First Congregational Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin

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The Bible and Time Magazine . . . Or Maybe Not
June 17, 2001
Romans 8:22-28, 12:15-21           The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder

Introduction to the Scripture:

Whatever your image of God - Father, Mother, Judge, King, Silent Presence, or Thundering Almighty - most of us have an idea that God is "in control." The Hebrew Scriptures especially speak of a God who rules wind and wave, the tremendous forces of nature - God the Omnipotent who is "in charge." That is a comforting idea . . . or is it?: to know that behind what appear to be impersonal powers there stands the God of the universe. I invite you to turn to page 754 in your hymnal - responsive reading Psalm 104. This great psalm pictures a God in control: Here is God the King robed in light; God the master architect setting the earth on its foundations, placing great beams across the waters; a royal warrior riding in a chariot in the clouds, on the wings of the wind; Here is God a gardener watering the earth from above the mountains. It is a song of God's power. Let us read responsively from Psalm 104.

Next we hear from the New Testament, and from the venerable apostle, St. Paul. In the section from Romans 8, Paul has been thinking about the earth, about this marvelous creation. He knows his Scriptures; he knows the story of the Garden of Eden created in beauty and harmony. He respects the creation because it is God's creation - and God proclaimed back in Genesis that what he created was "good, very good." And Paul believes in an all-powerful God. But Paul sees a world in which the earth itself seems to be broken, imperfect. He sees that just as we humans struggle toward freedom and perfection, so too does the creation itself seem to struggle in fits and starts. "The whole creation," he says, "has been groaning in labor pains . . ." Now, there is some tough going theologically in these verses, but stick with it! It closes with a verse that many in our city this past week just may have been quoting to themselves.

The last section is pure exhortation on how we should live in this world. Let us listen, then, for God's Word to us today.
          Romans 8:22-28, 12:15-21

          We had a wonderful time last weekend, in New Jersey, where we gathered with Carol's sister and brother and their spouses, and two of our nephews for the baptism of our second grandniece: Kathryn Grace Appleby-Wineberg. Carol and I were the proud Godparents, and so got to be on the other side of the Baptismal Font. It was an Episcopal service, and it is their tradition - one that we might consider taking up - that the Godparents affirm the very same vows that the parents do - thus upping the ante considerably for the Godparents! The first three vows involved "renouncing evil:" And renounce evil we did, and it felt kind of good!

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? I renounce them!
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them!
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? Ummm . . . I renounce them!
          Who can argue with "renouncing evil," after all? It is not a bad thing to do - as liberal theologically as one might be, or conservative for that matter - to renounce a little evil now and again!

          Coming home I was all set to do a little renouncing of evil this morning, what with the first federal execution in decades having taken place early last Monday morning. As you know, we are basing our sermons this summer on something in the current week's Time magazine. And surely, I thought, this week's issue would be full of stuff on Timothy McVeigh; the execution will be fresh in our minds, and I can raise that timely issue before us. I had it all mapped out in my mind as we flew back Monday afternoon.

          Then two things happened. First, I saw this week's Time and guess what: there is not a single word about the execution. The cover story? The lead story this week is the story that Carol preached on two weeks ago! The story of Erik Weihenmayer, the blind man who climbed Mt. Everest. Carol is always a couple steps ahead of even Time! Well, I thought to myself, I'll just do the McVeigh thing anyway.

          But then something else happened. Monday night. The most devastating storm to hit Oshkosh in many, many years - perhaps, many say, even worse than the tornado of 1974. We have all been coping this week with the aftermath of that storm. We have gawked in dismay and disbelief at the widespread devastation all about us. We have mourned the loss of so much beauty and strength in the veritable forest in which we live - the forest that has been considerably thinned by those winds that the psalmist says are the wings of God's chariot; the forest that we often did not notice was there in our yards and lawn strips, our parks and cemeteries, shading our homes and adding such delight to our lives - until that forest came down with such fury.

          It has been a week not like any other! It was a week of coping: with no electricity - ours was off for 96 hours - no phone, no E-Mail. Some of us had no water, and no means of cooking. We have learned how long food will stay good in a freezer - if you don't open it much. And we know now how much ice it takes to keep a refrigerator cold - and we also know how much food or food-like masses we store in those refrigerators. It was a great chance to clean it all out and start over! In our case we discovered some Girl Scout cookies from only God knows when!

          It was a week too of story-telling - our stories, and those that we heard from others. Stories about the tree that just missed a car, or the other one that slid harmlessly along the side of a neighbor's house. Stories of huge trees uprooted, and NOT missing that car or house. Stories of how the roof tore off the River Mill condominiums to land in Fratello's parking lot; and how about those billboards along 41 that were destroyed - a very good thing, in my book. Stories about the sad devastation at Riverside Cemetery, and South Park - our worship service at South Park August 5 will be a bit more solemn, I'm afraid, as we look out remembering what used to be.

