Monday, August 29, 2016

Staying the Course After the Flood: Sermon for Proper 17C 2016

Proper 17, Year C

A picture says a thousand words.

That saying hit home for me recently when I came across a picture that sums up the spirit of our people. The picture shows three men standing knee deep in flood water. In between them is a grill with meat cooking over the charcoal fire. The caption below the photograph says:

No diss to other states, but Louisiana folk are a different breed. We don’t stress over the situation, we make the situation better. So what if it floods and we have to stand in knee deep water, come on by and get yourself a plate of food. #WeGotYou!

It’s true. If anything, flood waters have increased the outpouring of love, generosity, and hospitality. It’s what folks down here do.

From the rescue work of the Cajun Navy; to the Cajun Army who organized supplies and mobilized teams of the young and old to gut out houses for people that in many cases they didn’t even know; to the Cajun Rosies who’ve cooked food, washed clothes, and set up childcare so parents could work on their homes; to volunteers in shelters; to folks from afar loading up trucks with supplies or sending money and gift cards; to church members making food and delivering meals - a spirit of generosity and hospitality has characterized the immediate aftermath of the flooding. It’s been amazing.

The trick is sustaining that generosity and hospitality. Because the recovery from this disaster is going to go on for a long time.

That’s why our faith in Jesus Christ is so important.

For we follow a Lord who came, not to be served, but to serve. We follow a Lord who got his hands dirty in the trenches of helping others.

Jesus gave his life to free people from the oppression of sin and sickness. He put the needs of others first. He fed the hungry, consoled the sorrowful, healed the sick and brokenhearted, made room for the displaced and the lost, and befriended the stranger.

That is the way of Jesus Christ. That is the way of abundant life. And that is the way of perfect love.

Our scripture lesson today from the letter to the Hebrews offers a blueprint for how we can continue practicing the generous love of Jesus Christ in witness to the good news that Jesus’ work of rescuing and renewing continues in his church through ordinary folks like you and me.

So let’s take a closer look at some of the verses in this passage from Hebrews.

“Let mutual love continue” (Hebrews 13:1).

Or, as another translation puts it: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 13:1 NIV).

In our baptisms, we are adopted by God into His family. We become members of God’s household. We become brothers and sisters to one another, and members of a family that spans the ages and the globe.

Sometimes, as in our own families, we have our differences. Sometimes there’s conflict. Sometimes we squabble. And sometimes we hurt each other. It happens.

But as a family in Christ here at St. Luke’s, we are committed to sticking it out together. We are committed to caring for one another. We are committed to the long haul.

So here’s the core truth: we are going to move forward together as one family in Christ. And we are going to make it through all of this stronger and more committed to doing God’s work in this community.

Let’s listen again to the letter to the Hebrews.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2).

Here we are reminded that the love we have for each other in our parish family is not meant to be exclusionary. We are not meant to be a club or a clique that allows only “the right kind” of people to belong. Nor are we meant to be a place that runs away or hides from the challenges in our community.

Rather, God calls us to cultivate an outward focus that welcomes the stranger in our midst.

And by welcoming, I mean more than just a handshake and a “Good morning, how are you.” I mean being intentional and proactive in reaching out, making connections, listening, cultivating relationships, and receiving strangers into our group so that they may also become members of our family, our sisters and brothers in Christ. 

“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3).

In other words, remember those who suffer as though you were suffering. Practice radical empathy.

Many among us have suffered greatly recently. Many have lost most or all of their worldly possessions. Many had to be rescued by boat from the rising waters. Many are left feeling shell-shocked and broken.

I’ve heard some folks say, “It’s just stuff.” It’s true that we’re talking about inanimate objects. And Lord knows it’s true that we’d rather lose that than lose people. Thank God more people weren’t lost!

But it’s not true that “it’s just stuff.” Our possessions carry meanings and values that go well beyond price tags and appraisals. For that reason those possessions cannot easily be replaced. And some of them are priceless.

