Longing to Belong: Flood Assurance, Isaiah 43:1-7, 11-13

As you may know our kids and grandkids in Houston were hit by Hurricane Harvey. At one point during the flooding our 11-year old grandson Lukas asked his mother if they had flood insurance. When she told him sadly that they didn’t he summed up the way millions of storm victims must be feeling today in typical pre-teen fashion. He said, “Well we should. We’re screwed!”

Today I am talking about something far better than flood insurance. There are no deductibles on this policy and the premiums are paid up forever. I’m not talking about in-surance, but the as-surance in our Scripture for today. Did you hear it? That Scripture from Isaiah was chosen several weeks ago to be part of our series on “Longing to Belong”–before Hurricane Harvey laid siege to Southeast Texas and Louisiana, before Irma was even born and began doing even worse to the Caribbean Islands and Florida. The words of the anonymous prophet known to biblical scholars as Deutero or Second Isaiah could not be more timely: “When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases that verse in “The Message,” “When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and hard place, it won’t be a dead end.”

Two weeks ago, seems like a year now, my pastoral prayer focused on the early devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. My concern was real but still came from a safe distance. At the time my step-son and his family who live in a suburb on the North East side of Houston were still dry. The speed at which that situation changed over the next 24 hours made Harvey’s flood waters very personal and real.

By Monday morning the street in their small neighborhood was flooded. By afternoon the water was lapping at their front and back doors. They moved some of their possessions upstairs and were still hopeful they could ride it out without too much damage. Within a few hours that hope was washed away by the filthy water rapidly covering their floors and flooding their garage.

We were kept abreast of their situation with texts and videos all during the day. And then there were two extremely long hours when we didn’t hear from them. We didn’t know if they were able to evacuate or not. At last we got a short video of them climbing into a truck that came down their street in waist high water in the late afternoon. By that time the situation was so urgent that they fled with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs. The good news is they are safe. The fact that my step-son and his wife had separated earlier this summer became an ironic blessing because Matt is living in a rented house which thank God is on higher ground and out of Harvey’s reach. That house became their refuge.

Living this frightening disaster vicariously through our kids and knowing that thousands are in much worse shape has been exhausting emotionally for us. The sense of helplessness that there was nothing we could do to help them from 1000 miles away was somewhat alleviated by the outpouring of love and prayers from our church, friends and family. Social media was a blessing as we felt surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

Two days after they fled the flood our kids were able to return to what had been their beautiful home. Six feet of flood water had destroyed the entire first floor of every home on their street. All of those yards are now full of ruined furniture, appliances, toys, carpets, curtains, pictures and family mementos – everything that makes a house a refuge from the storms of life. Most of Harvey’s victims, like our kids, do not have flood insurance and have lost most of their earthly possessions. So now they are all working in the stench and muck 12-hour days to begin the long process of recovery. Our 11 year-old grandson is having nightmares and his parents are living in one.

These are times that make or break one’s faith. Like all tragedies, storms like Harvey and Irma are also an opportunity for all Americans to prove that we are indeed our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers. There have been many heart-warming incidents of heroic and radical generosity and hospitality. A friend of Diana’s said he felt called to go to Houston and help; so he organized some friends to go with him. They collected supplies and donations, were able to use a brand new pick-up truck donated by Lindsey Honda and pulling a U Haul trailer full of donations and supplies, drove straight through last Friday night and spent the weekend helping with the recovery effort. Our daughter-in-law tells us how much it means when strangers stop by and give them water to drink and food to eat as they are working on what they now call their Harvey House. This past Thursday a bit of normalcy was restored when the kids went back to school. They took a first day of school picture none of us will ever forget with the mountain of debris from their house as the background.

This nightmare for Harvey’s and Irma’s victims will continue for years. But Isaiah was writing to a devastated people who endured an even longer disaster. II Isaiah was writing to the Hebrew Exiles in Babylon. His powerful images of water and fire are very real to us as floods of biblical proportions pummel not only our country but India, Nepal and Bangladesh. But Isaiah’s images of water and fire are also metaphors for all of life’s crises that sometimes gang up on us and threaten to overwhelm us. The Hebrews were political prisoners in a foreign, hostile land for 60 years longing to belong again to their nation and their God.

The need for stronger faith to handle difficult times has been very personal for Diana and me in the last two weeks. I share our experience, not because we are especially unfortunate or cursed, but because all of us have to deal with these kinds of crises from time to time. In addition to our hearts breaking for our kids and other victims of Harvey and Irma, we’ve had other pressing family concerns recently that have left me at times feeling like a ping pong ball being bounced from one crisis to the next. My 95 year-old father is in failing health and had to be moved from assisted living to skilled nursing, and that transition which has robbed him of the last shred of independence has been very difficult for him, my sister, and for the nurses and staff at his retirement community. And then last week, Diana’s wonderful 99 year-old mother was hospitalized with confusion caused by a serious urinary tract infection.

