I hardly know what to say this morning in the aftermath of the shock of this week. In some deep way the events of this week have been profoundly disturbing to me.
One tired man said it best when a reporter thrust a microphone in his face. It’ s a disaster of biblical proportions. He said it in a weary voice. And then he turned away.
I remember when 9/11 happened. One piece of video footage played over and over on the TV that week has stuck in my mind. I see it still. I will never forget it. A lone airplane flying in a wide but deliberate curve sliced into the side of a towering steel and glass giant and burst into flames. It was a mortal wound. I felt horror. The word evil exploded in my mind. But, as incongruous as it seems, in the next moment my mind spun back thousands of years and I thought, The Tower of Babel.
In the days that followed 9/11 a theme of redemption slowly but steadily began to weave through the rubble and the dust. Stories of heroism, of lives given that others might live, of honor and exhaustion, of suffering and perseverance, of patience and prayer, of miracles, of love and loss, of tears and hope. A ragged cross of torn and ravaged steel emerged as the rubble settled. I have a picture of it on the mantle in my office. It’ s powerful.
I was at Ground Zero last weekend when Buff and I were in New York for the wedding of his son. I walked around its perimeter and then sat and prayed in Trinity Chapel, a staging area for rescue workers during 9/11. In the silence of my meditation I had the overwhelming sense that this was a place here where twin towers had once stood, where man-made structures had crumbled that here heaven and earth had touched. It was a place where the finger of God and the brush of angel’ s wings had brought everyone closer to the Divine. It was a place where bodies had perished but souls had soared. It was a place where life and death wove in a sacred circle. I sensed that this was and will forever be hallowed ground.
As our weekend drew to a close in New York City, another city stole our attention, New Orleans and the surrounding area As Hurricane Katrina came and went, this disaster of Biblical proportions unfolded. It had connections for our family. The mother of my stepson lives in New Orleans, has a home there, belongings, friends, job. Her job as director of the federal division of the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’ s office in New Orleans would have put her dead center in the tragic events gripping the city. But for her son’ s wedding in New York.
A feeling of horror struck me this week. It didn’ t happen the same way it came to me on 9/11. Then it struck in a blinding moment of plunging planes and collapsing buildings.
This week the horror came over me slowly, slowly rising in me as subtly and steadily as deadly rising flood waters. It happened as events unfolded during the week. The natural disasters of hurricane and flood did not stimulate my despair so much as did the human disasters. It happened as I saw pictures and video footage and heard stories about how too many people were acting towards others. I saw the veneer peeled off of community and what happens when basic survival needs are threatened. When chaos erupts in our society.
I have images in my mind, as you do, I am sure. But no single one has grabbed me this week thus far as it did during 9/11. Instead I seem to have a deep sadness welling up in me that the real disasters of this week were not the result of a hurricane or flooding waters. Rather, the more disturbing disasters were when humans failed to respond to each other and to the tragedies arising out of terrifying natural events with love, zeal, compassion and a deep desire to meet not only their own but others needs.
Fear, anger, frustration, selfishness and indifference breed disasters with much farther reaching consequences than any havoc nature can cause.
As seems to be happening to me with some regularity these days, the sermon I started at the beginning of this week was finally cast aside. It was not meant to be, after all, on the Gospel of Matthew and ways of resolving conflict in the church and society. (I hear you all drawing a collective sign of relief.) No, this sermon this week needed to be on Romans.
At first reading this beautiful, inspirational, aspirational passage seemed so at odds with the disasters of the week. I felt like we should flip back instead to the Ten Commandments and run through a litany of the should nots. How tragically broken those ancient tablets seemed this week as raping and stealing and gunshots reverberated through a community ripped open by hunger, thirst, anger, fear, frustration.
Or we could have gone to Noah and the Flood and try to find comfort in God’ s rainbow in the sky.
Or we could have gone to Moses and the Israelites wandering isolated in a desert sea of sand without food and water but with deliverance in the form of God’ s provision of MRE’ s (Meals Ready to Eat) in the form of manna and water from a rock.
But the timing of Paul’ s passage happening in today’ s Lectionary is one of those coincidences that affirms that there really are no coincidences in life.
Today’ s passage from Romans calls us to community. It provides a checklist for how to live together so that all are comforted, supported, challenged, built up and loved into healing and wholeness. It draws the lens away from self and towards a vision of heaven, perhaps even on earth. It reminds each of us that we are, ultimately, part of a whole. That our fate lies in the overall health of community. And, implicit in this passage, is the underlying reality that our behaviors and our orientation can either diminish and destroy the whole or help it grow, heal, flourish and become more fruitful for everyone. It boils down to realizing we either rise or fall together.
How big is the whole. How big is the community in which we live, to which we are called to minister, and within which we are ministered to? This week we are challenged to see it, at a minimum, stretch from shore to shore.
None of us are outside the range of disaster. We can either contribute to disaster when it strikes by our actions or inaction or we can offer ourselves to be useful in God’ s work of redemption and of bringing order out of chaos.
Look at parts of the passage:
Let love be genuine; hold fast to what is good; love one another; outdo one another in showing honor; do not lag in zeal; be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord; rejoice in hope; be patient in suffering; persevere in prayer; extend hospitality to strangers; contribute to needs; feed the hungry; give the thirsty something to drink; overcome evil with good.
As the waters recede, as the reality of the destruction becomes evident in the aftermath of the hurricane, they say what will emerge and cover the ground are the corpses, the detritus, the sewage, the slime, the stench resulting from what happened this past week.
But I believe that what will also emerge, what will ultimately overcome the human devastation and the stench, what will come to light – will be stories of acts of quiet heroism, of radical hospitality, of resources shared and spread, of prayers lifted up, of prayers answered, of lives recovered, of hearts and hands reaching out from all over this country bringing relief to the devastated and despairing, the hungry and the homeless. There will be stories of healing and there will be rebuilding.
And God will plunge his hands into the mud and slime left from receding waters. He will roll up his sleeves and like the Potter with the clay He will tirelessly go to work once again molding his creation. God will do so with the hope that his creation will live together in a way that will bring all life into the Divine promise of peace and prosperity.
It’ s Sunday morning, but I don’ t think God is at rest today. He’ s busy, he’ s beginning his work through us. Let’ s get going!