Finding Divine Motivation in Natural Disasters

Exodus 3:1-15        THE SERMON
28 August 2011        All Saints Church

First there was the earthquake and then there was the hurricane; if you didn’t know better, you’d think that God was really MAD at somebody.

It is kinda funny how we humans attribute divine motivation to natural events. If there is a perfect growing season for lentils in the Inland Empire of Eastern Washington and Idaho, you don’t read in the newspapers that anybody much says that the bumper crop is evidence that God loves us a lot. If a native salmon run which was fished out and dammed out and polluted out somehow returns to a river in the Northwest, you don’t see some talking head on television saying that God is showing his love for his people (and his fish) by causing that to happen. It is only (or, at least, primarily) when bad stuff happens that people are reading and vociferously willing to attribute divine meaning to the event.

On August 23rd, in the early afternoon, an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.8 on the Richter Scale shook the State of Virginia. Because of the way the Virginia Seismic Zone works, shocks were felt from Atlanta to Chicago, from Detroit to Toronto and from Ontario to New Brunswick. There was particular damage to buildings in Washington D.C., which is not all that far from Richmond, Virginia. Cracks appeared in the topmost section of the Washington Monument, which is not closed to tourists. And there was considerable damage to our own National Cathedral, where Sunday services have been moved to a very large synagogue nearby.
The Rev. Pat Robertson, who specializes in explaining the Lord’s motivation when natural disasters occur, was quick to explain. The cracks in the Washington Monument are God’s judgment upon the nation and upon the national government, in particular. He reminded listeners that when Jesus was crucified, the curtain in the Temple at Jerusalem was rent in two. And he suggested that the damage to the spires of our National Cathedral is a judgment upon the Episcopal Church for tolerating homosexuals.

A preliminary assessment of the damage to the cathedral showed that there are cracks in several of the flying buttresses and extensive damage to three of the four finials atop the pinnacles of the central tower. Because the cathedral is entirely hand made, Joe Alonso, the cathedral’s head stone mason, said it will take many years to complete all the necessary repairs to a building started in 1907 and completed in 1990. The national cathedral is in poor economic shape, having laid off a significant portion of its staff in the last two years.  The damages are uninsured and the cost of repair will run into multiple millions of dollars. The Very Rev. Samuel Lloyd, dean of the cathedral, said that the same people who funded its completion will fund its repair, God willing, which means average Episcopalians making average-sized contributions. There is already a “contribute-here” sort of link on their website. The earthquake and the subsequent damage “has not been a jarring thing for our faith,” Lloyd said. “What it has done is challenge us to claim our faith, to go to work to make this place be as grand as beautiful and powerful as its always been.”

And then there was Hurricane Irene.

I first became concerned about this tropical storm when it threatened to rip apart Vieques Island – a small island just 21 miles long and five miles wide off the coast of Puerto Rico. My friend Consuelo lives there and reported that she would likely be off the Internet for a few days because Vieques always loses electric power when hurricanes visit. Once the hurricane had passed, she managed to get a cell phone connection and reported that all was messy but all was well … and they look forward to getting their power back … because nobody but the English like to drink warm beer.

Conservative columnist Glen Beck found divine meaning in Hurricane Irene.  He said that it was a great blessing and it was God’s way of telling people that they are unprepared.  Beck is a Mormon and Mormons store a year’s worth of food in their homes as a form of divine preparedness.

Then we got word that my daughter Heather Anne, her husband Michael and our two grand-kitties – Astoria and Commissioner Gordon – were required to evacuate their apartment in lower Manhattan. The storm came ashore in North Carolina and was headed for New York City, where a big storm can make a big mess, as the subways have this nasty tendency to fill up with water when it rains. We got word that they have moved to higher ground – not that there is much higher ground in New York City.

And then Heather wrote “In events like this, I’m largely concerned for abandoned animals, the elderly, and the homeless. I pray that they will all be looked after and that Irene runs out of steam earlier than expected. It’s easy in times like this to feel very insular and only be concerned for one’s own safety, but I hope that other coastal towns are faring okay and pray that the islands and states that have already been hit strongly can recover quickly.”

That’s my baby girl!

And then there’s this whole thing about the burning bush.

We all know the story of the burning bush.  If we haven’t read it ourselves, we’ve had Charlton Heston act it out for us on television.  But do you know the rest of that story?

