4th Sep, 2005

The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”
Romans 13:8

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

They are strange names to Northern ears: Gautier, Pascagoula, D’Iberville, Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Picayune, Biloxi. Unheard of before to most people until this past week. But for some of us they are very familiar places; along with Ocean Springs, Gulfport, and Moss Point.

They each had a pretty little Episcopal Church, some quite historic like that Parish I was so closely associated with, Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi. When the former Rector was elected a missionary Bishop in Africa, I accepted the invitation to become interim there. That occurred for me at one of those important junctures in one’s life, and I became bonded and very grateful for the Parish community. It was an historic Parish, where the ex-president of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis and his wife were members following his release from incarceration at the end of the Civil War. Mr. Davis served on the Vestry and his family pew was preserved. Every Sunday I celebrated Mass on the silver Communion ware that Verena Davis gave as a memorial to her departed husband. No matter what your opinion is of that era of our nation’s history, it was an old church which had witnessed much: an interesting and fascinating place… picturesque, too, with a wide lawn and ancient oak trees covered in Spanish moss extending down to the Mississippi Sound.

Along with the usual Church seasons and holy days, we also commemorated another very important occasion at Redeemer, Biloxi. It happened ever year right about this time, in fact it was on August 18th. On that date in 1969 the devastating hurricane Camille struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast; the old church had been spared, but a newer structure had been destroyed. The terrible memory lived on in the collective consciousness of the people and we prayed for the departed and invoked St. Michael’s continued protection. But as the years passed by, the memories began to slowly fade.

Now almost exactly 36 years later the region would be inflicted with even greater terror and devastation than hurricane Camille. Having lived through some minor hurricanes in comparison to Katrina, I can testify that the experience was no picnic. I cannot conceive of what the residents from New Orleans East along the coast are going through… it must be horrible beyond words. Since we lived on the Gulf Coast, Bob and I watched the conditions on Monday with a transfixed horror unequaled since 9/11.

With no communication to the Gulf Coast possible, on Wednesday I decided to try to reach the Diocese of Mississippi headquarters in Jackson to inquire about Biloxi. When I informed the person who answered the phone that am a priest who had been licensed in the Diocese of Mississippi and had been at Redeemer, Biloxi…there was a silence, followed by “oh…I’m sorry…the church and the rectory are completely gone.” Most importantly however was the news that my friend the Rector, Fr. Harold Roberts and his wife Jan were safe. Then the person on the phone began a litany of the parishes along the coast…”gone, gone, that one’s gone, too… they’re all gone…” I went numb and then was overwhelmed with sadness.

Similarly, with no communication to New Orleans, I could not call the Diocesan headquarters there, let alone speak with my seminary classmate, Bishop Charles Jenkins.
The television news would have to convey the surreal scenes of the city where Bob and I met and spent so many happy times. Every day the images and reports are worse. This is America’s tsunami. This cataclysmic natural disaster makes Osama Ben Ladin and Al Quaeda look like a bunch of amateurs.

As circumstances would have it, I was scheduled to preach the Sunday after the tsunami and now I am scheduled to preach the Sunday after hurricane Katrina. Both events haunt us in our attempt to discern and understand such broad-scale human suffering.

Some simplistic views try to find solace and meaning by pointing blame.
Extreme fundamentalist Christians are calling hurricane Katrina God’s judgment on the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, New Orleans. I heard an opinion from an international source suggest the hurricane was judgment on America for invading Iraq. Political liberals are blaming the President and Governor of Mississippi for the hurricane, because they have not been environmentally conscious enough and, so, have contributed to global warming; which in turn caused the hurricane. Some blame the Corp of Engineers for building inadequate levees, who in turn blame Congress for not appropriating enough funds to do better. The finger pointing is escalating while people suffer.

With such a horrible disaster we struggle to make sense of it all. Jesus clearly rejects the notion of a God who causes disasters to occur to hapless people as some sort of retribution. In the 13th chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel He cites events from his own day like Pilate’s massacre of innocent Galileans or the tower of Siloam that fell on innocent bystanders. But still the question gnaws at us: why do bad things happen to good people?

