Where is the Hope?
Boy Mourning After Hurricane Katrina
WHERE IS THE HOPE?
TEXT: Lamentations 3:1-3, 19-24
Sermon preached after Hurricane Katrina at St. John's United Methodist Church in Dover, NH
Concentration camp survivor, author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel has said, “Whatever you say about God, you should be able to say standing over a pit full of burning babies.” While the disaster that hit the Gulf coast this past week is not in the same category as the Holocaust, I think the warning about religious platitudes and easy answers is still well taken.
Whatever we say about God, we must be able to say standing in the convention center of New Orleans to the woman who gave birth to a healthy newborn and then watched him die for lack of basic sanitation, food, and water. Whatever we say about God, we must be able to say to those whose homes, towns, jobs, and family members are completely gone. Are you really going to go up to a woman watching her children starve to death and say, “There now, everything happens for a reason”?
No. For God’s sake, no. If our statements about God sound hollow in the face of this sort of death and devastation, then they are hollow and false anywhere. This, too, is the face of life on earth, and we have no business trivializing either God or human suffering.
Well, then, what can we say? As people cry out to God from inside the attics of flooded homes and from amidst the corpses on starving streets, what can we say about God? We do have an example of what others have said. The prophet Jeremiah lived at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire in 587 BC. While that situation was one of war, there are similarities.
The destruction of Jerusalem didn’t happen all at once. It was a siege…that horrible tactic of war where an army camps out around a city, cutting off all supply, and simply waits for the city to start dying for lack of food and water. New Orleans was not besieged by troops, but it was put into similar circumstances by flood waters that cannot recede. Reports of the siege of Jerusalem say that the people resorted to cannibalism. It was unspeakable horror.
When the people of Jerusalem were too weak to defend their gates, the Babylonians came in. They looted anything of value, they killed citizens. They burned the city. They took away into exile all the leaders, all the skilled workers, all the brain power to work for Babylon. The poor, the elderly, the uneducated, the infirm were left amidst the rubble to fend for themselves. Unfortunately, that too sounds familiar.
The Babylonian exile was the greatest faith crisis in the ancient history of Israel. They knew it was coming…or at least they should have. Jeremiah and other prophets warned about it for years and gave very specific instructions about how to avoid it. But the warnings were not heeded. The parallels are uncanny.
But the storm surge of Babylon came to Jerusalem even as the empire Katrina laid siege to New Orleans. In response, Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations…the great cry to God over the destruction of a city and its people. You heard the rawness of the emotion at the beginning of the reading, as Jeremiah puts the blame squarely on God:
“I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long.” There is much more. In verses 10-12 he says about God, “He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow.” I would not be surprised if many in the Gulf coast don’t feel that way at this very moment.
But then, down in verse 19, Jeremiah’s thoughts begin to turn and we have what I believe to be the most amazing statement of faith in all of Scripture: “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.”
Even in the midst of the worst disaster in Israel’s history, even while homeless in a foreign land, Jeremiah can still trust that there might be a new mercy in the morning. He can still believe that God is good and loving and at work to save us from ourselves and the ravages of life. He can still believe that God is faithful. Given the circumstances, it is absolutely astounding.
How does he do it? More to the point, how do we do it? How do we talk about God over a pit of burning babies or over a city of floating corpses? How do we get through even the much smaller ravages of life and still say anything remotely like, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”?
One point is that such faith isn’t manufactured overnight. The time to cultivate strong faith is not when you’re clinging to life on your roof. The peaceful and happy times of life are the times to build up our faith levees to a point where they can withstand the storm. We do that to varying degrees, or we wouldn’t be sitting here in church this morning. But there are few of us wiling to spend the time and the resources to build a faith levee that can withstand a category 5 hurricane. It’s more than we want to pay, even though we know in the back of our minds it will cost much more should the storm actually come. We toss the dice and take the risk.
On CNN Friday night, I saw a woman who was part of the New Orleans police force. She was one of the few that did not desert the force. She was in danger, she was traumatized, she was overwhelmed. But she said this through her tears: “We need to go back to living with faith, and with hope, and even with compassion for some of the people who didn’t have any for us.” “even with compassion for some of the people who didn’t have any for us.”
I’ll tell you, hearing that snipers were shooting at helicopters and boats on rescue missions was making me rethink my opposition to the death penalty. And here is someone, who was specifically targeted by those thugs, calling for compassion for them. I don’t know who she is or what her background is, but she has clearly had a lot of practice with faith, hope, and compassion well before fighting for her life in New Orleans.
But where is the hope? Do we just put our hope in a God we can’t see, trusting without any evidence that something will change and our circumstances will improve? Maybe in the moments that we are pinned in a collapsed home by a fallen tree waiting for rescue we do that. But Jesus has pointed us to another way to recognize hope. Jesus has given the hope of the world into our hands…into the hands of those who would call themselves the Body of Christ.
Whatever you do to the least of these, says Jesus in Matthew 25, you have done to me. And, by extension, Jesus is not only the one who receives the aid. Jesus, through us, is the one who provides it. We are called to be the Body of Christ in the world. We are called to bring the same hope and healing and rescue that Jesus did. Where is the hope? It’s in that traumatized policewoman calling for compassion for her persecutors. It’s in the rescue workers pulling thousands of people off of rooftops and out of homes by boat and helicopter, around the clock, even when many have lost homes and loved ones themselves. Hope is in the nurses and doctors in Charity hospital, giving each other IV fluids so that they can remain conscious to do whatever they can to keep patients from dying. This is the Body of Christ. This is the faithfulness of God and the mercy of God at work in New Orleans and Biloxi and Alabama.
Where is the hope? We are the hope…the people of America and members of the human family around the world. We will become the place of exile for the million or so people who have no home, no job, and in many cases not even any town or city to return to. With so many displaced, they may even come as far as New England to seek work, and a home. At the very least we are part of the hope for aid…for money, for skilled labor, for compassion…not just now, but in the days when providing hope means true sacrifice on our part.
We are the hope…those of us who go, those of us who give, those of us who pray. We are the hope because Jesus is the hope, and that hope is not shown in religious platitudes and easy answers. It is shown in no less than a broken body and shed blood. It is shown in a gruesome death on a cross and in the cry of even the Son of God saying, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me!”
“The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.” There is hope. It is Jesus. God in the flesh. It is you. Amen.
(c) 2005, Anne Robertson