During his presidency, George Bush was going through an airport when he encountered a man with long gray hair, wearing a white robe and sandals, and holding a staff.     President Bush went up to the man and said, “Has anyone told you that you look like Moses?”  The man didn’t answer. He just kept staring straight ahead. Then the President said, “Moses” in a loud voice.  The man just stared ahead, never acknowleding the President. The President pulled a Secret Service Agent aside and, pointing to the robed man, asked him, “Am I crazy or does that man look like Moses?” The Secret Service Agent looked at the man and agreed. “Well,” said the President, “every time I say his name, he ignores me and stares straight ahead refusing to speak. Watch!”  Again the President yelled, “Moses!” and again the man ignored him. Feeling the President’s frustration, the Secret Service Agent went up to the man in the robe and whispered, “You look just like Moses. Are you Moses?” The man leaned over and whispered back, “Yes, I am Moses. However, the last time I talked to a bush, I spent forty years in the desert and ended up leading my people to the only spot in the entire Middle East where there is no oil.”

The significance of the story of Moses and the burning bush is not that it was a marvel … of course it was a marvel; marvels are how God gets our attention. The significance of the event is that it changed Moses, it propelled Moses out of the life of a fugitive from justice which we was living and into the center of events which led to the freeing of the people of Israel from bondage. The meaning which Moses attached to this event in the wilderness near Mount Horeb is what moved him to be God’s agent in the Exodus.

People attach meaning to events; that doesn’t mean that the meaning inheres in the event itself.  It is the people – not the event – that find and attribute the meaning. Humans are meaning-assigning creatures.  This trait distinguishes us from our nearest neighbours in the animal kingdom.  But the meaning-assigning function in humans can be for good or for ill.
Humans can perceive an event and come up with some of the wildest, most outlandish, bizarre, seriously warped meanings to assign to it. Why do we say “God bless you” when somebody sneezes? Because the human soul comes out the nose of the sneezer and must be blessed in order not to be stolen by the Devil before it gets sucked back in with the breath. Normal event; whacko meaning attached.

Some finials fall of the pinnacles of spires at the National Cathedral? It is the direct result of the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. Normal event: whacko meaning attached.

So what is an appropriate response when we hear of a disaster? The Christian response is “What can I do to help?”  And this congregation repeatedly gets it right. We hear about a hurricane in New Orleans or an earthquake in Haiti, we respond with help.  Most often we send money.  Occasionally we send Charlie Callahan.

And the issue is never about “what did they do to bring this down on themselves?” but rather “what shall we do to relieve the suffering?” The Christian meaning of disaster is “What can we do to help?

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Bruce McMenomy - September 4, 2011

I must say in beginning that in most respects I agreed with this sermon, and continue to do so — but toward the end there was one paragraph that took me by surprise. As I sat there listening to it, I thought it was odd and wrong; I still think it’s odd and wrong, and I’m largely writing this response to try to articulate why I think so. If others want to join in the disagreement (with me or against me), I’d welcome the input.

Here’s what Fr. Steve said: “People attach meaning to events; that doesn’t mean that the meaning inheres in the event itself. It is the people –- not the event –- that find and attribute the meaning. Humans are meaning-assigning creatures. This trait distinguishes us from our nearest neighbours in the animal kingdom. But the meaning-assigning function in humans can be for good or for ill.”

Lest we pursue any unnecessary rabbit-trails, let me say that I think both Fr. Steve and I are using “meaning” in the narrow sense of the word. By saying that meaning doesn’t inhere in the event itself, Fr. Steve isn’t saying that the event is inconsequential or unimportant. (At least I don’t think that’s what he’s saying — he should feel free to correct me). What he seems to me to be saying is that events themselves do not have the capacity to signify something else. In other words, events are not signs, pointing beyond themselves. They just are what they are. That’s the way I’m using the term, too. But I disagree.

I’m perfectly willing to grant that people, rather than events, assign meaning to events. Events are (as far as anyone can tell) not sentient beings, and hence can’t have an intention to convey meaning. But the unnamed player here is God. God is not an event, and (despite the common use of “God” or “God’s will” to denote “whatever happens”) I think we cannot be quite so facile about saying that God also does not use events to convey meaning. When I broached the topic with Fr. Steve over coffee after the sermon, he looked at me as if I were hovering on the brink of madness…so I figured I must be onto something. (In all fairness, I should point out too that he agreed to post that sermon largely because I said I wanted to respond to it. We both would like to hear what others think about it.)

Please understand that I’m not championing Pat Robertson’s interpretation. We have dominical example for why this is almost certainly wrong thinking. Note Luke 13:4: “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” Apparently Jesus was unwilling to pronounce this accident (the kind of thing our insurance language regrettably calls an “act of God”) to be any expression of further purpose, but Pat Robertson is apparently not encumbered by Our Lord’s qualms. He’s Johnny on the spot, ready to interpret any old happening for the Lord, the sooner the better. Given the material success of his operation, one wonders whether he hasn’t confused prophet with profit. Speaking for the Lord is what prophets are about. It’s a dangerous business, and false prophets don’t typically do well in the long run. Nevertheless, I’m concerned that we not throw an important theological baby out with Mr. Robertson’s bathwater. It has long been a central tenet of my faith that God can and does use events as signs. If I have to surrender that, it’s going to require a better argument, and it will have to be motivated by more than mere revulsion at Robertson’s conclusions.

