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All week long I thought I knew where this sermon was going. All week long I was pretty sure that this was one of those rare occasions in which life itself—all the drama, pathos, beauty, suffering, surprise, fragility, and mystery of it—presents us with exactly what we need to hear.
Surely Hurricane Harvey had, while damaging or destroying more than 100,000 homes in southeast Texas, sending more than 42,000 people to shelters, upending countless lives, and ending more than 50, provided those of us not in its path with some much-needed hope.
Harvey, a disaster of truly biblical proportions, a force of nature whose destructive power was magnified by human ignorance of, or disregard for, the laws of nature, had, oddly enough, provided us with a desperately needed glimpse of humanity’s better angels.
Less than three weeks after much of the nation was shocked to see racial hatred and violence on parade in Charlottesville, Harvey and Houston gave us images of people coming together across lines of race and class, politics and religion to literally save each other. Who would have thought that a destructive hurricane would become a national tonic, soothing balm for our hate-weary, bad-news-burdened souls?
And so I spent the week watching and reading the news, collecting stories of genuine love, hospitality extended to strangers, high-and-dry people associating with the flooded-out, zealous would-be rescuers coming with their boats from far away, journalists weeping with those who wept, an entire nation that has been denigrated repeatedly by our president offering assistance, so many people who suddenly lost everything being patient in suffering, families and neighborhoods, businesses and entire towns doing their best to overcome evil with good.
For the first time in what felt like forever, my news feed was filled not with scathing political commentary but with stories of people going out of their way to help each other, no questions asked. It occurred to me that some of the great stories of Harvey hospitality and humanity would serve as clear illustrations of the more than 20 different exhortations in our scripture reading, the various things that add up to real love in action, the kind of love that transforms the lovers and, through them—through us—goes on to change the world
Yes! I thought; that’s the ticket. That’s my sermon. Finally, after a couple of weeks of pretty hard-hitting, sober stuff, I would be able to offer you some feel-good news. This one is going to write itself, I thought.
As fixated as I was on the almost-equal-parts-heartwrenching-and-heartwarming news coming out of Houston, as much as I needed all those good-ole’-guy-to-the-rescue stories, I could not ignore some of the other things going on: the hard times being experienced by some of the members of this church, the suffering and evil happening in our own country and around the world.
And then, as if Nazis with tiki torches were not cause enough for faithful action, as if the victims of Hurricane Harvey didn’t need our prayers and donations, as if North Korea’s missile launches were not unsettling, as if more than a thousand people weren’t dying in floods in Nepal, India and Bangladesh, and the entire American church should have taken to the streets to demand the continuation of the DACA program for young people who were brought into the United States as children—as if all those things were not enough, a group of some 150 evangelical leaders last week issued a harsh, retrograde statement on human sexuality. The so-called Nashville Statement condemns not only gays and transgender persons and everything but procreative sex within heterosexual marriage, it also casts out of the Christian fold people who disagree with those views. 1
Suddenly my email inbox and newsfeed were filled with protests and requests to sign onto progressive faith statements crafted in response to the Nashville Statement. Suddenly, my attention—and, presumably, the focus, energy, and angst of many Christians like me—was redirected away from the humanity-makes-good stories coming out of Houston to the Christians-going-out-of-their-way-to-hate-people stories coming out of Nashville.
It was dispiriting, to say the least.
By the time I stood in front of 30 Amherst College students in the church dining room on Friday evening, I was all too aware of how easy it is to get sucked back into the exhausting and demoralizing cycle of reactivity, spending our best energies responding to the latest outrages, trying to knock down specious arguments, and letting the hatred of a few steal our joy. As I invited the students to share with us their hopes and dreams for themselves and the world, I encouraged them to break out of that cycle and, instead, to move into their college years with intention and hope.
As it turns out, they were way ahead of me.
Students from Hong Kong, Turkey, Mexico, and Pakistan—and even some American students—spoke passionately about the importance of living out our values, honoring our common humanity, and working to bridge real and even dangerous differences. And so it goes: Every year we invite incoming Amherst College students eating and sleeping in the room where Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke to share their hopes and dreams, and every year they give us hope and help us dream.
