A sermon delivered at Mosaic United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, OK on “Storm Sunday” as part of their Season of Creation Series.
This past Friday night at 8 p.m., I left my house to go pick up my 14 year old daughter and one of her volleyball teammates from the Edmond Santa Fe football game with Deer Creek. The game was at Deer Creek Stadium, and as I left my house I saw the familiar sight of thunderstorms on the horizon. A storm was coming, and it was actually quite beautiful. There were two towering thunderheads set against the Western sky. There was just enough backlight from the recently set sun to provide a clear outline of the clouds as I drove west towards the stadium from our house in southwest Edmond. In each thunderhead there were lighting strikes providing a show like the many other lightning shows I have witnessed in my life in Oklahoma. When I was growing up in the western part of Lawton, my dad and I would often go out into the front yard of our house at night to watch the thunderstorms roll in from the west with their amazing lightning, and we would take turns judging the distance of the storm based on how long it took for the sound of the thunder to make it to our ears. That was when I first learned about the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound. This was before the digital age, so watching storms was the kind of thing you did in Oklahoma at night, though my dad would remind me that he and his family watched thunderstorms even more often when he was a boy before dawn of television.
So the thunderstorms rolling in from the West this past Friday night were a familiar sight for me as an almost lifelong Oklahoman, but immediately after a moment of taking in the beauty of the storms, a bit of panic set in as I became aware that these storms were bearing down on Deer Creek stadium where my daughter was watching her high school team play football. As the last flicker of twilight provided back light for the storm, the steady bright lights of Deer Creek stadium in the distance provided a stark contrast with the lightning that was dancing in the ominous clouds just to the West. The thought of the very bad combination of lightning strikes and metal bleachers motivated me to simultaneously accelerate my vehicle and call my daughter on the phone to ask how close she thought the storm was to the stadium and to inquire if she had a plan for shelter in case the storm arrived before I did. Fortunately, the distance of storms can be deceiving, and my daugher and her volleyball buddy made it safely into the car before the storm arrived with time to spare. As drove away from the lights of stadium, my daughter and her friend could see more clearly the storm that had been headed their way, and they expressed relief that they were on their way to our house and no longer in the stands.
Beauty, wonder, power, life giving rains, danger, destruction, and even death – these are the realities of what we experience with storms; and in Oklahoma, we have had more than our share of the danger, destruction, and death that come with some storms. Today, we are much more likely to be watching a meteorologist on TV than sitting out on the front porch watching the storm roll in. In Oklahoma, we know what storms can do, and if you are like me, you can name many of the dates of some of the worst of them as they become markers of time in years of our lives and the experience of our communities. April 10, 1979 is a date we remember in my hometown of Lawton and our sister city of Wichita Falls, Texas, May 3, 1999 and May 20, 2013 are dates we remember in Moore and Oklahoma City. Depending on what part of the state you are from, other dates probably come to mind. In some other parts of the country, people remember many of their storms by names: Camille, Andrew, Hugo, Katrina, and Sandy. In others parts of the world, people have different dates and names that they remember. These dates and names remind us of the terrifying and destructive power of the storm – a power over which we as human beings have no control other than to do all we can to protect ourselves as best we can from the raging winds and waters and then care for each other as best we can in the storm’s aftermath.
In a storm’s aftermath, one of the most unhelpful and unconstructive things we can do is try to make sense of why a storm hit a particular place or a particular people. The temptation of trying to give moral meaning to major storm events or to claim that God was using such and such a storm to punish such and such a group is utterly unhelpful in caring for each other or in interpreting meteorological events. I have lost count of the number of religious figures who have claimed a storm hit a city, state, or country or even an individual person or family because it is God’s will. One of the persons who is well known for doing this just recently lost his home to flooding in Louisiana, and was struggling to come up with a good explanation for that, but that flooding event had no more to do with him than the other storms he believed God sent on other people had anything to do with them. Storms just happen. We may not like them, we may fear them, we may wish they did not exist, but they are simply a part of the way this world works. We may know more now than ever about their cause and how they develop, but our morality or lack thereof has not made God visit us with an individual weather event to punish us or others for our sins.
And here, I must say, I find the Biblical narratives to not be very helpful when it comes to storms other than to recognize the wonder and awesome power that they possess and that they are a part of the whole creation. The Biblical authors had about as much understanding of weather events as they had understanding about sexual orientation, which is to say – not very much. In pre-scientific communities and cultures, one can understand why people might think God uses the weather to restore the moral order of the universe, but this is no longer a viable interpretation of the role of storms in the life of the human community or the broader ecological community. We can understand why early Christians might have wanted to portray Jesus as having power over storms and that our faith could somehow have influence over a storm, but such a worldview is not helpful as we experience and respond to storms today. What is helpful from the life and teachings of Jesus in relation to storms is that we are called to love our neighbors, to help the most vulnerable, and to provide comfort, shelter, food, clothing, and care for those who have felt the impact of a storm. But there is no place for blaming people for being hit by a storm or for saying that it is the result of their lack of faith. Storms happen, and they can happen to anybody. They happen to the best of us and the worst of us. It is part of the natural order of life and creation. Our best response is simply to love each other in and after the storm with all of our hearts. And we can do all we can to prepare for storms so that fewer people will experience their worst consequences.
From what I have said thus far, one might think that I am saying that human activity has no influence on the weather, and that all we can do in relation to the weather is protect ourselves as best we can and care for each other as best we can when the weather turns bad. However, the same scientific method that has helped us to understand that individual weather events should not be understood as the result of the moral failure of individuals or groups of persons, also has shown us that there are some activities that we humans do collectively that actually do have an impact on the overall climate of the earth. We are currently experiencing the warmest year on record, in the warmest decade on record, and likely the warmest century on record during the history of human existence on this planet. And the vast majority of climate scientists point to human activity as the primary driver in the climate change we are experiencing. The emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases are changing the chemistry of our atmosphere and thus changing the atmosphere’s capacity to hold more heat. The science is less complex than fossil fuel companies would like to lead us to believe.
Climate scientists also tell us that global climate change will contribute to more severe droughts, more severe flooding events, more intense storms, and more intense fires across the planet. So even though we do not have control over any one weather event or even a set of weather events, this does not mean that human activity does not contribute to a climate in which we will experience more extreme weather events. There are storms that are coming that we can do nothing about, but the climate change that is coming and that is happening now is something that we can do something about, but it will take immense political will and commitment to each other in the human community and a deep care for our ecological community.
If we do nothing about the coming and present storm of climate change, it will have the most negative impact on the most vulnerable among us that Jesus calls us to love and care for. In the coming and present storm of climate change there will be more hunger, there will be more thirst, there will be more homelessness, there will be more refugees, there will be more poverty, there will be more disease, there will be more violence, and there will be more suffering. The way of God’s love and justice that is expressed in the way of Jesus points us in a different way than our current path for both our human and ecological communities.
There are storms over which we have no control and for which there is no good explanation, and the only proper response is to do what we can to protect ourselves from them and to care for and love one another when they hit, but there is a storm coming of our own making that up until this point we have largely ignored and through our ignoring it, we are strengthening it. There are storms we do not control and there are storms of our own making. May God grant us the wisdom to know the difference, and may we have the courage and compassion to act for the well being of all life on earth. Amen.