ACTS OF GOD
Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-30, 43; Ephesians 3:14-21
May 26, 2013, Trinity Sunday, Year C (non-Lectionary sermon)
“ Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly
far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory…”
— Ephesians 3:20-21a
For the past several days, a place I’ve never visited has been on my mind. It’s a place called Moore, Oklahoma. You know what happened there: a monster tornado, two miles wide, cut a swath of destruction 20 miles long through a heavily-populated suburb.
For the last six months or so, whenever I heard words like “disaster” or “destruction” or “devastation,” I didn’t have to struggle to find a mental image of what they mean. All I had to do was imagine what the drive through Mantoloking looked like — and still looks like — or the piles of furniture and sodden insulation that once lined the street where I live, just 3 or 4 blocks from our house.
Now, I’ve got a new image to add to my mental collection: those piles of splintered lumber in Oklahoma, with people grimly picking through them, hoping to discover some fragments of their shattered lives.
I don’t know about you, but the news out of Oklahoma hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. I’ve seen news reports of disasters before, as you have; but this time, it felt different. I felt different. Those pictures caused the whole experience of Sandy to come roaring back, for me.
I saw another thing this past week that caused a similar reaction. It was a news report, saying that the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season is going to be more severe than usual, and advising that we take all appropriate precautions.
“I don’t need this,” I thought to myself. “We don’t need this. If it should happen that the Jersey Shore experiences another direct hit from a hurricane, I wonder if the people of these communities could stand it? Lots of folks around here are feeling like they’re at their wits’ end already. Can you imagine what another hurricane would do to them?
What I’m talking about — those more-intense-than-usual feelings of dread, at the mere thought of another natural disaster — is just a whiff of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). There’s plenty of that going around these days, both among those who lost much during the hurricane, and those who didn’t, but who care deeply about their neighbors.
If you’ve found it unexpectedly hard to look at those pictures from Oklahoma, or to process the news that the National Weather Service will soon be tracking hurricanes again, you’re not cracking up. You’re in good company: because plenty of other folks are feeling exactly the same way.
If another hurricane were to come barreling up the coast, threatening once again all you and I hold dear, then who’s to blame for it? There’s a part of us — isn’t there? — that yearns to assign blame.
There are some, for instance, who are quick to blame natural disasters on human sin. TV evangelists like Pat Robertson are famous for this sort of thing. Remember Hurricane Katrina? Ol’ Pat was just sure God targeted New Orleans because of the gay community there. Curiously, though, when another hurricane was threatening Virginia Beach, where the headquarters of his Christian Broadcasting Network are located, Pat was strangely silent.
The insurance companies think they know who’s responsible for hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. They point the finger squarely at God.
If you have homeowners insurance, take a look at the fine print on your policy. Somewhere in the midst of all that legal jargon, you’re likely to find the phrase “Act of God.” And you know, whenever you hear those words from a claims adjuster, it can’t be a good thing. That’s because “Act of God” is insurance-speak for “We don’t cover that.”
Consider the theology behind that phrase, “Act of God.” The assumption seems to be that the normal state of affairs, here on planet earth, is all sweetness and sunshine. It’s a picture-perfect Memorial Day weekend: slather on a little sunscreen, and all is right with the world. Yet, should that idyllic scene be interrupted by fifty-mile-an-hour winds, pelting rain and a storm surge that threatens to set everything on the first floor afloat — why, that would be God’s doing, then, wouldn’t it?
Why don’t the insurance people ever call ten or twenty peaceful years without a claim an Act of God? You’ll never see that in an insurance policy. Actually, I’d love to see a policy that declares: “Acts of God, such as ten years of decent weather, are not covered. So, if that happens, we’re going to refund all your premiums: because God was especially nice!”
The assumption seems to be that we’re all entitled to a lifetime of uninterrupted health and happiness. Should things turn out otherwise, somebody’s got to be the scapegoat. That convenient somebody is none other than the lighting-bolt-slinging Supreme Being, who sure knows how to rain on a parade!
