Sermon: The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17A, September 3, 2017
Throughout this week, we have watched the devastation unfold as Hurricane Harvey ravaged Texas and Louisiana with wind and water. Meteorologists warned that the atmospheric elements coming together would produce record rainfall and massive flooding. The images have been overwhelming. We see family after family stranded and shelters packed. It is heartbreaking to grasp the impact of a natural disaster on the human community.
In the midst of the despair, there is hope. Thousands of residents have reached out to their neighbors to help. I saw pictures of a human chain of people standing in floodwaters to get a pregnant woman to safety. Volunteers have come from near and far with boats to rescue families and pets. I was very much aware of our cooperative project with the Humane Society as I saw dogs and cats and birds being rescued time and time again. I saw the image of our Lord as servant when volunteers carried the elderly on their backs. I marveled at all the infants and children being airlifted by the National Guard helicopters. And when the residents were safely on dry ground, they embraced the men and women who worked tirelessly and courageously to bring them to safety.
In the midst of disaster, there is hope, and it comes in the form of servants who care and put their own concerns aside in order to carry others to safety. I watched the images throughout the week and read Paul’s words written to the Christians at Rome (12:9-12), found in our Epistle today: Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; 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. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
These words came alive as we witnessed people rescuing and carrying residents on their backs. As I watched all the rescue efforts with boats, I thought of our Gospel passage just a few weeks ago when the disciples were in the boat during the storm. Jesus came to them and calmed the rough waters and powerful winds. Christ was there in Houston and all the places where people were being comforted. Christ was there in those who reached out to help provide shelter, dry clothing, water, food and hope.
We keep our eyes open to find the Gospel coming alive all around us. And we hold the words of scripture close – repeating the words – saying the words together. This section of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome is all about the grace of God made real to us in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Grace is unmerited. You and I can’t earn it. It is an abundant gift from God, poured out on all of us. And when we have experienced God’s grace, then we learn to share grace with others. Paul’s words come alive through us: We rejoice in hope, we are patient in suffering, we persevere in prayer. We contribute to the needs of the saints; we extend hospitality to strangers. We are the boat, carrying the stranded around us. We are the church – all of us – sharing grace and encouragement because it is poured onto us by our loving God.
In the midst of such grace and hope, I was dismayed to hear that looting was also part of the scene in Texas. In the midst of the devastation, people tried to take advantage of others. There are human beings who fail to perceive God’s love and grace and turn to the dark side in the midst of disaster. We might say they resist God’s love and grace. In today’s scripture passages, we see resistance. Peter resists Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Moses resist’s God’s call to go to Pharaoh. Resistance means ignoring the grace so freely given by God. How easy it is to turn away from the obvious signs of grace and love in the world. How easy it is to end up complaining, condemning, criticizing, and whining.
We come together each week on Sunday to be reminded of the incredible grace of God. We come together to hear the words of the Gospel, to hear Christ’s call to us to take up our cross and follow him. We come together in Holy Trinity to hear the stories of grace and love and encouragement so that we become more and more the encouraging people of God.
That reminds me of another story about a storm. In 1748 a ravaging, destructive storm took place in the north Atlantic as a slave-trader named John Newton was travelling on a ship to England. That ship was damaged heavily by the wind and the waves. At one point Newton lashed himself to the ship in order to avoid being swept off the deck. Newton was not a man of faith. Instead, he was known as the Great Blasphemer, renowned for his harsh, profane language. Something happened to him during those nights of being thrown about by the winds and waves. John experienced the beginning of a conversion that brought him closer to God. And later he wrote famous words that you and I know well: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see. Amen.