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Based on the Scripture readings:
Matthew 3:13-17
Genesis 1:1-10

2005 January 9
First Sunday after Epiphany
Rev. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Lifeless Chaos and Living Creation

This year marks twenty years since I first served a church and twenty-four years since my first written sermons, yet I still have no perfect way to preach about what has happened in our world in these last two weeks. I can't find words that fully satisfy me in response to the tsunami and the loss of life and the evil acts that have followed in its wake. The overwhelming whirlwind calls me to humble insight, along with tears, rage, frustration, hope, remorse, and silence. So I don't have anything perfect or fully satisfactory this morning, but I do have some stories, and I do believe in Biblical wisdom, and I do need silence, so I offer those. And they begin at the seaside. They begin with water.

I love the ocean. I love it so much that I literally feel physically different in my heart when I am close to it and when I am far away from it. I love to watch the water, to explore it and to smell its salt and taste its bounty. I love to see light sparkle and suns set on blue, green, and grey waters, and I love to sleep hearing waves.

In 1990 on sabbatical I was privileged to travel to the oceanside in Indonesia. I saw some familiar visitors' spots there, and then I rented a four wheel drive jeep and drove two days, away from the main roads, beyond the point of any electrification or major settlements until I came to a village on a beach which consisted of thatched huts on a fishing cove. The sand was volcanic grey, the palms were tropical green, and the water was austere blue. There were no stores or services, and the men and women were literally wearing skirts, topless, and animals ran free, and boats were carved out of logs. And I loved it. I thought I had gotten away from it all, yet arrived. And I remembered black and white pictures of Carl Jung in Bali, and I felt that I was seeing something primordially precious, and I attended a local ritual and ate some fish and meal cooked over an open fire. It was all extremely romantic and wonderful, and I cherish the memory.

But to be honest, there is nothing romantic about vulnerability. There is nothing romantic about poverty. There is nothing romantic about being excluded from the protections of development, and unless you have just read Romeo and Juliet or immersed yourself in French Existentialists, there is nothing romantic about death. And the village on the beach that I visited in Indonesia was vulnerable and poor and excluded, and it was likely typical of the thousands of villages that were killed by the tidal wave two weeks ago today. And now my memory is touched by grief, because I have a color picture of what was lost even though I absolutely cannot comprehend the dimensions of the loss.

Why would God do this or let this happen? People of faith ask the question. Where was God in all this? Psalm 10 begins, "Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" And Psalm 69 cries out, "Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck."  I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. Why did this happen?

I love the ocean, yet it was the location for the first time I saw a dead body. I was in Maine, and I was rowing into the town dock alone at about the age of ten, and a local lobsterman had just pulled up with the body of a fisherman drowned three days before. I could see how his body had blanched and swollen as he'd been snarled in an underwater rope. I saw the details of macabre animal assault, and I recognized what folks in Maine know well: the ocean is a powerful danger as well as an inviting wonder. It is great, and it is bad. So along with my love for pristine beaches and eternal sunsets, Back to topI have a great respect and honest caution around the ocean, which brings both life and death.

The Bible has both of these strains, too. The Bible has two opposing and unresolved narratives about water, lingering with us to this day. And in those narratives comes the possibility of an answer to the question, where was God in all this, so it's worth considering the scripture's sense of water, since it is deep in our own culture.

Remember, the first story in the Bible says that water is chaos. The Greek idea of chaos is that it is confusion, but this is not a Greek story. This is a Hebrew story, and for the author of the first part of Genesis chaos meant something else. It meant a void, empty place. It meant a trackless waste, limbo, un-plumbable darkness, vanity, zero. Water was chaos, and quite often chaos was represented by a dragon or serpent sometimes called Leviathan. In my confirmation classes I ask students if they can listen to the words in Genesis and see if they can sketch what is being described, and the truth is that in creating a good world God pushes waters up and down, so that waters literally surround creation. Chaos surrounds creation. And throughout the Bible you find repeated times when chaos assaults creation, such as when the flood begins, and it literally says "the great deep burst forth." We sing about how it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, yet the scripture says chaos broke out upon creation. And in order for there to be a new creation God had to get the water, chaos, back where it belonged. And this trend goes on and on with waters capturing Egyptians and Jesus calming waters and disciples fearing waters until the very last book of the Bible when the character of the new heaven and the new earth, that we like so much, comes into full being with that often overlooked reference to chaos, where along with no more tears or death the holy city arrives only, it says, when the sea is no more.

One of the central stories of the scriptures is that water is dangerous, deadly, uncreated chaos. And boy do we know that. Our friends in Florida know it from hurricanes. They know it on deforested hillsides in Haiti and Honduras. Now the whole world knows it, as we wait anxiously for the count of bodies and the tally of international donations to evolve. This water that we love makes us sick, like the decaying body of a fisherman in the eyes of a ten year old, magnified a million times.

Modern faith, twenty-first century citizens, and critical thinkers don't like chaos very much. We laugh at it on Get Smart, or categorize it with the dragons that personify it as out of date, superstitious, and settled. We're more Greek than Hebrew: we accept confusion but not the notion of limbo or a void, trackless waste. Even the chaos along the shores of Asia's oceans will be cleaned up and re-ordered, we're told, ideally bringing with it social and psychological reconstruction to resolve all injuries. We don't like chaos, and we can even argue that it is only part of our Biblical cultural heritage, Back to topbecause there is another whole range of water stories in our family.

