A Sermon in Response to the Devastation of Hurricane Katrina

A Quaker writer named Parker Palmer not long ago recounted an experience that touches on the gospel we just heard. He was a passenger on a plane that pulled away from the gate, taxied to a remote corner of the airport and then stopped. And there it pulled off on the side of the runway, and he heard the engines winding down. Palmer’s heart started to sink, and his fear was confirmed when the pilot came on the intercom and said, “I have some bad news and some really bad news. The bad news is there’s a storm front in the west; Denver is socked in and shut down. We’ve looked at the alternatives and there are none. So we’ll be staying here for a few hours. That’s the bad news. The really bad news is that we have no food and it’s lunch time.” Everyone groaned. Some passengers started to complain, some became angry. But then, Palmer said, one of the flight attendants did something extraordinary.

She stood up and took the intercom mike and said, “We’re really sorry folks. We didn’t plan it this way and we really can’t do much about it. And I know for some of you this is a big deal. Some of you are really hungry and were looking forward to a nice lunch. Some of you may have a medical condition and really need lunch. So I’ll tell you what we’re going to do.

“I have a couple of breadbaskets up here and we’re going to pass them around and I’m asking you to put something in the basket. Some of you brought a little snack along—something to tide you over—some peanut butter crackers, candy bars. And some of you have a few LifeSavers or chewing gum or Rolaids. And if you don’t have anything edible, you have a picture of your children or spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend or a bookmark or a business card. Everybody put something in and then we’ll reverse the process. We’ll pass the baskets around again and everybody can take out what he or she needs.

“Well, Palmer said, “what happened was amazing. The griping stopped. People started to root around in pockets and handbags, some got up and opened their suitcases in the overhead compartment and got out boxes of candy, a salami, a bottle of wine. People were talking and laughing. She had transformed a group of people who were focused on need and deprivation into a community of sharing and celebration. She had transformed scarcity into a kind of abundance.”

After the flight Palmer stopped on his way off the plane and said to her, “Do you know there’s a story in the Bible about what you did back there? It’s about Jesus feeding a lot of people with very little food.” “Yes,” she said. “I know the story. That’s why I did what I did.” The story came from the sermon, “Abundance” by The Reverend John Buchanan of Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago.

I believe the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 has the capacity to unlock everything Jesus came to teach and show us. The gospel writers themselves must have thought something like that too, because in the four gospels this story appears six times. And I believe it holds the key to finding our way through the terrible tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

Jesus goes out to a deserted place and is followed by a vast crowd of some 5,000 people. There he teaches through the day, but as evening draws near the disciples are worried about what such a throng would do for food. They tell Jesus he should send them away to the villages to fend for themselves and find something there. Everyone for themselves – that is so often the natural human instinct. “No,” Jesus says, “you give them something to eat.”

“We can’t,” they say. “All we have is these five loaves and two fish.” “Bring them to me,” he says, and he tells the crowd to sit down in the grass. Then he blesses the bread, breaks the loaves, and gives them to the disciples to distribute and when they are finished everyone is full and there are twelve baskets left over.

Some have seen this as a tale of magic. Jesus the dazzler suspends the laws of nature and produces enough food for a hungry crowd. But Jesus was never interested in magic stunts like that. No, it is a story of abundance, the abundance that is already here waiting for us if we will open ourselves to God’s love and to each other. It’s a miracle story, yes, but it’s a miracle of the heart.

The people gathered out in that field had brought enough food for the day’s long journey, but they were doing what we all would, keeping it to themselves, holding it back for their own needs, reluctant to share what they had because there might not be enough.

But there in the presence of Jesus, hearing him speak of a great Giver behind all of life, and seeing the disciples giving away their own meager rations, suddenly scarcity turned into abundance as everyone offered what they had.

We have been following a story of terrible scarcity over these past two weeks as we’ve witnessed Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast and one of our country’s great cities, New Orleans. We watched for days first the raging storm itself and then the aftermath: as mothers holding their babies waved from rooftops for someone to rescue them, human bodies floated in the murky, toxic water, and thousands huddled in the horrors of the Superdome that had become a living hell of filth, hunger, dehydration, lack of sanitation, rage, and violence. We heard of hundreds of policemen walking off the job in despair. And now we see a city abandoned to floodwaters and shattered buildings and bridges.

It’s enough to make a grown person weep. And weeping is what we’ve been doing as a nation. Weeping for those who lost everything – their homes, their jobs, their neighborhoods, their loved ones, even their lives. We have been heartsick as we have watched whole communities disappear, or damaged almost beyond recovery. And we’ve been heartsick too at what this hurricane has shown us about life in our own country.

