The Storm Gods
Ancient Testimony - Joshua 3:14-17; Isaiah 35:1
August 22, 2010
The weather is the one thing you and I can’t change. It is a given. A strong given. I remember scheduling my twins’ high school graduation party on the The weather is the one thing you and I can’t change. It is a given. A strong given. I remember scheduling my twins’ high school graduation party on the Connecticut River in Western Massachusetts. We hired a caterer, got in the reservation line for the best pavilion with the nicest view, a year in advance. We sent out the invitations. Family was coming from in from five states; friends had Priceline reservations at nearby motels. The graduation happened in the middle of a major thunderstorm and the road to the pavilion washed out. The state closed the park in which the popular pavilion resided. The caterer delivered the food in the truck to a nearby church fellowship hall—which we obtained at 1:00 p.m. on the day of the graduation, throwing out the coffee hour of the very hospitable congregation, alienating the custodian, and making do.
A friend of mine just told me an opposite story of her niece’s wedding on the top of Mt. Shasta. The niece insisted that the wedding be held in this “sacred space” for her and her mate. The parents and extended family all assured her that the weather was bad that time of year on the top of Mt. Shasta and that they saw no need to truck up there and freeze. On the day of the wedding, the sun shone bright and all had a good time. We can blame God or applaud God or find out how to have a better take on the weather.
Some of you know that I spent two years raising money for the Still Speaking Initiative of the United Church of Christ. When we were in the second year, and thought we had the money for a national television campaign, we were surprised by a tsunami in Indonesia. We weren’t the only ones surprised. I daresay the Indonesians were a bit more so. Anyway, all the money that had been promised to the long-term campaign was diverted to Indonesian relief. Churches are great at disasters. In fact, disaster relief, in Haiti, now Pakistan, then Indonesia, five years ago this month in New Orleans—and on and on—is a sure-fire fundraiser. People will give to help people whose roads wash out. Very few of us can manage a longer-range view. The Still Speaking Initiative was a third of its strength because of the tsunami. I can show you the numbers. Many of us are expert at the short-term and have little capacity for the long-term. We love the God of sunshine and aren’t so sure about the God of washed out roads. One requires little of us, the other requires that we redesign and rebuild.
I thought I might have to spend some time in this sermon telling you all about climate change and its relationship to severe weather events. The New York Times did that for me just last week, not even knowing that I had planned this sermon. There is a definite causal relationship between climate change and severe and acute weather events. Rush Limbaugh may think and say that climate change is a ruse, but he is wrong. It is not a ruse. It is a reality. Bill McKibben likes to say that the planet has already had a major heart attack. I think he is right.
You may be less impressed with the Arctic, or Pakistan, or Haiti, or New Orleans, or Indonesia. Unfortunately, severe weather events are not that far away. It has been a tough twelve months for the trees of Central Park. Last August 18, a severe storm came off the river and slammed the north end of the Park. In thirty minutes, more than 500 trees, roughly two percent of the Park’s total, came down. In Central Park this summer, a six-month-old child was killed during a lightning strike, which also injured her mother. It was the third serious, weather-related accident in eleven months. The good news is that there are 23,510 trees in the Park. 500 may be gone, but there are still thousands. The other good news is that children in strollers will still go to the Central Park Zoo and have a great time. I don’t have those numbers. But I don’t think those numbers matter as much as something else. What matters more is our ability to give credence to signs and wonders. People who worshipped the old gods had the ability to take signs and wonders into account. They also imagined a God strong enough to part seas and to do his or her own weather events and natural wonders. Oddly, the Red Sea story is a positive story of weather intervention by an almighty God. The people are in trouble, they have nowhere else to go, God parts the waters, they pass through to the other side. Right now, when we think about weather interventions, we think about catastrophe, made ever so much more real to a mother who takes her child to the zoo and doesn’t get to bring her home. We could have a different story. We could worship the God of sunshine and washed out roads, the God of short- and long-term.
When we come to the end of our rope and have nowhere else to go, a way will reveal itself. We will walk through the waters to the other side. We will find a church basement in which to hold the graduation party. We will see the sun come out, unseasonably, on Mt. Shasta. We will find a way where there is no way.
The washed out roads in the closed parks are in our spirits, then in our minds, then in our policies, then in our seas. They will also be in our checkbooks—after they take a good whack at the poor and marginalized. They are on their way to us, even those of us who think we are immune to climate and weather. Naomi Klein joins many people in seeing the Gulf oil spill as a great gash in the heart of the planet. She sees the oil spill as blood spilling. This anthropomorphization of nature is something many of us thought we had grown out of. We have not, nor should we. There is no need to diminish science to inspirit nature.
The Red Sea can and does part, as people like us realize we are at the end of our roads and our ropes. We cannot go forward on the road of oil and its greenhouse gases, which result in climate change, which results in weather disasters. That road is washed out. The car or catering truck we might drive on it is washed up. We will have to find another way. We will want to depend on the greatness of God and each other to find another way.
One alternative route is imaging a God that is more than a punishing lightning bolt. Here we connect sunshine and shadow, the God of liberation and the God of the lightning, the God of the short-term and the Liberator of the long-term. Here, we don’t just put cardboard down on the washed out road and muddy on; we rebuild. Nothing will stop all the monsoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, or lightning events. It is too late for that. The accumulation of injury to the earth is large. Like smoking, it adds up, cigarette by cigarette, eventually taking the lungpower you started with away from you. Nor can we just stop smoking or stop emitting. The word addiction comes to mind. But we can make some turns. We can begin to figure out what we are going to do to find the Red Sea Opening. We can be people who are alert for the positive intervention of almighty God, rather than quaking passively before the lightning bolt fantasy. We can be people who have the sense to get our toes wet when the water does part. We can be alert and hopeful—and grab others by the hand and suggest that they be alert and hopeful as well.
