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Homily by Dr. Miriam Pepper

Season of Creation – Storm Sunday, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
September 15, 2013

Job 28:20–27, Psalm 29, 1 Corinthians 1:21–31, Luke 8:22–25

‘God in the Storm’

Storms are an integral part of the Earth.  Thunderstorms, cyclones, hailstorms, dust storms, firestorms, windstorms, gales, blizzards, snow storms, ice storms, tornados – these are all part of the climatic systems and weather patterns of this amazing diverse planet.  Storms have impacted and shaped landscapes, ecosystems, and human societies.

Our experiences of storms and the theme of Storm Sunday confront us with something that is more easily dodged in other weeks during the Season of Creation.  And that is that the workings of this Earth’s systems are not necessarily peaceful and benign to human life, or indeed to other lives.  In celebrating the ocean (two weeks ago), we can be tempted to forget that the ocean is not our domain, there are all manner of creatures in the ocean that can do us harm, not to mention the salt water itself.  In celebrating fauna (last week) we can forget that the lion does not lie down with the lamb.  Predation, death, extinction of species are a part of the story of life – the story of life and death of which humanity is just one strand.

How do we grapple with storms – in their beauty and horror, their majesty and their terror, in their power to refresh and renew but also their power to flatten and destroy?  How can we make sense of them?  Where is God to be found?

Our scripture passages for today throw up for us some of the tensions and contradictions of the storm – even sometimes within the same passage itself.  I am going to look at the different understandings that the Psalm, the passage from Job and our gospel reading offer of God in relation to storms.

In Psalm 29, God is depicted as awesome, majestic and powerful.  The voice of God strikes with bolts of lightning, thunders across the raging seas, shatters cedars, strips forests bare and shakes the wilderness.  The sheer expansiveness and otherness of God is wildly on display here.  It is liberating, exhilarating, awe inspiring, a power also beyond human containment and control and the Psalmist cannot do otherwise than to glorify God.  The Psalm has inspired the dressing of our altar table today.  But God who whips up the storm is also its judge.  The Psalm finishes with a supplication to God to give strength and peace to Israel.

The Luke 8 passage is familiar to many of us.  As is the case for other gospel passages that involve other-than human parts of Creation (the weather, trees, seeds and so on), the storm in this passage is often interpreted as a metaphorical device.  But reading texts from the perspective of Earth encourages us not to gloss too quickly over the place of other-than-human creation in the text and rob it of whatever agency it might have there.  In this gospel passage, Jesus and his disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee by boat, when a furious storm comes up.  The waves are breaking over the boat, and the disciples are understandably terrified.  Not only is Jesus unafraid of the storm, he is seemingly so at home that he is sleeping through the ordeal.  When the disciples wake him in their terror, he is exasperated at them.  Nevertheless, he responds to their fear and calms the storm.  Like in the Psalm, there is supernatural power on display here, and the disciples are awed by it.  But, the divine action here is not to whip up the storm but to quell it.  There are parallels here with other gospel passages where Jesus responds to human fear with comfort, healing, and restoring peace – even if he precedes it here with a rebuke!

Job 28 is different again.  In Job 28 we see a wonderful description of God finding wisdom through the creative process – not simply decreeing wisdom or imposing wisdom, but finding wisdom – beholding wisdom – through the creative process.  Wisdom is reflected in the workings of creation, in the patterns of the weather, in storms and in the seas.  This image of God handling the different components of creation – setting paths for the lightning, measuring the extent of the waters, giving the wind its motion, may seem a little strange to us today.  Just like the moral agency that was given by people of antiquity to the weather and to extreme weather events might seem foreign to us.  But, from our contemporary scientific understanding, we might nonetheless agree that there is Wisdom reflected in the climate, in the inter-relationship between ocean, atmosphere and land, in the complexity of cycles – including the roles of storms in those cycles.

And so the three passages show different understandings of God.

I think that it is important that we hold this trinity of different, sometimes divergent, understandings of God in the storm together in tension.  The sheer otherness of God, the wisdom of God in creation, and God the peacemaker, comforter, and restorer.

Many who have experienced the devastation of storms and disasters have said that they see the face of Christ in the suffering of those who are affected, and in the responses of people in the aftermath.  In the way that communities serve each other, give comfort in times of trauma, grief and loss, and draw together to rebuild and restore what was devastated.  Our churches have also come together to serve their communities in and through droughts, fires, storms and floods in this country in these ways.  In the weather extremes of recent years, I’ve read repeatedly about such ministries in the covers of Insights, the Synod magazine.

But is this the extent of the presence of God – in the human impact of storms and in the human response?

When faced with our own mortality (as people very often are in storms), it is perhaps natural that we fixate on human experience.  But I am reminded of a story I heard a family tell in a documentary following the Black Saturday fires several years back in Victoria.  I don’t remember it exactly but it went something like this.  The family escaped the firestorm by sheltering in a nearby creek.  Sheltering right next to them was a wallaby.  The people looked at the wallaby and the wallaby looked back.  The divide between these fellow mammals seemed to collapse in the face of their common creaturely experience.

There may be some who view storms as punishment from God for human wrongdoing.  Certain ways of reading Psalm 29 could take us towards such an understanding of God who sits in judgment from his position above the Earth.  But to do so is not only to cast God as wrathful and vengeful, with humans as a plaything, it is also to make ourselves too big a part of creation.  It is to forget the four billion years of life on this planet, of which we are a tiny part.  If we could fit the story of our species into one centimetre of a ruler, the story of life on Earth would extend almost 400 metres away!  Storms were on this planet long before we were around.  Storms are not in essence about us.  We might know this scientifically, but do we know it existentially and spiritually?  Other planets in the solar system and beyond also have storms – those that have enough of an atmosphere.  Likewise, to think that we can be delivered from storms or be invulnerable to them, is also to place ourselves outside of the story of life.  The God of creation is so much bigger than the human story.  This points towards the importance of the great Hebrew understanding of the God who is other, the God who defies naming and understanding, who is expressed as “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”.  Christians can risk being too quick to push this understanding away, too quick to confine God as a human – to create God in our own image – whether a vengeful one or a peacemaking one.  It’s something that dialogue with our Jewish sisters and brothers can sensitise us to.

To ask moral questions of storms is a very human thing to do.  Why did this destruction happen to us, Oh God?  Why the loss of life?  But storms are not moral entities.

This is not to say that moral questioning has no place at all when it comes to storms.  Like in the case of species extinction, humans do bear some moral responsibility for storms and for their impacts.  Inappropriate agricultural practices have led to desertification and dust storms – the dust bowl of the American and Canadian prairies in the 1930s is a well-known example.  Australia has always been a land of extremes, but in our contemporary times, climate scientists are warning us that our extraction and burning of fossil fuels is already influencing a shift in the climate towards more extreme weather events.  One example is the 2012/2013 summer, where climate change aggravated the bushfire conditions and also influenced the extreme rainfall that occurred on the east coast of the country that season.  Humans can indeed affect the weather, but it is often in unpredictable and devastating ways.  We know much more about the workings of creation than Job did, and yet still so little.  The workings of wisdom remain elusive, “hidden from the eyes of the living”, as expressed in Job 28.  The ways that the wealthy and poor are differentially impacted by extreme weather are also moral matters.  The rich can shelter away, the poor have no such luxury.  How we prepare for and respond to storms in a context of inequality are indeed moral matters.

God the comforter and restorer, the wisdom of God in creation, and God the unnamable other.  All are images of God in the storm.  Some of these images may be more palatable, easier to look upon or easier to understand than others.  But all can be found there.

Dr. Miriam Pepper