This week, we’ve once again held our collective breath as we watched a hurricane threaten people we care about, in our own country and beyond. As a powerful tropical storm, Isaac passed over southwestern Haiti last Saturday. In the storm’s path was Maniche, the home of our partner school; but from what we’ve heard, there was no significant damage there. Elsewhere in Haiti, 24 people lost their lives. A few days later, we held our breath as Isaac grew into a hurricane and stalked the Gulf Coast, landing near New Orleans seven years almost to the day after Hurricane Katrina. It was “only” a Category 1 storm, so the damage was certainly less than seven years ago. But still, thousands are suffering; and we hold them in our prayers today, along with the people of Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic.
There are always stories of heroism and love in situations like these – people in small boats, picking up neighbors on rooftops; first responders saving lives despite the elements; churches and hospitals rallying to meet overwhelming need. We take such heroism almost for granted, knowing that people will step up and amaze us with their care for one another.
Among all the media coverage of the storm, I was struck by a TV news story about Faith Bible Church near Dallas, Texas. The hurricane “news” there wasn’t about the storm directly. The news was the church’s preparation for people expected to come from far away. As you’ll remember, when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, thousands of displaced persons needed to be resettled temporarily, going even as far as Dallas looking for help. Well, this congregation in DeSoto, Texas, had turned its worship space into a dormitory, with hundreds of cots set up in careful rows, bedding neatly in place – each one ready to welcome someone in need. But at the time the story aired, of course, not a soul had come; and the reporter seemed almost apologetic that he didn’t have any drama yet to show the folks at home. (See http://thescoopblog.dallasnews.com/2012/08/north-texas-revs-up-hurricane-isaac-relief-efforts.html.)
But seeing the church’s set-up on TV made me realize how much work that congregation must have put into planning for this contingency. They must have spent years preparing to love and serve people they didn’t even know. They’d developed a relationship with the Red Cross and built a detailed plan for caring for whoever came their way. It’s a great example of faithful people who discerned a calling to very specific work: the job of being available, ready to serve others in need.
Tomorrow is Labor Day, so we might have work on our minds as we come to worship this morning. Interestingly, so does God, at least if today’s readings are any indication. These readings have no official relationship to Labor Day; they’re just what the Sunday lectionary calls for. But I hear them being all about the work God calls us to do, both as individual disciples and as St. Andrew’s parish.
In the reading from Deuteronomy, Moses calls the people to demonstrate their faithfulness to God as they begin their lives in the Promised Land. And what’s the most important way to do that? It’s not so much about believing specific doctrine. It’s not even so much about worshipping just the right way, as important as that is in the Law. Instead, God cares deeply about the day-to-day, mundane aspects of life – preparing food, relating to family and neighbors, working with livestock, resting on the Sabbath. So to honor God, the people must focus on the primary work involved in keeping the Law: bringing God’s holiness and justice alive in the world around them.
The theme continues with the psalm. It asks, “What qualifies someone for admission to God’s holy temple for worship?” Is that based on getting the doctrine right or doing worship just right? No. It’s about the work of faith, just “do[ing] what is right” (Psalm 15:2): treating neighbors honorably, telling the truth, keeping promises, refusing to profit from other people’s poverty. Faithfulness is in how we live and what we do.
Then the theme continues in the reading from James: God “implants” the Word in our hearts with “the power to save [our] souls” (1:21). And what should be our response to this gift? James says, “True religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…” (1:27). Do the Word; don’t just hear it.
And finally, in the reading from Mark, Jesus puts a fine point on the kind of labor God’s looking for. The religious leaders give Jesus trouble because his disciples don’t always keep the ritualistic aspects of the Law. So Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter: Keeping God’s law isn’t about maintaining ritual purity, he says; it’s about enacting God’s purposes through the way we live in the world, day in and day out.
But bringing God’s purposes to life always happens in a specific context and by specific people – you and me, this parish. We have to know our gifts and strengths, know how God has wired us, know ourselves well enough to be able to say, “Here’s the job I can do to bring my faith to bear in the world.” At that church near Dallas, clearly they discerned gifts for organization, logistics, and coordination with community agencies. The storm wasn’t even in their city, and they’d gone to work, getting ready to care for “orphans and widows” from a distant storm.
As we’ve discerned the work God asks of us, we’ve also found ourselves called to care for people battered by distant storms. We may not have many people in our congregation who are hungry and homeless, but we go downtown each week to serve hungry people there. We may not have many children here lacking educational opportunity, but we fund a school for 150 kids in rural Haiti, and we work to support the teachers and students at three schools in our own city. We may not have many people coming to our church seeking food each day, but we’re taking a step in that direction, too. Our Outreach Commission and our children’s ministry are joining forces to collect food regularly for the pantry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 40th and Main. In fact, the first Sunday of the month, we’ll bless a token of the food we’ve gathered – you’ll see it in front of the altar this morning when you come up for Communion. St. Paul’s pantry is serving more hungry people than ever before. They don’t have enough food to meet the need or enough volunteers to help give it away. Well, service is one of our core values here, and our mission includes “sharing God’s love” with the world. So we’re going to become “Pantry Partners” with St. Paul’s. We’re going to serve people whose lives are battered by hunger’s distant storm.
And at the same time, fulfilling our mission to share God’s love with the world means discerning what work God wants us to do here in our own neighborhood. As the Hodges and Murrays described at the parish meeting last Sunday, we’re listening to you and to our neighbors to hear what needs, in Brookside, God’s asking us to step up and work on. Last Sunday, after the meeting, several parishioners went out and did surveys in our neighborhood, standing in the sun at Price Chopper and going door-to-door, talking to people who live here. We’re also listening to urban-studies experts, and Brookside business leaders, and people in homes associations, and educators, and city council members – the list goes on. The point is to see where our calling to share God’s love might take us in our own backyard. Maybe we can help meet the needs of lonely seniors. Maybe we can help families whose kids and teens need a safe place for recreation. Maybe we can help kids and teens who need mentoring and tutoring. Maybe we can help social entrepreneurs get a start on their own work to build our community and heal its divisions. Months ago, we talked about the idea of e = mc2: that our church’s mission in our second century (“mc2”) involves several “E” words, such as education and the essentials of life. Maybe social “entrepreneurship” is another “E” for that list. We don’t know yet, but I do think we’re asking the right questions.
Now, if a tornado were to cut through Kansas City, I have no doubt we’d be all over it. But day to day, our call is to use the gifts and skills God’s given us in the context where God’s put us. That certainly looks like serving people afflicted by distant storms. But it also looks like sharing God’s love with the people of our neighborhood.
In both contexts, the message is the same, as we heard in our readings today. The measure of our faithfulness isn’t so much about getting all the answers right or doing worship perfectly (thank God). The measure of our faithfulness is how we live, day in and day out. As we begin our second century and discern what it looks like to share God’s love with people near and far, we have a pretty good handle on the “far” part of the equation. How we share God’s love with our neighborhood? That’s still a work in progress. It might not end up being what many people would expect a church’s “neighborhood ministry” to look like. It might not necessarily make for good TV. But it will be authentic to us. And it’ll be the job that God will have given us to do – the labor that best uses the body of Christ in this time and place to share God’s love with the world.