God in the midst of death and destruction: Sermon for Lent II

(I preached at St. Peter's, in Lewes, the small town by the bay and the big water. It was my first regular sermon after a six month sabbatical from preaching. Tough Sunday! Here it is.)

Where is God in the midst of death and destruction?
(Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2011)

Social networking is part of our lives.  It has been for a long time. In the not too distant past land-line telephone conversations were the front edge of that social network. Calls, particularly long distance calls, were kept short in part because of expenses, in part because of poor connections. You got on, made the connection, and got off.

I heard about the reality of the invasion of Panama (1989) by way of a missionary friend who phoned at one thirty in the morning. He said the bombs were falling all around and that the was phoning from under his kitchen table, and that he was alright. End of message.

Saturday morning it was Twitter that gave me the first news that French planes were over Libya.  On Saturday too, it was Facebook that brought me the news that a friend’s children were taunted in school because they are Muslim. A text message reminded me to pray for Libya this morning. Of course Facebook friends also drew my attention to great You Tube Videos of the Mammas and Pappas doing “California dreaming,” and several blogsites directed me to videos of the devastation in Japan made using cellphones and instant transmission in “real time.”

We make a mistake to think that the social network consists of tweets and entries on facebook or whatever. It consists of the community of such comments, and the community of those relating one to another by these comments. The “social” in social network is communal and often amazingly cohesive. Much of the revolutions and regime changes in Northern Africa in the past weeks were run on the engine of social networking.

I don’t use Twitter very often, but it does present a challenge for a preacher: what to say in only 140 characters (including spaces).  So, if one were to tweet the Gospel  (John 3:1-17) this morning, getting the essence of a good news statement from it, what might we write?

A summary tweet might look like this:

Spirit filled and freed up, we Jesus people know that God loves the world fully and accept God’s love as the be all and end all of life. (137)

So that is the text for my sermon:

Spirit filled and freed up, we Jesus people know that God loves the world fully and accept God’s love as the be all and end all of life.

At the core of this tweet version of today’s Gospel passage is the business about “God” as in “God’s love.”
* * * * * *
The past few weeks have been a challenge for those of us who use God language.

What is God’s love about when earthquake, storm, fire, flood and meltdown overwhelm? Where is God’s love in a world where coming to the aid of some, as in Libya, seems to entail the willingness, perhaps even the call, to kill others? What is God about – if God is love – when death and destruction is all we seem to see?

The issue here is what we might call “the doctrine of God.” Are the events, and our confusion in the face of them, a sign of a defective doctrine of God, or an argument for natural and human destruction as normal conditions in a world in which God is not a person of interest?

It is note worthy that I have found very few comments on the Interned about the place of God in all that is going on out there. Has God simply become a person of no interest, an irrelevant player in the unfolding of death and destruction?
The tweet version of the Gospel, “Spirit filled and freed up, we Jesus people know that God loves the world fully and accept God’s love as the be all and end all of life,” might make sense when all is well. How does it hold up when things are rotten?

I think it does, but making sense of it all is hard work and requires us to stay focused.


First, I believe God’s love is not shown in the non-happening or happening of earthquakes, otherwise we would have to say that earthquakes are signs of God’s judgment (or even more oddly, of God’s pleasure).  But we believe otherwise, that God does not condemn but loves the world. So they cannot be signs of judgment or pleasure.
So what we have to say about earthquakes, fires, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc, is that they happen for reasons not related to God’s judgment, but to natural causes –tectonic plates moving, etc.

As for reactor meltdowns: They may have been build on sand, or too near the shore, or on the fault line, or builders may otherwise have taken risks. Human judgment may have  been the problem, but sometimes even that doesn’t explain it.  Sometimes, even with the best planning, stuff just happens. 

It seems to me then that the meaning of what has happened in Japan is not about finding God’s love (or not) in the tsunami event, or even fault for building reactors in the wrong place.  We have to look elsewhere. I believe finding God’s love for all is about finding the extent and examples  of love for one another, given such events.

Similarly, in human affairs there are calamities of one sort or another, mostly the product of our risk taking as well: despots act like despots and when we do not confront them early on it is because doing so seems risky, or we don’t really care, for after all they are not our people and they are far away.  Why should we think that later we won’t have to confront despotism, even though the risks are greater and the violence every bit as great?

