I didn’t see the pictures or hear the stories until late in the week. I wasn’t glued to my television and network coverage of the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Katrina. I didn’t see the storm growing. I didn’t hear the news stories of the growing chaos – of the failure of deconstructed systems to respond to the devastation – of the flood survivors condemned to die on the streets or in the shelters – of the surge of violence so great that the governor of Louisiana ordered peace officers to focus on containing crime instead of participating in rescue efforts. I didn’t hear about the growing environmental contamination or the inability to estimate the swiftly increasing numbers of those missing or dead. I didn’t see this horrendous situation growing, so it all burst in on my awareness in the space of a few minutes.
When I saw for the first time the extent of the devastation in New Orleans, I was shocked and confused. I had a sense of déjà vu – a feeling that I had seen these flooded streets before – that I had seen the faces of frantic people before – that I had seen children walking past bodies lying on the streets before. I finally realized that these pictures are like the pictures we have all seen before – pictures of Southeast Asia after the tsunami – pictures of Bangladesh and Somalia, of Rwanda and Iraq.
But I was still confused. This is home. How could this be happening? This is the United States of America – the nation whose infrastructure could always be counted on to bring order and relief to the chaos that accompanies natural disasters like our California earthquakes and the tornados of the Midwest. And, until now, to the victims of hurricanes along our Gulf Coast. How could this be happening? This is the United States of America – the nation whose people have always been first responders to disaster occurring any place in the world.
I had trouble wrapping my mind around what had happened. As I read and listened and watched, I began to see that the systems we have always counted on no longer exist. They have been dismantled and reconstructed, their resources reallocated to other purposes. This disaster – greater than any we have ever known in this country – occurred at a time when we were least prepared to cope with it, and literally millions of people have paid and will continue to pay the price for it.
In today’s gospel portion, Jesus tells us that living in community gives us both obligations and gifts. He says that if a member of the community does a wrong deed, we are not to simply stand by and let the behavior continue. We are not called to judge the person. We are called to speak up when actions do not support the community. That has happened as this week has unfolded. The people who have high visibility as interpreters and commentators of our life – the anchorpersons and reporters of various news services – have been forthright in their comments about the state of unpreparedness with which our country has faced this tragic event. They have been forthright in their willingness to let us see their emotional distress as they have described for us the horrors of this situation. They have been forthright in calling our leaders to account. They have spoken the truth.
Our responsibility to speak the truth in love is only one of the teachings Jesus gives us in this gospel portion. There are two sides to this business of living in community. Jesus also tells us that when two or three of us are gathered in his name, he is present with us. And when Jesus is present with us, he calls us to right action in his name.
Jesus calls us to right action – calls us to join with people of all faiths and of no known faith who are doing their best to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the ill and the dying, protect the weak and give shelter to those who are homeless. Each of us is called to be as generous as we can in these next weeks and months – with our time, with our treasure, and with our prayer. If you have room in your home, I invite you to consider offering shelter to a person or family whose home has been destroyed. If you have time to spare and skills that will be useful to the ongoing rescue and building effort, I invite you to consider giving your time. If you have a roof over your head and food on your table, I invite you to consider giving of your wealth to those who now have nothing.
One of the most poignant statements I’ve ever read came from a woman just like you and me. A woman who was caught up in the struggle of thousands of people to find food and water for themselves and their families. She said, “We were not born thieves – we were born Christians.” Our communities are fragile organisms, my friends, and as we give thanks for our safety this morning, I ask for your prayers for those outside our community. Pray for those whose communities have been destroyed, for those who are struggling to maintain communities in the face of adversity, and for those whose courage and commitment will result in the building of new communities. Pray that those who are living in fear and uncertainty will be strengthened and comforted by God’s presence. Pray that each of our hearts will be moved to bring about God’s purpose for this moment. Pray that each of us will be moved to be Christ’s voice and hands in the world during these dark and tragic days.
Our presiding bishop asks that we join him in praying for those who are suffering:
God of mercy and compassion, be in our midst and bind us together in your Spirit as a community of love and service to bear one another’s burdens in these days as we face the ravages of storm and sea. This we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord from whom alone comes our hope. Amen.
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