Natural disasters often seem to reveal the fault lines in a society. And this disaster showed us an America we can usually avoid facing. The vast majority of those who were stranded in New Orleans were the most vulnerable ones in our society – the poor and black, children and the elderly. It was their neighborhoods, the most low-lying ones, that flooded worst. When everyone was told to evacuate, they were the ones who didn’t own a car, couldn’t afford a bus ticket, and had no friend’s home to go to outside the city. They were stranded there with no way out. And after the storm hit, it was days before help came.

As the body count grows, it’s clear that a major portion of the dead will be these most vulnerable ones. In recent days we’ve learned more about how widespread poverty is in New Orleans – almost one-third of its population, and most of them African-American. Fifty percent of all the children in the city are poor.

And as we have been dealing with Katrina, the news has reported that the poverty rate has risen in America for the fourth straight year. Today this nation, the wealthiest on earth, ranks 43rd in infant mortality. The infant mortality rate is twice as high in America’s national capital as it is in China’s. An African-American baby born in Washington has less chance of surviving than a baby born in urban parts of many cities in India.

And all this we are wrestling with as a major event takes place in New York this week – the 60th anniversary meeting of the United Nations General Assembly convenes to address the terrible fact of extreme global poverty, which keeps one billion people living daily on the edge of death, and which kills 20,000 children worldwide every day.

It looks like a world of scarcity when we see the news these days. So many seem to have so little, and what little they have had, even that may now be gone.

But, you know, our world is no different from the little world of that crowd on that Galilean hillside with Jesus. There is enough in our world for everyone – enough food, enough health care, and enough resources to build decent lives. Our problem is that we see our world as a place of scarcity and everyone clings tightly to what they have. Our world is dominated by the energy of America’s brilliantly successful capitalist system. It is a system that in so many ways should be celebrated for the wealth and opportunity it has generated not just for itself but around the world and for the personal freedoms it makes possible.

But it is a system built on self-interest, and when self-interest alone drives the decisions that nations or individuals make, something essential is lost and our humanity is diminished. That is why we need scripture passages like the one for today that challenge the profit motive as the primary determining factor in our world. We need Christ’s voice declaring that compassion, generosity, and sacrifice belong in both our national and our personal lives, and that without them our world will become increasingly nasty and brutish.

People are going hungry tonight in our world and in our country not because of a scarcity of resources, but because of a scarcity of compassion and generosity, the very gifts Jesus came to give.

If we as people and as nations would be willing to put some small part of our nation’s wealth or our personal income in the breadbasket passed around the plane, if we could offer some modest but significant portion of what we have, we could build a nation and a world of abundance and justice for all.

You and I are called to live the abundant life of Christ right here and now in the face of immense human need. I can’t begin to spell out everything that means, but I’d like to leave you this morning with some hints of where I believe God is calling us.

First of all, I hope and pray that as a nation we will be unstinting in our determination to rebuild the lives of those devastated by this hurricane, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. And I hope we will find ways to weave these poorest citizens back into the fabric of their city’s life.

Second, I look forward to exploring with the other institutions on the Cathedral Close ways that we might offer personal, direct help. I was delighted to learn that St. Alban’s is actively seeking to bring as many as 12 boys from among the families affected by the hurricane to enroll there. The National Cathedral School has already conducted a major fundraiser and is developing it over full set of responses.

Third, we can give generously of our own financial resources, through the Episcopal Church or some other charity.

Fourth, for those of us who can’t extend our personal reach as far as New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, we can find ways to extend our compassion into parts of our own city of Washington or wherever we live, where people are as left behind as those in the 9th ward in New Orleans. We can support the schools here, develop tutoring programs here, create partnerships with churches here. We can link ourselves arm in arm with those in this city who are struggling.

We can be tireless advocates in the public arena and the halls of government for a rebirth of generosity as a nation and for a generous response to the desperately poor around the world.

And finally, we can pray – pray for all who have suffered as a result of Katrina, and all who are struggling to hold their lives together now as they prepare to rebuild.

In times such as this we look for signs of hope, and I’d like to close with two small ones. The first came from last Monday’s edition of the Jackson, Mississippi daily newspaper. It showed a large photo of a church service last Sunday on a concrete slab where the church once stood, with all the worshipers gathered around with lawn chairs. And the headline was quote from a pastor’s sermon: “Everyone is family now.” There is abundance for you.

Another was a picture in the Washington Post early this week of a little five year old black child holding hands with a hundred and five year old white woman in a wheel chair as they made their way out of the New Orleans convention center. Behind them you see a policeman with a rifle, and two other children being rolled out in what looks like a laundry bin.

But there in their clasp—one little dark-skinned hand grasping the thin, wrinkled hand of the elderly woman—there is our hope and our calling, that we can reach out across all the barriers of race and class, of haves and have-nots, of old and young and live Christ’s generous, compassionate way with each other. That’s the abundance Christ was calling us to on that hillside so long ago.

If Hurricane Katrina can help us learn to live that way, even a little, what a blessing will have come from this terrible event.