Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (sort of)

I had a sermon prepared for today, the Second Sunday after Epiphany.  It was all about Jesus turning the water into wine, and about the New Wine that God promises us in the Bible.  I think it was an interesting, entertaining, and compelling sermon.  I hope it was.

That was before the earthquake.  Before you and I saw those devastating images on TV.  It is estimated at this point that around 200,000 people have lost their lives in this disaster.  In terms of the percentage of Haiti’s population, that would be like 1.3 million Americans losing their lives in a single event.  That has never happened. Not at Pearl Harbor, not at Normandy, not on 9/11.

It was also before Pat Robertson weighed in.  And Rush Limbaugh.  I don’t think too many of us here put much stock in what Pat has to say, but Rush is the most popular radio personality in the country, and I’ve often heard him quoted around here.  I have been a loyal listener myself at various times.  I have two of his books on my shelf.  He is very influential in Conservative circles, including among Evangelicals, although Mr. Limbaugh doesn’t pretend for a moment to be a believer.

Pat does not speak for me, and neither does Rush.  I don’t believe they should speak for you either.  Most importantly, they certainly don’t speak for God, and I’m about to tell you why.

Pat says the earthquake in Haiti is payback from God because the Haitians “made a pact with the devil” to gain their freedom from France.  Pat’s idea of retributive justice is what I call the Maude Findlay School of Theology, named after the title character of a 1970s TV show.  Whenever Maude’s husband, the nebbishy Walter, would do something that angered her, she would throw him a withering look and say, “God’ll get you for that, Walter!”  This view of God is very widespread.  I read similar comments online this week:  God is getting those godless, voodoo-practicing Haitians for their sins.  There’s only one problem with that:  when God has specifically been questioned about such things, that’s not how he’s explained himself.

Take a look at Job. Job was a righteous man, the Bible tells us, yet Job faced one tragedy after another.  Along came Job’s friends.  First they stared at him for a week without saying anything (look it up!), then they chimed in with their opinions.  Most of them were of the Pat Robertston/Maude Findlay variety:  God is obviously punishing you for something you did, Job, so why don’t you just ‘fess up and get all this overwith?  Yet Job maintained his integrity.  The friends didn’t buy it.  Finally God comes along, and after he gets though telling off Job’s friends, he gives Job an answer, sort of.  Well, not exactly and answer.  OK, he doesn’t answer Job’s question at all.  Job’s question is, “God, why did all of these terrible things happen to me?” God’s response is “I am God.” That’s pretty much it.  “I am God.” God doesn’t begin to explain why.  Instead he reminds Job that he created the world and everything in it.  “I am God.” We need to remember that in times of disaster.  God is.  God is God.  We are not. Even if he were to explain why, we couldn’t begin to understand it, because we are not God.  But God is.  He is present.  He is present in disaster, present in trouble, every bit as much as he is present in joy.

Centuries later, some people asked Jesus, God the Son, pretty much the same question.  It’s found in Luke, chapter 13:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

The Galileans didn’t “get what they got” because they were worse than anyone else, nor did the people on whom the tower fell.  Jesus says we’re all sinners.  Apart from faith in him, which entails repentance, we all die.  How does St. Paul say it?  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And again, “The wages of sin is death.” That’s for everyone.  Again, “There is none righteous, no not one.” We are all the same.  When tragedy strikes, it should remind us that it could happen to any of us. Those to whom it happens don’t “deserve it” any more than we do.  Let’s not flatter ourselves by pretending otherwise.

Such a world view leaves out the cross.  Romans eight tells us that creation groans because it has been subjected to futility, and that creation longs for the revelation of the children of God.  In other words, creation longs to be liberated from decay and disaster, the state in which it has existed since the fall of humankind.  It was that state of affairs that Christ came to undo.  “He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” I’ve said it before:  the cross is not just about “goin’ to heaven when you die.” It’s about new creation.  About new heavens and earth.  Christ is the great liberator not just of individual souls, but of creation, of nature itself.  One day that promise of a new earth will be fully realized and there will be no more earthquakes, no more floods, no more venomous snakes, no more stinging scorpions, no more thorns and thistles.  No more death, no more sorrow, no more tears.

In the meantime, we, as Christ’s people, are to be his representatives in this world, embodying those things that were close to his heart.  And what did he do? He fed the hungry, healed the sick, befriended outcasts and sinners.  Yes, Jesus did say “The poor you always have with you,” but don’t imagine for a moment that he followed those words with “So don’t bother.” “The poor you always have with you” is a quote from Deuteronomy 15:11, a verse that would have been axiomatic to Jesus’ original audience. There, the Lord God says, quite forcefully and unequivocally: “There will never cease to be poor in the land.  Therefore I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor.”

And that’s where I part company with Mr. Limbaugh.  His philosophy, his Gospel, that he has stated many times in so many words, is “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” Now that’s a well-known statement.  I’ll bet your grandparents used to say it.  Maybe you say it.  Maybe you’ve heard if from the pulpit a time or two.  But it’s nowhere to be found in the Bible.  Not only that, but it is the very antithesis of the Gospel.  The Gospel is not about God helping those who help themselves.  It is about God helping the helpless.  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  When we were without hope and without God in the world.  When we were dead in our trespasses and sins.  At the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.  Not for those who could help themselves.  If they could help themselves, the cross truly is foolishness.  Mr. Limbaugh doesn’t get it.  Even those who can “help themselves” can’t.  Are we really so arrogant to believe that we possess anything that did not come to us from the hand of Providence?  The family you were born into, the country into which you were born, your physical and intellectual abilities, the educational and social opportunities you have had, the jobs you have held, the money you have earned:  is any of that your own doing, or is it all a gift of God’s grace?  Mr. Limbaugh may imagine himself to be a “self-made” man, but I hope none of us is so foolish to believe that there is such a thing.

