This sermon was written in response the the series of tornadoes that blew through Springfield, IL on Sunday evening, March 12, 2006. Inspiration for this sermon was taken in part from an article in Theology Today, in 1982, written by Pastor Ron Allen after a devastating night of tornadoes in Grand Island, Nebraska. The scripture that added to the inspiration was 1 Kings 19:1-16.
When a tornado leaves a wake of devastation in a community, people are often at a loss as to how such an event should be reconciled with their basic understanding of the world around them. How can such a thing happen? Where was God when all this was going on? What are we supposed to think about all this?
Pastor Ron Allen, responding to a night of tornadoes in Nebraska, offers these 5 ways of responding to those difficult questions:
- “It was just one of those things” – We often say these words. But the problem is that they don’t really take seriously what actually happened. What about suffering? What about shattered hopes and dreams? “It was just one of those things” doesn’t quite cover it.
- We assume that nature is basically friendly toward us. Nature wants to help us. Yet the empirical evidence doesn’t seem to support this. If nature is so darned friendly, why do weeds choke out our vegetable gardenswhen left unattended? If nature is benevolent, why have Illinois farmers suffered terrific drought? If nature is gracious and kind, why are there poisonous snakes?
- We assign responsibility for storms and such to the devil. And what’s worse, we claim that it was because of the faith of Christians that the storm was no worse than it was. Then we self-righteously blame the victims for their lack of faith. This is very dangerous territory indeed – ambiguous and frightening.If the faith of Christians is a factor, then why are there tornadoes at all? Why death, why destruction? Who is to say that the faith of Hope Presbyterian Church was so much greater than any of the other churches whose buildings were flattened by the storm?
- Some will choose to see the storm as God’s punishment. But this again is problematic. How do we reconcile the observed data with this statement when both the just and the unjust suffer in such an event. If only the homes of sinners had been touched. If only the strip joints and the crack houses had been destroyed – then we might have something to say about God’s punishment.
- Many will question God. Why did God permit this to happen? How could this be part of God’s will, God’s plan? Somehow, it seems ridiculously insufficient to say that even though God loves us, God’s plan could include the destruction of some and the salvation of others in a seemingly random fashion for which only God can see the purpose.
The problem with any of these theories is that they presuppose – they assume – that human beings are in harmony with creation. They assume that because we were given “dominion” over the earth that we have things under control. And there’s nothing like a tornado or a tsunami or a hurricane or a devastating disease to remind us that we’re really not in charge of nature.
Still, it’s not just human pride that makes us think we’ve got this nature thing taken care of. Think about it – irrigation overcomes the desert in places like Phoenix, AZ and Los Angeles, CA. Dark nights have been overcome by dams that harness the power of rivers and turn it into electricity for our homes. We’ve been able to heat our homes and move ourselves from place to place just by extracting fossil fuels from below the surface of the earth. Even at the atomic level, humans have been able to dominate nature and use those atoms to see inside our bodies in order to attack diseases and repair broken bones.
Even the way we have been dealing with the aftermath of the storm shows that humans can indeed dominate their environment – given enough manpower, time and money. The work of restoration and rebuilding has gone incredibly well. Though it is still dark here at the church, almost everyone has power today as snapped utility poles were trucked in, sunk into quickly drilled holes and strung with roll after roll of new cables. At 10:30 p.m. last Sunday, chainsaws were roaring up and down the streets of this Colony West neighborhood. Monday morning, building contractors and insurance adjustors were wandering the streets, evaluating, estimating and even beginning to work. Baptist men worked side by side with inmates from local prisons to cut and clear branches and to move uprooted trees. The goal – to get back to normal as quickly as possible. In our own congregation, once we figured out that our members and friends were safe, we turned our conversations toward roof replacement, getting the power back, cleaning out the ditch and planting trees. Neighbors are talking about new siding, new shingles and higher air conditioning bills because their shade trees are now gone. Redemption in this situation means getting the opportunity to remodel and have it paid for by insurance. Renewal means putting a fresh face on our properties by sprucing up, trimming up and even removing trees and shrubs. And it seems that almost no one is talking about the quality of the life we are intent on rebuilding. Normal, for us, means bringing the world back to the way it was prior to Sunday, March 12th at 8:30 p.m.
Yet scripture seems to indicate something quite different.Even a cursory glance at the prophets reveals a yearning for a different kind of redemption – for the repair of creation. Paul’s letter to the Romans picks up that same yearning as he notes that all creation is groaning with labor pains. Images of streams in the desert, of fruit-filled vineyards, of babies playing with poisonous snakes and of lions, wolves and lambs eating and sleeping together not only point up the hope that even nature can be improved, but also serve as a reminder to us that all is not well in the world – that the way things are is not really what God intended for creation. Springfield, IL, prior to March 12th was not what God wants for the people of God. Is it possible, then, that we’re asking the wrong questions?
When Elijah ran into the wilderness, he was fed up and burned out. His only wish was to get off front lines of prophetic witness and find his place outside the spotlight. Elijah was tired of being God’s fool – jumping when God said: “Jump.” He was tired of putting himself in harm’s way just so God’s message could get to the people who needed to hear it. Elijah just wanted things to get back to normal.
So while he was hiding from his responsibilities, he was able to take naps, to eat and drink what the angels provided for him– to do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted to do it. And the world – under the corrupt leadership of Jezebel and Ahab was left to go to hell in a hand basket. But because God needed Elijah, God waited for the right moment to speak – for the right moment to inspire and motivate Elijah to get back into the prophetic work for which he had been commissioned. And while Elijah rested and God waited – a great wind came – so strong that it split the mountainsides, breaking rocks into pieces. But the Lord was not in the wind. Elijah continued to rest and God continued to wait and an earthquake came. But the Lord was not in the earthquake. Elijah continued to rest and God continued to wait and a great fire came and burned the hillsides. But the Lord was not in the fire.
Well, if God was not in the fire, if God was not in the earthquake, if God was not in the wind, where in that hellish mess was God? Where did God appear?
In the aftermath.
God appeared in the wake of nature’s destruction and asked one simple question: What in the world are you doing here, Elijah? You are supposed to be out there in Damascus calling attention to corruption. You are supposed to be bringing people to repentance. You are supposed to be challenging the status quo, moving people out of their complacency, motivating my people to return to me. What are you doing here?
That question echoes through the centuries and resounds in this room, this very day. God was not in the wind last Sunday. God was not in the lightening and thunder. God was not in the torrential downpours. But God is certainly here now, asking us what he asked Elijah: What are you doing here, Hope Presbyterian Church? What are you up to? God was not in the wind, but God is here now, challenging us to forget about getting back to normal and calling us to grasp what God means by the word normal. God was not in the wind, but God was with us before, during and after the storm, confronting us with the task of turning away from our yearning to move on, get this over with and rebuild as quickly as possible and turn instead toward the purposes that God has outlined for us since day one.
The question we need to ask ourselves is not why these tornados came through Springfield, but how these tornados will change the way we live in relationship to God and with the people in our community.
We have an unbelievable opportunity to reflect on our own values and take the prophetic lead in promoting God’s values – values that place the most importance on making sure that all of God’s children can live in homes that are not infested with dry rot, rats and cockroaches. God was not in the wind, but God has redeemed the storm so that we might return to God, so that we might reorient our lives to God’s priorities and take seriously our call to reverse the status quo that has allowed for economic resources to be poured into certain neighborhoods while neglecting the poverty in parts of this city. God was not in the storm.But God is right here, right now.And God wants to know what we are planning to do.