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.
That'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
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
to 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
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
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 Biloxi, Mississippi,
which lost its building during Katrina? I can't direct that but want to
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,
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
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
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.