          It was a week of neighborliness too: borrowing saws and food, cell phones and information and rumors and power. All those Y2K generators came out from embarrassed oblivion to be put to good use, and the sound of chainsaws and generators filled the hot summer night's air. We were pretty patient with each other too - managing to navigate intersections without traffic lights, for the most part with good humor. There was the guy who sped around us as Carol and I stood in the middle of our street talking to Tom Zak and Andrea and Tommy in their car -- the driver yelled "Morons" as he zipped by. We didn't yell back at him - for the kids' sake. But besides that, things were calm. Neighbors talked who seldom talk to each - to tell our stories and to share in a common loss - a loss that, gratefully, was a loss of trees and power and houses - and a dent on the hood of my car - but no loss of life, thank God.

          It IS amazing, isn't it, that given all the damage not a single scratch - that I know of - was sustained by a single person in the entire area? It was a common refrain in our stories this week, was it not: "Thank God that no one was hurt: homes can be repaired, and trees will in time grow again, but no one was hurt."

          "Thank God . . ." The simple phrase raises lots of issues for people of faith. Was God in the wind last Monday night? I don't suppose we think God was out having a boyish good time in his chariot, getting a little out of hand . . . We don't believe in that kind of God. But does God "control" the forces of nature? The Psalm we read together sure sounds like God does: "You make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers." Was there a message in the storm - something God wanted to say, and could say it no other way? Was God in the "good" stories - stories about lives saved, say, but not in the bad parts - that wonderful tree destroyed, and taking your front porch with it? What does your faith tell you about where God was in the storm? Just how far into the course of things does your God reach?

          Some people's faith is very straightforward on the matter. They will say that yes, God is in the details, directing, guiding, intervening to achieve his will. For them the tree falls exactly where God wills it - it is all "sent" by a sovereign God. All nature, they seem to say, is obedient to God, and so the storm this week was the will of God.

          For me, though, St. Paul is closer to the reality of the world I see. He said, you'll remember, that the whole creation - not just humanity, but the whole ball of wax . . . the earth, its weather systems, the heavens above - the whole of creation is yet in the process of becoming. Creation "groans," he said, as if in labor, birthing what is yet to be. And in the midst of birthing sometimes bad things happen. The process is not smooth and controlled; certainly not pain free. Sometimes it is violent, uncertain, out of control. And so in a storm like Monday night's - a natural disaster that is dwarfed by the catastrophes other parts of our country have known, and other nations more so, when tens of thousands of lives are lost - in such events dare I say it? not even God is in control. We and God are in the midst of forces to whom God (for reasons known only to God, reasons God is not divulging) has given over to laws of nature.

          Nevertheless, we have hope in the midst of that storm, that birthing. Hope because we are not alone - God is with us, beside us, within us. And we have hope that through the storms of life we will grow in knowledge and patience and grace and trust. Even great disasters can open to us new ways of viewing and valuing life, if we are willing to learn. Disasters are not sent by God to teach us lessons, BUT if we are wise we can use such experiences to grow by them, and so bring good out of suffering. "All things - all things," Paul dares to say, "work together for good," meaning, that out of even the worst things good may come, if we are willing.

          And so what do we learn from this week's events here in Oshkosh? At the very least we are reminded of the simple but foundational truth that we are not in charge, that we can control very little, really; that we are not the center of the universe. We learn again that there are forces far beyond ours, that no matter how sophisticated we think we are, a half hour of nature's fury and we are reduced to candles and bags of ice and feebly sawing up broken trees. And that reminder of both our frailty and what our most basic needs are is always helpful to get things back in perspective.

          We might learn too that, as Jesus would say, our real treasures are not found in the things of earth but in things of heaven: our friends, our families, our eternal souls - that part of us that is not dependent upon physical life. Learning what are the real treasures of life is a great gift.

          We learn too that God while not controlling nature, goes with us as a companion through whatever nature brings. And that gives us comfort for all of life.

          We might learn something about time, that all things - even trees that took a hundred years and more to grow, that looked so strong and immovable - all things come to an end. But that as the old passes away, new things will come to replace them, and us as well. Oshkosh is a different place this Sunday than it was last. But it will endure, and we will go on.

          And we might learn too to stop trying to control things we really cannot control, and to give instead our attention to things in which we can make a difference. Like, say, - I had to get just a word in on this! - working toward the day when our country finally comes to see what much of the rest of the world already knows, namely, that capital punishment is not a mark of civilization, still less of Christian faith.

          Or, like working on our own fears and blind spots and prejudices so that we might become more whole in Christ.

          Or devoting more of ourselves to what is going on inside us, instead of to all the trappings of the good life that take up so much of life that we in the end may miss life.

          Or giving more of our time and energy and love to those closest to us - the people who need us, and the institutions like this church who seek to enrich the life of our community.

          None of this is in Time this week. Maybe Oshkosh will merit a small mention in next week's issue though! In the meantime, as St. Paul said, let us this week rejoice with our neighbors who are rejoicing at their good fortune, and let us weep with those who are weeping because of their losses. And in so doing we will be doing the will of God in the world. Amen.

Rev. Nancy A. Taylor - Pastor - Contact FCC OR Contact Staff
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