What must we do, after we have imagined a God of love as well as lightning? We need to build churches. We need to catch people. We need to provide basements. We need to be cooling centers in heat advisories—and I’m not just talking about air conditioning. We need to tell better stories than the one now being told by the right wing noise-machine about the Cordoba Initiative’s downtown cultural center. How does that relate to climate change? The pre-existing condition to climate change is the dominance of the United States and its way of life. Without our emissions and the economy they support, which economy is now defending its fumes with vigor, 9-11 would be a very different story. We were attacked. We are still defending our way of life, rather than imagining that there are other ways of life equally valid in the eyes of the Almighty. Now that the right wing is running against a so-called mosque in the fall elections, we have to wonder what is at the bottom of this fear, xenophobia, and mania. At the bottom is the protection of our way of life, which is oil-based and out of control. The Red Sea parts just a little if we imagine another way of life, what some call a different kind of capitalism, one that cares for the earth with the same vigor with which it now injures the earth. We will not imagine a different way of life until we have a different kind of church, and mosque and cathedral and synagogue and prayer group and yoga center.
Imagine my surprise when the New York Times told its front page story about stress and the pastor. I wondered how long it was going to take them to notice. What was great about that story was not just the story but also the responses. When I say that we build congregations to part the Red Seas, I am talking to “Congregations Gone Wild." The first letter to the editor that came in was from Jack Spiro, director of the Center for Judaic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He said that the problem with clergy and congregations is that we have lost “the biblical concepts of divinity in relation to humanity.” God parts the Red Sea. God saves the people when they can no longer save themselves. If we can begin to believe that, to see that God loves us and is not the great punisher or the lightning bolt guy but the liberator through the water, we will be all right.
The second response that came in was from Bonnie Anderson, president of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church. She noted that the Times article was very disrespectful of lay people and that to blame parishioners for congregational decline was disingenuous. She said that the cause of the decline “is clergy who believe that they must meet everyone’s needs while playing the role of a lone superhero, and members of the laity who are either infantilized or embittered because they cannot make meaningful contributions to their church.” I’d love to tell you that clergy are essential to parting the waters toward an inspirited and re-sacralized and re-enchanted nature. We’re not. It is our job to get out of the way of the meaningful contributions of lay people to their congregations. Building congregations and building communities with rival, powerful, and positive stories is everybody’s job. Such work and play parts seas. It doesn’t assign blame or authority to any one person. The whole people cross the whole river.
Let me conclude with some attention to the rival story that needs telling. It is based in a respect for weather and a respect for understanding the things that you cannot change. The United States has spent 27 billion dollars on intelligence in Afghanistan, trying to figure out who are our enemies and who are our friends. It boggles my mind that the same people who want small government support this kind of waste. But more, it shows what we cannot do in foreign countries to protect our way of life. We have failed in Afghanistan. Capitalism, as we know, has also failed to yield. Every day, the capitalists who fail to yield fire people for their failure to yield. But the truth is that the system, not the people, has failed to yield. We worship the wrong gods and that worship washes out our roads.
Many of you have trouble believing in the kind of liberating God of weather and climate and life I have been describing here. What is amazing is how easy it is for us to believe in a country with nearly ten percent unemployment, which is throwing money at the Taliban. That being said, we need to confront our powerlessness. We need to take a good, strong look at the way we say what we are about is “freedom” or “choice”—and how these values are also failing to yield. We spend a lot of money and time and worry defending a way of life that doesn’t yield for us.
I want to introduce you to the work of Sheena Iyengar. You will want to know her. She is a business sociologist who is helping to explain why life is so overwhelming to so many of us, why we feel under water and in great need of the parting of the Red Sea. She tells the story of being in Japan and asking for some sugar for her green tea. The waiter said, Absolutely not. No sugar. For green tea. She persisted. He persisted. She persisted and he persisted. Finally, he told her that no one drinks green tea with sugar. Plus, they didn’t have any sugar. She changed her order to coffee, which was brought with the sugar they didn’t have. She then explained that the Japanese think their job is to protect you from what you don’t know. You think your job is to maximize your choices. Along with Burger King, our captivity is that we want to “have it your way.” Iyengar, who is blind, argues that Americans have too many choices and that the oppression in our way of life has become these very choices, which we defend in Afghanistan and by keeping cultural centers from using space in old coat factories near Ground Zero. She tells another instructive story. When getting her nails done, she, who is blind, has to ask other people what the colors are. Just recently she was asked to choose between the colors called “Lady Slippers” and “Princess Pink.” She tried to get people to tell her what was different about them. People made up differences. She then asked to have the two bottles and went to her laboratory and tested the colors on five people there. They said that the colors were exactly the same. From the green tea and the nail polish and the sugar, Iyengar goes one more step. She compares the French practice of doctors deciding when to remove life support from a dying patient to the American practice. In France, the doctors make the choice and survivors have little residual difficulty. In America, the individual, having the burger his or her way, agonizes the choice, and the families tend to have much more residual difficulty. What Iyengar is telling us is that the very choice that we defend so vigorously is actually harming us. She also advises businesses to have three options of cereals on their shelves rather than twelve. They will sell more cereal. There is a Red Sea parting in having less choice and more freedom. There is a Red Sea parting in building congregations and keeping people connected to each other. We don’t even find pleasure in the way of life we are so actively defending! That thought might make a way for you, today, in the washed out road. You can’t choose the weather. But you can choose what you will believe in. I am suggesting a liberating God instead of an oppressive cultural economy. I see you crossing the Red Sea. Where else do you have to go?