9.4.05 God and Hurricane Katrina
  • How many of you have ever been to New Orleans?
    • I can't claim to be an expert on New Orleans, but I was there once – back in 1997 with some of the youth of our congregation when we attended the churchwide youth gathering – a gathering that met each morning and evening in the now infamous Superdome
      • Back then in 1997, the Superdome was filled with over 40,000 Lutheran Youth, singing songs and listening to engaging speakers
      • This week the dome was filled with almost 20,000 thirsty, hungry, and sometimes dying people, with pockets of violence breaking out in rapes and assaults
    • And so, the images, especially from New Orleans have been especially haunting this week
    • New Orleans as I experienced it, had two faces
      • One face was the nice face – it was a place of wonderful architecture, food like I had never before tasted, and great music – and when we were not in the Superdome, we were able to experience a bit of it
        • Brenda Reich and I, together with 10 teenagers, were housed one block from Bourbon Street, of all places
        • The French, wrought iron balconies and architecture with gardens and flower boxes, were beautiful
        • One of the older members of the congregation, knowing that kids tend to eat fast food, told us to take the kids to a nice place to sample New Orleans cooking, and she would pay for it - and so we went to a restaurant overlooking the levee and canal, and ate wonderful Cajun and Creole cooking, dividing exotic appetizers between us so that everyone could sample a number of treats
        • And then two of our teens wanted to go to the Preservation Jazz Hall, and so Brenda Reich and I went with them – we stood in line ijn the heat for over an hour to get in, and once inside the place that could only be described as a real dump, we heard the most marvelous Dixieland music, including for a $20 tip, the request that we just had to hear, "Oh When the Saints Come Marching In"
      • That was the nice face of New Orleans – the other face of New Orleans was NOT as nice
        • New Orleans also traffics in sex and drunkenness
        • It is a smaller, poorer Las Vegas on the Mississippi Delta
        • Not only did our high-school aged kids have to travel in pairs, there also had to be a teenage guy with them, because there were all kinds of creeps around who wanted to hit on and harass teenage woman
        • At night, walking back from the Preservation Band Hall, we saw people passed out in the shadows of Bourbon Street, and we had to watch so that we didn't step in puddles of human fluids, so we walked down the middle of the street rather than on the sidewalk
        • And behind the glaring lights and the blaring music, all kinds of lusty shows were being held
        • Around the edge of the drunken mess, the criminals were hanging out in plain sight, ready to pick a pocket or steal a purse.
        • And once you looked past the great music and food, and the bad booze and entertainment, there was poverty, because let's face it – the businesses of the city – food, music, booze, and entertainment – didn't produce high wages, and it also attract the low-lifes who prey on drunken tourists.
    • I am NOT suggesting that the flood was God's punishment. But I am suggesting that while New Orleans could be charming, it was also a pretty needy place, without many REAL resources, when the hurricane blew in and then the levee broke.
      • Behind the tourism, the poverty rate in New Orleans was 28%
      • On a wider scale, despite the trade on the Mississippi River and the petroleum industry in the gulf and along the coast, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama are among the poorest states in our country
      • And then the winds came, the storm surge came, and in New Orleans, the levees broke
    • In the days that followed, as conditions worsened rather than improved, at least three profound and disturbing issues were raised by the largest natural disaster since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906
      • First, we saw glimpses of humanity at its worst
        • Looting – not just breaking into stores for food and water – but looting for riches made the news
        • Assaults and rapes in many places terrorized the survivors
        • And anarchy rather than order, reared its ugly head in and around the Superdome
      • Theologically, the civil restraints that normally hold sinful behavior in check, together with fear that overwhelmed decency, combined to reveal the old Adam that continually lurks behind the facade of the human race.
        • And that's ugly… it's shocking… it's brutal… and we don't like it, but it is always a part, but usually a hidden part, or our humanity
      • Second, when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were struck by terrorists, we could point to an enemy and place blame and responsibility.
        • But with a hurricane, there is no one to blame for the storm, which seems to leave God holding the bag and the blame
        • The classic, perhaps most troubling question for Christians, Jews, and all people of faith throughout the ages, is "Did God do it?"
          • Did God send the storm? And all the accompanying questions like…
            • What did we do wrong?
            • Is this disaster a punishment for the sin of pride? Or of the sins of New Orleans?
          • And we can even scour scripture and find some examples of where God has used floods to punish – remember first Noah, and then Pharaoh and the Egyptians?
      • But for Christians of this day, we need to hear that we live in a different time.