In the Bible, water is life, too. Indeed, for the people of the Exodus the delivery of water proves the love of God. God gets water out of a rock in the wilderness. To an oppressed, desert people there is the thrill that justice will flow like mighty waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. There is the peace, as in the 23rd psalm, that we will be led beside still waters, and there is the power of the promise in Deuteronomy that "God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters, welling up…" (8:7). Anyone who is baptised knows that water is good. It signifies the presence of God's Spirit, and Jesus did calm it, didn't he? Lepers find that it provides the avenue for rejoining community, and a woman at a well finds that God can give her living water through Christ. That's the other story in the scripture.

Water is present to both chaos and creation. But we emphasize the second part of the story more than the first, don't we? Unless we examine the times when bad things happen to good people.

You probably remember this if you have read Rabbi Kushner's book, but he says that regarding any tragedy, and indeed at the center of our faith and theology, we have to weigh three claims about God and choose only two of them. We have to discern whether God is all powerful and controls everything, whether God is all good and just and loving, and finally whether we and our neighbors are good and deserving of love and care and justice. Kushner goes on, saying that when we or our neighbors are good and deserving of care from creation, when we can say we agree with this third point in the trinity and yet something bad has happened, then either God is not fair and just and loving, or God is not all powerful. We can't have all three in a tragedy. As we know, without thinking too deeply about tragedy, many people are quick to say that God must have a reason for what has happened or we can't understand the complexity of the universe or God is not perfectly just. Many people preserve our goodness and God's power. But Kushner, and most contemporary Christian thinkers, take another tack: a very Biblical tack from the beginning to the end of the scriptures. That is, God has never taken control of chaos. Maybe in the future but not so far: chaos exists. Not like some cartoon dragon. But next to God's creation and sometimes invading what we want to be safe. Chaos exists, so God does not cause earthquakes or tidal waves or infants' death. From Genesis to Job and Hosea to Jesus we hear that. It's not what we tell our little children, but it is part of mature faith. God doesn't control everything. So as many have said along the way, God does not cause a tragedy. But God is the first one on tragedy's scene crying, touching, pausing, and then urging us to contain chaos with creation. God is the power to join a cleanup crew, a medical response team, a prayer vigil. God is the inspiration to search and seek the lost, to deliver clean, living water, and to rage at the injustice. God is the insight to rage at an insurance policy calling destruction an act of god, and God is the articulation declaring it is not a natural disaster but an unnatural state for so many to be so poor and so excluded from the protections available in developed nations. Back to topGod is the urge to love and to life.

There is nothing romantic in poverty or vulnerability, and there is nothing Godly in the assault of a tidal wave. It's not a test, and I don't even think it is entirely a mystery.

James Carroll wrote a very articulate column in the Globe this week where he compared the current destruction to the story of Job. Which is a great idea. And he ended with an inspiring thought about where to go from here. He said that in the end God does not answer Job or provide understanding for suffering. But, he adds, "We needn't understand to care nor find meaning in this suffering to denounce its injustice." And I agree with his conclusion but not his proposition. I think that in all of our experience God does answer both Job and us. God is not silent to faith. The consistent message of our faith is don't forget, don't stand by, and don't give up. Or, do remember, do stretch creation, do love this world. Caring and denouncing injustice have a ground for their being, and it is God's word of hope. I think that our God is not silent now; it's just so hard to hear and see through our sobs and tears.

So where do we go from here? Well, nowhere right away. But then back to the oceanside, I think. First we still ourselves from the frenzy of the whirlwind until our spirits have regained the tempo of our faith. If that takes tears or anger or frustration or stillness, so be it. And when that is done, or at least started, it could be good to remember Jesus by the Sea of Tiberias in the Gospel of John. He went there when all the disciples were devastated by his cruel execution, and He appeared and said to them it was time to fish. And then He said it was time to eat, and then He said those famous words in our own consciousness, He said it was time to feed the sheep. After His death He wanted folks to receive God's gifts, to fill themselves with them, and to share them with others. It's a great model.

In the months to come we have things to gather. We must gather resources, money, supplies for new ministry. And we need to eat, partake, receive, through prayer, study, worship, and stillness so that we are strong in our life. And then we need to send out stuff: money, supplies, and insights about our faith to rebuild from an unnatural disaster for a justly constructed future. I don't know exactly what all that means, but it's not an entire mystery, either. For we need to wrestle with chaos a bit, recover our faith, and then recognize that for us to be frozen or frustrated or immobilized by all this will be a theft from the needs of the time to come. For us to stay away from the water would be for us to abandon the whole life-giving dimension of our story. So, when we are able, and some of us are able right now, our world needs us. Our church and ministry and faith need us. Frankly, our God needs us. And we need our God and each other.

I am devastated by this tragedy, but I am not destroyed. I'm with the 10th psalm on this: "O God, lift up your hand, do not forget the oppressed. You do see, indeed, you note trouble and grief that you may take it into your hands… you will hear the desire of the meek .. (and) do justice for the orphan and the oppressed."  And we, O God, will go with you. We are tired, we are weak, we are worn. But we will go with you, to serve the needy, rebuild the broken, and live the way of justice, we will go with you God. Amen .Back to top

Copyright © 2005 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

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