When we have refused to get to know people different from ourselves because it was too much trouble, or might mean seeing our own actions from their point of view, why should we be surprised that there is little reserve of love to draw on in the days of difficulties?  Why should we be surprised that our actions, whatever they are, are misunderstood? When did we try to understand, or to get others to understand us? 

Again, I believe the meaning of what has happened in the Middle East is not about God’s love (or not) shown in the events of despotic rule, revolution, UN mandate, or regime change, but about the extent of the love for one another given and received in these most difficult circumstances.

What we look for are signs of God’s love for the world that can be found in the love and care given to one another. If we want a right “doctrine of God” it is to be found in loving kindness shown in difficult times.
Can we find such love, love great enough to be a sign of God’s love? Can we find such love, even in destruction and calamity, in warfare and the struggle for human rights? Are we able to see that love in a people who mostly don’t give two hoots about Christianity, or care that we seen in Christ’s self giving some sign of what the fullness of life can be about?  Are we able to see that love in people who cling to each other as bombs drop from our aircraft, or in the loving care one enemy combatant shows another as the bullets spray death? Or in the self giving of one Libyan fighter for another as they both struggle for an end of the despotism?

In this parish we pray for the end of all wars, we pray for peace and security in our daily lives, for the changes and chances of life not to overcome us.

But more, we pray that God’s love for us will be known in the love we can have for one another, even in the midst of great trial. And we pray that all people can show that love, that self-emptying, self giving love that reminds us of Jesus and his love for us.

Whatever else our doctrine of God is about, it is about God’s love being shown in the self giving of one human being for all. The model is Jesus, whose love is so like God’s love that when we say “God is Love” we think of Jesus as the proof of that. We say that the love of Jesus is the love of God,  is what that love is about, presently and forever.

The bet, the great ongoing bet, is this:  We Christians bet that God’s love for the world is full, and if we humans are also filled with that love, then it becomes the be all and end all of life.  We know this because Jesus was this: God’s love for the world, present in the world.

* * * * * * *

Now how are we going to get there? Get to this place where we live inside God’s love, known in Jesus? How are we to become a reflection of that self-giving and self emptying?

For us it is hard. In fact, we are so closed to it that the only way out is by acquiring a new power to see, to envision, to know, to feel.

For us Episcopalians we must become Pentecostal – we must
rely upon the Holy Spirit working is us to give us vision to see God in the loving kindness and self giving shared by people in these most difficult of circumstances. We must become a Holy Spirit people, people who know that “God loves the world fully,” and that with that knowing as part of us, we too can love the world fully. 

When we get about doing this our doctrine of God will straighten itself out just fine: God loves the world fully, and we know it, for we see God’s love in the love humans in great difficulty have for one another, and indeed in the love we have for one another in a love that finally empties the self, as if love were the be all and end all of life.

That’s all I know about all this.



  1. Mark, I find your sermon inspiring and helpful in the midst of today's wars, calamities, and all manner of other difficulties. Thank you.

  2. John Tindal20/3/11 6:46 PM

    Mark, this is a great sermon! Thanks.

    John Tindal

  3. "Breathe through the heats of our desire, thy coolness and thy balm; let sense be dumb, let flesh retire, speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still small voice of calm" Hymn #652/653

    GREAT SERMON! Glad you are preaching again!

  4. Glad to read this. Wish I had heard it. God bless you, and thank you.

  5. Mark
    wish I had been there! Excellent as always!

  6. Mark, Good sermon. My take is not so much self-giving as it is to love self and others as well. If one gives up self, there is nothing left to give for another. If we have lack of self we expect good or bad things to be of someone else's making, ie: God.
    Thanks for making me think. NJH

  7. Abigail McKay22/3/11 9:43 PM

    Mark, thank you for your sermon. But still, if God created the earth, why such calamities? Why would He rain them on us like this? If He is responsible, why such pain? Granted, I see "love" as being a gift from God and the way we humans can support each other and get through calamities but I've never understood just why God is responsible for our disasters. Help?


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.