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.

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