An Angel of Mercy or an Angel of Death?
A sermon preached by the Rev. Adrienne Koch at Cheshire House on Sunday, September 10, 2017
There are some unexpected similarities between today’s Old Testament passage and the events of the last few days.
Like a weather forecaster predicting a major storm, Exodus 12 directs Israelite families on what to do to prepare for impending disaster: If your household is small go in on what you need with your neighbors, and eat quickly with your shoes on, and your staff in your hand, because any moment could be the moment you need to leave. Tonight, death will pass over some of you, and it will come for others.
This very moment, there are friends, family, and acquaintances huddled in their boarded-up homes in Florida, and the southeastern coast of the US, doing much of the same, wondering who will be protected enough that death will pass over them as it did the Israelites.
This very moment, there are some of us here who feel the churn in our stomachs at the mention of the storm; we feel a tension in our legs telling us to move, a shooting impulse to DO something, anything, that could help those in hurricane Irma’s path.
People living in states miles away from Irma’s effects are frantically posting tips on social media– one I’ve seen over and over again is the recommendation to place a quarter on ice in your freezer to gauge how long your power went out and whether your food is safe to eat. One woman recommended hanging a protective totem on the door to ward away all danger.
I even joined the “Care Bear Stare at Hurricane Irma,” event, where my Bimoji avatar can be found heroically casting rainbow well-wishes from a bursting cartoon heart.
Some of these gestures may help, some may not, and many are intentionally playful—a way to distract ourselves and others from the fear of what’s coming; gestures spurred by an impulse to DO something about something we have so little power to change.
In the end, there is no quarter, or totem, or care bear stare strong enough to change the course of a hurricane. In the end, we are all at the mercy of an event we can’t control.
Some call these out-of-control events “natural disasters” whose magnitudes can’t be predicted, while others call them “acts of God,” predictable based on how much sin a population has committed in recent years.
One Jesuit priest tweeted in response to a hurricane, “If any religious leaders say tomorrow that the hurricane is God’s punishment against some group, they’re idiots. God’s ways are not our ways.”
And he’s right—God’s ways are not our ways. And for that reason, when tragedy strikes, we find them difficult to understand.
But we still question why and how bad things happen? After Hurricane Katrina swept away much of Louisiana in 2005, one news source (The Spectator) posed the question, was the storm “an angel of mercy — or an angel of death?”
When we’re afraid, our questions so often pit two sides against one another: liberal vs. conservative, mercy vs. death.
But the truth is always so much more complicated than that. So few answers to the real questions of this life are one-sided.
Let’s look again at the Exodus story from today. The Israelites had been enslaved for hundreds of years by the Egyptians, and in the grief and confusion of that terrible night where every firstborn Egyptian male died, hundreds of thousands of slaves escaped to freedom.
So, was it an angel of mercy or an angel of death?
In 2005, 1,833 (sign of the cross) people died from Hurricane Katrina (pause) and 24,135 were rescued from perilous conditions by the coast guard, a number that doesn’t include the 1.5 million who were evacuated from Louisiana and the thousands more who were rescued by neighbors and strangers. Mercy or death?
Just a couple of weeks ago, after the flooding in Houston from hurricane Harvey, you may have seen the same stories I saw online.
One hurricane video went viral around the globe, showing a human chain of dozens of strangers stretched across waters neck high to save one single elderly man from his vehicle as it was being enveloped by Texan flood waters.
30 people are confirmed dead (sign of the cross) from Hurricane Harvey, and thousands have been confirmed saved through acts of mercy.
So, was it an angel of mercy or an angel of death?
God’s ways are not our ways, and we can find glimpses of our response to that question in the ways that we tell all of our best stories, stories like that one (arms outstretched) where hearing them and seeing them, grab your heart and twist it; stories that fill the underside of your eyelids heavy with tears.
There is nothing we mortals fear more than suffering and death, and so suffering and death is always what comes before mercy and love and new life, in our best stories.
Last Friday, I finally saw the new Wonder Woman movie—in order for its happy ending, for the war to end and for love to be felt by human hearts again, first a hero is sacrificed for the greater good and then the villain is killed by those who loved that hero.
I reveal too much of my age and sci-fi fandom when I say that three of my favorite movies are Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and the Matrix. One thing they all have in common – one of the heroes dies as a sacrifice and because of that death, mercy is given to others, and then that hero comes back to life. Does the story sound familiar?
We retell it in its more historical form every week, and we will retell it again in a few moments. Jesus dies so that you and I and every human being who ever lived will be shown mercy, and then he comes back to life to make the happy ending possible for everyone.
In the best stories, in the stories that reveal the meaning of our lives, the angel of mercy is always the angel of death first. It was true in the story of the Israelites and Egyptians, it is true for the hurricanes, and it’s true today.
On this side of eternity, death will always have the first say, but when the human story meets God’s story death never has the last word.
In the next few days, you will continue to hear stories of destruction and death, and rising from the wreckage of that death you will hear stories of mercy and love.
Don’t listen to the voices who say it’s either death or mercy. You know its more complicated than that, and it will be that complicated until Christ returns and we are given new life, without death,