There are layers to this one. At the most superficial level, there are things that God apparently does specifically intending that they function as signs — such as the sign of the fleece that Gideon relies on. This one is functioning as a kind of divine telephone line. It relies on an odd communications protocol, one that’s not likely to catch on in the long run, I think, but definitely a purposeful sign.

But I don’t think it stops there. I would go so far as to suggest that probably most of the events in the long history of mankind or of the world have — or would have, if we but had the wit to discern them — a signifying function. One of the pivotal points in my own theological journey came when reading Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica 1.1.10 for a seminar at UCLA. He is addressing the Alexandrian (and Augustinian) notion that the text of scripture can have multiple layers of meaning. The Alexandrians believed that a passage in scripture had, or could have, as many as four layers of meaning: the literal, the allegorial, the moral, and the anagogical (having to do with end-times stuff). That’s a pretty interesting line of investigation, and I’m not knocking it. But the Alexandrians had very early crossed swords with the Antiochenes on this one, and it wasn’t until Thomas came arond that the Antiochene position was able to lift its head again.

Here’s what he has to say. I don’t remember the exact day or even the exact year, but I remember the event: it hit me one day in the spring of 1978 or so like a thunderclap:

“I answer that, The author of Holy Writ is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it.” (Emphasis mine.)

Ultimately Thomas’s point is that while, yes, any passage in scripture can point us — the readers — toward further meanings, that meaning inheres not merely in the text of scripture, but in the things to which that text points. It’s an interesting conclusion, because it cuts both ways. First of all, it makes the primary meaning more important to the process. An Alexandrian (and many a modern liberal interpreter of scripture) can claim that the literal meaning of the text doesn’t matter that much: it’s the spiritual message that counts. If the feeding of the five thousand wasn’t a miracle, we can still extract its central point. From Thomas’s point of view (and, I confess, from mine) that’s ridiculous. If it didn’t happen, it also didn’t mean anything. On the other hand, if the words of the text of scripture are just a bit off, the interpretation is untroubled. If the event actually occurred, but was in fact only attended by 4,999, it still means what it has always meant for us.

At this deeper level, the scriptures are full of stories that profess a certain further pointing beyond their own literal referents. The Church has long maintained that Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac prefigures and signifies God’s offering of his Son, and that the leading of the children of Israel out of Egypt into the land of promise points to our progress from the old life of sin — and so on. But are these things merely functions of the fact that they’re ensconced safely in the Bible? The Alexandrians said yes. The Antiochenes said no, and, with a rather daring clarity of vision, Thomas rehabilitated that argument for his time and (as far as I’m concerned) for ours.

If Thomas is right, the covers of your Bible don’t limit God’s capacity to signify. If Thomas is right, God is the source of all meaning everywhere, in a sense more profound than we could ever have surmised. If Thomas is right, we have just been handed the keys to a world so fraught with signification that everything means something — maybe lots of things. Signification is not just something nice and clever: it’s wild, unbounded, and almost infinitely powerful; it’s the core pattern and principle on which God conjured the world out of nothing. It’s all about meaning. If we are creatures who extract meaning from events, it’s because God first created us in his image as meaning-conveying and meaning-apprehending creatures. If that’s true, it’s a pretty good bet that that’s because God thought signifying was a pretty terrific thing to be doing, and he wanted to play this game with us.

None of this means that we can’t misinterpret, or that we won’t do so. We’re especially likely to do so, with bad and even wicked results, if we’re playing the game dishonestly, and primarily seeking our own interests. It’s easy to see everything as slanted by one’s own capacities or inclinations. (As some wag — I cannot remember who — once said, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. It’s true. But it doesn’t mean that we should accept that vision: it probably means we should put down the hammer for a while.) This should stand as the sternest possible warning against entering on the interpretive enterprise trivially or capriciously. In fact, I think it means that we are entering on something so fundamentally sacred that we should remove our (literal and metaphorical) shoes (and drop our hammers) before we go on. It may prove the case that our God-given world swirls so thick with signifiers that we can’t hope to interpret all or most of them. That fact alone should keep us humble. But this divine game is so great precisely because there is no limit to it. It sounds like what an infinite and omnipotent God would do, doesn’t it?

Leave a Reply: