Carlos Wilton, November 11, 2012; Non-Lectionary Sermon; 1 Kings 17:8-16; Matthew 20:17-28
“…whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant”
Last Sunday, when we gathered here, the pain was intense. The wound was still bleeding. In our midst were many who were so close to the source of their distress, they feared they would not make it.
A week has passed. Seven days. In that time, houses whose sodden floorboards glimmered with puddles now display a film of gray-brown dried mud. Electricity has been restored to a great many more households than had it then — and still there are some who don’t. There are those who fretted for days, wondering about the fate of their homes on the barrier beach. Many of them have now been given a precious twenty minutes, maybe a half-hour, to slip inside and claim some important legal papers or a family album, before boarding the bus back to the mainland. When will they be allowed to go back again? No one can say for certain.
I know there are some — none I know of in our congregation, thankfully — who don’t even have that luxury. They can return to their home-place, sure enough. But it’s a place that no longer contains their home. Everything is gone: washed out to sea, or into the Bay.
The hurricane named Sandy has humbled us. We took pride in our life’s achievements. The things we’d accumulated — the house, the cars, the furnishings, the electronics — defined who we are (or so we thought). When so many of our self-defining things were snatched away, some were left wondering who they really are: this simple, unadorned self, stripped of all its glittering trophies. Some of us haven’t looked in the mirror and seen that self — truly seen it — for a very long time.
Then there were those who spent a few nights in the shelters. For them the experience of dislocation was even more profound. There they were, under the mercury-vapor lights in a vast gymnasium: occupants of a rectangle just big enough for a cot to fit inside, with a little space beside it for dangling the legs. (A space not much bigger than a grave, when it came down to it.) And when those gym lights went out, with that crashing loud noise they make, and when they laid their heads upon the pillows, they listened to the ragged breathing of so many other souls laid out on either side. And they wondered, with a sort of terror, “Who am I now, really?”
A little time has passed. Blessed, healing time. A handful of days for beginning the work of mucking out, wiping down, carrying to the curb. And for reflecting. Treasures have been discovered: things feared lost, restored to a place of honor in their lives.
One of the new experiences, for many of us, has been receiving help. Not the little help, the small favors that grease the wheels of life, but big help. Help we could imagine ourselves extending to others, but never dreamed we’d have to receive, ourselves.
If you’re like most people, you found that a little uncomfortable. You wanted to say to the person helping you: “No, that’s all right. I don’t really need it. Why don’t you give it to someone else who really does?”
It’s a feeling I know very well, from a little more than five years ago. I was about to undergo chemotherapy for my non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Some members of the church came to Claire and me. They said, “We want to do something for you. We’ve heard that, on those days when you have to sit in that chair in the doctor’s office for six or seven hours, an IV hooked to your arm, and Claire comes to pick you up and take you home, it can be hard to get dinner together. So we’re going to take care of that, for you and your family. We’re going to bring you dinner every day. You’re our pastor, and you take care of us. But now it’s time for us to take care of you.”
I don’t know how it was done. I suppose there were sign-up sheets, or maybe somebody calling around on the phone. All I know is, there would come a time, each day, when the doorbell rang, and there one of you would be standing, casserole dish in hand. There was a part of me that wanted to say, each time, “No, that’s not right, it can’t be for me. Isn’t there someone else who needs it more?”
Claire and I both felt that way. But we learned, in those difficult days, to stifle that inner voice, the one that said, “No, not me.” Because the truth was, on a lot of those days, we did need that help. And on the days we didn’t, it was a great comfort just to know so many of you cared.
It can be a very strange and disorienting experience for the usual order of things to be reversed: for the one who’s supposed to be offering help to receive it. You can read about a similar reversal in that odd story from 1 Kings we read this morning, that tale of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.
The prophet comes to the town of Zarephath, a town groaning under the weight of a dreadful famine, and there he sees a poor widow, gathering sticks for what’s going to be her last cooking-fire. She’ll use that smoky little fire to fry up the last of her meal in a pan, to make a few little cakes for her and her son to eat.
Did you catch what the prophet says to her? He says, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” He might as well have said: “Hey, you, bring me a sandwich.”
It sounds arrogant, even cruel, for this stranger to demand that a starving woman share her last meal with him. Yet, it’s just one example of how God loves to mess with the usual order of things, sometimes even turning it on its head.
In the story, of course, once the woman makes this sacrificial gift, God works some deep magic. The Lord gives her a jar of meal that doesn’t run out, and a jug of oil that never runs dry — but that’s only after the sacrifice is made. First, the characters in the story have to live through the great reversal.
Yesterday I came across something written by a man named Sam, who lives in New Orleans. He wrote it in a blog of his, about this hurricane that has so affected us here on the Jersey Shore. His own hurricane was named Katrina, not Sandy, but his experience was much the same.
