Tuesday, August 29, 2006

What the Waters Reveal: on God and Katrina

(The following is a sermon from Sunday, August 29, 2006 in which I used Romans 8: 28-39 as the text for these reflections on Hurricane Katrina's aftermath)

In the coming few days, Tuesday, August 29 to be precise, we as a nation will struggle to observe the first year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastations.

While in New Orleans this past May, on our Presbytery mission trip, we could visibly
see the high mark of the flood waters, that had covered over 80% of the city.
Going into the Lakeview neighborhood, the 7th Ward, and other neighborhoods, we saw the high water mark above the door frames of homes everywhere.
As someone remarked, it was like a dark bathtub ring was etched on homes and buildings everywhere in New Orleans.

Once the water receded, things that were once covered were now seen more clearly.

Katrina, in unexpected ways, revealed to us as a nation that life can be fragile,
that may of our fellow citizens in New Orleans and the Gulf were desperately poor;
and that things we love and care about can be suddenly and massively lost.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band captures this feeling on the benefit album:
“Our New Orleans”. (Nonesuch Records: Net proceeds donated to Habitat for Humanity
Executive Producers: Robert Hurwitz and David Bither)

“Do you know what it means
to miss New Orleans
and miss it each night and day…

Miss those moss-covered vines
The tall sugar-pines
Where mockingbirds used to sing.

And I’d like to see the lazy Mississippi
A hurrying about to spring
The moonlight on the Bayou
Those Creole tunes that fill the air.

(And then the song brings it all home in an earthy way we can all appreciate)

Do you know what it means
to miss those red beans
When that’s where you left your heart

And there’s one thing more
I miss the one I care for
More than I miss New Orleans”

That great old song captures the feeling and loss of separation,
from things that make life valued and treasured.
And it’s the relationships and friendships and loved ones, that are missed the most.

A year later, less than half of the population of New Orleans has returned.
Families and friends are scattered all across the country, maybe never to return.

At John Calvin Presbyterian Church in Metairie, where a group of us
stayed during our mission trip to New Orleans in May,
nearly half of the congregation had not returned and few of the children.
Imagine feeling the loss of laughter from the children of the church.

At Lake View Presbyterian Church, another church we visited,
over half of the congregation had not returned, in one of great old neighborhoods
devastated by flooding.

Imagine how much people miss each other!

Already, I miss the people we met in New Orleans last May on our mission trip,
and the people I met in June on a second trip to D’Iberville, Miss.

I miss Michael and Kyle in New Orleans, two young doctors whose home we gutted
in the Lakeview District.
Lakeview was a desirable close-in suburb, before the hurricane, but when we arrived
it was largely a ghost-town.

These two talented young doctors, grads of Tulane Medical School,
could move anywhere in the country to work., but they love New Orleans and its people,
and they’ve made a commitment to stay and help rebuild a great city.

I miss Darrell, the African American man we helped in the 7th Ward one very long day,
gutting his house in hard, bone-weary work, that surprisingly lifted our spirits.

I’ll never forget Darrell’s comment:
”My neighbors and I didn’t know each other much before the flood,
but we look out for each other and help each other now.”

Something about facing disaster has the potential to tear down the walls of indifference
and mistrust we let grow up between us as people.

I miss Ed Cake and Irene McIntosh in D’Iberville, Ms. near Biloxi.
These two college professors, not far from retirement, looked at the devastation
in their home of D’Iberville and decided to do something,
So they helped organize the Presbyterian Disaster Village there,
where up to 200 volunteers from all over the country come to serve.

And I miss Joan, an older woman in New Orleans,
who welcomed us with such a loving and yet care-worn greeting.

In typical New Orleans language she told us,
“Baby, it’s so good of you’all to come help us.
I just don’t know if God has given up on us or not.”
“But you being here helps me believe God hasn’t forgotten us yet.”

I miss those people.

And I think of the questions the Apostle Paul raises in his writing here in Romans.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness,
Or peril or sword?

Or hurricanes and flood?

Paul’s answer is a resounding “No”. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

But before the “No’ there’s also a passage of time, of grief and healing needed.

Paul expressed it well, later on in Romans 12:5
when he said it is our call as Christians “to mourn with those who mourn”.

When Paul offers this direction for Christians,
he doesn’t go on to say, “and be sure to explain away all the suffering.”

But this we can affirm.
Suffering is not a sign of God’s absence in Christian faith.
Suffering doesn’t mean that God loves us less. God in Christ suffers with us.

I remember one night in D’Iberville, Miss during our mission trip in June,
when we had a time of sharing after our day’s work.

And a young teenager got up and said, “Our homeowner told us the hurricane came because people in Mississippi and Louisiana are bad sinners.”

