Psalm 46

1 Thessalonians 5: 11, 13-26

Felicity Wright

September 11, 2005


“If there is a God, then why did he let this happen?” – People may not be saying this out loud, but a lot of folks are thinking it right now.  Am I right?


I need to tell you that I’ve spent days agonizing over this sermon – constantly going back and forth on what scriptures to use, what prayers to include, whether to focus on this or that … there are so many profound theological questions raised during a tragedy like this that it’s impossible to figure out which path to take. 


How do we explain these so-called “acts of God”?  Always the same questions: 


Š       If not God, who?  and

Š       If God could have prevented it, then why didn’t she?  and

Š       The woman on TV said that her house was spared because she prayed, and yet there are lots of other folks whose homes and lives were not spared.  They also prayed to God – why did God honor the prayers of some and not of others?   

Š       Of course, the favorite question – the one that fills the airwaves and our everyday discussions: Who’s to blame? 


Sure we’ve got Michael Brown – he’s a handy scapegoat, but he’s certainly not the only one who could have done better.  If you’re a Republican, then it’s easy to say that “Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco are no Mayor Giuliani or Governor Pataki.”  If you’re a Democrat, then President Bush is squarely at the center of blame.  Some fault the Iraq War, some fault global warming.  Some say it was God’s revenge on the red states for voting Republican.  Others – in fact, 36% according to one online poll, felt that Katrina was God’s way of punishing New Orleans for lewd and licentious behavior. 


We are so very ashamed of what has happened – our sins have been exposed before the whole world – and thus we desperately cling to anything we can find to minimize that shame – and the first thing handy is to find someone or something to blame.  Blame is the way we contain our helplessness and our fear, the two great demons of modern life. 


Blame is interwoven with our explanations of cause-and-effect, which lie at the heart of our faith.  Does God use weather or human beings to destroy those with whom he is upset?  Is God passive, suffering as we do when things go wrong?  Or is God an active agent who hears prayers and intervenes in our destiny?  Questions on the role of God, issues of cause-and-effect, the need to blame, and the power of prayer are all very important, but I believe they are ancillary to the two most important questions, namely:


Š       What does God want us to learn from this? 

Š       What do we do in the meanwhile, until we get some clarity about what to do?


Accordingly, I have decided to abandon the lectionary for the next couple of weeks and focus on the double tragedies of 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina. 


Next week, we will examine the issue of innocent suffering – the argument so eloquently stated in the book of Job.  We will consider some of the common explanations from various traditions.  Until then, I encourage you to explore your own thoughts about the question:  If God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful, then why do the innocent suffer?  That is the question on many of the talk shows these days.   It is the most difficult question in all of theology, and the one with the greatest divergence among the different religions.  If you’re uncertain of the answer, then you’re in good company.


But this week, I want to approach that issue somewhat obliquely, because I’ve been feeling a strong sense of unease for several months.  And I don’t think it’s just me, or this church, or California (wacky though we might be), or even this country.  I think people throughout the world feel as though the world has lost its moorings. 


For example, I’ve noticed increasing numbers of people who exhibit uncharacteristically edgy behavior.  Sometimes they’ll admit they are feeling prickly, and often they’re not sure why they feel so out-of-sorts.  Myself – I just want to eat chocolate and hibernate.  My lectionary study group – a group of four other ministers – has noticed the same thing.  Everyone we know just seems tentative, just slightly off-the-mark.  I think that this feeling is national, if not global, and explains why, according to the latest Newsweek poll, only 38% of Americans approve of how President Bush is handling things.  But few are sure of what he should do differently… It reminds me of the time just before my marriage broke up, when I sensed something was wrong, but I had no idea what.


 One of my favorite explanations comes from the Greek tragedies, in which events on earth are manipulated by a bunch of major and minor deities toying with human beings much as a puppet master manipulates his marionettes.  People move this way or that, depending upon what the gods would have them do.  Odysseus kills his mother and the Greeks invade Troy, not because they want to, but because of the squabbles between two or more gods.  The ancient Greeks felt that they had rather little control over their own destinies.  Maybe it wasn’t global warming, and maybe it wasn’t human sin or stupidity – maybe it was – literally – Neptune rising… or perhaps Neptune, the god of the sea, and Pluto, the god of the dead, were in cahoots. 


In addition to human events being governed by a bunch of adolescent-acting deities, the ancients – and many moderns – believe in astrology, and credit supernatural forces with the ability to influence cause and effect as we know it.  So we get to blame it all on the stars … some strange confluence of malevolent astral forces.


Now this idea has always intrigued me.  In addition to astrology, the ancients studied music and math as a way of explaining cause-and-effect.  Pythagoras is best known for his theorem that the square of both sides of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse.  What most people don’t know is that his mathematics evolved from his musical theories.  He and others believed that music was key to understanding God.  Mathematical equations and musical notation were simply methods for codifying universal truths experienced in nature.   Certain musical structures were harmonious, others were disharmonious, and it was not evident why this was so.  Pythagoras called this the “music of the spheres.”


