Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Haiti, One Year Later

On the anniversary of Haiti's terrible earthquake, I'm praying for those that are still suffering, and giving thanks for all those who participated in the relief effort, incomplete though it is.

Here is the sermon I preached a few days after the earthquake.

On November 1, 1755, at about 10:30 in the morning, a magnitude 9 earthquake hit off the coast of Portugal. The quake, and the resulting tsunami and fires, totally destroyed the city of Lisbon and killed nearly 100,000 people, and the chaos nearly destroyed the Kingdom of Portugal. Because this earthquake happened during the daytime, and because it was on November 1, All Saints’ Day, many of the victims in this devoutly Catholic kingdom were killed as they were sitting in church, praying for the souls of departed friends and loved ones! Although the question of God’s goodness and mercy in light of human suffering has been around as long as human beings have been able to to conceive of a higher power, the Lisbon earthquake did more to put this question to the forefront of people’s minds than any single event would, probably until the Holocaust.

Thinkers of an emerging movement called “modernism” like Kant, Voltaire, and Rousseau all began to ask very deep questions about what they had always been taught about the nature of God. How, on a day of holy obligation, when so many people were doing exactly what they thought God wanted them to do, would God send such a devastating earthquake, something which, at the time was universally believed to be a sign of God’s wrath? Why would a good and loving God do such an awful thing?
Of course, in the centuries since the Lisbon quake we have learned more about the natural world, how earthquakes and volcanoes are the growing pains of a living planet that is continually replenishing itself. This knowledge has made the question of God’s role in human suffering a little easier to live with, but only slightly so. This increased knowledge of the natural world has led some people, most notably Thomas Jefferson, to embrace an idea called “deism”, where God is viewed like a clock-maker, having put the pieces together and set them in motion, but not intervening after that. Most Christians, however, haven’t given up completely on the idea of God playing a role in our world, but no one really agrees on just how that works. We certainly saw that this week when Pat Robertson decided to blame the victims in Haiti for their suffering. By the way, I hope you all were as saddened by his comments as I was.

But the truth is we don’t really know. We don’t really know how to even begin to discern what God’s role in tragedies like these are. And when we don’t know what to do or think, it’s always a good idea to turn to the Bible, to search the witness of those who have come before us and wrestled with these same questions for some guidance. I’d like to read a passage from the prophet Ezekiel (18:25-32).

Yet you say, 'The way of the Lord is not just.' Hear, O house of Israel: Is my way unjust? Is it not your ways that are unjust? If a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin, he will die for it; because of the sin he has committed he will die. But if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life. Because he considers all the offenses he has committed and turns away from them, he will surely live; he will not die. Yet the house of Israel says, 'The way of the Lord is not just.' Are my ways unjust, O house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust? Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!

Ezekiel is speaking to a people who are asking the same kinds of questions we are right now. The people of Israel are in exile, no longer in the land that they thought God had promised would always be theirs, now living under the thumb of a foreign empire. They are looking at this horrible tragedy that has befallen them and asking how to mesh their understanding of God’s goodness and mercy with their present circumstances. In addressing these questions, the prophet Ezekiel, speaking on behalf of God, does something interesting: he reframes the question. “Why do you say the ways of the Lord are unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair, O Israel?” Ezekiel suggests that in addition to asking about God’s role in a tragedy, we should also ask what role we have to play in it. In fact, taking a long, hard look at ourselves might be a more productive route because it’s easier to evaluate ourselves than to guess at the mind of God.

The way that Ezekiel reframes the center of the question from God to us might just be the way to go. Consider this: fifteen years ago a magnitude 7 earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay area, and sixty-three people were killed. On Tuesday a magnitude 7 earthquake hit off the coast of Haiti, and the earliest estimates are that at least fifty thousand people died. Same intensity, astronomically higher body count. The difference in the tragedy has nothing to do with God loving one group more than another. The difference is that as one of the wealthiest urban areas in the wealthiest nation on earth, the people of San Francisco can build structures that can withstand the shock of an earthquake. As one of the poorest nations on earth, the people of Haiti have to build their homes, schools, and churches out of whatever they can find: most often pieces of corrugated tin and concrete blocks. The real tragedy of Haiti is not the earthquake. The real tragedy is that our brothers and sisters living in poverty are the most vulnerable and always suffer the most when nature turns ugly. “Why do you say the ways of the Lord are unfair? Is it not our ways that are unfair?”

If we ask that question of ourselves, if we consider that there might be something lacking in the way that we behave as global citizens, we are, of course, led to ask just what it is that we have done. What did we do wrong? After all, none of us here today are particularly wealthy, and as individuals we have very little influence over any kinds of economic or foreign policies. What’s more, many people here today, as members of the US military, have actively participated in humanitarian efforts in other nations. So we rightly ask just what it is about our ways that are unfair.

Perhaps our guilt in humanitarian disasters like the one on our TV screens this week lies not so much in sins of commission, but in sins of omission. In the confession in our liturgy of Holy Communion we ask God’s forgiveness for the things we have done, and the things we have left undone. Perhaps we are guilty of sins of omission.

Sins of omission, after all, are very understandable. When we look at the many varied and complex problems of our world, we quickly become overwhelmed. After all, many of us have to struggle and sacrifice to make ends meet each month, so anything we could do would be just a drop in the bucket. It’s overwhelming, so we change the channel, if you will. We look the other way because we feel helpless, and it’s just too painful. And after a while looking the other way gets easier and easier, until we can’t even see our brothers and sisters suffering right before our eyes. Perhaps our fault lies in a sin of omission.

After September 11, 2001, one of the slogans we often heard was “never forget”. Never forget those who lost their lives, never forget those who labor to keep us safe. Never forget. May I suggest that the way for us to repent of our sins of omission is to revive that slogan for our day. Let us never forget that three billion people on this planet live on less than two dollars a day. Never forget the thirty thousand children that die each day from lack of adequate nutrition and clean drinking water. Never forget that we are commanded to treat all who are hungry, thirsty, sick, lonely, and hopeless just as we would treat Jesus Christ himself.

When the news cameras are turned off and the biggest headline is about the latest person to get booted off of “American Idol”, let us never forget that our mission is not complete until each and every one of God’s six billion children has the means to survive the day. May we never forget, may we repent of our sins of omission, may we turn towards those who are suffering. For then we will all truly live.

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