“Inequities of Disaster”
Luke 4:18-21; Theme Reading from C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time”
By Rev. Don Ludwig, April 26, 2020

Introduction:

Donald Trump goes on a fact-finding visit to Israel.  While on a tour of Jerusalem he suffers a heart attack and dies.  The undertaker tells the American diplomats accompanying him, “You can have him shipped home for $50,000, or you can bury him here in the Holy Land for just $100.

The Americans go into a corner to discuss for a few minutes.  They return and say they want Trump shipped home.  The undertaker is puzzled and asks, “Why would you spend $50.000 to ship him home when it would be wonderful to be buried here, and you would spend only $100.”

The American diplomats reply “Well, long ago a man died here, was buried here, and three days later he rose from the dead.  We can’t take that risk.”

It is good to laugh even in times like this.  I am thankful for people like Pam Gross who sent that joke to me which helps with my sanity some days.  I think Pam helps us all to see the humor amidst sober realities.

Life has never been Normal

Sober reality.  A mess.  This is the world we live in today!  We live in fear and the lurking knowledge that things will never be the same — we want a return to pre-pandemic days without realizing that the fault lines of oppression that are becoming ever so visible in this pandemic have existed in this country throughout our existence. Most of the articles that have flooded our newspapers and news feeds have forced us to confront the reality that our cities have thousands and thousands of poor citizens who have no place to go when the moment of crisis comes their way, and no way to get there if they did.  And rural areas are left to fend for themselves.

In preparing for this sermon, I was somehow prompted to glance through a book from Seminary days — it had one of C.S. Lewis’s sermons when he was in England in 1939.  It was entitled, “Learning in War-Time.”  C.S. Lewis wrote: “I think it is important to try to see the present calamity in … perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice…”  

Yes!  War, just as this current pandemic, aggravates the permanent human situation!

C.S. Lewis goes on: “We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil…turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms,… emergencies.”

Truths about Injustice during tragedy

Life has never been normal.  This virus is just shining a light on truths many of us choose not to see.  Helen D. Gayle writes, “The more you look into health and health inequalities, you realize that a lot of it is not due to a particular disease – it’s really linked to underlying societal issues such as poverty, inequity, lack of access to safe drinking water and housing.”  Here are some sobering truths about the inequities of disaster:

  • African Americans are three times as likely to die because of deeply rooted historical inequalities in health care, housing and income
  • In Wisconsin, for example, African Americans represent 6 percent of the population, but nearly 40 percent of COVID-19 fatalities. 
  • Hourly workers have become “essential workers”…thanks to the virus…encountering hundreds of people a day, with all the risks that entails …(while some of us complain of too many zoom meetings and our isolation).
  • Even more, there is a laundry list of risk factors that put people of color and low-income families at a greater risk for the virus…

After the New Orleans Hurricane Katrina tragedy in 2005, Wynton Marsalis asked: “What, other than injustice, could be the reason that the displaced citizens of New Orleans cannot be accommodated by the richest nation in the world?”  We have asked the same question throughout our history and again today: what, other than injustice, could be the reason that so many Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities have experienced higher rates of infection and death — as a result of COVID-19?  What, other than injustice…..?

Jesus Message at the Temple

In our gospel lesson today, a familiar text to us at Southminster, Jesus walks into the temple and confronts the pharisees and the teachers of the law and challenges the systems of injustice at every turn.  Quoting from Isaiah Jesus decries:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Life has never been normal. Sometimes it takes a flood or a pandemic or the coming of a man named Jesus for us to realize that.  To realize that the inequities of this world have been created by us — and perpetuated by us — by our own apathy and indifference and self-serving contentment — allowing us the privilege of doing nothing.  

A significant part of the mission of this congregation…not only in these virus times, but throughout our 72-year history…has been about maintaining awareness of the cries of suffering.   Our current world has gotten quieter — there are fewer people on the streets…fewer planes overhead…the normal buzz has given way to quiet.  Perhaps this is what we need in order to hear the voices of those who suffer… those who yearn for relief of the oppression they experience — not only now because of this pandemic — but as a matter of course in their way of existing in this world.

The Need for US to be changed

These days I have found much solace and value in listening to my President.  He has provided me with much wisdom — he is so down to earth — he uses reason as his guide and views faith as integral to our emotional strength.  I have come to admire him greatly. By the way, my President these days is Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York.  I listened to Andrew Cuomo this past week talk about the need to come back better, the need for transformation. He admonished, “You pause. You reflect. You learn. You grow. You move forward. We can’t simply be waiting out the time. Life has to be different. We have to change.”

Andrew Cuomo has received a lot of heat by the Christian right for insisting that God didn’t make things better, people’s hard work did.  Cuomo later said: “The number (of deaths in New York) is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that. Destiny did not do that. A lot of pain and suffering did that . . . That’s how it works. It’s math. And if we don’t continue to do that, we’re going to see that number (of deaths) go back up. And that will be a real tragedy if we let that happen.”

President Reagan used to like to tell the story of a farmer who poured years of sweat and effort into what was once rocky, unfertile territory.  He invited the Pastor of his church out to see his progress one Sunday afternoon.  “Oh, my,” the Reverend stated, looking admiringly over the rows and rows of vegetable and fruit trees.  “The Lord has really blessed you.”  The farmer grinned and grunted as he responded, “Well, I wish you could have seen this land when the Lord was doing the work all by Himself”.

That is a humorous story, to be sure. But the Christian right-wing has had a hay day over Cuomo’s words.  How could he not give God the credit for New York’s apparent success?  It is because for Cuomo, and for the farmer, nothing would change if we don’t do the work to make it change.  God is not to be blamed for bad things happening and neither is God to be praised for success.  Our faith in God is grounded in reality and effort.  There would be no need for Jesus to come to this earth and challenge the Pharisees in the temple about their unjust practices IF God could have changed things without us.  We are the hands of God.  

We Shall Overcome

We are living in a time of uncertainty and though I would love to be able to give concrete answers as to when life will return back to “normal,” I remind all of us who are thinking that to know this — wanting to get back to “normal” is a sign of your privilege!  For some, for many, life has never been normal.  Rather than returning to our old ways of doing things, my hope is that in this new world we create, we will more clearly see the inequities of disaster for what they really are — that for far too many, life has  NEVER been normal.  

As Christians, we were made for this, doing whatever it takes — whatever is needed in service of others — especially for those who are most vulnerable — we were made to challenge systems of oppression.  This pandemic has only opened our eyes to a world that has always been!

May we always remember: God alone won’t change things.  Faith alone won’t change things.  Only we — can change the inequities of disaster — this is the social world that we have created — and only we — in faith and by God’s mercy — shall overcome.

A-men.