Preaching after Natural Disaster

haiti earthquake - refugee, idp, displaced(Creative Commons image by Zoriah on Flickr)

Dear Working Preacher,

[Editor’s Note: This article accompanies our special edition podcast Sermon Brainwave #99.]

No doubt you’ve been overwhelmed by the news and images of the disaster in Haiti, as I have.

The earthquake is being called the worst natural disaster there in two centuries. Thousands are dead, thousands more trapped, and still thousands more in desperate need of clean water and medical attention. No one yet knows the death toll, but some estimate it could top 100,000 persons. And all of this in a country that has had so much more than its share of poverty, pain, and tragedy.

Many of us will feel the need to address this catastrophe in our pulpits. Some may feel compelled to make it — and the manifold theological and existential questions that attend such a disaster — the center of the sermon, while others will struggle to address it in relation to other concerns dictated by congregational or liturgical circumstances. Wherever you may be, I wanted to share below a few suggestions for responding in our sermons to the enormity of human tragedy that the earthquake in Haiti has caused.

Be Honest
This in two ways. First, the human tragedy and wreckage that natural disasters leave in their wake never fail to stun us. Never mind the grim images we’ve seen at other times of suffering and pain, the current pictures and stories seeping out of Haiti — in part because we never get used to such images and in part because we know they reflect the experience of persons right now — are simply overwhelming. They also raise profound and at times heart-wrenching questions: How could this have happened? Why didn’t God do anything? Where is God amid such pain and suffering?

Be honest about these questions and the range of emotions they convey. Doubt, even anger, is an understandable response and denying such emotions — or, worse, quashing them by calling them unfaithful — is fair neither to our congregants nor to the biblical witness. Lament is a significant category in Scripture and there is nothing wrong with adding ours to the catalogue already contained in the Bible.

Second, in addition to being honest about our emotional reactions to the events playing out before us in Haiti, it’s important also to be honest about our limitations. We will not be able to answer many of the questions we voice. On such matters, we see through a mirror dimly and are best admitting our limitations. If the past is any indicator of future behavior, some preachers will seek to stem the unsettling tide of questions by confidently tracing God’s causal activity, attributing the calamity to God’s desire to warn, test or punish. Such attempts, quite frankly, are unhelpful at best and sometimes do great damage. Further, they do not tell the truth about the God we know in Jesus Christ. The simple if manifestly unsatisfactory answer to many of our questions is that we do not know, and in making this admission we take our stand with faithful believers from prophet to psalmist and from Job to Paul.

Further, I don’t think that we offer lament primarily to get answers in the first place, but rather to be joined to others and to God through our lament. Note that in Job the ones who have all the answers — Job’s friends — are the ones who get it wrong. Even when God appears in the whirlwind, it is not so much to give Job an answer as to honor his questions and restore relationship with him. Don’t feel pressure to find answers to questions that cannot, this side of the eschaton, be answered.

See God
Again, two thoughts. First, admitting our limitations does not mean that we have nothing to say. Rather, it is to assert that the biblical witness urges us to seek God not above tragedy — controlling the fates of nature and humanity — but rather amid tragedy, suffering with us and for us. This is nowhere more clear than in the cross of Jesus, where God was joined to the fullest human experience of loss — suffering an unjust and cruel death — out of love for us. God is present — not causing chaos but entering into it, not sending calamity by suffering through it, not standing over us but holding tightly onto us and promising never to let go. Wherever there is human tragedy and pain, the incarnate and crucified God is there.

Second, God does not only suffer with us, however, but also works through us. Paul’s assertion that we are the body of Christ is, when you think about it, a bold and profound statement of faith. To confess that we who are broken, limited, and sinful are those persons and people through whom Christ is active in the world is incredibly empowering, as God simultaneously sanctifies, commissions, and sends us into the world to bear and to be Christ’s healing and helping presence. Even in the face of a calamity this immense, we are not helpless. We can donate to trustworthy and effective agencies like the Lutheran Disaster Response and the Red Cross. We can, as the time becomes right, travel to Haiti to assist with relief work. We can, as the needs there are clarified, participate in clothing or food drives. Today and in the weeks and months to come, we can assist in multiple ways with the restoration and rebuilding of Port-au-Prince. We are the body of Christ and agents of God’s redemptive and restoring love in the world.

Make Promises
The tragedy in Haiti bears down so heavily upon us in part because of its sheer immensity. Yet there are people suffering everyday, and indeed this whole world groans under the weight and limitations of death. For this reason the gospel is always promise. At times, promises may not seem like much in the face of human tragedy, yet they always serve to create faith and restore hope. Our God has promised, in time, to wipe all tears from every eye and to create a new heaven and earth where suffering is no more. While the preacher will need to discern the moment carefully, so as to not move to quickly or glibly to words of hope, this promise also needs to be voiced in our sermons.

Two other thoughts briefly before offering a few observations about this and next week’s lectionary texts:
1. You don’t need to say everything. There will be time in the coming Sundays to address issues in more detail. This week may not be the time for detailed theological analysis, let alone correcting what we believe to be the inadequate theology of others. This week it may be that we are called to communal lament, prayer, and repeating the promises of God.

2. You don’t need to get it right. During these occasions, the mere gesture of trying to grapple with the earthquake itself speaks a profound word of Gospel. You may not feel that you have words or wisdom adequate to the situation. None of us do. But the Spirit, we are promised, can still speak through even our sighs, groans, and imperfect sermons.

Looking Ahead
Here are a few brief thoughts about the lectionary readings for this week and next:

Epiphany 2 (Jan. 17, 2010): While the wedding of Cana may seem like an unlikely candidate for a sermon in response to the earthquake, Jesus’ response to the immediate need of the community is striking. I heard an excellent sermon this week by my colleague and friend Mary Shore who pointed out that this sign comes at the wrong time in so many ways: it foreshadows the resurrection but comes at the beginning of the gospel; it isn’t attached to any long discourse of Jesus as are the other signs in John’s gospel; Jesus himself complains that it is the wrong time. Yet Jesus responds to the need and creates wine, the best wine, in abundant quantities. Wine at a first century Jewish wedding isn’t, of course, the social lubricant it is at so many of our affairs — it is life; it is blessing. A wedding with no wine is not, finally, a wedding. And so Jesus enters into their need and blesses abundantly. We — and especially our brothers and sisters in Haiti — need this wine.

Epiphany 3 (Jan. 24, 2010): Paul’s meditation on the body of Christ could not come at a better time. What do the members of the body that are your congregation have to offer the members of the body in Haiti that are broken, ragged, and in need of mending? What does the body as a whole have to offer Haiti and the world? How is God calling us to respond to this need as the healing and sustaining power of Christ in the world?

Whatever direction you go, Working Preacher, know that you are in my prayers, for your work and your words matter! Thank you. Even more, thank God for you.

In Christ,

PS: My colleague Terry Fretheim, one of the finest Old Testament theologians of our time, wrote a fine book called Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disaster. You can find a shorter article Terry wrote on this topic and an accompanying podcast at Enter the Bible.