OUR LABOR OF LOVE: FIVE YEARS LATER

Carl Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

October 19, 2017; 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

Psalm 46; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

 

“…constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith

and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

— 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3

 

Who would have thought, five years ago, that we would be acknowledging an anniversary like this one?

Five years ago today, many of us were watching the weather reports with some anxiety. Hurricane Sandy was in the Caribbean, aiming for the East Coast. But we’d seen a great many hurricanes pass us by, here on the Jersey Shore, so the weather reports were cause for concern, not panic.

Within a few days, it was a very different story. Sandy collided with another weather system, a nor’easter, and two became one. Superstorm Sandy was born.

The nor’easter caused Sandy to make a right-angle turn, heading directly for the coast.

They say the eye made landfall near Brigantine, but with the counter-clockwise rotation of those storms, it’s those to the northeast of the eye who get the worst of it.

And that, of course, was us: here in Ocean County. In Mantoloking, the ocean burst through the barrier beach, where it’s only three blocks wide. Huge swells started surging into Barnegat Bay, sweeping everything before them. Centuries-old houses were afloat. Most of them ended up as huge piles of driftwood all along the banks of the Metedeconk. Back-bay neighborhoods like Bay Head Shores and Sunshine Harbor — that never flooded in previous storms — were suddenly underwater.

The power grid went down, and stayed down for days — even weeks in some places. I remember seeing a nighttime satellite photo of the Northeastern U.S., taken during the blackout. There were twinkling lights across most of the country, except for a vast area, stretching from here to Ohio, and from Maryland to the Canadian border, that was completely black.

I remember the confusion of those days: the feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world. They say Al Roker and Jim Cantore were shouting into their microphones right down the street, but we had no way of knowing. (It’s never a good sign, by the way, when Jim Cantore shows up in your town.) The only news we could get came from battery-powered radios, or from cell phones — when the cell towers were working, which wasn’t all the time. For several days, the only thing that got through was text messages. That’s how I contacted a lot of our church members, to make sure they were OK.

*****

          The memories of Sandy’s devastation are still fresh, but that’s not really what I like to recall. I find far greater comfort in remembering the weeks and months after the storm. I’m very proud, to this day, of how you, the members and friends of this church, came together and mobilized to make a difference.

To me, that pride is summed up in those words of the apostle Paul we read in today’s New Testament lesson:

“We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

It was a work of faith, what we did here. For years, as your pastor, I’d been waving the flag of mission around this place. I encouraged the Session to find at least one local mission we could throw ourselves into, so we’d be doing so much more in this community than just taking care of our own.

We already had St. Gregory’s Pantry in our community, and a few of us volunteered over there. Then we signed up for Interfaith Hospitality Network, and another small group pitched in to make that outreach happen — but it was, and still is, only a small portion of the congregation that ever cooks a meal for our IHN guests, or volunteers to host or to sleep over.

We’d collect money on Blanket Sunday and for One Great Hour of Sharing. We ran Sunday School and youth programs, and a preschool as well, all of which touched the lives of non-member families in a positive way. We rented space to 12-step groups. We ran a rather successful Cub Scout Pack and Boy Scout Troop. Busy Hands for Mission would sew or knit items that would find their way to needy people, in this country and around the world.

These are all wonderful things. But they’re also rather modest efforts, carried on by a small portion of the congregation. I was concerned that we didn’t have that one, signature mission project that connected with the larger community in a visible way.

Well, I’m happy to say, I don’t suffer from that anxiety any longer. Superstorm Sandy dropped a huge and rather urgent mission project right on our doorstep. The needs were all around us. Some of you knew that more powerfully than others: because your own homes had been damaged or destroyed. And — I’m pleased to say — this congregation rose to the occasion magnificently.

That’s why I “give thanks to God for all of you,” as Paul says. That’s why I remember certain things about you, from our work together of the past five years, that are summed up so beautifully in his threefold list: “your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

*****

          Let’s look for a moment at each of those three. The first one is “your work of faith.

Now, for dyed-in-the-wool Protestants, the two words “work” and “faith” don’t always fit naturally together. Next Sunday, we’ll celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. That revolutionary movement was fired by Martin Luther’s great insight that Christians get right with God not by performing  good works, but by grace through faith.

