Note: Wyoming is a red state, possibly the reddest of the red. Much of the money the state generates comes from mineral mining. I have one retired oil man in my congregation who also happens to be council president and another who is still working for an oil company who is council vice-president. My congregation is mixed politically, with a few “closet Democrats” hiding in the majority of Republicans. So, to utter the phrase “climate change” within my first year of call there is a tricky proposition. I wanted to go a lot further with this sermon than I did, but again, had to dance on a tightwire here. This is what I came up with, and I did get positive feedback from members of the congregation.
Sermon for Creation 3C “Storm Sunday”
Storms are part of our daily lives, and I think everyone has a story about being caught in a storm. My epic storm story was my senior year in college when I was driving home from college in Vermont to my family home in New Hampshire for Christmas break, in a blizzard, and having just caught the flu that day. But, I have also experienced several other storms in my life: several typhoons when I was living in Taiwan, a category 1 hurricane that came ashore on my birthday six years ago when I was living in southeast Texas, two major snowstorms that dumped two feet of snow, each, a week apart, when I was at the seminary in Gettysburg, along with many other storms that I’ve lived through. We are now watching as storms and flooding devastate our neighbor to the south, Colorado, while we ourselves have experienced many thunderstorms and hailstorms this summer that, while not unheard of, have been unusually frequent. As we’re living through the storms, we tend to be frightened, but then, after we have survived them, we tell our stories to one another—almost as if by sharing them, we can gain some comfort from other people who have lived through storms, too.
I think storms are frightening because they are a force of nature that we have absolutely no control over, and because they are powerful and can cause much damage. Some storms are predictable—for example, meteorologists can tell us when a hurricane, thunderstorm, or blizzard is coming, and we can make some preparations for those storms—but things like tornadoes will often spring up with little warning, and all we can do is to hide someplace safe and wait for it to be over. When we see lightning in the sky, we know that is a form of raw electricity over which we have no power and that can strike people or objects at random. It is no wonder that people over the centuries have assigned gods to be in control over the lightning—surely someone must be in control of such deadly forces. Two examples are Zeus, from ancient Greek mythology, and Thor, from Scandinavian mythology. These gods were unpredictable and could be angered at many things, which was why they threw lightning bolts randomly to destroy things. Thus, people would try to appease these gods so the lightning bolt wouldn’t come at them. We even have this idea of God throwing lightning bolts at us in the Christian faith. Last year, when I was in Florida with my parents waiting for the call to be a pastor here, I went with them one Sunday to their Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, and at the moment that I entered the sanctuary, there came a flash of lightning accompanied by the loud sound of thunder. I looked around and wondered if God was unhappy that I, who was preparing to be a female pastor, had entered a church where women are not allowed to be ordained.
We laugh, but there is still the idea out there that God speaks through disastrous storms that happen to us. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and killed 1,836 people, these are some of the things that religious people said:
- Ultra-Orthodox rabbi Ovadia Yosef declared that Hurricane Katrina was punishment for then-President Bush’s support of the withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip, and also because people in New Orleans did not study the Torah.
- Louis Farrakhan asserted that Hurricane Katrina was “God’s way of punishing America for its warmongering and racism.”
- Conservative Christian Pat Robertson implied that the hurricane was God’s punishment for America’s abortion policy.
- Gerhard Maria Wagner, briefly an auxiliary bishop of Linz, said that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for New Orleans’ reputation for lax sexual behavior.
- Another conservative Christian, John Hagee, linked the hurricane to homosexual behavior happening in New Orleans.
In contrast to this, today’s Gospel story sends a very different message about storms than any of these people do, and I think this should be our basis for understanding what storms are all about. Jesus, the very Son of God, is in the boat with his disciples. As he was very tired, he fell asleep as they were crossing the Sea of Galilee. You would think that God the Father would have let his Son have a brief nap. But no, a fierce windstorm sweeps down on the lake, the boat fills up with water, the disciples panic, and they wake Jesus up. Jesus, as I imagined during my storytelling, was probably really annoyed at being woken up, but he stopped the storm and then scolded the disciples for their lack of faith.