Now, it may seem like this portrayal of God as storm-bringer is a fearsome one — were it not for the fact that there’s something more fearsome yet. That something is the frightful thought that God’s not behind hurricanes and tornadoes at all: that prayers for protection will do us no good whatsoever, because it’s all a matter of blind chance. Some communities get smitten, big time, while the closest most others get to such an experience is watching Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel getting blown around by the gale.
Over the course of human history, there’s been an evolution of the ways people think of God, with respect to the forces of nature.
Back in the earliest days, God’s people were itinerant nomads, who tended to think of God as a sky-god, the bringer of wind. That, in fact, is the earliest conception of God laid out in the Bible. In those ancient stories of the Exodus, when the Lord leads the people out of Egypt as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, the rushing desert wind is the tool God uses to work such wonders.
Later on, as the chosen people settle down in the Land of Milk and Honey and most of them become farmers, they encounter other conceptions of God. This is the God who sends the rain to water the fertile earth, to bring forth fruit in due season. The most important aspect of God, in that era of history, is to make the soil fertile, and to send sunlight and rain in equal measure, so as to yield a bountiful harvest. Some of the peoples round about the land of Israel take this conception of God one step further, declaring that the Supreme Being is not a god at all, but a goddess — for, don’t you know, it’s women whose bodies are fertile, so worshiping a goddess is the best way to ensure a full granary.
Those Hebrew people, though, cling tenaciously to their self-image as nomadic herders of animals, even centuries after most of them have settled down to farm the land. Their most important holiday is Passover, which requires them to subsist on traveling rations like matzoh, which they eat with their loins girded for the journey. Every other nation around them may have gone to worshiping the Asherahs, but through observances like Passover, they hang onto their mighty desert God.
Centuries pass, and the growth of scientific knowledge causes further changes in the ways the Jewish people — and the Christians as well — regard the natural world. The more geologists study the earth, and astronomers the heavens, human beings come to know more and more about the processes of the natural world. A competing narrative rises up, alongside the traditional one that has an angry deity flinging thunderbolts and dispatching hurricanes. “Acts of God,” in other words. This narrative is the one cherished by the meteorologists in our own day, who feed their intricate measurements into a computer model that declares where the hurricane will make landfall. Ground zero for a modern hurricane has a lot more to do with ocean temperature and atmospheric pressure that it does with whether or not the people who live in beachfront communities deserve to be smitten.
After living with the tension between the scientific worldview and that of traditional religion, some of the best and brightest among us come to see God in a slightly different way. The Creator-God, to them, is like the most skilled watchmaker who ever lived — for is the world not a vast machine, bigger and more intricate than any pocket-watch you’ve ever seen? God is the divine watchmaker, who set the clockworks of nature in motion. Creation’s been humming along ever since, with little need for a Supreme Being to tinker with the machinery.
Some of these scientifically-minded believers have come to see little or no role for God in the unfolding wonder of creation. These people, who call themselves Deists, believe God created, then wound up, the great pocket-watch of Creation — but after doing that, walked off, leaving the world pretty much to its own devices. Deism was a very popular belief among many of the founders of our country — especially Franklin, Washington and Jefferson — and quietly continues today, the way a great many people look at the spiritual basis of the world.
According to the Deist way of thinking, a hurricane or tornado can only be seen to be an Act of God in the most indirect sense. While such catastrophes may be long-term consequences of that great watch-movement God wound up before leaving for parts unknown, God can hardly be said to be micro-managing the storm track.
Finally, as today’s theoretical physicists delve more deeply into the mysteries of the universe, they’re coming to see that the natural order looks a lot less like a giant watch, and a lot more like a wild dance of atomic and sub-atomic particles. Such theories are too mind-boggling for most people to take in, but those people of faith who do take the time to understand their basic tenets come away with a deeper appreciation of the ways the Creator continues to be deeply involved in the future of the planet, and even the universe. If, as Einstein says, time is relative, and space actually bends, then God can be said to be outside both space and time. That changes everything, when it comes to us trying to discern what in this world is an Act of God, and what is not.