She’s doing better now, but all that happening at once felt overwhelming. I have not felt so battered by life since Holy Week of 1993. On Palm Sunday of that year my mother had emergency brain surgery for the cancer that been diagnosed only 3 days earlier. On Wednesday of that week my mother-in-law from my first marriage died and was buried on Good Friday. It was both the hardest and best Holy Week of my ministry as we experienced our own passion and felt the power of resurrection in the lives of two wonderful women.

They say (whoever “they” are) that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I believe that, but I like the way St. Paul says it a little better. In Romans 5 Paul says, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5) “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

Is that a “no pain, no gain” kind of theology? Does it mean we should seek out suffering to make us stronger? No, and we don’t need to because there’s always plenty of suffering around that we can help with. There’s so much suffering in the world right now even our 24/7 cable news junkies can’t keep up with it. Wild fires are raging all over the western part of the US killing livestock and destroying homes; floods many times worse than the ones in Houston have killed over 1200 and affected 41 million people in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. And I shudder to think how much suffering Irma will inflict before she’s done.

Closer to home 4 families in our neighborhood on Donney Lane are homeless because of a fire last Saturday. These are refugee families from Iraq who have no family or community support, nowhere else to go, no one to trust in a country that once prided itself on Lady Liberty inviting “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Those words from Emma Lazarus use flood imagery too as they go on to say, “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Those huddled masses are now afraid to answer their doors or to give personal information to agencies trying to help them for fear it will lead to deportation.

When the first sunshine in many days broke thru the clouds in Houston after Harvey pounded them with 50 inches of rain our daughter-in-law sent us a video of the sun’s rays. She was like a little kid at Christmas, just to see the sun again. In a similar way I’m so proud to say that our brown bag ministry with the families affected by the recent fire has established a level of trust that is a ray of hope in a painful and tragic situation. There’s an old saying that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” It’s also true that a PB and J sandwich, or a few hundred of them, can unlock the doors of fear and mistrust. A simple gesture to feed some hungry kids has built relationships so strong we’ve been able to offer help and love to these families who lost their homes.

Through the persistent efforts of a bunch of wonderful brown bag servants and the heart-warming generosity of all who have made donations to help NW church has been able to live out Isaiah’s message of hope with these neighbors. To Lamar, Laith and Mohammad and their families we have said– “When you’re in over your head, Northwest church will be there with you.” “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” because we all belong to God.

How could God say that to the Hebrew exiles in a hopeless situation in a foreign land filled with pagan gods? How can God give that kind of flood and fire assurance to any of us when we feel like we’re going down for the third time? When we want to shout like the Psalmist, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”

This is very important — the assurance is not because of who we are or that we’re better than others. God’s assurance is not because we’ve done anything to deserve it. It’s simply because of who we belong to. All of us long for human helpers in any crisis. We want to know we are not alone, that we are a part of a community, a family that will rescue us like the Cajun Navy in their bass boats, or like the NW church van delivering food and diapers and blankets or whatever is needed on Donney Lane. But gifts of material things as important as they are do not make us belong. One stark lesson of Irma and Harvey is that all of our material possessions can be wiped out in a heartbeat by a natural disaster, a stock market crash, a fire, a health crisis or a plane flying into a world center tower. But the ties that bind us to one another and most importantly to God can never be destroyed by flood or fire.

Why? Because Isaiah says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine!” Do you hear that church? God knows us by name! God says, “You are Mine.” Our deepest longing to belong is assured. We belong to God – always have, always will. Come hell or high water, come grief or mourning, or fear and nightmare—the one unchanging certainty through it all is that God is with us, We BELONG! Thanks be to God.

Benediction: When the storms of life are raging, God stands by us. God empowers us to face each day of life, each new challenge because we have the assurance that the future belongs to God and so do we. Go share that good news with others longing to belong.

[Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, September 10,2017]

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Myth Busters: Everything Happens for a Reason, I Corinthians13:8-13

When my son was in high school one of his friends was killed in a terrible car crash. Like most preachers’ kids Matt struggled with the expectations placed on him, especially in the small community where we lived. Unfortunately a well-intended preacher at his friend Shane’s funeral added to Matt’s frustration with the church by telling the folks at the funeral that “everything happen for a reason.”

Like all the myths we’re looking at in this sermon series this one contains some truth and is well-intended but not always helpful. There are several scriptures that can be used to support this myth: Ecclesiastes 3:1 “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Proverbs 16:4 says, “The Lord has made everything for its purpose,
even the wicked for the day of trouble.” Romans 8:28, where Paul says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” But as with all theological statement these verses need to be read in context and with the understanding that the biblical authors were all fallible human beings like us struggling to understand things that just don’t make sense.

