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Based on the Scripture readings:
Matthew 28:1-10
Revelation 3:4
Exodus 14:19-31
Romans 8:35ff

2005 September 12
Recovenanting Sunday
Rev. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Katrina's New Covenant Call

For quite a while now I've thought that September 11th would be much easier this year than it has been since 2001. It's not.

All summer long I've looked forward to this Sunday as the day to re-covenant and celebrate a new year, a new Parish Hall, and the pleasure of seeing one another in person again. I'm very happy to see you, but I don't feel like a party.

Ever since the late spring, I've intended to preach a sermon today about open doors, open hands, minds, and hearts to kick off our fall theme and inspire our capital campaign for $300,000 to rebuild this wonderful church. And those themes are all central to our faith and our ministry, but they're not at the heart of this moment, today, September 11th, 2005. Because there are several tragedies on my mind, and they give me a heavy heart.

9/11 is not an average day. We heal from it, we learn from it, and we move forth from it, but it still defines our times and touches our lives. It is a tough anniversary. Now, since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, since the storm surge in New Orleans, since the veneer of safety and comfort and community has been stripped away exposing issues of poverty, race, and disorganization if not incompetence in our nation, I'm troubled again. Instead of celebration, I've been thinking of entirely different issues. I've been praying, and I've been angry and worried and focused on entirely different issues.

I've been mourning for the people of Mississippi and Louisiana and Alabama among others. I've been angry about how the past weeks' response does not fully reflect my values or my hopes. And I've been thinking about what role God plays in all of this, what role this gathering here today plays in all of this, and what I can discover and believe and do today and tomorrow. Which is why I am very happy to see you: because I need you, and we all need each other even while our world needs us to apply our faith, our covenant, and our compassion.

What is our faith? Remember Moses. His crossing the sea encapsulates our faith, revealing a God who sometimes travels in front of us leading the way, sometimes stands beside us offering light, and sometimes goes behind us nudging us forward. But, and this is essential to salvation's story, our faith is that God asks us and needs us to lift up our hands, to reach out ourselves and even to move our damned feet if we're going to get through the waters. The story of God is not about the time the Hebrews were beamed from Egypt to the promised land but about how Moses pulled up his sleeves, how Miriam provided the prompt, and how everyone trudged from bondage to freedom. Our faith knows a God who can stand on at least three sides of us and who needs us to put our hands to divine work.

This week the waters did not divide for us but they've shown a division among us. Yet God's ancient word is still our current call: salvation, emancipation, transportation demand our participation. Back to topThat's our faith.

What is our covenant? Revelation tells that story. It is to be alive and open. Not without conviction, not without clarity, not without fundamentals, but open as God is open to encourage new life for everyone. Our covenant is to hear in the story of creation's goodness, to know from history that bad things happen, and to live out our own stories through the expression of love. Our covenant is to be grounded in Bible promises and immersed in Jesus' call to feed, house, embrace, include, and share with everybody, everybody.

What is our compassion? We're learning that still. But compassion in the Hebrew Scriptures means, for women and men alike, to feel it in your womb. Every time God is called merciful or compassionate, which is quite a number, it means God feels it in her womb. Even our English word is grounded on the sense of feeling -- and suffering -- with. That's compassion past. What about compassion now?

Well, I feel troubled when I read a study from Bread for the World showing that in New Orleans, 46% of all the children under the age of 18 lived below the poverty line even though 60% of those hungry families there held full or part time jobs. I feel troubled when I hear that 76% of the overall New Orleans population under 18 relied on soup kitchens every month to get enough to eat. That was before the storm. How does all that make you feel? Is this God's compassionate kingdom?

How do you feel when you read that US Representative Richard Baker of Baton Rouge is quoted in the N.Y. Times and Wall Street Journal saying "We finally cleared up the public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it but God could." Do you feel good about some leader's responses?

I know I feel embarrassed to be a Christian in a culture that proclaims Intelligent Design for God but not for food stamp programs or emergency relief plans. My compassion is involved in all that.

But beyond embarrassment, where will our faith draw us now? Well, first perhaps to receive a realistic theological approach to what has happened. Peter Steinfels wrote yesterday that after 9/11 we came to understand that the tragedy of that day had to do with terrorists, but that after the South Asian Tsunami we asked many questions about how that was an act of God. Yet, Steinfels continues, "New Orleans met its demise by an act of man, not an act of God." Quoting a New Orleans writer he says that this time we can see how after years of governmental decisions and economic choices, there was not just a storm to blame but a system chosen by humans. God didn't assault the Gulf Coast; and thank God that this time our fundamentalist brothers in television "ministry" haven't made the claim that some sin ripe for fundraising is at hand here. This injury is not from God.

