By Karen Ware Jackson, MDiv ’08
This is a sermon preached 3/31/15 at Faith Presbyterian Church, Greensboro, NC. In light of the recent flood in Houston and numerous others around the world, we thought this sermon would be appropriate this week.
Psalm 29 deals with God’s power with particularly strong imagery around floods. God “shatters the cedars of Lebanon… convulses the oaks…. strips the forests bare… shakes the wilderness…sits enthroned atop the flood waters…”
These images are meant to amaze us with God’s power, possibly to comfort us that even in our weakness God is mighty. But I can’t help but be reminded that Fear is the cousin of Awe.
All these images of floods are striking a raw spot for me right now. For the last week, my newsfeed has been filled with pictures of pounding flood waters in central Texas, cedars shattered and cypress trees ripped from their roots, oak trees stripped bare.
The human debris is just as staggering. Foundations lay empty – the homes that once graced their bedrock, gone. Just gone. Pictures and clothing and silverware litter the ground, snatched by the river then dropped as the current twisted and turned through the heart of Texas.
This particular area of central Texas is very dear to my heart. I spent 15 summers at John Knox Ranch, a summer camp near Wimberley, on the banks of the Blanco River – which is usually cool, clear and calm. It’s my favorite place to swim on Earth! Rob and I were married at John Knox Ranch and I swam in that river just hours before my wedding. The camp dining hall where we had our reception is about 100 yards up a gentle slope from the river. There were trees and a road separating the two so you couldn’t even see the river from the dining hall.
Once when I was a camp counselor, we saw the river rise to the edge of the field, about 50 yards away. And even then, we were told that it reached its 500 year flood plain. So it hadn’t been that high in 500 years!
Saturday night, I heard the dining hall was under 20 feet of water.
It’s unimaginable. This area of the Blanco isn’t bordered by canyon walls or cliffs or mountains. It’s rolling hills and wide river plains. I never thought if it as “flash flood” country. More like, “we’re watching the river rise” country. So a 40 foot wall of water was absolutely devastating.
I have friends whose homes were totally destroyed. I heard that one friend and her husband were rescued by a boat in the middle of the night while they were clinging to their second story window sill. Thank God that boat came before the house went.
Three families from my home town were vacationing together in a house on the Blanco River. The flood lifted their home from its stilts and swept them away. In a matter of minutes, all that tied them to this earth was gone. Just gone.
A father survived. The two mothers, a child, and two grandparents have been recovered. The rest – one father and two young children – are still missing.
In the face of this loss, this complete destruction, I have a tough time with the image of God sitting enthroned atop the flood waters.
It is not comforting and it certainly doesn’t fill me with awe. It is scary and horrible. It is a perversion of everything I expect from a loving God.
I know that God created the world and all that is in it – the grand cypress trees and the limestone cliffs, the grassy plains and the shady oaks, the cool clear water and the mighty torrent. But I simply can’t believe these floods were some sort of display of power – a show, meant to fill us with awe and fear.
This is always the fine line we walk with natural disasters:
If we believe that God is all powerful – and we do –
if we believe that God is sovereign over all the earth – and we do –
if we believe that God created the world and all that is in it – and we do –
then how can we say this is not of God?
How can we say that hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes and tornados and floods are not at best, part of some unknowable master plan or at worst, God’s judgment?
I do not believe that. I cannot believe that.
We proclaim that death has died, that light outshines darkness, that the lost will be found, and I will not equivocate and say, “Oh, but these losses, this death, that’s part of God’s plan. God needed another angel in heaven.”
God doesn’t need anything. Need is a human experience and God is the provider, the comforter, the protector. God is the savior, not the one from whom we must be saved. Always. Because – more than anything else – God is love.
And that LOVE is mightier than raging river and deeper than a roiling chasm. It pierces the night like a bolt of lightning illumining the cloud filled skies. It rumbles over the face of the earth shaking the ground with its message – a message not of fear, but of love–“Fear not, my beloved children. I am here.”
When I think of those families tossed about the rising water, the darkness of the night, the power of the current, I cannot bear to imagine it. But I also can’t stop from thinking about it, about all of them – mothers and fathers, grandparents, little children so close in age to my own…terrified and alone.
It is absolutely horrifying, and it is also completely impossible. Because God is love. And love does not leave when the water rises. Love doesn’t disappear when it seems all is lost. Perfect love casts out all fear and even death cannot stop the living.
So how do we reconcile our tragedy with God’s love?
We have faith, and we don’t turn away from the unimaginable – and this is where our images of the Triune God become really powerful, because those beloved children of God were not alone in the flood waters. And wherever they are now – in heaven or on earth – they are not alone. None of us are. Ever.
When we face our fear and follow God into that dark and stormy night, we see the light of Christ beaming through the inky blackness and his grace, so amazing and warm, radiating from their fragile, beautiful bodies. We see the breath of the Holy Spirit entering their lungs and her powerful current flowing all around them. We see God the Father encircling them with his mighty arms keeping the fear at bay, and God the Mother gathering them under her wings, holding them close, and whispering in their ears, “fear not my beloved child. I am here.”
And so they were born, of water and the Spirit, into the dwelling place of peace.
May it be so for us all.
Karen Ware Jackson is a dynamic pastor leading worship that is accessible for all ages at Faith Presbyterian Church, a small but mighty congregation in Greensboro, NC. As the mother of two preschoolers who worship front and center, she knows firsthand the joys and challenges of parenting a child while leading an inter-generational congregation. She blogs about parenting, pastoring, and engaging all ages in worship at www.karenwarejackson.com