At one level it is certainly true that everything happens for a reason. Actions have consequences and they are often unintended or unanticipated. Genetically engineering food and pumping animals full of antibiotics have increased our food supply which is good, but we are learning the hard way the unintended consequences are super bugs resistant to all known medications. Cancer is one of the most difficult plagues on humanity to understand, and we applaud the advances research has made. But we are still not doing enough to prevent various cancers by changing our lifestyles and especially the way we eat. Actions have consequences, and until we stop poisoning our food and air and water we will not find a magic bullet to cure cancer.

Health care in general is a hot topic, and again we can’t just blame God or fate for illnesses but must take proactive steps to live healthier lifestyles. Our aging population in particular is a big challenge. 30% of what is spent on our healthcare in a lifetime occurs in the last year of life, and that is often because our focus is too much on the quantity of life and not its quality. A friend told me recently about his mother. When she was 92 years old and in failing health some of her doctors wanted to amputate both of her legs to keep her alive a little longer. These kinds of costly and unnecessary procedures occur because we are afraid to face the reality that we are all dust and to dust we will return. We need to have important conversations about end of life issues based on values and not economics or fear of our inevitable death.

The good part of this myth that everything happens for a reason is that it is really about trust and faith. When our ability to make sense of things reaches its limits that’s when faith kicks in. The mysteries of life and death challenge us to accept our limitations and to make friends with ambiguity, but too easily accepting this myth short circuits that important process. It can be used to avoid taking a leap of faith into the unknowable mystery of God.

The beautiful words of I Corinthians 13 are most often heard at weddings couched in the romantic notion of love that bears all things and never ends, but that’s not what Paul was about when he wrote this beautiful passage. Remember Paul advised people not to get married if they could avoid it. The preceding Chapter 12 of I Corinthians sets the stage for chapter 13. In Chapter 12 Paul addresses jealousy and arguments the church in Corinth was having about which spiritual gifts were the best. Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to describe different spiritual gifts and challenges the church members to accept their own limits and value the gifts of others. And then at the end of that chapter about the body of Christ, Paul says I will show you a better way to achieve spiritual maturity, the way of love.

In chapter 13 Paul says all the spiritual gifts are temporary and partial. This earthly life, including all of our knowledge will pass away – but inquiring minds want to know now. We don’t to wait! We did the whole wait training thing in Advent and we’re tired of waiting. We want answers to life’s mysteries right now. The human search for knowledge and truth is good up to a point but it always gets us in trouble when we overreach our limits. Ever since Adam and Eve couldn’t resist the forbidden tree of knowledge of good and evil we’ve wanted to know more than our pay grade qualifies us to handle.

Look at what Paul says: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Now we see only in a mirror dimly, like when you get out of the shower and the mirror is so fogged up you can’t see a thing. But we don’t want to know in part, we want shiny clean mirrors. We want certainty not ambiguity especially when it comes to matters of eternal importance to us. The frustration is that it is those very questions about death and life after death that we cannot have certainty about.

Paul says that to be adults in our faith is to give up our need for certainty. Those who study human development know that at different stages of maturity we are capable of handling different levels of truth. Small children are helpless and need the certainty that concrete and solid answers to their questions provides. They need to know they are cared for and will not be abandoned by the important figures in their lives. They expect parents and other significant adults in their lives to know stuff they don’t understand. Who hasn’t experienced the inquisitive mind of a three year old who wants to know why the sky is blue, and why she needs to brush her teeth and how the dish washer works, and why grandpa is bald? There is no end to their questions. We have a gas fireplace at our house that has no chimney, and every Christmas our grandsons ask us again how Santa can get into our house if there’s no chimney.

A great deal of our education system is based on that same kind of concrete, factual pursuit of knowledge. In school the test questions usually have one correct answer. For instance, if I asked you which letter comes after the letter A in the alphabet, what would the correct answer be? If you said “B” that is correct, but it is only one of 25 correct answers. Young Albert Einstein was asked that question by one of his teachers early in his life, and the teacher was not pleased when he replied, “They all do.” Most of us are not encouraged to think outside the box of concrete certainty as children, but when we become adults we need to adopt grown up thinking which sometimes means admitting we don’t know and can’t know some things yet.

What Paul is telling us is that when it comes to matters of theology a mature faith is one that can look into the ambiguity of a cloudy mirror and still be at peace with the uncertainty of faith. The statement that everything happen for a reason is meant to provide peace of mind by telling us that God is in charge and everything will be ok in the end. But we don’t live at the end of God’s drama when things make sense, we live in the confusion of the present and those words meant to comfort often backfire. Let’s look at some of the reasons that’s the case.