His blog entry is titled, “Unsolicited Advice to the Northeast in the Aftermath.” What Sam has to say is all about giving and receiving, and it’s a message we all need to hear:
“Accept what people give you. Don’t let your pride get in the way. We learned that very quickly as packages with cash tucked into them came to us from friends and strangers all over the country. For some of you the cash will be important, as your paychecks won’t be coming for a while, if your job still exists. Our initial response was, yup, pride. We don’t need that, we’re fine, we thought. We learned humility fast and we learned to simply say thank you and accept the help. The folks who sent it wanted to help, really wanted to help. They didn’t want to give to an organization, they wanted to help us hand to hand, and they knew that if we knew of a place or person nearby who needed the help they sent more than we did, which was often the case, that we’d make sure it got to those people. You will be touched and humbled by the generosity of people and that’s something else you can lean on during this trying period.”
NEW ORLEANS SLATE blog, 10/31/2012
From my vantage point, having seen what help has already come pouring into this community, and knowing the even greater levels of help yet to come, I’m certain Sam speaks the truth. It can be hard for people like you and me — who, in ordinary times, pride ourselves on our self-sufficiency — to accept help from anyone. But in extraordinary times like these, it really is something we need to do.
When we do this — when we set pride aside and accept the help that’s offered — we do so knowing it’s not always going to be this way. There’s going to come a time when all the brave talk about “Restore the Shore” will be far more than brash and gutsy hope, as it is now. The day will come when we’ll look around, and see whole communities risen from the ashes: communities that look a lot different than they did before Sandy came roaring through, but that still retain enough of their essential nature that we recognize them as places we know and love.
It won’t be long, then, for an opportunity to arise to pay it forward. News will reach us of another hurricane, or some other natural disaster — or maybe some human-made catastrophe, like a war. We’ll write the check, or press the “enter” key to send the electronic payment, or maybe even sign up for a traveling work team. We’ll do it without thinking twice. We’ll do it because we’ll know — in a way we never realized before — how it feels to have lost so much, and to feel so helpless, and to yearn to stand upon our own two feet again.
Then, today’s New Testament lesson will make a lot more sense to us:
“Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” [Matthew 20:26b-28]
It’s as the wise old preacher Koheleth says, in Ecclesiastes, chapter 3:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted…” [Ecclesiastes 3:1-2]
In some seasons of life we plant. In other seasons, we pluck up what we — or someone else — has planted. There is no shame in doing this. It is, I firmly believe, what God intends for creation. It’s part of a deep rhythm of life, a divine circle: the circle of giving and receiving.
Often, the people who most need to hear this message about such a circle are those who — in good times — seem to be hard-wired to give, and give and give. These people are caregivers by nature. When the tables are turned, and they suddenly find themselves on the receiving end, it can be threatening, and profoundly disorienting.
That’s where burnout comes from, by the way. It’s an inability, in a time of real crisis, ever to silence that inner, parental voice that says “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” But that nagging voice goes even further. It says: “It is mandatory to give and not receive.”
But, do you know something? When a hurricane comes to town, that all changes. If, at the height of the storm, you were to walk down to the end of this very street, and stand on the beach, and spread your arms wide, saying, “Here I am, Sandy, give me all you’ve got!” you would not be a hero. You would be a fool. There comes a time when even Jim Cantore and Al Roker of the Weather Channel have enough sense to come in out of the rain. You can’t stand up to a hurricane. You just can’t.
Those who follow our church newsletter and keep track of the calendar may remember that, according to our Committed to Christ stewardship campaign, this was supposed to be the Sunday we emphasized financial giving. Today was supposed to be the day we turned in our estimate of giving cards, projecting what we plan to give to the work of Jesus Christ through this church, in the coming year.
Next week was supposed to be the Sunday we talk about the discipline of service. In the campaign plan, that final Sunday was to be a sort of clean-up week, when we make a big push for late pledges to come in, then gather for a big Harvest Home dinner.
I decided to move the Service emphasis up to this week, because I know there’s just no way very many of us are ready to think about, let alone make, a carefully-considered commitment for the coming year. I’ll check with the Session on this, of course, but I seriously doubt next Sunday will be much better. Maybe we can do that sometime in December, but it’s also possible we may begin the new year without receiving estimates of giving at all — something I’ve never done in all my years of ministry. Frankly, that scares me a bit.
Yet, if it’s true that there is a circle of giving and receiving, a circle of serving and being served, then maybe that’s just a risk we have to take. Maybe we have to just trust God to speak to the hearts of those who still have the means to give: so this church continues, in the heart of this worn-down and beaten-up community, to witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I understand that, when the Amish gather to hold one of their famous barn-raisings, all the families from miles around come with their tools and ladders. The women cook all day, producing a legendary feast, while the men swarm all over the pile of lumber, raising up first one framed-out wall, then the other, then two more. Before the day is done, that barn will be closed in and finished, from foundation to roof.
I also understand the Amish have a special word for that sort of event. We call it a barn-raising, but they call it something else. The word they use, in their Pennsylvania Dutch language, is best translated by the English word, “frolic.”
To us, it looks like very hard work — which it certainly is — but to the Amish, there’s deep joy in it. For one neighbor is in need of a barn, and the rest are able, together, to build one.
My hope and prayer is that this experience of hurricane recovery will turn out to be, by God’s grace, a frolic in that very same sense. None of us is able to do the things we have to do alone. We’re going to have to learn an unaccustomed skill: the skill of coming together in community, to receive and — when the time comes, and only then — to give.
May it be so for all of us, by God’s abundant and overflowing grace!
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton, all rights reserved.