But, still following Steinfels, it is fair to ask how God can abide human negligence, racism, indifference, or downright evil behavior in our system? Or we ask, how is God involved now? How can we change the system? What, as my brother sometimes asks, is the Christian thing to do Back to topto fix this mess, short term, long term too?

I think that the starting point has to do with our vision. A lot of you have seen the stage play The Fantastiks. In the middle of the play, a man and a woman go out to see the world. One of them experiences great suffering. Robbed, abused, neglected, and deprived, his life is sub-human and filled with pain. The other one finds another path. She puts on a mask in order to view the world. And then whatever she views, even the theft, abuse, and deprivation of the other appears acceptable, normal, pretty even. She almost drops the mask once or twice, but as soon as she raises it to her eyes again the conditions that she faces appear just fine, and she interprets them with more than a positive spin but a downright pleasing analysis. As if you saw evacuees in a shelter and said they were better off than in their own homes.

The Fantastiks never pass judgment on the mask, but the story can only move forward when it is gone.

Whatever our impulses, we've got to take down our masks. We've got to admit what is in front of our eyes, even if it is horrible, and we've got to move beyond it. But there's more too.

Christianity is not a mask. It is not a tool to put a positive spin on human experience but a light to face it honestly. Our faith serves to open our eyes and call us forward like Samaritans, not around like priests and Levites of old.

Of course we need to protect our children from television, from photographs, and stories and expose them only to what their age can abide. Of course we've got to explain what they do see to them and interpret it with the end of the story always being that grownups will help and protect and provide. Then we've got to take our explanation to the children and apply it to the system, like grown ups in faith.

It's time to get political on behalf of our faith and to discuss the logic of tax cuts for a nation at war abroad and injured at home. It's time to get practical and organize here and across our communities to do such things as filling health kits to send afar as well as supporting efforts for more widespread health care and for systemic change near and far. And it's time to get sacrificial to keep our faith, covenant, and compassion vibrant and served by more than our lips.

Our denomination is trying to raise an immediate $3 million, which comes out to about two dollars per family member nationally, which concerns me with its caution. Through this parish I encourage you to give to this relief effort maybe the cost of a family meal out or a piece of clothing that you could do without. But I'd like to propose something more, too. When we do come around to raising $300,000 for our ministry, I challenge us to send forth ten percent of that total to building ministries, and while we hold the community in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua as possibly one of those locations, I wonder if the other could be the destroyed Back Bay Mission, a first line of service for our denomination in Back to topBiloxi, Mississippi, which lost its building during Katrina? I can't direct that but want to discuss it.

I want to challenge us further. We're all busy here. Many of you have told me just how busy your lives are every year, and I not only respect that, I feel compassion for it and wonder what my own life will be like when the sleep deprivation of being a new parent kicks in. I recognize that few of us have any extra time. I'd like to ask for your time. I'd like to spend time exploring our role in changing the system that got us here. I'd like to see us gather in October for the Hunger Supper and to bring our children to programs that unite folks from every generation in a conversation and then action regarding changing the world in which we live. Then, when the time is right next spring or summer, I'd like to encourage us to travel together on an intergenerational mission trip which could even be a rebuilding effort with our Gulf Coast sisters and brothers. But something more is needed, too.

This moment needs your prayers. Not just here in church but at your tables, with your families, and alone before God. The narrowest possible interpretation of prayer says that at a minimum it changes us and our awareness, which is not a bad thing. The broadest is that it changes the very cosmos. Please pray for survivors, for evacuees, for the poor, for the sick, for the churches and synagogues and mosques and music halls and community centers. Pray for God to help us all change our system.

Maybe you have seen some of the television specials raising money for this disaster. I've watched a few sections here and there. And each time I've tuned in, I've been struck by how Rod Stewart, some Rap artist I don't recognize, Faith Hill, and the Persuasions, among others have all been singing Christian, religious, gospel music for their performance. In my experience Rod Stewart and rappers have not spent a lot of their time engaging these themes over years past. But now they do. Which makes sense. Because only the sighs of the spirit in faith are big enough and bold enough and deep enough and true enough to express what we all feel and hope and need now. Only faith and covenant and compassion can explain and explore our experience and change our future.

And that is why I am glad to be here with you today. That is why I am glad to renew our covenant again. That is why I think we really need each other and why the world needs us; that's why I encourage you to invite your friends to come with you to our events, and we can all celebrate working together this year. This may not be an easy time. Good news may not always be happy news. But as we abandon our masks, follow God's direction, and lend our hands, we will know our reason for being together, and we will experience God's presence with us. This is God's open call to life now and always.  Amen.

Copyright 2005 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.

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