        • It's not that the Bible is outdated, or its stories are irrelevant – it's just that we have already been told in the testimony of faith to look in a different direction, and read a different story in the Bible.
        • In a few minutes we will have the opportunity to come to the altar to receive the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ
        • But before we do, I will read and proclaim some very familiar but sacred words from scipture – these words:
          "Again, after supper, he [Jesus] took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it for all to drink, saying: This cup is the NEW COVENANT in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this for the remembrance of me."
        • Did you hear that? The meal of God was given to seal a NEW COVENANT
          • This new covenant means that God has chosen through Jesus Christ to relate to us in a NEW way
          • The old ways, the old stories, the Hebrew scriptures are very important, but they have now been transformed and serve to point to a NEW WAY
          • The NEW WAY, is that in the death and resurrection of Jesus proclaimed in this new covenantal meal, God has chosen to forgive us and give us life.
          • Let me repeat that – the new way, the new covenant through Jesus Christ is the way of God's forgiveness and life
      • For people of faith, for those who suffer, and especially for those who are tempted to lay the blame on God, the covenantal meal is a tangible reminder that God's purpose is NOT to smite or destroy us with hurricanes or floods, but rather that through the death and resurrection of God's Son, God intention is to forgive and save us
      • And finally, what shall we say about hurricanes? Or tsunamis? Or other natural events that wreck havoc?
        • If God didn't send them, where do they come from?
        • In one of his deeper reflections as Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, he declared that not only is humanity infected with sin, but all of creation has been distorted by sin as well. This is what he wrote:
          "…the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. [Rom. 12:19-21]"
          • To paraphrase Paul, creation is trapped in futility and decay, and waits in hope for God to set it free along with all of humanity
          • So when a hurricane or a natural disaster strikes, we should be reminded NOT of God's wrath, but rather see in the disaster the brokenness, decay, and futility of a creation that also needs desperately to be healed and renewed by God.
  • Finally, after the recovery gets well underway, this disaster poses some questions for our society that will need to be answered. As part of the people of God, we will need to be a part of the coming painful discussion, and it's about more than blame – it's about responsibility and biblical justice
    • First, what role did race and poverty play in a disaster that overwhelmed both the plans and the imagination of the planners? After all, when people were ordered to evacuate, those who were financially able, usually left the city – but it was predominately the poor who were stuck in the Superdome longer than anyone imagined. And then to add insult to injury, why when the evacuation finally happened, were folks like you and me taken out of the far more comfortable Hyatt Hotel BEFORE the poor and predominately black folks who were desperately waiting to get out of that revolting Superdome?
    • Second, what shall we as a country do about our infrastructure? Who will keep the dikes and levee in repair, and who will plan for worst case scenarios? And more to the point, who is going to pay for it? The head of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency may be a nice guy, I don't know, but I doubt that his last job as the head of the International Arabian Horse Association either prepared or qualified him to run FEMA during a complex disaster.
    • Third, the Lutheran Church has taken on responsibility to feed the homeless refugees in the Astrodome in Houston on the fourth week of September, and I will dig deep in my pocket, and I ask you to do the same – but AFTER those folks are fed, someone ought to ask the question WHY is it that the Red Cross had to turn to the churches to feed 20-some-thousand people FOUR WEEKS from now? You mean with four weeks notice our country can't find the means to feed the refugees in Houston? That the church has been asked step in to do the work of an inadequate government should be an embarrassment to every elected and appointed person in congress and the executive branch!
    • And finally, at the very moment I was filling may little Chevy with gas on Tuesday, one of the clerks went out and raised the price on the sign from $2.43 to $2.49. That was just the start of it all. Yes, there may be shortages, and yes someone may be price-gouging, but six years ago gasoline was over $5 a gallon in Europe. The difference is that they have mass transit, and they don't need a cars in the same way we do. We need to get serious about natural resources – it will take more than more miles to the gallon. In the long view, as we get closer to using more oil that we can produce, it's going to take alternate fuels and mass transit – let's remember that every mile of Interstate costs approximately $50,000,000 to build, but congress and the president throw a fit every time Amtrak asks for money. If we don't pay attention, someday we will be stranded with empty roads, diminishing and costly fuel, and no way to get around.
  • These will not be comfortable questions, and the discussion will probably be impassioned, but as people assured that God's NEW Covenant is for forgiveness and life, we have been freed of that worry so that we can seek justice for those whose lives have been harmed not just by disaster, but by human folly.