And any number of famous fundamentalist preachers sounded the same bad theology.

What that claim about a punishing God fails to remember is that God in Christ
is redeeming us through the cross of Jesus Christ.

In the suffering of Christ on the cross, God takes our sin and our suffering into the very life of God and identifies with us and our suffering.
God bears the cost of our failure and our sin. God takes our pain into the divine heart and offers healing and hope for today.

God, in fact, shares our suffering with us.
That’s the God we know in the Bible and in the life and ministry and death of Christ.
Our is a redeeming God, not a punishing God!

But God is also a God of justice who calls us to examine our own actions and attitudes.
God is the one according to the prophet Micah, who calls us to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8)

There are still hard questions to be wrestled with in looking back on Katrina.
Questions of God’s goodness and love, but also sharp, challenging questions about human responsibility and sinfulness.

Jed Horne, editor of the New Orleans Times Picayune, has a recent book titled
"Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great Amerian City"
(Random House: 2006, pp 382-384) that poses some hard questions for our nation in doing justice and loving kindness.

1. Was New Orleans treated to second rate flood protection and a lethargic federal response because it was a majority black city?

2. Was New Orleans treated differently because many of its people are so desperately poor?

Before Katrina, NO, with a 67% black pop. had more than 103,000 poor.
That’s a poverty rate of 23%, 76% higher than the national avg. of 13.1%.

Ø The Gulf Coast had already been drowning in extreme poverty. More than 90,000 people in each of the areas stormed by Katrina in Louisiana, Miss., and Alabama
Made less than $10,000 per year.

Ø New Orleans, itself, ranks 7th in poverty among 290 large counties.

Ø 27% of blacks in New Orleans had no cars and no way to escape the flood and no family to go and stay with

Ø Some 57% of the elderly in NO have disabilities, while the national avg is 39%
Ø Nearly 50,000 poor folk in NO lived in areas where the poverty rate approached 40%

Jed Horne asks a variety of hard questions about human responsibility in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

3. Was Katrina best explained as a weather-man’s warning to our denial as a nation about the long-range implications of global warning?

4. Has the focus on terrorism blinkered America to other threats just as grave?
Has the war on Iraq taken so much of our energy and resources that we can’t
respond to national emergencies and needs? Or protect our own citizens at home?

5. Have we come to believe that government is incapable and incompetent
to help its citizens? What does it even mean to ask that question?

6. Or was Katrina more than even the richest and most powerful country on earth could have handled?

Jed Horne suggests that we could say Yes to most of those questions he has posed.
As he observes, there is no one answer to the tragedy and bone-headed mistakes that were made at all levels in responding to the disaster in New Orleans.

Even the Army Corps of Engineers has now admitted to major mistakes in the levee system. For decades, informed residents of NO, have known the levees were sub-standard.

All of these observations point to human responsibility, arrogance, and incompetence.

What the Bible helps us is to see is that we live in a fallen world,
where both people and nature are twisted and broken by sin and in need of redemption.

In ways that we cannot understand,
the sin of Adam and Eve and collective humanity
has set loose destructive forces that operate in our world.

What Paul concludes is that “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains
of childbirth right up to the present.”

Of all the things about Hurricane Katrina that challenge us, the most curious
and sometimes infuriating is to hear this disaster
called an “Act of God”.

The Psalmist reminds us of a far different God.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.
Therefore we will not fear…. Psalm 46: 1-3

Our God stands against fear and how fear paralyzes us; how fear is used by some of our leaders to manipulate and to mislead us in our common responsibility to care for each other. Fear is being used so often in our national life to bring out the worst in us, instead of the Best in us.

Thinking back on Joan, the woman who greeted us in New Orleans, one bright sunny day to work on repairing her home, I still remember her soft, lilting NO’s voice:

“Baby I’m so glad you’re here.
I wondered if God had given up on us.”

I think, no this was not an Act of God, this hurricane.

But God is Active in giving us all the strength and courage to face
these hard times together. (Lutheran theologian Gary Harbaugh’s use of Act of God, versus Active God)

Joan had it right in one important way. Our presence, along with hundreds and thousands of other volunteers and hard-working people, in the Gulf Coast
says that God is Active.

And that God’s people are called to be active together as servants of compassion
and justice and mercy.

The people of New Orleans and the whole Gulf Coast call for us to act
as good Samaritans and to demonstrate as a nation that we are a compassionate people who care for all of our citizens.

The opening song on the benefit album, ‘Our New Orleans” puts it well:

”Now is the time for all good men (and women)

To get together to make this a better land,

To iron out our troubles and to help one another,

To make peace without stepping on one another…

I know we can work it out. Yes can, Yes we can.” (Allen Toussaint, “Yes We Can Can”)