Just think about it. The table that belonged to grandmother. The wedding photographs. The prayer book that your great-grandfather used. The Bible your parents gave you at confirmation. The letters you received so many years ago from the girl who eventually became your wife. Then there’s your mother’s wedding dress. And the album with photographs of your children when they were babies. Or the high school yearbook signed by everybody in your graduating class.

The list of such things that were lost could go on and on. To lose them is heartbreaking.

It’s hard enough to lose one or more of those possessions. But to then also lose most or all of your home - it’s emotionally and spiritual like experiencing the death of a loved one. The suffering is all too real. We show respect for each other’s dignity, and we give ourselves permission to grieve, by not minimizing the loss.

And if we who were fortunate to stay dry have feelings of “survivor’s guilt,” rather than letting those feelings paralyze us, we do well to channel those feelings into empathy for the grieving and the suffering, and to then translate that empathy into action.

Which leads us to the next point from the letter to the Hebrews.

“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16).

Sometimes we are blessed to give to the church. Sometimes we are fortunate to receive from the church. The devastated need to receive. And those who were fortunate to avoid the floodwaters have not only an opportunity but a moral obligation to give.

Jesus gave himself for us, holding nothing back, but giving his life. Following his example, the Gospel calls us to do good and to share what we have. Every offering - no matter how small it may seem - is important. It makes a difference. May we continue in the coming weeks and months to do good and to share generously in ways that give glory to God.

And then there’s one of the great verses from all of the Bible:

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

Circumstances in our lives will change. There will be good times and bad times. There will be times of joy and times of sorrow. Times of abundance and times of scarcity. And we can’t always predict or control what happens.

But regardless of circumstances, the love of Jesus Christ will never change. That love remains constant and steady. Flood waters can’t wash that away. Nothing in all of creation can ever separate us from the love of God given to us in Jesus Christ.

Regardless of what we’re going through, we can count on Jesus. He is forever faithful and reliable. He will never leave us or forsake us. For he is the Good Shepherd of our souls. He will guide us along the path that leads to new life. He will give us the courage and the perseverance to stay the course as together we rebuild our lives.

So let us not grow weary of doing the good work of loving each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Let us not grow weary in welcoming the stranger into the fold.

Let us not grow weary in showing empathy for the suffering, generously sharing our time, talent, and treasure for the spread of God’s kingdom, and trusting in the love of Christ for each one of us.

For by doing so, we will reap a harvest of blessings (cf. Galatians 6:9). We will fulfill our Lord’s command to love one another as he loves us. And we will strengthen the bonds of affection that unite us to one another and inspire us to live more deeply into our mission of caring for one another, spiritual growth, and bringing others closer to God through Jesus Christ.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon after the Louisiana Flood

Proper 16, Year C

Save me, O God, 
 for the waters have risen up to my neck.

I am sinking in deep mire,
 and there is no firm ground for my feet.

I have come into deep waters,
 and the torrent washes over me. …

Save me from the mire, do not let me sink;
 let me be rescued … out of the deep waters.

Answer me, O LORD, for your love is kind;
 in your great compassion, turn to me. (Psalm 69:1-3, 16, 18)

Since last weekend’s devastating flood, these words from Psalm 69 have been echoing in my mind and heart. They capture the feelings of fear, desperation, and helplessness that so many have felt as rising waters damaged homes and businesses and vehicles, even entire communities, rendering thousands of people homeless and countless others destitute. The sheer magnitude of what has happened and the pressing needs of so many are staggering.

We’ve seen some of the worst that Mother Nature can unleash. And in response, we’ve seen some of the best that people filled with compassion can do.

Until this flood, I’d never heard of the Cajun Navy. It was incredibly moving to see footage of ordinary citizens in our communities hitching boats to their trucks and driving to the flood waters to launch out on search and rescue missions, sometimes for hours at a time, all day and all night. They rescued hundreds - perhaps even thousands - of people and hundreds of pets. And they risked their own lives to do it. They are heroes.

We also give thanks for the Louisiana National Guard. I read that they rescued 19,000 people in flood-affected areas.

