Hurricanes and Judgement: Thoughts on the One Year Anniversary of Irene

West Dover, Vermont

Tonight I’m watching Hurricane Isaac as it bears down on the Gulf Coast. Seven years after Katrina, Isaac has the potential to re-devastate an area that’s still recovering, and still will be for years.

I’m watching these developments as I read the results of a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service which shows that 44% of Americans see an uptick in natural disasters as “evidence of what the Bible calls the ‘end times’.” Narrow that polling body to white Christian evangelicals, and that number increases to 67%.

Right now I’m thinking about those two things as I sit in my living room in southern Vermont. One year ago tonight I sat here and called my congregational leaders and we reviewed the weather forecast and reluctantly decided to cancel church services the next day. By the middle of the next morning, Hurricane Irene had devastated the community where we live.

That night I stood with friends and neighbors and parishioners in a street filled with upended asphalt, twisted metal, and busted glass. I spent two years as a trauma chaplain in a pediatric hospital in Atlanta, but I had never seen devastation like I saw that night. It looked, quite literally, like a bomb had gone off.

The next Sunday I told my congregation that, contrary to what 44% of Americans think, God did not send the flood to our town as a punishment, a warning, or a judgement. I still believe that. Others do not. We’ve had our fair share of bad theology here in Vermont. Missionaries disguised as trauma counselors. Judgmental Christian “leaders” calling us to repent for the sins that caused the flood. Even the Westboro Baptist Church had us in their sights.

What’s sad is that some folks, the ones hardest hit and looking for answers, believe this Gospel of Wrath. Bad theology is often the second wave of trauma. And the Christian leaders who perpetuate these ideas move from natural disaster to natural disaster, tragedy to tragedy, spreading the same rhetoric of judgement. From Vermont to Aurora, Colorado to western wildfires, to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to midwestern droughts, to every other place you can name where blood was shed or destruction widespread, those voices of warning have followed, jockeying for airtime. They have somehow become the predominant public voices of Christian faith.

It’s really too bad they don’t stay around long in one place. Because if they did, they might actually catch a glimpse of God.

Those of us who stuck around past the news cameras and soundbites saw incredible testaments to the love and grace of God. We saw it as good people took seriously the idea that one should “love their neighbor as themselves” and got to work. Some were Christians. Some weren’t. But all behaved in a way much closer to the way Christ commanded us to live than anyone on TV talking about God’s judgment coming in the form of a hurricane.

The people here wasted little time before rebuilding. The next morning they donned masks and bandanas, picked up cleaning buckets and got to work. They cooked meals for the shelter in the high school cafeteria. They gave hours as volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel. They staffed the food pantry in town every day for weeks. And they gave and gave of every resource they had until it hurt.

They didn’t do it for a day. Or a week. Or a month or season. They kept doing it, day after day, no matter what was happening in their own lives. People I knew who had lost almost everything came asking who had it worse, and what they could do for them.

That’s where I saw God this past year. That’s where I saw grace. And that’s where I saw hope.

Tomorrow we will gather at that same place we did last year, at the same time, as the sun goes down here in southern Vermont. But this year the road is repaved, the glass is swept up, and the river has contained itself to its banks once more. We will light candles, and we will offer our memories. But more that that, we will offer our gratitude. Gratitude for strangers, gratitude for one another, gratitude for grace. And more than all of that, we will offer our hope.

I know God will be there tomorrow, because I know that wherever there is hope, there is God. And while the flood “was”, God “is”, and God will be.

God will be there on the Gulf Coast tomorrow too. And God will be there if that storm makes landfall. Not because God wills our destruction, but because God does not abandon us in the storm. And no matter what happens, God will be there in the aftermath.

My hope is that wherever the news cameras flock to next, whether it’s in the wake of the storm or, God forbid, the aftermath of another act of violence, that we will look for testaments to God’s love and grace, and not the destructive voices of those who would use Christ’s name to spread their own judgements.

You know that old song, “They will know we are Christians by our love?” It’s still true. More than ever, and especially in times of destruction or pain. And if you can’t hold the statements of a Christian talking head on TV up to that standard, then don’t allow them to be the only voice out there that is speaking for God. Lives, and hearts, depend on it.

