Archives For Hurricane Katrina

Zeitoun_loresI just started reading Dave Eggars’ book, Zeitoun. It’s a nonfiction narrative describing how the War on Terror and Hurricane Katrina converged for one unfortunate family after whom the book is named.

Because the book narrates how quickly New Orleans descended into chaos during Katrina and, later, into a thicket of bureaucratic red tape, I was reminded how I got stuck in the pulpit the Sunday after Katrina. Stuck too with a text from Exodus which narrated, yep, Israel being rescued from Egypt by means of Egyptians drowning.

What I recall most was feeling torn that Sunday.

On the one hand, I’m all in with Karl Barth who thought the Word should be preached regardless of current events- as though nothing else was going on in the world but the Word (the line attributed to Barth about how preachers should proclaim with the bible in one hand and the NY Times in the other is ALWAYS taken out of context). I also agree with Barth that the text should be proclaimed without ‘explaining’ (aka: making excuses for) the violence in the biblical text. It is what it is, don’t try to protect people from the imponderables of God’s workings.

On the other hand, Exodus and Katrina in same week seemed…crap, I don’t even know. Katrina definitely showed the other side of our Exodus story, and it also begged the question of why God doesn’t always work likewise when it comes to his other people’s cries…

Other than cut and pasting, I can’t bring myself to even read the sermon. But here it is.

Exodus 12.1-14

Professor Fred Craddock, the dean of Dennis’ older generation of preachers, once preached a sermon on baptism, in which he mused that everyone naturally knows what to do in the hushed quiet of sacred, sacramental moments. No instructions are necessary, he says. This week, with Passover and the Eucharist on our liturgical docket, I thought again about Craddock’s words, and I recalled my own experiences presiding over the sacrament. I remembered Les from my first parish in New Jersey, who, as I prayed the Great Thanksgiving, walked down the aisle, climbed clumsily over the altar rail and began fiddling with the sound system. “Can’t hear you in the back!” he explained with no trace of embarrassment. I thought too of Carl, who, every Sunday he came forward to receive the Body of Christ, would make his right hand into the shape of a pistol, wink his eye at me and say for all to hear “How you doin’ preacher?” I thought of the first time I assisted with communion in my student parish when I broke a loaf of multigrain bread- purchased from Whole Foods– and immediately had the words of institution drown out by the sharp pinging sound of nuts, grains and seeds falling off the bread onto the silver altar tray. Despite what Craddock says, I’m not convinced that ritual behavior comes so naturally to us. In fact, I sometimes think that worship would be a lot simpler for all of us if God had just interrupted the Gospel story with a brief instruction manual for how we should celebrate Holy Communion.

Of course, an instruction manual is precisely what you and I find in Exodus 12. Let’s catch up. Suffering as slaves in Egypt, the Israelites send out a desperation-filled SOS to the God that had long ago made promises to their ancestors. God hears their cries and appears in unquenchable fire to Moses. Moses will be the One to set God’s people free. Moses rallies his skeptical people to the freedom cause and then delivers this explosive news to the Egyptian slave master. When the warning alone does not suffice, God attempts to shock and awe Pharaoh into submission. God sends plagues- frogs, gnats, flies and disease; boils, hail, locusts and… darkness descend upon Pharaoh’s people. We’re in the middle of the story- we’re in the middle of THE pivotal Old Testament tale- Pharaoh is reeling, the exodus is imminent, God is about to defeat Egypt’s armies and Egypt’s gods and, here in chapter 12, we get an instruction manual. A pastor’s Book of Worship with precise directions, where every gesture counts and every detail is described. An instruction manual. For many of you, this will sound like a bit of organized, institutional religion ruining a perfectly good adventure story. It feels rather strange and superfluous to have these stage directions slow the story’s momentum.

You gotta wonder what Moses is thinking. God singled him out. God’s promise of deliverance at last looks doable. Pharaoh finally appears vulnerable and God gives him an instruction manual? Moses is filled with adrenaline, the Israelites with anxious anticipation. “Get on with it.” Moses must be thinking. “Let’s go now. Let’s not wait. We can’t afford to lose time, to miss the opportunity. These people need rescuing. Why stop for worship? Why can’t this wait for later? And why do we need to put blood on the door?” Moses must wonder. “Why does God need a sign?” Surely God can distinguish the Israelites from the Egyptians without needing a sign. God heard Israel’s prayers without any help. God didn’t need any assistance to exempt Israel from the cycle of plagues.  Flies, disease, hail and darkness- God sent all of those on Egypt and never needed any notation to spare Israel. So why does God now need a sign?

“The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live…”

What Moses didn’t know, what Moses couldn’t have known, is that we would need that sign. Moses couldn’t have known that one day so many thousands of years later you and I would be watching all week long SOS signs being raised from soggy rooftops. I can’t believe this sign’s really for God. The God who knows the thoughts of our hearts or the hairs on our heads doesn’t need a sign. No, the sign’s for Israel, when, soon after their exodus from Egypt, they will wander listlessly in the desert. The sign’s for that day when they are hungry, tired and feeling so foolish for their faith that they’d prefer to go back to Egypt. The sign’s for Israel- for centuries later- when their pledged land will be plundered by foreigners and God’s promised people will be scattered into exile and the only thing they’re certain of is that God has given up on them.