Why isn’t life fair? I wish I could give you a simple, clear answer to that question, pointing the finger at a certain cause or reason; but in all honesty I cannot. Right now I am overwhelmed by the suffering of those on the Gulf Coast: places I know; people I know.
Where is God when we suffer through no consequence of our own actions, like a natural disaster? Why did God make hurricanes? Could I in good conscience beg God for the hurricane not to hit Biloxi, so instead it would hit somewhere else on the coast devastating that place?

The fact of life is that God gave us and the natural world free will, which means that He does not manipulate us or our conditions, making a wind-up universe which He controls like a child with a train set. When we accuse the Divine Will of causing a natural disaster, we call it an “act of God.” But often the truth is, as with the present situation in New Orleans, that a complicity of human failings compounds an already terrible event of nature. A society that allows and then neglects a growing number of poor people; governments that are so clogged by red-tape they cannot quickly respond to human need; cities that ignore predictions which do come true.

Did God really just create us and then abandon us like a laboratory experiment?
Our faith answers an emphatic “no” to that question by a very profound thing that is fundamental to our understanding of our God. He became one of us. He humbled Himself to become human and did not change the rules of the world, even taking on the worst the world had to offer. We call it the Incarnation and it is the sacramental reality that allows us the courage to try to redeem even the most horrific occurrences in the world.

Jesus’ life demonstrates that suffering binds us together in our common humanity … one shared by God through His Son and that Son, Jesus invites us into the very heart of God (which is why he ministered to so many people in the world unfairly suffering.) The Incarnation means that through all the circumstances of life God is there. God gave us and the natural world free will and so allowed the possibility of suffering into this world.
God entered our world, with all its joys and sorrows and suffered as one of us, not just to see how humans live; but to show us how much He cares. In the unfair, uncertain world we live in, we are called to stay fixed on the certainty of God.

As Christians we believe that our redemption by Jesus Christ can try to make human misery understandable. Because it is our redemption through the cross that gives us the courage to place our sufferings and the sufferings of others on the broad shoulders of Jesus as He hangs on the cross, taking all the redemptive suffering of the world upon Himself, offering it to God. Over the long sweep of human history there have been millions of us who have believed and continue to believe that there is a God who never lets us go. He is a God who doesn’t just share His power, but insists that we discover our own power in all the tangled joys and tragedies of life. He is a God who takes the leftover bits and pieces of our shattered hopes and broken dreams, our heartaches, doubts and disappointments and dares to look at them through our tears – tears that create a prism through which all the colors of life can be seen.

It was the Dean of St. Paul’s, Cathedral, London, John Donne, who reminded us that “no man is an island, entire unto himself.” All human history has been lived in the context of communities, because we are social beings. The primary prayer of the Christian faith begins: “Our Father…” OUR, not “my,” but “our” It is a shared prayer for a shared faith.
We understand ourselves as part of a family in which we are all brothers and sisters.

Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us that there is power in community. We gather in Jesus’ name, we celebrate the Mass together in which He becomes objectively and mystically present to us, and we perform ministry together. As members of Christ’s Body we are also closely linked to other Christians no matter where they be. We are connected to those Parishes on the Gulf Coast who have lost so much and are suffering now, because we are all part of the same Body. Jesus’ reminds us how important we are to one another, that through our community of love, His Spirit will be present to offer solace and healing.

We are also reminded that we are connected to the larger human family through love. Through the horror of the past week and the publicized worst behavior; I am gratified by the innumerable selfless acts of heroism, courage, and real compassion which we have seen displayed. We may lament the occurrence of such a disaster as hurricane Katrina, but through it we are able to be linked to Christ’s love, as we are bonded to our brothers and sisters far away who suffer. Our empathy and support for them makes us more fully human as God becoming human made Him more fully God.
As we confront the suffering in the world we can be touched by God. Perhaps an event like hurricane Katrina is a wake up call for us to accept what is wrong in the world that we do have control over and then take steps toward change. As we feel our brothers’ and sisters’ pain, we can become yet closer to the power of love which can transform even the most devastating events that happen in the world…”for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”
Amen.

 

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