The Dove and the Olive Leaf…a year later: Sermon for the one year anniversary of Hurricane Irene

Genesis 8:6-12

6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made 7 and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9 but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; 11 and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.

A year ago this week, on Saturday night, I spoke with the leaders of both churches about the hurricane that had been predicted for the next day. We talked about the weather forecast, and about canceling church services, and we agreed that probably nothing out of the ordinary would really happen. But we canceled anyway, just to be safe.

You know what happened next. A year ago, on a Sunday like today, it felt like the whole world had come crashing in. The river crested, and then spilled its banks, and the destruction was beyond what we could have ever imagined.

I remember seeing many of you that day. You were opening the evacuation shelters. You were working with police and fire and rescue. You were here in Dover or up in Wardsboro. Or you were there when we all finally made it down to the middle of Wilmington and saw the way the river had cut through town.

Some of you took big losses. Your businesses. Your homes. Your sense of safety. In many cases you didn’t have electricity or plumbing for days. And that day I think we all wondered whether life would ever be the same again.

The Sunday afterwards, we gathered here at the church and we read this same passage from Genesis. I had already heard by that point people who said the flood was God’s judgement on us. I heard someone say this was just God reminding us what God can do. I told you then, and I’ll tell you again today, I don’t believe that’s true.

The text we read then, and read now, is about the aftermath of a flood too. And while the flood in the Bible is attributed to God, I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying that this one was too. But I like this text, because it reminds us of the promise God makes in the aftermath of a flood. A promise given so long ago, and a promise given to us.

I believe the flood “was”. But I believe even more that God “is”.

Noah sends a dove out after the flood looking for dry land. It searches, and searches, and finds nowhere. And it comes back to him. And for seven days it stays there with Noah. But seven days later he sends it out again. It the world is not yet back to normal, but there is enough of what used to be there that the dove plucks and olive leaf, and brings it back.

Last year we talked about that olive leaf. That first sign that there was life again. That sign that the world could be rebuilt, even if, like the dove, we could not yet put our feet on solid ground again.

We came that day to claim an olive leaf. And we did. We found our signs of hope, and we went out and we did what needed to be done. And now, a year later, we have stories  of all the olive leaves we have found to share.

There are three things I’ve been thinking about this week: remembrance, gratitude, and hope.

First, we remember. We remember what that day was like. We remember how we felt when the full extent of what was happening became clear. We remember all the destruction and all the shock and all the high water marks. We remember the young woman who was killed on Route 100. And we remember all of those whose lives were changed in such unforgettable ways.

But that’s not all we remember. And this is where our memory turns us to gratitude. Because we also remember what happened next.

People tell me that they have never seen a community bounce back the way this one did. In fact, people say Vermont’s recovery as a whole has been spectacular. The day after the flood, bright and early, neighbors started helping neighbors to rebuild. They pumped water out of stores. They hammered things into place. They moved trees and rocks and earth. And they staffed the food pantry everyday. They kept the shelter open at the high school. They brought water to people who didn’t have it.

Our church, our churches at that point, did what they could too. We kept the doors of the churches open for those who needed to pray or rest. We opened our doors to 12 step groups who had been displaced. We gave out water and energy bars. We helped to organize a diaper drive. We drove in health buckets and school kits from Church World Service. We opened the doors of the Wilmington Church to St. Mary’s who had lost their building. And the basement of the Wilmington church even became storage for the food pantry.

The fact so many came out to help their neighbors, and that we got to have some part in that, is a cause for gratitude.

And it doesn’t stop there. Strangers came to help too. They came from all over and they brought water and food and tools. They joined with us and they gave their time and talents over the next weeks to help us rebuild. Likewise, our national denomination, the United Church of Christ, remembered us too. Within days of the flood they had sent grants to both of the churches to help us to help respond to the needs that arose in our area. Over the past year we have used those funds to help out local families and non-profits, and we will continue using them as we begin new ministries here.