Sometimes, we who are heirs to Luther’s tradition fall into thinking of faith as more of an intellectual exercise, or possibly a decision of the will. We have a natural distrust of those who put too much emphasis on salvation through good works. Sadly, for too many modern Protestants, faith begins and ends with what we believe. Making the jump from our beliefs to concrete actions of discipleship — serving others in Christ’s name — can be a little difficult at times.

Paul’s expression here — the work of faith — can serve as a bit of a corrective. Yes, faith has at its heart the element of belief, but Paul — and, along with him, Luther and the other Reformers — never saw right belief as an end in itself.

What this congregation did, in transforming the upstairs of the Education Annex into our Volunteer Village, to house short-term Sandy relief workers, was very much a work of faith. Those who sat on the Session at the time can recall some emotion-laden debates, as we sought to strike a balance between the traditional “churchy” activities that used to go on in the Education Annex and the new mission of housing volunteers. It wasn’t an easy thing, and — sadly — we lost a few members over it, but I think most people now agree it was the right decision.

*****

          Paul also speaks of the Thessalonians’ “labor of love.” Now, you may think the words “work” and “labor” are synonyms, but that’s not true in the original Greek. Paul uses two different Greek words. The “work” in “work of faith” is the ordinary word for work. But he word he uses here for “labor of love” is defined as “a state of distress or discomfort, trouble or difficulty.” There’s a second meaning as well in my Greek lexicon: “to engage in activity that is burdensome, work, labor, toil.”

A labor of love, Paul is saying, is sometimes painful. Think of it not so much as labor, as in “labor union,” but labor as what a woman goes through in childbirth. A labor of love, by this definition, is far from easy. It demands everything we’ve got, and then some.

There have been times when our Sandy recovery work has been like that. Running the Volunteer Village has demanded much, in terms of the time and energy of this congregation. Other church activities have sometimes taken second place to the urgent needs around us.

It’s demanded a lot of some of you, as individuals. Some of us have truly given our all, working to the point of great weariness, at times. It’s continued to amaze me how many of our hardest-working volunteers, from the very beginning, have been people whose own homes were substantially damaged by Sandy. That means it’s been a difficult, painful struggle, on a number of levels. Your church is grateful for those efforts — and I, personally, am grateful for your efforts.

We’ve labored at disaster relief, though, not because we’re compulsive or driven, but for one reason and one reason only. We’ve done it for the same reason a mother goes through the pain of childbirth. We’ve done it out of love.

*****

          The third and final portion of Pau’s triad is “steadfastness of hope.” Now, “steadfastness” is a word that refers to standing strong, come what may. The Greek word is elsewhere translated “endurance.”

Think of the endurance of a long-distance runner, going round and round the track many times in the course of a race. Four and half years of running a Volunteer Village is a long time. For years I’ve heard it said of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance — our partners in running the Village — that as disaster recovery winds down in any given place, the Presbyterians are often the last ones to turn out the lights.

This work is a long-term commitment. At times it’s frustratingly slow. Why, just this week there was an article in the Asbury Park Press saying that one in five people displaced from their homes by Sandy are still not back. That’s five years later! Yes, there’s still work to be done, even now.

How is it that Christians can endure such a long, drawn-out effort? Simple, says Paul. We can do such things because we have hope.

Followers of Jesus Christ are people of hope. Because we have drunk deep from the wells of faith, because we nurture that faith through regular prayer and worship, our hope burns bright. It helps us hang in there, after other people of good will — but less faith, perhaps — have fallen away.

*****

          Paul says to the Thessalonians, “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers.” My friends, I give thanks to God for you. As the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy will soon be upon us, you can certainly pat yourself on the back for the faithful, loving, hopeful work you’ve done — and continue to do.

Well done, good and faithful servants of our Lord, Jesus Christ!

Now, let’s join in singing Amazing Grace, remembering the many dangers, toils and snares through which we’ve come — but remembering also our Lord’s all-encompassing grace, that has brought us safe to the place where we now are, and that will one day lead us home!

 

Copyright © 2017, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.