They also helped me realize, finally, that my sermon plan needed to change. I had thought this was going to be a sermon about love: love that is genuine, love that is compassionate, love that goes the extra mile and reaches out across divides and flood waters to neighbors, strangers, and even enemies. Well, I suppose it is partly about love, and how much of it there is—still. But this sermon is really about another one of those imperatives in our reading: holding fast to what is good.
Because that’s really hard sometimes. Because that’s especially hard these days, when evil and suffering—racism, classism, violence, climate change, hatred and bigotry in God’s name—seem so pervasive and oppressive.
Just walking faithfully through each day can feel like a struggle: Let’s see, what is most faithful in this moment, in this situation: Rejoicing or weeping? Resisting or hoping? Marching or praying? Denouncing hateful speech or ignoring it? Loving our families and friends or trying to save the world? How hard it is to do it all, and how easy it is to become discouraged by these false either-or choices. When there is so much conflict all around us, and so much potential for things to get worse, how do we hold fast to what is good?
I don’t have a simple answer, but I believe we do have some helpful models—in our scriptures and faith traditions, and in the stories that came out of Houston last week:
Holding fast to what is good means holding onto, reaching out for, and supporting one another—sometimes literally.
To get her three-week-old daughter, Emily, safely through the Houston flood waters, Abbey Kaler wrapped her in a bedsheets and then duct-taped Emily to her body. And so it is with us sometimes. When the grief is deep, the fear is thick, and the way forward is fraught with danger, sometimes the best we can to is hold on tight to each other. Use duct tape if necessary.
Holding fast to what is good means using what we have. Holding fast to what is good can be as simple, and as hard, as just showing up. In Texas, people who had boats came brought them from far and wide to rescue people stranded in their homes. Surely, the death toll from the storm would be much, much higher if they hadn’t made the decision to use what they had. When the flood waters starting rising around a Mexican bakery in Houston, four employees were stranded inside. And so, using more than 4,000 pounds of flour (it was what they had!) they baked for two days straight: a store-full of life-giving bread that was later delivered to people staying in shelters. More than 25 mosques opened their doors to storm victims. People with spare rooms invited strangers to stay in their homes; the owner of a luxury furniture store invited storm victims to sleep on $12,000 mattresses (I didn’t know there were such things!) and hang out on expensive couches.
Holding fast to what is good means realizing how much we have that is good and then using it for the good of others so that they, too, can hold on.
Holding fast to what is good sometimes means overlooking all that is not good. Holding fast to what is good means ignoring differences and even persecution in favor of love. Holding fast to what is good means overcoming evil with good.
Just hours after the president tweeted (again) that Mexico would pay for a border wall, the government of Mexico offered to help our government respond to the Harvey disaster. "The Mexican government takes this opportunity to express its full solidarity with the people and government of the United States,” it said, “as good neighbors should always do in trying times.”
With all that is going on in the world, with all that is going on in your life, how can you hold fast to what is good? How will you, how will we all, pass through these flood waters and come out on the other side better, stronger, more fully alive, more deeply loved and able to love?
By holding fast to what is good.
And there is nothing more good than the love of God. A friend of mine pastors a United Methodist church near Houston. The church’s sanctuary and the entire property were damaged by flood waters and, while clean-up efforts are underway, the building remains unusable. So this morning they are gathering outside the building for “prayer and proclamation,” to tell stories and share needs, to “be the body of Christ.”
“Bring your own chair!” says the church’s Facebook post.
And so it is with us in these times. So it goes in the life of faith: Bring your own chair. Use what you have. Share it with others. Lean on each other. Hold on to your children. Hold on to the homeless. Hold on to all the least of these. Hold on to your LGBT siblings. Hold on to your African American siblings. Hold on even to your enemies—until they bless you. Ground yourself in God’s goodness. Let love be genuine.
Hold fast to what is good.
1 I first came across this way of framing the Nashville Statement in an excellent piece by Carol Howard Merritt. You can find it here: https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/born-again-again/opposing-nashville-statement