A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut on January 17, 2010

At around ten o’clock in the morning of November 1, 1755, a powerful earthquake, estimated to have been Force 9, hit the city of Lisbon in Portugal, a city of 200,000 people. Forty minutes later a tsunami swept into the city and after that fires broke out that raged for five days.

Perhaps half the population of Lisbon died. The tsunami also swept the Mediterranean coast and drowned some 10,000 more in Morocco. A ten foot tsunami hit the coast of England and the earthquake was felt as far away as Finland.

The physical impact was bad enough – the king of Portugal lived in a tent the rest of his life – but the cultural impact was greater. The 18th century had seen an enormous upswelling of human confidence. Isaac Newton and others had begun to map the scientific structure of the universe and create unprecedented confidence in the power of human reason. They called it “The Enlightenment” and “The Age of Reason” and said it was “the best of all possible worlds.” Reason and logic was so universally respected that one leading English theologian wrote a book called: Christianity Not Mysterious.

You see this mood reflected in the classic New England Meeting House painted white and with clear glass windows where hour long sermons explained the logic of God’s world. Not for them the stained glass and dim light of a gothic cathedral. Not for them the sense of mystery of the ancient liturgy of the church. The world was reasonable and logical and good.

We know better. We live after the holocaust and 9/11. The Eighteenth Century learned from the Lisbon earthquake.

Over the next century there was a revival of gothic architecture and a renewed interest in liturgy. But the Age of Reason’s confidence in human reason inspired the thought that human beings might be able to govern themselves. John Locke and others began to write about the rights of man and over the next 50 to 75 years three great political revolutions set out to test his theories.

The first of these revolutions, in 1776, less than twenty years after the Lisbon earthquake, took place right here where English colonists had created a society of independent minded farmers and businessmen who created town meetings and local legislatures and learned how to govern themselves before the Revolution even began.

The second revolution took place a decade later in France where peasants living in medieval serfdom rose up against a corrupt and arrogant aristocracy and created a Reign of Terror that led to the dictatorship of Napoleon and collapsed back into a restored monarchy.

The third revolution took place in Haiti where the same French aristocracy had imported slaves to work their plantations in what has been described as “one of the most brutally efficient slave colonies.” One-third of newly imported Africans died within a few years.” But by sheer weight of numbers, the slaves were able to rise up and overthrow their French masters in a bloody and violent revolt that left the slaves in charge but without any experience of self-government or any of the education or skills required to govern themselves or create a successful society.

France eventually recovered from its disastrous revolution but Haiti had nothing to work with. The French sent a force to recapture the country but settled for a huge indemnity that left Haiti free but deep in debt.

After that, corrupt governments rose and fell often selling out to foreign investors and in 1888 the US Marines were called in to put down a revolt against the system. From 1915 to 1934 the United States occupied the country, put down a peasant revolt with ruthless force, and left the country with an enormous debt to American banks.

From 1957 to 1986 the country was run as a brutal dictatorship by the Duvalier family often with military and economic assistance from the United States. Inevitably many of the best educated and most ambitious Haitians emigrated to America leaving the country even poorer in human resources.

One of the few bright notes in a dismal picture involves the work of the Episcopal Church which began in 1864 when an African American priest, James Theodore Holly, from Bridgeport. Connecticut took a hundred members of his congregation to Haiti and established what is now the largest diocese of the Episcopal Church. There are half again as many Episcopalians in Haiti as in Connecticut and that church has built schools and hospitals in a country too poor to build them itself. The centerpiece of that church’s work was the cathedral built in the 1950s in Port au Prince and embellished with spectacular murals painted by Haitian artists that covered the walls and showed the life of Christ in Haitian scenes – the wedding at Cana (see above), the crucifixion and resurrection – all with Haitian figures against a Haitian background. The Clintons, Bill and Hillary, went to Haiti on their honeymoon and have never forgotten sitting in that cathedral stunned by the brilliance of those murals. I’ve never been to Haiti but I have seen pictures of those murals. That cathedral with its murals was completely destroyed last week. All that work, all that imagination and artistic skill wiped out in a moment.

