Rev. Kathleen McShane

September 4, 2005


After the Hurricane

Matthew 18:5-20; Romans 13:8-10


            I had a sermon prepared for today called “Apples and Oranges”.  Ironically, I had it done days before I usually do.  And maybe someday you will hear it.  But today, I need to speak about, and maybe you need to hear about, where God might be and what God might be saying to us in the disturbing and sometimes almost unbelievable images that have been coming from New Orleans and Mississippi and then Texas, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

            I have learned, even before this hurricane, that when tragedy comes, when something is taken from us in what seems like a senseless manner—whether it is a tsunami, or the death of a young child, or the persistence of an illness that we had prayed for healing from—the question we must ask of God, the question God can answer, is not “Why?” but “And what shall we do now?  How shall we live?”  And no matter how incomprehensible or “unfair” our loss seems, no matter how hopeless and helpless we feel, there is always, always, wisdom available to us for the living of these days, the path we can follow home again from the place of chaos and despair.  But sometimes, if we have done our work and paid attention, it will be to a new home, where there is more depth, more understanding, more compassion, than what we had known before.

            We are being called to that path now.  Not only the thousands of people physically displaced by the floods and the destruction of their homes and cities, but all of us who are watching that happen.  Like the events of September 11, four years ago, this is a decisive moment, a moment for recording who we are as a nation.  Like in the aftermath of the tsunami, just eight months ago, this is a moment for noting who we are as the people of the earth.  Does it feel like the frequency of these kinds of events if accelerating?  Maybe it is because we have learned something already.  Or maybe because there is still something important for us to know.

            We look first, as we must always, to the Scripture of our tradition, the Bible, for God’s word to us.  The most important commandment, Jesus said, right there with loving God, is:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Paul repeats that commandment in the very reading we have for today.  Our work, always, is to figure out what loving our neighbor looks like in the situation right in front of us.  For the good Samaritan Jesus talked about, it meant literally picking up an injured person he didn’t know, and whose type he didn’t particularly like, and taking him to a place where he could be taken care of, and then paying for that care himself.

            We have learned already, I think, the importance of offering physical and financial support to the people who are affected directly by this disaster.  All of us, I’m sure, have thought, “What can I do?”  After some initial shock and a few false starts, clothes and water and food have started to pour into the areas where they are needed.  Already, I have heard reports that there is enough to meet the need of the victims who were transported to Houston, and that we should not send any more right now.  Within hours, it seemed, the celebrities gathered to put on concerts to inspire us to send money, just in case the pictures and the obvious need were not enough.  Bracelets will follow shortly. We will take an offering this morning for UMCOR’s hurricane relief efforts, because we want to give; because the need is great and the need is immediate. 

            But the need is bigger and deeper and larger than anything our immediate gifts, even of money, can fill.  Part of what it means to love the people of Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama as ourselves is to realize that their lives have been forever changed.  That there is nothing for them to go home to.  That their losses will go on beyond this week, and this month, and even this year.  That long after their pictures and the images of a flooded New Orleans have stopped appearing on our televisions, they will have no place to live, no place to go to school, no church.  And for some of them, that’s about all they had to begin with.  And so maybe, what it means to love those people as we love ourselves includes sharing some loss with them, rather than just watching them go through it.  Maybe it means making a commitment to stay with them in this story until it is finished, instead of just until it is gone from the news.  Maybe it means that some of us will, a few months or a year from now, go there and help rebuild some homes or a church.  Maybe it means committing ourselves to send more money than it is easy to write a check for today.  Maybe it means actually giving something up—a vacation, or buying new furniture earlier than you need it, or a paycheck from one week of your work—so that what you send to these neighbors through UMCOR or the Red Cross, or whatever, allows you to feel just a little bit of their loss with them.  This is different than what will be asked of you when the church does its stewardship campaign later this fall.  This is extraordinary, just like the events of the past week have been extraordinary.

            And this is what followers of Jesus do—they live for others to the point of it costing them something.  The church’s work is to remind us of that, and to help us encourage one another into that kind of life.  A life that is outside the bounds of convenience, of ease, of what some people might call prudent.  A life that is about being as attuned to the needs of others as you are to your own. 

