The Lord was Not in the Earthquake

Here’s the text of the sermon I preached on Sunday 7 August 2011. I’ll try to get the video up later in the week when I can – I’ve had loads of stuff to try to get from one format to another this last week or two – inspires print and e-mail, pics on the church website and the stuff I create like this too.

This sermon seemed to generate quite a lot of chatter on Sunday and has been much discussed with me since. It might be a bit apophatic for some, but clearly that speaks to people……

But the Lord was not in the earthquake, the wind or the fire. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is clear why the Old Testament reading and the Gospel have been chosen to go together today. There are common elements – the wind and storm and then sudden peace. For Elijah, it came after earthquake, wind and fire. For the Peter in the boat on the stormy sea, peace comes when he puts his trust in Jesus, cries out to him and takes his hand.

They are both stories that people are quite fond of. And they are both stories that people preach on quite readily. There is a fairly standard narrative about each of them that is common in sermons. You get nice pious sermons about how we need to draw closer to God. Not in the hustle and bustle of life will we find the Lord but when we hear the sound of sheer silence. When we put aside time to be with God. When we cry out to Jesus to help us. When we reach out to God, we will find God is reaching out to us.

So far. So pious.

There is nothing wrong at all with such preaching. The modern retreat movement is largely built on that kind of interpretation of passages such as these.

Perfectly legitimate teaching. But!

But I’m not going to preach it today. And it’s not really because I don’t believe it. I’ve preached it myself. I’ve preached that kind of thing plenty of times, even though I know that I am as likely to encounter God in the buzz of the city, in the shout of the choir or in the conversation and relationships in which I participate as I do sitting contemplating life on my own in some quiet pastoral scene.

(There’s a market out there for noisy retreats for people like me).

But today, I want to focus on the first of the readings and particularly this statement that the Lord was not in the earthquake. It seems to me that it there is something else that we can think about this morning. And there is a spiritual truth hidden in that statement that the Lord is not in the earthquake that can unlock ways of thinking about our place in the world, which has seemed rather threatening and difficult recently.

Our world seems to have been concerned with huge, big news, bad news events for quite a while now. Firstly there have been things that can only be thought about as being the cause of human action – the shootings in Norway, the global economic crash, the war in Afghanistan, the collapse of government in Somalia and so on. Even though these have been the cause of human action of one kind or another – we still tend to turn to the metaphors of natural disaster the tsunami of debt, the maelstrom of the financial markets to describe them.

And then there has been the actual natural disasters themselves – famine in East Africa and earthquakes in Haiti, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Japan.

But the Lord was not in the Earthquake.

That’s the thing I want to invite you to come back to today and to take it with you as a mantra when you are listening to these bad news stories.

The Lord is not in the fire. The Lord is not in the great wind. The Lord is not in the earthquake.

Deep, hard questions are asked of religious people when these things happen and that needs to be part of our repertoire of things to say. These things happen but the Lord is not in the earthquake. Terrible things occur but God is not behind them. In our globally connected world, we see disaster unfold on an almost daily basis. We need to develop new ways of dealing with televised misery. And repeating to ourselves and to the world – the Lord is not in the Earthquake may be a way of coping.

It is not just big disaster too. I’ve been asked a couple of times this week how to cope with living when it feels that God has it in for you. How do we cope when it feels that things are not going our way and God seems to be causing us harm.

Well, the first thing to do is to wave goodbye to that kind of God. If we believe that God is behind all things, tilting the universe this way and that like a great cosmic puzzle game for divine amusement, we will end up wondering why God has chosen bliss for some and earthquake for others. Joy for others and misery for me.

If that’s what life feels like, remember, that God isn’t in the earthquake. God isn’t the cause of your fire or storm or inner upheaval and trembling.

We must look the phrase “Act of God” full square in the face and proclaim, “No, God is not in the earthquake”. Not in my earthquakes nor the tremors which shake the world itself. No, God is found elsewhere.

One classic event which led people to really think about the question of why bad things happen was indeed an earthquake. The Lisbon earthquake which devastated the Portuguese capital in 1755 took place on All Saints Day just when people of the city were gathered in church to celebrate the feast. The righteous – those gathered in church were crushed by falling masonry as the city churches crumbled. The unrighteous who has not made it to church survived.

It was a terrible disaster and a terrible disaster for the kind of religious thinking that had gone before – believing that God was good and that God caused things to happen which were good but which we might not see as such from our perspective. Intelligent people saw through that after the Lisbon quake immediately seeing that a good God could not be in the business of causing suffering to the good.

Yet there were two responses to that quake which seems to me to be one of the dividing points between Medieval thinking and modern thinking.

Some religious extremists wandered the streets looking for sinners whom they could literally string up to appease an angry God.

Others saw straight away that such madness would not do. For God was not in earthquake.

The aristocratic prime minister of Portugal responded when asked what to do, with the phrase, “bury the dead, feed the hungry”. And in that I can find something holy. He also kickstarted modern scientific reflection on the nature of earthquakes themselves. Seismic science can be said to have begun after that disaster.

The Lord does not cause our troubles. The Lord is not in the earthquake. God is to be found in our response to such trauma.

God was not to be found by Elijah whilst storm, fire or earthquake were raging. No, God was to be found in the stillness afterwards when he could ask his big questions and gather up his thoughts on how to face tomorrow.

When disaster comes, the Lord meets us in our responses. The Lord was not in the earthquake. But God is with us in our pain as the dead are buried. God is with us as we face the future and wonder how to feed the hungry. And God is with us as we explore this world with our science and questions and questing for knowledge.

However we meet God – in the noise of the city, or the compassion of humanitarian workers, in the wonders of science or in hearing the still small voice that comes to us when we calm down and sit still the important thing to hold onto is simply this:

God is good and delights in nothing more than our wellbeing.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Speak Your Mind