The message that we can take from this story is this: storms happen. They are not divine punishment for any human sin, for Jesus took that punishment on himself when he died for us on the cross. No, storms are a part of God’s creation, and as violent and frightening as they can be, they are simply God’s way of cleansing and refreshing the earth. And yes, God does have power over the storms, as demonstrated in Jesus’ commanding the wind and the waves to cease and desist.
However, stating this truth begs the question: If God has power over the storms, why doesn’t he stop those big ones like Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy or the rains and floods in Colorado and thus save so many people from injury and death? Well, this type of question falls into the same category as the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? And the answer is: I don’t know. We pastors aren’t given an answer to that any more than lay people are. One thing that we do know, though: just as Jesus was present with his disciples in the boat when the windstorm blew up on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus is present with us through the storms we suffer in life, and he weeps with us when we lose loved ones, too. And Jesus is present with us when we go to help those without anything rebuild their lives out of the ruins the storm leaves behind. Just as we see a glimpse of God in the people who need our help, they see a glimpse of God in those who come to help. God is indeed present with his creation through the storm and in the rebuilding process.
Although the storms we encounter today are not sending a message from God, some of them are, however, a sign that something is wrong with creation. Let me explain what I mean by that. In recent years, storms have gotten stronger and more devastating in the United States than people generally remember them to be. To the south of us, we are seeing devastating rains in an area that doesn’t get much rain during the year. According to Time magazine, (http://science.time.com/2013/09/17/the-science-behind-colorados-thousand-year-flood/), Boulder usually receives about 1.7 inches of rain during the entire month of September. However, as of 7 a.m. on September 16, Boulder had received 17.17 inches of rain and has already broken its yearly record for precipitation. And just a few months ago, Boulder was still in the midst of a drought. While it is too early for scientists to definitively pin this “once in 1000 years” event on climate change, it does fit the pattern for what scientists are expecting to happen in this area due to climate change. Since Colorado sits on the dividing line between the section of the country that is expected to get drier and the section that is expected to receive more rain, scientists are saying that the area should expect to see more frequent and devastating swings between drought and flood. This rain, and other storms such as Hurricane Sandy last year and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are signs of a changing climate.
When we look at the storms around us growing more and more powerful and more and more disastrous, our natural reaction is one of fear. The majority of climate scientists agree that climate change is largely due to the activities of human beings that are putting more and more carbon into the atmosphere, thus warming it to an extent not seen before in human history. Our reaction, then, besides one of fear, may also be one of despair: what can we do? It seems like the damage is already done. But if we return to our Gospel lesson, we see Jesus scolding the disciples for their lack of faith. He is not saying that if they had had more faith, there would not have been a storm. He is also not saying that if they had had more faith, they could have stopped the storm. No, Jesus is saying that they have been with him long enough to know that, as long as they were with him, they had nothing to fear from the storm. And so it is with us: as long as we trust in Jesus and have faith in him, we have nothing to fear. For even when we are afraid and even when we are in danger, we know that he is with us and will be with us until the end.
So, what should we do as we encounter ever-stronger storms in our changing climate? As I said on Ocean Sunday, I believe God is a God of forgiveness and of second chances. There are things that we can do to be better stewards of our environment. Find out what those things are. It can be as simple as recycling as much as we can, or it can be as complicated as advocating for changes in laws that make our environment cleaner. What we do may not seem like much, but if enough of us together do these things, we may make some change. But, even if our environment were perfectly healthy, there would still be storms. Storms are nature’s way of refreshing and renewing the earth, and the earth is nourished and sustained by them. But Jesus has taught us that, no matter how frightening the storms might be, we have nothing to fear as long as we have faith in him. So let’s continue weathering the storms and sharing the stories with one another, always putting our trust in him to see us through. Amen.