This sign- streaked across doorways in a midnight of chaos and confusion, with darkness draped all around and the dawn yet to come, amid fear and panic and dread- this is meant for Moses, Israel, for you and I. Not God. It’s meant to be a grace-filled, hope-filled, memory-filled promise…of what God will do.

“The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live…”

But you and I this week have been reluctant spectators to an altogether different sort of exodus. From the tops of roofs and piers and broken highways, you and I have read other signs, these ones more urgent than blood: “Help!” “Need Water!” “Sick Baby!” We’ve watched this imperfect exodus unfold and, if you’re anything like me, you’ve been filled not with Gospel confidence but with questions: Where was God? Why didn’t God…? How could God…? If you’re anything like me, then you’ve felt not the strength of faith so much as an inflated sense of impotence, with a fatigue that makes your own struggles appear at once smaller and more intractable.

This time last week, I believed that this Sunday’s sermon would be easy. I looked forward to it. Passover on Communion Sunday- piece of cake, I thought. And yet with each day that came in Katrina’s wake, I became achingly aware how quickly a storm of events outside these walls can call God into question. As I stared at the wet graveyard on my television set, I found myself voicing the lament of Lazarus’ sister Martha: “Lord, if you’d only been here!”

I felt the need that comes to all Christians, to protect my investment of faith and get God off the hook. And I felt the temptation that comes to all preachers to stitch together the certitudes of scripture and the chaos of the world into some sort of reassuring garment that you and I could cover our selves with for the cold reality outside. Certainly there’s no shortage of television preachers this morning filling in the blanks of holy mystery, solving the equations of inscrutable tragedy, presuming to prophesy that “God did this…” or “God allowed that…” or “It’s because…”

There’s a Sunday School class here at Aldersgate that is currently studying “Troublesome Texts of the Bible.” I’ve seen them carrying their books around Wesley Hall during the coffee hour. I thought about their class this week as I reread this morning’s scripture. It’s startling how tragedy can turn even a familiar story like Exodus 12 into a troubling story. Perhaps you saw Friday’s photo in the Washington Post of an abandoned elderly man slumped over, dead, in his wheelchair. No doubt you heard the disturbing stories of the dead bodies piling up in the Superdome, people- in most cases- who were too poor to flee. Anyone who saw those photos or heard those stories can no longer blithely read through our text today and ignore the fact that the price for Israel’s exodus is the death of the innocent Egyptian children left behind. No amount of faith, no number of signs, no philosophical system in the world can iron out that unsavory mystery.

“The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live…”

It must have felt strange to Moses. It must have felt odd to stop in the middle of his chaotic story and worship, to take needful time and mark blood-red signs on doors that God would never really need. But Moses didn’t know, Moses couldn’t have known, that all these thousands of years later it would make all the difference in the world to people like us, the children of the children of the marked doorposts. Living in a world that’s hungry for easy answers and quick to dispense saccharine illusions, it makes all the difference in the world that this is how God’s deliverance begins.

On a night when God’s people are perplexed, bewildered and huddled in their homes. Praying with breathless fear and making this sign- streaked across doorways in a midnight of chaos and confusion, with darkness draped all around and the dawn yet to come, amid fear and panic and hot dread. It must have felt strange to Moses, but this is where God’s deliverance begins. There’s no earthquake, no thunderous voice from heaven, no rising sun or blasting trumpets- all the certainty and drama come later. There’s just small groups, gathered together in the dark, in hope and fear. This is where deliverance begins. In perplexing dark corners of life, with people prepared only for what may come next, not knowing how far off in the future God lies but knowing that, no matter how long, God holds the future in his hands. This is where deliverance begins. In the dark, gazing upon a sign, a promise streaked across a piece of wood.

As a preacher, watching the wet graveyard on my television set, I want so very badly to explain away dark, nagging mysteries. I want not only to say “Christ is Risen” or feel the Risen Jesus in my heart, I want to point out empirically the Light amidst so much darkness. But as a Christian, I loathe preachers who are quick to explain, who try to smooth out the chaotic contours of our world and our God. I can’t explain the mysteries on the front page of your paper any more than I can explain the mysteries by which God works salvation for his people Israel.

“The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live…”

As a minister of the Gospel, I can’t explain anything or offer any answers. All I can do- all Dennis can do- is invite you to the Table of our Lord. Taste and see the promise first streaked across a wooden door and later on a cross. This bread. This wine.

In this house where we live and pray and hope and wonder, they are outward signs of an ancient, invisible promise- that God is not an impartial observer of our lives, for the God who rescued Israel is the very same One who was born among us as a refugee and died among us a naked criminal.

Come. Huddle together around these signs. This is where deliverance begins. With bewildered minds, hopeful hearts and open hands.

With a people prepared only for what may come next, not knowing how far off in the future God lies but knowing that, no matter how long, God holds the future in his hands.

This is where deliverance begins. Feasting upon a banquet of promises- our only provision for the long, mysterious journey into newness.