Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Prophets of Katrina

As many people mark the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I am reminded of the sermon I preached on that next Sunday, in the suburbs of Houston, as evacuees were streaming into our city. Portions of this sermon were picked up by the Episcopal News Service, in their reporting on how various parishes were reacting to the crisis.

The Prophets of Katrina
September 4, 2005
(Pentecost 16 - Proper 18 - Year A)
Matthew 18: 15-20
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Cypress, Texas

I welcome all of you here today, especially our friends from Louisiana and Mississippi.
I don’t think that many of us in the pews today are here in church to listen about how this is the 16th Sunday after Pentecost.
Instead, we have come into this holy place to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in the midst of the unbearable and frustrating tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

Some of you who have been in my office and have seen what is framed and sitting on my desk.
It is a quote from the French theologian, Paul Claudel:
The quote says:
"Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it.
He came to fill it with his presence."
Let me say that again:
"Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it.
He came to fill it with his presence."

Jesus came to earth not to take away the unpleasant and bad parts of being human.
Jesus, through the downward journey of the Cross, enters the bad parts of being human and fills it with his presence.
For, joy (and suffering) and life (and death) are all a part of the human experience.

The same Gulf of Mexico that lulls us to sleep with its gentle waves on a summer’s night in Galveston is the same Gulf of Mexico whose waves can bring catastrophic loss.
The same water that we use to joyfully baptize is the same water that flows over broken levees.
The same Astrodome in which we chanted "Luv Ya Blue" is the same Astrodome which is now a ghetto for the sick.
God gives us freedom, freedom to experience both the ups and the downs of life.
And, Jesus does not eliminate the ups and downs of life,
What Jesus DOES do is to fill both the ups and downs of life with his presence.
And, the presence of Jesus is the presence of love.

The love of Jesus fills this moment of tragedy as we become Jesus to these hurting, hungry and helpless people.
Our hands become Jesus’ hands as we fill the world with loving service, as we pray, as we collect money, as we donate bottled water, as we sort through used clothing.
For "Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it.
He came to fill it with his presence."

However, I do not want us to leave here today thinking that the Christian life is just a glorified United Way agency.
Christians are not only called to fill the world with the presence of Jesus’ love.
Christians are to live on the edge, fearless in the face of opposition and bold in our proclamation against injustice.
Christians are called to be more than relief workers, we are called to be prophets.

The Gospel reading from Matthew today is a lesson about how we are to live together in community.
In methodical steps, Jesus teaches us how to handle those times when we have a disagreement or a problem with someone else:
First, you are to have a conversation alone, with just you and the person you disagree with.
Second, if that doesn’t work, then you are to bring in a third party.
Third, if that doesn’t work, then you are to bring in the whole congregation.
Then Jesus says that if visiting with them in person doesn’t work, and if bringing in a third party doesn’t work, and if involving the whole church doesn’t work,
Then, your last option is to treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector.

The most common way of interpreting this story is that if you can’t settle an argument with someone using these methods, then the offending person is to be treated like a Gentile or a tax collector and kicked out of the church.
Yet, what does Jesus teach us about Gentiles and tax-collectors?
Jesus teaches us that those on the outside, those who are like criminals, those who are like non-believers, the Gentiles and the tax-collectors, should be treated with EXTRA grace and love, NOT kicked out of the church.

One of the things that has been left largely unsaid as we address the Hurricane Katrina disaster is that many of the victims are the Gentiles and tax-collectors in our society.
When I watch CNN, the people I mainly see are black and poor.
For the sad truth has now been revealed:
The poor of New Orleans were displaced, long before Katrina came.

And, as Christians, we are called to cry out, like all the prophets in the Bible, prophets like Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist.
We are called to cry out, in righteous anger, that this whole disaster has unearthed a giant problem in American society.
We are NOT all equal.
We are not even separate, but equal.
We are not a nation where all are free, but we are a nation STILL enslaved by divisions of skin color and economic advantage.

You have a right to disagree with me, but I bet you that if the Superdome was filled with rich white people, then you would not have seen the horror that we have seen on our TV screens.
And, I get my opinions from sources right here in our own town.
I have overheard people say, referring to the looting they have seen on TV:
"Well, what do you expect?
You know that is what those kinds of people do."
I have overheard people say, commenting on the rescues from rooftops:
"Well, what do you expect?
They told those stupid people to get out."

How are we going to welcome the Gentiles and the tax-collectors that are pouring into our city?
How are we going to treat the poor, the hungry, the black-skinned?
How are we going to feel about our new neighbors come November or December, after they have taken our jobs, guzzled our gas and learned in our schools?

We, as Christians, have the sad opportunity to fill this tragedy with the presence of Jesus’ love.
And, we have the opportunity to be courageous prophets, working against the grain of an unjust social system.

The capacity of the Astrodome was underestimated.
The levees in New Orleans did not hold.
The relief effort has been botched at all levels.

Let’s not blow this opportunity to be real Christians.


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