As I thought about it, I realized that I was feeling the loss of that cathedral more than the human death toll. And then I thought about the way St Paul told the early Christians that the human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and you, he told them, are that temple. You are, he might have said, God’s living cathedral and, yes, thousands of those human temples lie dead but hundreds of thousands survive without food or water or housing or work and before we worry about the murals in the vanished cathedral we need to concern ourselves with those still living human temples of God. Perhaps 150,000 human beings according to the latest estimates each one as unique as you and I, each one made in the image of God.

There’s an old rabbinic statement I’ve always valued that says, “Whenever a human being walks in the street angels attend him and a herald proclaims ‘Make way for the image of God.’”

The image of God, the temple of God, with what our Declaration of Independence called “certain unalienable rights.” That part of the American heritage and the Enlightenment’s legacy is dead on because it has its roots in the Bible. That’s where we learned “that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights and that among those rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

That’s our foundational document and it has, because it is a Biblical truth, implications far beyond our borders: “all men – all human beings – are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I sometimes think that statement is forgotten in the health care debates in Washington where the pharmaceutical companies have lobbyists who outnumber the members of Congress and are concerned not for those unalienable rights but for their u
ndiminished profits. And over the years we have sent the marines into Haiti more often to defend the profits of international corporations than the life and liberty of the image of God.

Does it, I wonder, take the worst earthquake since Lisbon to get our attention, and might this tragedy focus our attention in a way that changes our culture and ways of thinking as radically as Lisbon’s earthquake changed the western world two hundred fifty years ago?

I didn’t start from a text but I think today’s gospel may be more relevant than you might first think. The wedding at Cana; the miracle of water changed to wine. Think about this first sign that Jesus did and how he did it. I think this may be the one miracle in which Jesus is not really at the center of the picture. He goes as a guest to a wedding and he sits at the side with his disciples and his mother and the attention is focused – well, today it would be on the bride, but not then – in those days the focus was on the groom and providing the wine was his job and the catastrophe was his failure.

The wine ran out and Jesus’ mother noticed and mentioned it to him: “They have no wine.” But Jesus held back. Unobtrusively, he told the servants what to do and they did it and the situation was saved and the groom and steward of the feast probably never knew what had happened.

Isn’t that a parable of the role of the Christian church? I think we are like the servants at the wedding. We see the disaster that comes about because of bad planning – a typical human failure – and we might ask the classic question: What would Jesus do? Well, what did he do? He didn’t directly intervene but he sent others, working behind the scenes, not with great fanfares, but quietly and effectively, to do what needed to be done to save the situation.

I think that’s our calling: to do what Jesus did to bring the gift of life in the midst of disaster. And yes, our supply of water is weak stuff and never good enough but it becomes transformed as Jesus works with us and it becomes all that is needed and more.

We don’t dare ask Cain’s ancient question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” or the Pharisees question: “Who is my neighbor?” Because we know the answer. Our lives have long been intertwined sometimes for better, often for worse, with those of the people of Haiti.

I didn’t ask to be born here with all the privileges and opportunities that brings nor did the Haitians ask to be born there with all the burden of two centuries of exploitation, but we are interdependent human beings and the ills of one affect us all. Whether it’s the unemployed auto worker who has lost his health insurance or the child pulled from the rubble in Port-au-Prince, he or she is my brother, my sister, my neighbor and I have not so much a responsibility as a privilege and an opportunity to act as Jesus’ eyes and hands to bring the gifts God has given in response to the need we see.


AnonymousJanuary 22nd, 2010 at 9:42 am

fine sermon. thanks. Your sermons and writings feed my spirit as well as inform my mind.


Joyce SauerJanuary 22nd, 2010 at 10:53 am

I began to read this as soon as Peg and I got off the phone today. I am moved to tears by the weight of what you have said and the reminder of what we stand on and how we are to be His hands and feet. I look forward to sharing your piece with my Haitian ESL students as an encouragement to them. Thank you for this.
Joyce Sauer

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