And through the year the blessings kept coming. These are just some of the stories I know. But I know you know a hundred more. I know that none of us has been unmoved by what happened here. And I know that God has been good to us. Things may not yet be completely “back to normal”, but we have come so far from those first days. And we have come that far because of the grace that has been given to us. Our gratitude for our neighbors, and for strangers, and for the grace of God can never be buried.

And so now, a year later, we meet in worship again. And we read the same passage. The passage about the dove who brings Noah the olive leaf. And this year we read a little more of it. We read not just about that dove coming back after severn days, but we read about that dove going out again.

This time Noah sends the dove out, but it does not return. The dove goes out and sees that the world is safe again. It is returning to normal. And it finds places where it can land and live and thrive. It doesn’t have to go back to its emergency quarters on the ship. It’s free.

The dove symbolizes peace in the Christian tradition. More importantly, we equate it with the Holy Spirit. And for us, the Holy Spirit means hope. If you think about the dove that way, think about what this story means. First the dove brings back a tangible sign of hope to us, just as we began to receive last year. And then, the dove goes out into the world, unbound by the flood any more, spreading that hope to everyone.

We can do two things now. We can stay in the boat, or we can follow that dove, that symbol of the Holy Spirit, out into the world and in this second year of recovery we can continue to help to bring hope to our community and beyond.

We have done so much in this past year. And it has been good. But there is still so much that needs to be done in our community. And God is equipping us to do it.

Where will the Holy Spirit lead us this year? And are we willing to follow it? I believe we are. And I believe we will. And I believe that a year from now our community will continue to emerge stronger and with more hope than ever.

I’ll close with this. Last summer I baptized the infant daughter of one the families in our community in the Deerfield River. They live on the river, and wanted to baptism to be done with the water that they love. So we waded in, took water from the river, and poured it on her head and welcomed her to the family of faith. It was a beautiful day in a beautiful place.

It was not long after that day that the same river flooded, and changed life as we knew it.

But yesterday I stood in that same river again, this time with their infant son. And again, we baptized him with that water. Baptism is the ultimate sign of new life. And now that river that caused so much destruction can again be a symbol of God’s hope for us. God’s new life. It was a reminder for me that God can turn everything into good again, and God can give us hope in the most unexpected places.

And it was also a reminder that God has more for us to do. This year, what will God transform in our community? What will God transform in you? And what will God find to use to give us all hope. If we keep our eyes, and our hearts, and our hands, open, we won’t miss it when the Holy Spirit decides to use us again.

If we keep our eyes open for those olive leaves that God has offered up for us, if we follow that dove out into the world to the places God is leading us, we will never go wrong. God’s hope is here for the claiming, last year, this year, and for all the years to come. Amen.

Noah’s Dove and the Olive Leaf – Sermon for September 4, 2011

Genesis 8:6-12

6 After forty days Noah opened a window he had made in the ark 7 and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. 9 But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark.10 He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. 11 When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. 12 He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

Last Saturday night the leaders of both churches and I made the decision to cancel church the next morning. We weren’t sure whether anything would come out of the weather reports we were hearing, but we thought it was better to be safe than sorry.

Last Sunday morning, when we would have been in church, like many of you I watched the river rise in my front yard, praying it wouldn’t come any closer. Around the time church would have been letting out, the Deerfield River spilled over its banks and changed so much about this place we love.

Last Sunday night I stood in my clergy collar in the middle of the devastation in Wilmington and talked to some people who had been on vacation. We shook our heads in disbelief and one said, “This is God showing us what he can do.”

I’ve never understood that line of thought. My first call out of seminary was as a chaplain at a pediatric hospital in Atlanta. I served in the emergency room and unfortunately saw many children brought in with devastating injuries. As I would sit with the parents, I would hear the comments from well-meaning friends and staff who didn’t know what else to say:

“God meant this for a reason. God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. God has a plan.”

It wasn’t the time or place, but I always wanted to challenge them:

“God willed someone who had a few drinks to many to get behind the wheel? God told someone to beat this child? God made this kid find his father’s gun that hadn’t been locked up?”

In the wake of the floods, I hear the same sort of quick theological judgements. It’s not a huge surprise. People want to make sense out of something so horrific that it takes our breath away.