Now, at last, it’s time to turn to our Scripture text, which I think goes a long way towards clearing up this vexed question of what is an Act of God. It’s a sort of benediction — the conclusion of a prayer, actually — from the third chapter of Ephesians:
“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever.” [Ephesians 3:20-21]
This is an action-passage: God is “able to accomplish abundantly far more than we could ask or imagine.” This is no Deist watchmaker-God. It’s a God who’s actively engaged in the ongoing work of Creation. The acts in which God is engaged move towards the goal of abundance: God wishes for the world to be a place of plenty for all.
Yet, there are some things you and I still don’t fully understand, and probably never will. The acts of God are swathed in mystery. How it happens that a tornado drops from the clouds on one particular day and not another — why it leaves one home in ruins and the one across the street untouched — are things no scientist can explain. Oh, they can pick apart and analyze many of the physical forces that birth such superstorms, but they can’t explain the big picture. Nor can they explain how the Lord continues to exercise influence on Creation and its inhabitants.
The letter to the Ephesians can, though. It’s right there in today’s passage. Ephesians 3:20 explains where, in the world, God is most active, accomplishing abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine. It says God “who by the power at work within us” is able to accomplish these things. Then, the passage goes on to speak of “glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations.” It’s not so much the human race as a whole who may be said to be co-workers with God the Creator, as those believers who are attuned to the deepest rhythms of the universe through influence of the Holy Spirit.
It’s us, my friends. There’s a power at work within us, known as the Holy Spirit. It’s as the old poem puts it:
“God has no hands but our hands to do his work today;
God has no feet but our feet to lead others in his way;
God has no voice but our voice to tell others how he died;
And, God has no help but our help to lead them to his side.”
It’s not that God is somehow unable to act in the world. This is not a poem about a weak or impotent deity. Rather, it’s that God chooses to hold back, giving us the freedom to act in the world in ways God intends. We do this most faithfully through the church, which is the living Body of Christ in this world.
In a thought-provoking passage from her book, The Time Being, Annie Dillard borrows from the writings of Christian philosopher Simone Weil, who in turn borrows from contemporary Jewish sources:
“Mostly, God is out of the physical loop. Or the loop is a spinning hole in his side. Simone Weil takes a notion from Rabbi Isaac Luria to acknowledge that God’s hands are tied. To create, God did not extend himself but withdrew himself; he humbled and obliterated himself, and left outside himself the domain of necessity, in which he does not intervene. Even in the domain of souls, he intervenes only ‘under certain conditions.’”
Think of the implications of that, for our understanding of God as Creator. The book of Genesis tells us, in glorious poetry, how God says “Let there be light,” and there was light; how God separates the sea from dry land, and all the rest. That was then: a time when God was actively involved in the creative process. But, this is now: and now is the time when, as Ephesians chapter 3 puts it, the power to accomplish abundantly is the power within us, as followers of Jesus Christ. God holds back from exercising the power in order to give us the power.
And so it is that God’s most telling response to the reality of Hurricane Sandy, or to the Oklahoma tornado, is the relief workers who come streaming to the site of the damage — and to churches like ours, who convert their buildings into a place for them to sleep, and eat, and regroup after a long day. Such are the Acts of God for this place and time: acts of compassion and caring and most of all, love.
There are some who look around at a devastated community like ours and ask the question, “Where is God in all this mess?” To those who have the vision, to those who are open to the leading of the Spirit, an answer emerges: “God is in the swinging of the hammer, the buzzing of the saw, the cooking of the dinner, the helping hand extended in Christ’s name.”
Friends, there are miracles happening all around us, in these days of recovery. They are nothing less than the acts of God for our time: and the most amazing thing of all is that you and I can have a part in them!
Copyright © 2013 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.
Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (Knopf, 1999), pp. 167-168.