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.

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