Gather to the Light

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 18
September 10th, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls

Dark clouds swirl over warm waters…as the heavy hand of a hurricane presses down once more upon a weary people.

The earth shakes with a force that levels buildings and causes a population to quake with fear over the possibility of more tremors.

Unquenchable fires rage across parched earth, threatening to swallow anything and anyone in their path.

For those of us who witness such natural signs and have spent significant time with the Gospels, it is hard not to recall the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus and wonder whether or not we are indeed witnessing the birth pangs of the end times…whether or not the wars and rumors of wars, or the portents in the heavens and the trembling of the earth are connected to prophecies about the end of days.

For those who have found themselves in harm’s way…Houstonians battered by Hurricane Harvey and Caribbean Islanders rocked by Hurricane Irma, Mexicans digging through tons of rubble after an earthquake, Western US residents surrounded by raging wildfires, and God’s children around the globe living in fear due to unstable regimes and nuclear war games…for so many…it can feel like the light of hope is fading and darkness and destruction will win the day.

The prayers for safety that we cry out in the face of such hardship and pain can often feel unanswered and echo back to us with a searing emptiness.

In the midst of such madness and destruction, there is a temptation to hunker down in a sort of primitive isolation, thinking that nothing and no one can be trusted in the face of such challenges, and that it is best to struggle on alone.

However, salvation is rarely to be found in such isolated environments.

The God of our forebears…the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the God we have seen manifest in Jesus Christ, is a God that is revealed to us most powerfully through community.

Last week, we read the story of the burning bush, and Moses’ call to confront Pharaoh and the systemic slavery that oppressed not only the Hebrews, but the Egyptians as well.

We heard of the unfettered power of nature that swirled around God’s presence, yet could not consume it, and God’s sending of Moses to be an instrument of redemption for those embroiled in the fetters of slavery.

Today, we skip to a much later part of that narrative…the point in which freedom is in sight, and preparations for the Passover are at hand.

While ritual instructions that would come to form the backbone of Jewish religious practice are a big part of that story, there is a simple core to the prescriptions that could be easily overlooked.

In the face of the terrible and awesome forces of God and nature that we struggle to fully understand, the people of God are asked to do one central, essential task.

Gather together.

Share the Passover lamb in the shelter of each other’s company.

Jesus’ words in the Gospel today elaborate upon the theme, and he goes so far as to say that “Where two or three are gathered together, I am among them.”

It may sound simplistic, but one of the core elements of what it means to be faithful is our willingness to entrust our safety, our salvation, and our lives to the God that is manifest through gathering with our neighbors.

To believe in the core of our beings that God’s will and presence is most powerfully felt and experienced in a community founded upon the principle of loving each other and acting together for the benefit of others through that love.

Last week my good friend, Barkley Thompson, the Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in Houston Texas, shared some stories of how members of his community cared for the displaced and the despairing after the catastrophic flooding due to Hurricane Harvey.

In all those powerful testaments of indefatigable shelter workers and selfless acts of sacrifice on behalf of others, there was once unifying theme that arose.

Christians cannot prevent catastrophes from happening, but we can witness the power of God within such situations by gathering together as one body.

And whether the storms that beset us are the tempests of this fragile earth, or whether they are the psychological and emotional hurricanes that rage within the human heart and psyche, our help is to be found in the Lord that comes to us most powerfully in community.

Where two or three are gathered together, says the Lord, I am among them.

It doesn’t matter if you are an Israelite or an Egyptian, doesn’t matter if you are a Barbudan or Floridian, doesn’t matter if you are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Secularist.

If you reach out to your neighbor in love, in the time of trial and in times of relative calm, you will see the God of all Creation, the light of the world, in the midst of any darkness that may surround or befall you, even if you may not name it as such.

I read an article this week in the New York Times about the lives of several survivors from Hurricane Katrina, twelve years after that monumental tempest rocked New Orleans and displaced thousands of people in its wake.

The article followed the stories of children who had struggled to cope with the destruction and displacement wrought by Katrina, and tried to pinpoint what allowed some children to cope well while other children remained trapped by their circumstances.

A researcher from the University of Colorado claimed that the most “successful” group of survivors consisted of those whose parents or social networks had substantial resources to deal with the radical change of circumstances, as well as those children who “found” such strong support networks through aid organizations or in committed groups of adults.

A second group that could be called more moderately successful in coping, consisted of those who had a single unifying presence in their lives: a parent, a family friend, older sibling, or “champion” who served as a pillar of strength when times got difficult.

The children most likely to suffer trauma related depression and an inability to cope with their present and future traumas, were those who were left alone and found no one to support them in the midst of their crisis.

Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am among them.

Though I know that Christ does not abandon even those who found no aid following Katrina, it is clear that community made all the difference in helping people integrate such a catastrophic tragedy into their lives and move into a new future.

In fact, it was a statement of a now grown up child survivor, a man who had lost much in the storm but had encountered positive community support, who later, as an adult, suffered another tragedy after being beaten by police for a crime he didn’t commit, that resonated with me the most.

He said, that after suffering the added trauma of being beaten so badly that he had to spend months in the hospital, he was able to cope with the added burden because of how he had previously been helped in coping with the tragedy of Katrina.

“I knew that my light wouldn’t go out,” he remarked.

Paul’s “armor of light” came to mind, and my thoughts returned to all those offering help to storm survivors in Houston, in the Caribbean, in the refugee camps around the globe, and even those who serve in the JNRC here, or who visit the sick or the lonely as part of St. Paul’s.

Though the global human need may seem overwhelming, and the task daunting, the efforts we choose to make to invest in a stronger community, and to remind those beset by life’s storms that they do not go through the journey alone, make a huge, huge difference.

Our church’s mission statement is about welcoming all and rejecting none, namely about forming a community and network of support based on our understanding of the transformative power of the Body of Christ we share.

I’m proud of what I have witnessed you all doing over the past 5 years, and I hope that we will continue to invest in such community efforts going forward.

As you leave this place today, ask yourself, “How might I find new and tangible ways to love my neighbors…to help those who suffer by carrying their burdens (like Simon of Cyrene did for our Lord)…and to see the face of God by gathering together and trusting in the Spirit to guide me into faithful action?

Maybe it is by reaching out to an elderly person in your neighborhood who might need help with navigating daily life, or maybe it is by accompanying refugees in their struggle to build a new life in this country, or maybe it is by huddling together with the scared and the traumatized who seek to cope with natural disasters and the buffeting winds of personal tragedies.

Regardless of what a faithful response means for you, I urge you to seek out the answer in community…in this place of communion called the church, and outside the walls of this building in the places you inhabit during the week.

Because not only does the health of our world depend on such community and communion, but that is where the God we love, serve and seek will most potently be found.

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