Then there are the many individuals and Red Cross workers who have opened up shelters for flood victims. They’ve housed and fed thousands of people, many of whom have lost everything. Everyone who has volunteered in these shelters has saved lives and has brought hope to the hopeless.

There are folks like you who have answered the call to serve by cleaning out flooded houses, making and delivering food, offering shelter in your homes, giving money and gift cards and supplies, referring people to community resources that can help, keeping all persons affected in your prayers, and making it clear that you will be there for those in need for the long haul.

And then there was the outpouring of people from our church, our school, and the larger community who yesterday unloaded supplies from Rome, Georgia for police officer and other families in the community whose homes flooded. People of all ages were down in Witter Hall working hard to unload and sort. It was a truly amazing sight.

I cannot begin to say how proud I am of the many ways that members of St. Luke’s have put their faith into action by loving God and loving our neighbors. You are doing the work of Jesus Christ. You are living sermons that proclaim the Good News that God has come among us in Jesus to rescue and renew.

Many of us have been concerned that the national news media has largely ignored this disaster. But via social media, the word has spread far and wide. I was even contacted by a priest in the Church of Ireland with whom I’ve corresponded over the years. He recently offered Mass for St. Luke’s in Belfast Cathedral. We are remembered by people all over the world who care and who are holding us in their prayers.

A few days after the flooding started, I met an elderly African American lady who had lost everything. And yet, she was filled with faith and hope for the future. Knowing all of the unrest we’ve experienced this summer in Baton Rouge, she looked me in the eyes and said: “I think God wants to use this to bring us all together.”

She’s right. God does want to use this tragedy to bring us all together.

Just as flood waters don’t discriminate on the basis of income, wealth, race, gender, politics, or creed, our call is to care for others regardless of who they are. Just as God reached out to all persons through his Son Jesus, God wants us to reach out in love to everybody who’s hurting and needy.

To do that, we have to rely on our faith and the hope that it gives us for the future. Our ultimate hope is in God. We need to remember how to act on that hope so that it bears the fruits of righteousness in lives restored to fullness of life.

Our scripture reading today from the prophet Isaiah points us in the right direction. It’s a passage that addresses issues God’s people faced when they returned from exile and had to rebuild their lives.

You may recall that in the 6th Century B.C., the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem. They demolished the Temple. They destroyed the Davidic monarchy. They hauled the Israelites out of their homes, carrying them off to a place whose language, customs, and religious practices were alien. Losing the land, the monarchy, the Temple, and their homes, the Babylonian Exile destroyed the outward and visible signs of God’s presence and favor. The feelings of abandonment and desolation for the Israelites must have been overwhelming. They lost everything but their lives.

But now, after nearly 60 years of exile, the people have returned to the ruins of their homeland. Now they must begin the long, hard work of rebuilding.

Precisely because the work of beginning again can be so hard, people can get discouraged. Sometimes, in the face of so many needs, people can be tempted to take shortcuts that leave the destitute and the vulnerable behind.

And so, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God offers this counsel to His people:

“If you get rid of unfair practices,
 quit blaming victims,
 quit gossiping about other people’s sins, 
If you are generous with the hungry
 and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, 
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
 your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight. 
I will always show you where to go. 
 I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places -
 firm muscles, strong bones. 
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
 a gurgling spring that never runs dry. 
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
 rebuild the foundations from out of your past. 
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
 restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
 [and] make the community livable again.” 
    (Isaiah 58: 9-12, The Message)

There’s a lot to unpack here. But it can all be summarized by saying: Act justly.

Resist temptations to take moral shortcuts. Don’t take advantage of the vulnerable. Don’t focus on other people’s shortcomings by pointing fingers of blame.

Instead, God calls us in the weeks and months to come to be as generous in responding to needs as we were during and in the immediate aftermath of the flooding.

Feed the hungry. Rescue the oppressed. Befriend the lost and the lonely. Make friends with strangers. And when things get difficult and people make mistakes, resist the temptation to assign blame. Instead of asking who’s right and who’s wrong, ask: Who is hurting? Who is hungry? Who needs a safe place? Who needs help? Reach out with open hands and open hearts.

