September 3, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
This past week, Hurricane Harvey pummeled Texas and parts of Louisiana leaving devastation in its wake. Our hearts have been moved by the sight of so many people who have lost family members, pets, and homes; whose communities have been destroyed and know that even as the waters recede, they will face years of recovery from the deluge of Harvey. Inevitably, even as the country rallies to help the victims in the hurricane’s path, officials debate and evaluate the response trying to figure out what they could have done better and how best to protect people in the future, and in the past few days, scientists have weighed in pointing out that the damage wasn’t entirely the fault of Mother Nature. Our human hubris must share some of the blame. Hurricane Harvey, like other storms and floods that have come before it, is an illustration of the damage caused by the sin of self-sufficiency.
You see, since 1992, Houston has experienced tremendous population growth and in order to accommodate its burgeoning population, developers drained 75% of the wetlands surrounding the city 1 and, to make matters worse, they replaced much of those wetlands with pavement. When over 50 inches of rain fell from Harvey, Houston’s city drainage system was overwhelmed and there was nowhere for the excess water to go. Impermeable paved streets turned into rushing channels in the storm, and though some criticized Houston’s mayor for not ordering an evacuation, its pretty clear that more people would have died if they had tried to drive out of the city in the storm. One rescue worker told of motoring his boat down a city street and hitting a mailbox that was totally submerged under water. There’s been a lot of debate over the role global warming played in producing Hurricane Harvey but lately attention has also turned to the role played by wetland destruction. While nothing can stop a hurricane or protect entirely from its effects, the fact is that if Houston had not drained its wetlands but preserved that natural storm barrier, scientists estimate that the wetlands would have been able to soak up at least 4 billion gallons of the rain that fell on Houston. After Hurricane Sandy, researchers at UC Santa Cruz compared the damage on the east coast of areas where wetlands had been drained to the damage in areas that had preserved their wetlands and they calculated that “the coastal wetlands … prevented $625 million in direct flood damages,” and reduced property damage by 22 percent to as much as 30 percent in some states.”2 Katie Arkema, an ecologist who helped with the study said that when they were doing their research in 2013, they looked at other areas around the country where wetlands might play a role in future hurricane damage and the Texas coast “jumped out at” them, especially the area where Hurricane Harvey last week made landfall. The study determined that the coastal wetlands [along the Texas shoreline] protect “about $2.4 billion worth of property and thousands of people, many of whom are families living below the poverty line and other disadvantaged communities.”3 The city of Houston, however, chose to ignore the important function of the wetlands. To an urban developer, a wetland just looks like a swampy area standing in the way of a shopping mall and so for twenty five years the city drained, filled in, and paved their surrounding wetlands and when Hurricane Harvey hit, there was no natural sponge to soak up the rain.
Proverbs 16:18 famously says, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
Some of the damage of Hurricane Harvey was the unavoidable damage of Mother Nature’s storms, but some was the avoidable damage that resulted from the sin of human pride and self-sufficiency. Houston, like most cities, approached flooding as an engineering problem believing that we don’t need nature’s help to endure what nature brings because we, as human beings, are now stronger than nature. We are smarter than nature, and all we need is a more efficient pumping system or a bigger levee to keep the storms away from our homes. The American “can-do” spirit when twisted by our pride becomes “there’s nothing I can’t do,” and we so forge ahead continually repeating our mistakes because we believe that our failures are merely setbacks in the inevitable conquest of all we survey. It never occurs to us that perhaps our failures are a result of our wrong headed belief that we “don’t need no help from nobody,” whether it be from nature, from friends and neighbors, from our government, or from God.
Hurricane Harvey and the city of Houston are sad symbols of the destruction that can result when we insist that we are self-sufficient and strong enough to stand against the storms of life on our own. In the wake of the storm’s destruction, the city has rediscovered the blessing that comes from looking to others for our help. The apostle Paul said, “Three times I appealed to the Lord [to remove the thorn in my flesh] that it would leave me, but God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Many years ago, I read a book by an atheist author who argued that all religion was toxic because it was grounded in the belief that we are not sufficient to cope with the problems of life without help from a divine source.
“Religion teaches people to turn to God as a source of strength,” she complained, “suggesting that we are weak by nature, incapable of standing on our own two feet. Religion teaches us to turn to God for guidance suggesting that we are too stupid to figure things out on our own. Religion teaches us to turn to God for forgiveness suggesting that we are messed up and apt to do the wrong thing when left to our own devices. I refuse to accept the premise of religion,” she muttered, “the premise that I am a weak and muddled human being. I take pride in my self-sufficiency.”4
Well, unlike the author, I accept the premise of religion because I know absolutely that I am a weak and muddled human being, apt to do the wrong thing when left to my own devices, either out of stupidity, stubbornness, or just because I can be pretty obtuse sometimes. In fact, I wondered how much of life the author had really encountered. Had she never endured storms of pain and grief so profound that they threatened to swallow up her heart in rivers of tears? Had she never encountered choices so confusing that she was left frozen in indecision knowing that to make one choice would close another door forever? Had she never struggled with knowing how to help a wayward child, a stubborn teenager, or save a troubled marriage, where her decisions would profoundly affect those she loved? Had she never faced her own death, considered the reality of her own mortality? When such things happen, I believe that it is the healthier person who admits that they are not self-sufficient but that need a strength greater than their own, that they need a wisdom wiser than their own, a forgiveness that will help them turn around their mistakes and discover the grace of renewal, that they can turn to a God who will stand between us and the storms of life and absorb the blow for us, soak up the torrential rains, and offer shelter until we are ready to stand again.
The preacher and peace activist William Sloane Coffin wrote, “It is often said that the Church is a crutch. Of course it’s a crutch. What makes you think you don’t limp?
Every month we come to the communion table to receive the bread and the cup as symbols of the life that Jesus offers us through the sacrifice of his death on our behalf, a ritual that begins with the words, “On the night he was betrayed.” We deliberately and intentionally remind ourselves that Jesus made this covenant with his disciples on a night when he knew that one of them was going to betray him and that after this supper, all of them would desert him. The act of communion is bracketed by betrayal and denial, by the pride of Judas and the weakness of Peter and the others. And yet, in the midst of this storm of fear and failure, Jesus created a space of grace. He didn’t stop the storm from coming — he didn’t stop the pain of his death on the cross — but he took on the brutality of the world’s cruelty, even the brutality of our own failures and weaknesses, for our sake. Like the wetlands standing between the surging sea and the homes in their path, Jesus stood before the storms of the world and taking on the damage so that we might be saved.
When we in our pride continue to insist that we can manage just fine on our own, thank you very much, we come to the table to be reminded that self-sufficiency is a perilous sin. Sometimes the storms will just be too much for any one human being to bear and in our efforts to forge through on our own, we may be overwhelmed and swept away. And so we come to the table to be reminded and assured that we don’t need to manage on our own. Christ promises that he will stand between us and the storm and absorb the worst for us. Here we can eat the bread and drink the cup and be filled with Christ’s strength when our own is insufficient for the task.
Here we can know the promise of life when death hovers at the threshold.
Here we can find wisdom in our confusion, forgiveness for our failures, and peace from the restless sea.
Here in this moment, in this place, we can find shelter and be renewed for another day.
All who seek a strength greater than their own, and a place of peace in the midst of hardship and storms, are welcome to Christ’s table.
1. Scientists cite figures of 50-90% depending on which area of the city one is discussing
4. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the title or author and my paraphrase is probably an inaccurate summary based on my memory but the thesis describes that held by innumerable atheists I have read so I think it is a fair summary.