Jesus calling you to do today? Will you listen to Mary and do whatever he tells you even if it seems impossibly hard to do?
The second light shining in our Gospel lesson for today will comfort us as the shock begins to fade and the question “why” floods our minds. Why God did people who already have so little have to suffer this way? Why do bad things happen? Why don't you stop the earth from shaking, the wind from blowing, the fires from spreading? Why? This is the age old question of theodicy. Why does God intervene sometimes, like at the wedding banquet, and not others, like the 30,000 children who die each day from completely preventable things like Malaria, AIDS, and hunger? The answer, such as it is, comes to us this morning in the words of the chief steward, “most people serve the best first, but you have saved the best for last.”
Honestly, there is no good answer to the question, why? We don't and can't know the mind of God. We don't and can't know why God does some things and doesn't do others. Quite frankly, the answers that we do get are either trite and leave us feeling empty or unfounded and leave us feeling angry. All we can really know is the hope expressed by the chief steward at the wedding banquet, the best is yet to come. God's plan, messy as it may be in the short term due to our constantly getting in the way, is perfect in the long term, and will be fulfilled someday, but for now we have to rest in the hope that “the best is yet to come.”
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and people from all over the United States will spend time volunteering to honor the Reverend Doctor's legacy. Long before that legacy was solidified Dr. King expressed the hope of the chief steward that resounds with me today. In 1961 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before the Fourth Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO as a man hopeful against seemingly insurmountable odds. The Civil Right's Act was still years away. Racial tensions were running hot, and there was very little in the way of hope for change. And yet, in front of a group of mostly white, secular leaders, Dr. King proclaimed with boldness, “I am convinced that we shall overcome because the arc of the universe is long bit it bends toward justice.” Sometimes that arc bent toward justice takes the form of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in the third world in order to shock those of us first-worlders into some sort of action. Sometimes that arc toward justice means that the wine has to run out, the water jugs for hand washing have to be empty, all hope has to seem lost, and people have to spring into action knowing only that "the best is yet to come."
The fact that Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine is, without a doubt, extravagant. As images of body-lined streets fill our television sets we long for Jesus to intervene here and now. What we have to recognize is that Jesus is active in the streets of Port au Prince; in the form of doctors without borders, in the form of now homeless people picking through rubble to find complete strangers, in the form of a $10 donation to the Red Cross that somebody sent by text message. Mary's advice to "do whatever he says" didn't stop with the wedding servants in Cana, but continues to speak to us today. The chief stewards proclamation the best is yet to come may seem foolish on a day like today, but it is no less true now than it was 2000 years ago.
The arc of the universe bends toward justice, and that wedding banquet in Cana was a sign for us of things to come. The day when the banquet never ends, when there is justice and peace on the earth, and when the pots once used for hand washing are replaced by the fullness of God's unending goodness. My friends, pray for the people of Haiti, listen to Jesus' and "do whatever he says" and live in the hope that the best is yet to come. Amen.

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