That’s what it looks like to act justly.

But there’s a second part of God’s counsel to His people who must rebuild their lives and begin again. And that can be summarized by saying: keep Sabbath.

Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, here’s how God puts it:

“If you watch your step on the Sabbath
 and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, 
If you treat the Sabbath as a day for joy,
 God’s holy day as a celebration, 
If you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’
 making money, running here and there - 
Then you’ll be free to enjoy God!
 Oh, and I’ll make you ride high and soar above it all.” 
   (Isaiah 58:13-14, The Message)

There’s an important reminder here that in the aftermath of disaster and in the midst of rebuilding, it is imperative that we honor God by making time for worship on our Sabbath: Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the day on which we remember and give thanks for the resurrection of Jesus, the One in whom all of our hopes find their fulfillment. For by coming together to worship God, we will find our strength renewed and our hopes for the future restored. We need that if we’re going to move forward together.

I think the call to keep Sabbath also includes the need we all will have in the coming weeks and months to take time out from the busyness and the stress of rebuilding. We must not push ourselves too hard. We must be gentle with ourselves. We must take time for rest. We must make it a priority to take time apart to keep company with God in prayer and meditation on a daily basis, lest we burn ourselves out.

Act justly and keep Sabbath.

That’s God’s counsel to us as we work to begin again.

We are now rebuilding and raising up the foundations for future generations.

We are repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in. And just as God was with His people who had to rebuild in the past, God is with us today.

God will show us where to go.

He will give us fullness of life in even the emptiest of places.

And out of the darkness and destruction, God will bring the beauty and joy of new life for us all.

Stay strong. Keep the faith. Persevere in prayer. Hold on to one another. Act justly. Keep sabbath

And remember that bidden or unbidden, God is among us to comfort and sustain, to guide and protect, and to bring to fulfillment His perfect will for the renewal of all things.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Faith After the Flood

Below are my initial thoughts after the recent devastating flooding in south Louisiana.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. … Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:1-2, 4).

Dear People of God,

The recent devastating flooding that has affected all of our lives has left us shaken, heartbroken, and grieving. So many have suffered damage to homes and the loss of vehicles and treasured possessions. The sheer magnitude of what has happened, and the pressing needs of thousands of people, is staggering. It will take months and perhaps years to fully recover.

It sometimes feels like it’s too much to bear. But we will make it through this. We will do it together as a St. Luke’s church and school family. We will do it as fellow citizens of the great state of Louisiana. And we will do it by relying on our faith in a God who knows us each by name, who loves us, who cherishes us as precious, and who promises that the waters of affliction and the fires of adversity will not take us down.

God will see us through this. He’s already doing it through people who are reaching out in love and concern to all who have been affected. And He will continue to do so by giving us the strength and the perseverance we need to move forward.

As a church, St. Luke’s will continue to find ways to be a part of this important work of living our faith by bringing hope and healing to those needing help to rebuild their lives. So many of you have already participated in those efforts by cleaning out flood-damaged homes, making food, giving money to the clergy discretionary funds, and contributing supplies for needy police officer families. Thank you!

Please continue to be on the lookout for other opportunities to live our faith by reaching out in love to the needy in our church and our community. We will communicate that information via the church website and church emails.

I feel blessed to be a part of the St. Luke’s community. When the call goes out to St. Luke’s to help, you can be counted on to respond. It’s a moving example of putting our faith into action. I am proud of the many ways we are living out our mission of caring for one another as God in Christ cares for us.

As we work our way into the recovery and rebuilding phase of this disaster, I invite you to add the following prayer to your daily prayers:

Dear Lord, we pray for those whose lives have been devastated by rain and flood. Protect the vulnerable. Strengthen the weak. Give comfort to the grieving. Bring relief to the suffering. And may our response to all in need be generous and such as would bring you praise. Amen.

Love and blessings to you all,
Fr. Bryan