The early church got it.  They got that everything we have, we have as a gift from God.  They got that as those who bore the name of Christ, they were to embody the values of Christ.  That’s why there were no poor among them.  They sold their possessions and shared with any in need.  They made sure the widows and orphans were fed:  those who had no means of support.  What about the practical widows and orphans of our own day?  The mother whose husband abandoned her and the children.  The children of alcoholics and drug addicts who lack the basic necessities of life?  Are we filled with compassion when we see them, as our Lord’s heart was filled with compassion?

Calvin’s Geneva got it.  The deacons there fed the hungry every day.  Convents and monasteries were turned into free church-run schools and hospitals, so that the “religious” (the former monks and nuns), instead of being sequestered from the world, were actually using their God-given talents to help the world.

We do not lack opportunities to behave as Christians.  There is a box in the narthex every week for food to go to Christian Community Action to feed the hungry.  There is one new bag of food in that box every week, brought faithfully each Sunday by the same church member.  I don’t say that to embarrass that one member for doing what is right, but to shame the rest of us for not doing it.  We had opportunity on Epiphany with the White Gift Service, and God bless those of you who availed yourselves of that opportunity.  We have an opportunity in a couple of weeks with the Souper Bowl of Caring.  I hope you are preparing for that now.

We had an opportunity during November and December with the brochures that were out there about sponsoring a child through World Vision.  One of our members, who was already sponsoring a child, requested those materials from World Vision.  We promoted it as much as we could.  My family is now sponsoring a child in Indonesia.  An eleven year old boy named Bagus.  Are you sponsoring a child?

You have an opportunity today. I’ve provided a list of Christian organizations (below) that are trying to bring the compassion of Christ into the midst of this terrible tragedy.  Take this list home with you today, go online or pick up the phone, and give.  Yes, pray for Haiti, but remember that the Bible calls us to love not in word only, but also in deed.  The words of our prayers need to be joined by the deed of giving.

The Gospel compels us to give as it has been given unto us.  “Freely you have received.  Freely give.” Because God has forgiven us in Christ, let us forgive one another.” Because God has had compassion on us, we should have compassion for the world.  Because God has been merciful to us, we should be merciful to one another.

How do we respond to the tragedy in Haiti?  For the Christian, there is but one answer:  we respond as Christians.  Not by pretending we can divine the inscrutable purposes of the almighty and assign blame to some “pact with the devil” as Pat did, and not by insulating ourselves with the self-righteousness of “God helps those who help themselves” as Rush does.  His heart overflowed with compassion when he looked out on the multitudes and saw them to be sheep without a shepherd.  Today we look out on the multitudes in Haiti and see children separated from their parents, hospitals that have collapsed to the ground, hundreds of thousands of people buried under mountains of rubble.  May God have mercy on us if we do not view these scenes with hearts of compassion, and may he give us grace to respond in compassion.

How We Can Help Now:

Haiti Earthquake Relief

World Vision – Christian relief organization that has had a presence in Haiti for over 50 years.  Providing food, clothing, blankets, and other needed services to earthquake victims.  Also working to reunite children with their parents:  many were separated due to the earthquake.  http://www.worldvision.org

MNA Disaster Response – Relief arm of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).  PCA ministers Dony St. Germain and Brian Kelso have been in Haiti for some time and have close relationships with key leaders in that country.  http://www.pca-mna.org

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance – A ministry of the Presbyterian Church (USA), PDA has been providing help and witnessing of the love and grace of Jesus Christ in Haiti for generations.  The Holy Cross Hospital in the town of Leogane, founded by Presbyterian missionaries and operated as a cooperative effort between the Presbyterians and the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti, collapsed in the January 12 earthquake.  http://www.pcusa.org/pda

World Relief – A well-respected Christian relief organization that is supported by the PCA and other denominations as a part of the National Association of Evangelicals.  http://www.worldrelief.org

Church World Service – This organization has been ministering around the world for more than 60 years.  http://www.churchworldservice.org

Compassion International – A Christian relief organization that has been caring for children and others in need since 1952.  http://www.compassion.com

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About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
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4 Responses to Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (sort of)

  1. cap'n says:

    It would seem that the sociological argument that there will always be a poor section of town would square with the duty of Christian charity, but for some reason the “help yourself” justification for neglect rears its head among many.

    You allow Rush’s books in your house?!?

  2. “God helps those who help themselves” is a quote from Benjamin Franklin, not from scripture, and is the most frustrating faux-verse, because it is tossed around all the time. What IS in the Bible, over and over, is the promise that God is with us as we help each other.
    Thank you for posting this wonderful sermon.
    Blessings, Laurel

  3. RevJATB says:

    Cap’n – they are at my office, not here in the house. Used to listen to him but his callousness and arrogance wore quite thin before too long.

    Laurel – so glad you can still stop by and read! I’ve been following your schedule via your web site and blog. I’m so glad things are so busy for you, with JaLaLa and other projects. (BTW got the JaLaLA CD for Christmas and it is wonderful!) Always wonderful to have you stop by and comment.

  4. Wanda Taylor Bankson says:

    Thanks for the sermon, John. Just got around to reading your blog today. I am months (really) behind in email. I pray for you all every day. Love, Mama

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