Number 1: If God’s in charge of everything, then we have to blame God for both the good and bad stuff too. This problem is a cousin to the myth that Mebane covered two weeks ago, namely that “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Both myths imply that God makes bad things happen for some reason we can’t understand. When we are scared and feel out of control, we need assurance that God is, but the downside of that is we have to hold God accountable for all the bad stuff too and there goes any comfort we get from God. Even Wesley’s familiar Covenant service prayer we used here just 3 weeks ago to begin the new year falls into that trap when it says “I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt… Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”

Does God cause suffering? There are certainly places in the Bible that indicate that’s the case, for example the whole book of Job, or God’s punishment by death of Ananias and Sapphira for cheating on their church pledge in Acts 5. Some people are sure God is responsible for the election of Donald Trump, and others of us are wondering if this is God’s punishment for the sins of our nation. It obviously can’t be both. Did God give Clemson a victory in the Fiesta Bowl and cause the agony of defeat for OSU? Is God causing the unbelievable suffering in Syria or for the refugees trying to escape that mayhem?

Of course not. We worship a God of love, and the biblical accounts of God’s direct intervention in punishing people were the best answers the people in biblical times could give to some of the most mysterious and difficult questions in creation. We still struggle with those same questions today, and will until we see God “face to face.” Until then we can only know in part.

Number 2: The second problem with this myth is that if we surrender all control of everything that happens to God we absolve ourselves of all responsibility for human causes of suffering or injustice. Rev. Adam Hamilton who has written about these myths in his book “Half Truths” says a friend sent him this comment from a Facebook meme: “Yes, everything happens for a reason, but sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” Our actions have consequences. My son’s friend died not because an all-powerful God willed it so, but because of poor judgment and excess speed by a teen aged driver.

Blaming God or the devil or someone else for all our problems pushes us into the dangerous territory of going into victim mode. Woe is me, everybody hates me! The world is against me! We cannot control external events that happen to us, but with God’s help we can control how we react. Do we learn from our mistakes and those of others or waste a learning opportunity? To go victim robs us of chances to reflect and learn and to use adversity to strengthen instead of weaken our faith. It’s hard to increase our faith when we’re angry and blaming the very God who could be our greatest source of strength in time of trouble. That’s not to say we can’t be angry at God or our circumstances. Anger is one of the natural stages of grief. God can handle our anger and isn’t going to abandon us or punish us for being mad. It’s just when we stay angry too long that we multiply our suffering.

Blaming God for our suffering is also costly because it robs us of one of the greatest gifts God has given us, our free will. Sure, sometimes it feels like we’d be better off without free will if we could avoid suffering, but that’s not true. We cannot achieve our full humanity if God is just a puppeteer and we are robots or marionettes. God gives us freedom of choice so we can experience the joy of growth and doing good. Without freedom there is no ability to choose love, and as Paul teaches us, Love is the greatest gift of all that lasts when knowledge and prophesy are no more.

Number 3: And that brings us to the 3rd problem with the myth that everything happens for a reason. When we see knowledge and the ability to explain everything as our purpose in life we are treading on the thin ice of wanting to be like God. We want answers and we want them right now. Adam and Eve had everything they could ever need in the Garden of Eden, but their desire to be like God cost them everything. Worshipping absolute answers makes it impossible for us to live by faith and put our trust in the God who is beyond all human comprehension.

So what do we do instead of telling people in pain that “everything happens for a reason?” We recently attended a funeral for a 33 year old army vet who got hooked on pain meds because of a back injury he got in the service. On New Year’s Day Alex finally lost his battle with addiction. He left a young widow and a sweet four-year-old daughter named Hope. How do you tell his friends and family that all this happened for a reason and expect that to help? You don’t. It was the first Jewish funeral I’ve ever attended and I was impressed with what the Rabbi said instead. He quoted Rabbi Harold Kushner who published a book entitled “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” 20 years ago. It’s still the best thing I’ve ever read on this subject.

The title of the book is not WHY bad things happen but WHEN because they happen to everyone sooner or later. And essentially what Kushner says is that “Why” is not really a question in these cases, it is a cry of pain. And we all know what to do when someone is in pain. They don’t need answers, they need comfort. They need someone to love them, to walk with them through the valley of the shadow of death. We don’t have to say anything; we just have to love.

If we had the answers to suffering we could use them, but we don’t. We are not God. We see in a mirror dimly, and that’s ok, because Paul assures in Romans 8, just us as Jesus did, that God is with us always and nothing in all creation can ever separate us from that love. So “faith, hope and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love.”

In his play “J.B.” based on the book of Job, Archibald McLeish puts it this way. J.B.’s wife is trying to help him struggle with the why question about his unbelievable suffering, and she says to him “The problem J.B. is that you are looking for justice and there is none. There is only love.” When we are hurting or those close to us, that love is all we need, and it lasts forever.

Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, January 22, 2017