            And beyond even the immediate and physical needs caused by the hurricane and flooding, I think we have seen something else on television and in photographs this week that is clamoring for our attention.  There has been visible to us this week a racial and economic divide in our country that we do not often talk about, or even acknowledge.  An almost shocking contrast between the images of highways re-routed last Sunday so that cars and sports utility vehicles piled high with family belongings could drive out of New Orleans to higher ground, and the images of poor people who had no cars with which to get out; who waded through the flood waters to get to the Convention Center or who simply moved up and up in their houses, through the attic and onto their roofs, until someone might come and rescue them.  And while these pictures didn’t divide on precisely racial lines, they came pretty close.  Uncomfortably close.

            This too is part of how we live in America.  Despite our creed, and even our determination, that anyone who works hard can be successful, there is in fact an under-class, a line that some people live under, that divides those for whom our creed is true and those for whom it is not. 

Or let’s say that I’m wrong; that the opportunity to succeed, to make something of yourself, to rise above the class and condition you were born into is equally available to everyone.  How will those children, the ones we saw this week in pictures from the Superdome, the ones who are the third-born to a poor seventeen-year-old mother, know about that opportunity for themselves?  And if they never find out about it, how will we know not to judge them as less deserving than ourselves? 

Because it is our tendency to judge them in that way.  Our need to create hierarchies of deserving is as old as humanity itself.  Cain killed his brother Abel because his sacrifice seemed to be less pleasing to God, which made him feel bad about himself.  And our Gospel reading today, from the 18th chapter of Matthew, is part of a series of parables and teachings Jesus answered with when his disciples came to him and asked, one more time, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 

Every time the disciples asked that question, the point of Jesus’ answers seems to be, “This is not a useful question.”  Comparisons don’t seem to figure much in the equations Jesus thinks are important.  Ninety-nine lost sheep vs. one who is disobedient and can’t stay with the crowd?  The shepherd is going after that one.  Someone who stayed in their home too long after the evacuation warnings and now needs to be rescued from their roof?  What do you think?  Not only do comparisons—great, greater, greatest—not matter in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says; but in God’s book, what you think of as least turns out to be greatest. The poor get Jesus’ attention, not to wish for them what the rich folks have, but to empower them.  The workers who get in on the workday only at the last minute get paid as full employees.  The woman who has so little pride, or sense of her own worthiness, that she asks only to touch the hem of Jesus’ coat, is healed. 

This is the way it is in the kingdom of heaven.  But in the passage we read today, Jesus seems to be telling us again that the work of the kingdom is not just about the next life.  It’s about this one.  That what we do here, on earth, in the church and outside of it, where just two or three people are gathered together, matters.  It doesn’t just matter to us; it matters to God, and to establishing God’s way on earth. 

Every time we set up a comparison among us, define some of us as deserving attention or favor or success, and others not, we separate ourselves from the object of our comparison.  We dis-connect ourselves from other people, by putting up a wall of comparison between them and ourselves.  And it’s those walls that Jesus was trying to dismantle.  He knew that every time we even ask the question, “Who is the greatest?” or “Do they deserve our help?” we have missed the point of loving others as we love ourselves.  Of loving them the way we ourselves have been loved by God.  Is it normal, human, to make those comparisons?  Absolutely.  But Jesus was challenging his disciples to live a life that is something different than normal, something that’s more about God’s way than our way.  And he’s asking us to do the same thing. 

So what shall we do—how shall we live—learning from what we have seen in the past week?  Could we invite a family that has been displaced from their home to come and live among us in our homes and in this community, and take responsibility for the opportunity that is created for them?  Shall we take more seriously the poverty that is not so far from us, and that would make a disaster relief effort in the Bay Area look not so different from what we have seen in New Orleans?  Are you hearing God call to you into a more active response to what you have seen this week?

Let this be the conversation among us in these next days.  Let this be the word we wait for as we come to the communion table today.  Let us not miss this moment.