Proper 19 Sermon, Year A   "In the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: How Will We Choose to Live?"

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Rev. Peter Faass

St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville

Eccl. 27:30-28:7; Ps. 103; Rom. 14:5-12; Matt. 18:21-35

I recently read this quip about jazz musicians. (Our friends in the band will forgive me for telling this.) How does a jazz musician end up with a million dollars? By starting out with two million dollars!

Jazz musicians, like church musicians, pursue their art not for money, but for the passion of it. Jazz touches their hearts and souls, resonating in them like nothing else. Few people ever get financially rich pursuing their passion for jazz, but their spirit is enriched beyond measure.

I remember visiting the French Quarter for the first time, and hearing jazz music wafting out onto the streets from the bars on a hot, humid, sultry evening, the air thick with the smells of jasmine and Cajun & Creole cooking. It was a mesmerizing, spirit-touching, borderline religious experience. (Of course, I almost always think of any event associated with good food as a religious experience!) To have heard jazz in that marvelous, mysterious place, called the "Big Easy", was to come to know yourself a bit more deeply as a human being.

New Orleans: the city that birthed jazz - America's musical gift to the world . . . and to itself . The city on the Mississippi river that nurtured the likes of Louis Armstrong, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Mahalia Jackson, Bessie Smith, and my personal favorite, Billie Holiday. New Orleans: that quirky, odd, alluring, mysterious place, that marched to a different beat - literally and figuratively- the mention of whose name always flooded one's imagination with images of Mardi Gras and beyond. New Orleans whose legacy to the world is great food, unique architecture, warm & friendly people, good times and jazz music.

Now that city and dozens of cities, towns, villages and communities along the Gulf Coast of our nation, are no more. They are virtually gone - reduced to rubble by wind and flood of biblical proportions. And along with the loss of those places, untold numbers of people are dead, hundreds of thousands are displaced and homeless, and millions have had their lives thrown into utter chaos by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina just two weeks ago.

Katrina blew down and ripped apart lives, property and a unique culture that flourished on the Gulf Coast, whose beating heart was New Orleans. We all have much to grieve in the wake fo this natural disaster, and the human tragedy that has unfolded before our eyes.

But in addition to the lives and property that Katrina ripped apart, she also ripped open and exposed something else. A "something else" that lies just below the surface of American society. Something that we all work hard to deny exists, certainly to the degree that it does, and often altogether. Something that is a stain on the soul of this nation. A cancer which has been eating away at the moral fiber of our collective spirits. Katrina exposed the harsh truth of the extent with which the sinful issues of poverty, race and the disregard for the elderly continue to plague ths nation. Katrina ripped open the truth that, more often than not, to be poor, or black, or elderly in America is to be regarded as being of lesser worth as a human being. And this is true not just in the face of a disaster like a hurricane, but something which occurs daily . . . in all of life. And to be poor, or black, or elderly - or worse yet, any combination thereof - in the midst of a disaster like Katrina, can prove to be lethal.

How do we as Christians respond to this plague of poverty, racism and ageism in our culture: A plague that Katrina has brought to light in profound and disturbing ways? How do we bring the light of God to shine on this dark and ugly place . . . and begin to heal it?

For surely God would have us do so.

I say "we" because it is up to each and everyone of us to do this. I say "we" because those whom we have looked toward to address this blight on our nation, and lead us as a people to remedy it, have for years chosen to ignore it. Witness the aftermath of Katrina. Instead of doing some serious soul-searching as to how this tragedy could have ever occurred in America, our elected and appointed leaders, both Republican and Democrat, black and white, choose to politicize this unfathomable disaster, choosing not to look at the ugly truths that Katrina exposed. Choosing not to see the face of our common humanity in the midst of this tragedy.

Instead they are working hard at deflecting the negative impact caused by their own dearth of leadership which this has crisis exposed, to either save their political careers, or to get a political leg up over their opponents. They are working over-time playing the blame game. And there is only one word that comes to mind to describe this behavior: Shame.

In the Gospel we learn that when the authorities brought a woman caught in adultery before Jesus for judgement, his response to them was, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone." The leaders of our country at all levels of government, and along the entire political spectrum, would be wise to take heed of Jesus' words here. Those people who have failed to adequately care for the most vulnerable among us, (and there are plenty) whether it was before, during or after Katrina, regardless if they were from the federal, state or local levels of government, have no right to be picking up stones to throw at anyone else, in the wake of this hurricane. They all bear responsibility for what has happened.

What we need now is humility, not hubris. What we need now is compassion, not judgement. What we need now is responsible leadership, not hollow excuses. What we need is a united effort by people across the political spectrum, to work not only to alleviate the current suffering, but to labor together over the long term to eradicate the systemic plagues of poverty, racism and ageism in our nation, so that we will never have to suffer such a disaster again! And it is you and I, my sisters and brothers in Christ, who need to demand this of our governmental leadership. And we need to demand it of ourselves. God holds us accountable to this task.

God holds us accountable because caring for the most vulnerable among us: the elderly, the sick, the children, and the poor, is a religious issue, not a political one. The Bible has several thousand verses within it concerning God's passionate instructions to humanity to care for the poor, and to fight injustice against the weak and needy. It is the second most prominent theme in the scriptures after idolatry and they are often connected. "One of every sixteen verses in the New Testament is about the poor or the subject of money. In the first three books of the gospels it is one out of every ten verses, and in the book of Luke, it is one in seven!" 1

Hear the prophet Isaiah, " Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims - laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children." (Is. 10:1-2)

Hear the prophet Amos, " Hear this you who trample on the poor, who take from them rich levies of grain, you have built houses hewn from stone, but you shall not live in them. You have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I [your God] know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins - you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy." (Amos 5:11-12)

Hear Jesus, as he defines the objective of his life and ministry, " The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free." (Lk. 4:18)

These holy words have nothing to do with partisan politics, ( or at least they shouldn't) but instead they define prophetic politics: they are the politics of faith. They are God's politics. And they are the only politics worth having.

Had God's politics been the moral plumb line of the people and leadership of our country these past few decades, the enormous extent of the human devastation caused by hurricane Katrina, would never have happened.

The evangelical minister and editor of Sojourners magazine, Jim Wallis writes the following, " We must face the fact that what's happening in the streets of America is connected to what is happening in the hearts of Americans. The greatest moral question in American politics today is, What is our prosperity for? Will it serve as an excuse to forget those left behind? Or will it include those who have fallen through the cracks in our society, including almost thirteen million children [who live in poverty]? The biblical prophets say a society's integrity is judged, not by its wealth and power, but by how it treats its most vulnerable members." 2

The devastation and pain caused by Katrina are immeasurable. What has been revealed about our attitudes toward the poor, the elderly and people of color is sinful. Yet even in the aftermath, our loving God through his holy prophets continue to call us to redemption and renewal. What better way to honor all the victims of Katrina - both the living and the dead - than to seek redemption and renewal for our nation?

But to do this God and the prophets compel us to ask ourselves an essential question about our integrity, our morality, and our faith. And that question is this, How will we, the people of the United States of America, choose to live our lives in the aftermath of this disaster?

God awaits our response.

     1 Jim Wallis, God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It., (Harper San Francisco: 2005) , 212.

     2 Ibid., 236.

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