Thursday, September 08, 2005

Responding to a natural disaster by acknowledging systemic sin and building community

09 08 Responding to a natural disaster by acknowledging systemic sin and building community

Regular dormgrandpop readers will know that I occasionally write about Leeds Parish, where I attend Christian services on Sunday mornings when I am in Hume. In fact, I posted something earlier this week. This small community was founded in 1769 and, thus, has sustained itself for nearly 250 years. In last Sunday’s sermon, minister Linnea Summers Turner presented the most compelling statement about the Katrina disaster, among many I have heard. I asked her for the text of her sermon, which she was gracious enough to provide. One need not be a Christian to be awakened, inspired, and moved to action by her words.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21.

This week we have faced natural and human disasters of epic proportions: Torrential wind and rain, floods, massive destruction, violence, looting, people desperate for food and water, homeless refugees wandering the streets

“How can this be happening?” I, and perhaps you, thought. Things like this happen in 3rd world countries, not U.S.. But reality is they do – are – happening here.

Now none of us is sure what the future may hold – for New Orleans, for people caught us in the devastation, for us and everyone facing the economic fallout from Katrina. And not knowing is frightening too.

How do we think about this as Christians? Where do we find God’s presence and message for us?

The short answer is, of course, that God is with those desperate people in New Orleans and along the Gulf coast, with the rescue workers tying to help, with those praying and working from afar, with all of us in our pain and confusion – now and always.

What has and is happening – not some kind of divine punishment or attack – rather a terrible and gigantic tragedy brought by forces of nature beyond human control or even understanding compounded with human greed, heedlessness about natural risks, stupidity, and, yes, individual human sin.

But beyond the central reality that God is always with us I believe that within these events and their aftermath is a clear wake up call for all of us – a call to change how we live, how we understand what is good and important in our lives and that of society.

In our smugness, collective and individual, we have been like a dreaming city, sure that we are (and will be) always both entitled and protected by our technology, power, wealth; we have assumed, implicitly or explicitly that we have control – mastery in all areas of our world. The truth is we can’t control everything, from nature to other people to aspects of our selves. We can’t fix everything or almost everything quickly and easily and we can’t have everything we want just because we want it.

We need to examine and acknowledge the pervasiveness of sin in our lives: both systemic and individual. Systemic sin is that wrongdoing and/or evil that over time has crept into, or more usually been built into the structures of society. Classisim and racism are usually cited as typical examples of systemic sin, but there are plenty more: greed that seeks profit and power at any price even if it means destroying necessary natural resources or building unsafely; political power that is interested in maintaining itself and thus ignores difficult tasks, the refusal to acknowledge needs of others and society in general if those needs conflict with individual or political aggrandizement.

We have all heard the echoes of systemic sin: “I want my house -- or my factory or my giant hotel built HERE! Who cares if it will damage the environment or put people or places at risk?” “Why spend money and time on the levees when they can produce flashier results elsewhere?” “Don’t worry about those people; they’re not that important.” We need to acknowledge and confront systemic sin in our culture and our country.

But we need to acknowledge and confront individual sin too: the attitude (and corresponding actions) that sees violence, arson, looting as acceptable behaviors. But we also need to acknowledge that such behaviors spring from deeper roots of sin: the pervasive if unstated beliefs that I can do what I want if can get away with, that desperate situations permit desperate actions, that hatred is an acceptable response to fear or desperation. .

Finally, perhaps most importantly, we need to proclaim the importance of community and connection. The last few days have shown how thin are the bounds of community and how easily they can be broken by disaster. This is not surprising because our world and our culture put a low value on community and the hard work that it takes to build and sustain the deep bonds of authentic community. But our Christian faith presents a different reality.

All three of our lessons today are about aspects of community – of building and maintaining community. None of them takes place in an easy or simple time; rather all are written for and about people facing struggle, conflict and even disaster. The prophet Ezekiel, writing just after the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and most of its inhabitants dragged off into exile in Babylon, highlights the essential connection between leaders and their people – and the responsibility leaders have to proclaim the necessity for change, and the real possibility of change.

The apostle Paul, writing to the Christian community in Rome which was facing both internal disagreements about doctrine and practice as well as looming persecution from the Roman authorities, described the attitudes and associated behavior that foster genuine connection. WE could all read today’s epistle as a primer on how to live in community: love from the heart, live in hope, be patient, look to each other, seek reconciliation, not revenge.

Our gospel lesson is about seeking reconciliation, about rebuilding community. The early Christian community in which Matthew’s gospel was written was struggling with the basic issue of Judaism v. Christianity – whether one had to be Jew first, and so adhere to all Jewish practices. There was the whole issue of gentiles wanting to become part of this rather defined community – and bringing with them new ideas, new ways of doing things. Certainly Matthew’s community experienced plenty of conflicts and ruptures in the community life. The process Jesus lays out in verses 15 through 20 affirms importance of community, respects the individual – and emphasizes the importance of continuing the work of reconciliation always. Start with a one on one meeting; then move to a meeting with several close friends; finally, if those fail, lay the matter before the entire community. Tend to read the end, if the third step fails, “let that one be to you as a Gentile and tax collector” as form of excommunication. If all usual avenues fail, throw the bum out. But what if Jesus simply meant that if all avenues fail, start again at the beginning. This passage is after all, sandwiched between the parable of Lost Sheep where the shepherd refuses to let even one be lost and Jesus’ command to Peter to forgive “70 times 7.” I like the translation of verse 17 by Eugene Peterson: “If he won’t listen to the church, you have to start all over again from scratch; confront him with the need for repentance and offer AGAIN God’s forgiving love.”

The older I get, the more I believe that community and connection are essential to authentic living. It is the privilege and responsibility of Christians to model authentic community to the world, to be agents of reconciliation, to rebuild community. We don’t need to take on world. We can begin by building -- by BEING authentic community in our families, in our parish family, and in our local area.

On Friday I received an email from my husband’s first cousin. For years she has intentionally kept herself apart from the rest of her relatives, and there has been estrangement. In the last hear or so she and been in touch and we are all now slowly beginning to rebuild the ties of family – slowly and sometimes painfully. She asked what I thought about Katrina and I wrote back much of what I’ve tried to say here. I concluded my email: Give thanks for what you have. She e mailed back: “I am thankful that I have been able to reconnect with my relatives and my not blood related Perhaps together we can create something positive in the world.”

Perhaps together we – all of us here – can creative something positive in the world.

Let us not be overcome by evil, but as Christians, as members of the great community of faith across time and space, let us overcome evil with good. Amen.

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