But I remind myself that God does not cause natural disasters to punish us any more than God wills a child to be hit by a drunk driver. God does not flood river banks to show us God’s strength. God does not wreak devastation because “God has a plan” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”. God doesn’t kill people to teach us a lesson.

But I also believe this. No matter what happens, God can work through it to create something good.

We read a passage from Genesis this morning. It’s the story of Noah and the flood, and God’s promise. After the waters from the flood receded, Noah sent a dove out in order to find out whether it was safe again.

The first time the bird came back, finding no safe place to land. For seven days it stayed with Noah.

Seven days. Seven days later he sent out another dove. And the dove found that the world was not back to normal yet. But it was starting to be. And it plucked an olive leaf from a tree and it brought it back to Noah as a I sign of the hope that they could have in a world rebuilt.

Seven days. One week. One week ago we walked down into Wilmington, or East Dover, or Wardsboro to see what had happened, and we were like the dove who couldn’t its our feet down on solid ground. Our entire worlds have been changed.

One week later we come here to claim an olive leaf. We come to see God’s promise starting to come through once again. We look around and we see evidence of God’s grace working through this to create good. God did not send this flood, but God can work through even the worst of situations to transform them, and to transform us.

The olive leaf that the dove brought back was a sign of hope. And this week I have seen a lot of olive leaves. I have seen the grace of God at work in profound ways.

As the high school turned into an evacuation center, the lines between neighbors were crossed in the interest of working together. And time and again, someone who had lost so much came to me and asked who had it worse, and how they could help them. Many of you cleaned out friends’ stores, helped neighbors move, served meals at the shelter, handed out water at the church, stacked shelves at the food pantry, organized diaper delivery, and in so many other ways demonstrated that hope is real.

And the olive leaves, the symbols of hope that we claim a week later, they are not just here in the valley. They are all over. Within hours after the rains came, checks were on the way to the pastor’s discretionary funds of both churches from people across the country. Within days Church World Service, the organization we donated to last spring after the tsunamis in Japan, had sent disaster supplies up here to us.

Later in the week we heard that both churches had been sent funds from the national United Church of Christ so that we can help our neighbors in the coming months. You may remember that in the spring we took up a collection for the UCC’s storm relief fund. And now here we are, just a few months later, finding that what we gave is coming back to us. In addition, throughout the week I’ve received calls from numerous UCC churches throughout New England that wanted to know how to help us. This week I have been reminded more than ever that we are stronger because we do not stand alone. We are all interconnected, and when we think beyond our own needs, we find that we are the ones who are often strengthened the most.

But, as Christians we already knew that. Because as Christians we know that we do not live in isolation from one another, or from our Creator. We know that Christ did not choose one disciple. He chose many, and he taught them to serve not themselves, but one another. This week I saw so many people, both here and in places far away, living into the kind of community Christ wanted us to have. In the coming weeks and months, may we continue to do the same. Even when things look hard.

Two weeks ago I had coffee at Dot’s, walked down to some of your shops, and stopped to look at books at Bartleby’s. It was a warm summer’s day, and everything seemed perfect. Last week the buildings I’d been in were torn apart. They were the first things I saw when I walked into town. There was so much devastation. It took my breath away.

But, like you, I come here every Sunday because I believe in resurrection. I come here because I know someone who was subjected the worst that this world could do to him, who suffered alongside of us, and who the whole world thought had been destroyed.

Except he lived.

When I took that walk around Wilmington last week, I wasn’t in love with the buildings or the businesses. I was in love with the people, even with all of our imperfections. I was in love with who we were, and who we are, and who we will be.

And today I am grabbing hold of that olive leaf. That what made our community special a week ago was not what we had built, but who we were. We are a community that can rebuild, because even as the landscape has changed, who we are has not.

We come here because we believe in our hearts that resurrection is possible. I can’t tell you what that resurrection will look like yet, but I can tell you that God can work through us to make it good. Our hope is in a God who so long ago brought new life after the world was flooded. God still can, and God still will.

May God bless us all in the coming days, and in the coming months, and may God pour out a blessing on this whole Valley. Amen.