Consider, for example, a triad.  You can have a major triad of C-E-G, which sounds quite nice.  You can also have a minor triad of C-Eb-G, which sounds almost as nice.  But neither the E nor the Eb $ is perfectly spaced between the C and the G.  The major triad has 2 whole steps from the bottom to the middle note, and only 1½ steps from the middle to the top tone.  The minor triad is reversed, with 1½ steps from the bottom to the middle, and 2 whole steps from the middle to the top.  If you get the note which is placed exactly 1¾ steps between the bottom and the middle and the middle and the top, the resulting triad sounds awful.  Why?  Pythagoras felt that if he could figure the laws that caused some things to be harmonious and other things unpleasant, this would be an alphabet, if you like, to understanding God and science, since they were the same thing.


Medieval and Elizabethan Christians took the idea to a grander plane.  Shakespeare, Milton, and John Donne all make reference to Pythagoras’ music of the spheres.  The code to God’s mind was evident in the life of Jesus, and also in musical harmonies, mathematical proofs, astronomical movements, political events, and human attitudes.  Johannes Kepler developed elaborate astronomical constructs of the tonal qualities of the different planets revolving around the earth.  The various tones of the revolving planets were thought to influence history (including individual sickness, and death, as well as national strife, economic dislocations, and natural disasters). 


Some medieval and Renaissance thinkers also believed that the tones emitted by the planets influenced the four elemental fluids in the human body:  blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile.  Each of these four fluids had an associated “humor” or feeling:  sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, or melancholic.  A healthy human being had all four in more-or-less equal amounts.  Things went awry when one of the four had pre-eminence.  For example, some people had too much yellow bile, which influenced the “humor” of cholera, which caused them to be violent. 


Depending upon the chemical composition of your fluids and when and where you were on a given day, you might or might not be in alignment with the astral forces.  Or, to put it another way, you might be the middle note that created a major chord, a minor chord, or a discord.   If you were lucky, disharmonies existed only for a day or a week – these were, often literally – just various and sundry belly aches.  But get enough of the discords out there, and you have war, rebellion, plague – you name it.  This, then, was cause and effect: if you and your society were in accord with the planets, you prospered; otherwise, you didn’t.


So why do I go through this elaborate discussion of the harmony, or rather, the disharmony of the spheres?  It’s an explanation – perhaps more metaphorical than scientific – about why people have been acting out-of-sorts lately.  And I think it’s only going to get worse with the despair and shame they is constantly polluting our well-being.  In fact, Sergeant Escobar told me that the police had picked up a drunk driver – a woman whose blood alcohol registered 3 ½ times the legal limit – who had no excuse for her outrageous behavior except Hurricane Katrina.  “No hope,” was her explanation.


Experts predict that heating oil and natural gas prices in the northeast will double this winter.  We all know about the cost of gasoline.  No one knows what the government will have to cut in order to meet its promise of $62 billion, and economists expect unemployment and inflation both to rise dramatically.  It’s not a question of Republican or Democrat, of conservative or liberal; it’s a question of financial hardship that will affect everyone in the country, hardship that is salted with national shame and peppered with an overdose of blame.  This is not a tasty stew that’s being offered to us.


And so I return to the two key questions: 


Š       What does God want us to learn from this? 

Š       What do we do about it?


I don’t know the answer to the first, although I’ll explore that in coming sermons.  But I am absolutely – absolutely – sure of the answer to the second.  It is this: to stay faithful. 


It won’t be easy.  We’ll need to keep ourselves spiritually strong.  Ignore the simplistic explanations for tragedies of 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina.  Focus instead on why you are here.  What do you live for?  Whom do you value? 


Find words to explain your still-speaking God.  Engage in a spiritual discipline.  Exercise regularly.  Journal.  Whenever you do something, anything, everything – find something to be thankful for.  Treasure the song of the birds in the early morning.  Plant a garden, paint a room, write a poem.  Keep a lit candle in your office.  Even more important, do something to improve someone else’s life.  Help out at the Souper Center.  Volunteer for the Read Aloud program.  And, above all things, pray.  Involve God in everything you do and are. 


I want to close with excerpts from a poem by Ellen Bass.  It’s called a Prayer for Peace.  It’s a prayer for peace in our hearts as much as it is for peace in the world.


Pray to whomever you kneel down to:

Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross, his suffering face bent to kiss you,

Buddha still under the Bo tree in scorching heat, Adonai, Allah.

Raise your arms to Mary that she may lay her palm on our brows, to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth, to Inanna in her stripped descent.


Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.

On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus, for everyone riding buses all over the world.

Drop some silver and pray.


Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM, for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.

Make your eating and drinking a supplication.  Make your slicing of carrots a holy act, each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.


To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.

Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.

Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.


If you're hungry, pray.  If you're tired, pray.  Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day. Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.


When you walk to your car, to the mailbox, to the video store, let each step be a prayer that we all keep our legs, that we do not blow off anyone else's legs.  Or crush their skulls.

And if you are riding on a bicycle or a skateboard, in a wheel chair,

Each revolution of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:  less harm, less harm, less harm.


Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace, feed the birds,

Each shiny seed that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.  Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.


Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.  Make a path.  [Fold of photo of your grandchild around your Master Card.]  Fold a photo of a dead child around your VISA card.

Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling your prayer through the streets.