Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow, nor reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? O Lord, I am not proud. I have no haughty looks. My sisters and brothers, I wish to speak to you of God’s grace. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is a great joy to be with you, to be with this Cathedral community on this day of prayer and celebration for my home and the home of many who have traveled here today, the state of Mississippi. We pilgrims who have made this journey from Mississippi this weekend deeply appreciate your hospitality and continuing prayer. How wonderfully appropriate it is that your Forum guest earlier this morning was Dr. Charles Marsh, a scholar, a native son of Mississippi, who’s chronicled so much of the tragedy, courage, brutality, and nobility of my native land. And to have as the celebrant at the Eucharist the Right Reverend Jane Holmes Dixon of this diocese, but really from Winona, Mississippi. And of course there is another pilgrim in your midst, a pilgrim who came and stayed a few years ago, by the name of the Very Reverend Sam Lloyd, truly from Canton, Mississippi.
I’ve been asked to reflect, almost three years after Hurricane Katrina’s arrival on the Mississippi gulf coast, on the learnings, the wisdom, indeed the hope that abides in her aftermath. Now books have been written, and more will come, more completely detailing this tragedy. But in the context of what we do this day in this holy place, I wish to speak of God’s grace in the woundedness of us all.
Two weeks before the storm, my wife and I brought into our home a daughter, Tabitha Awur Agany, a war refugee from southern Sudan. And ever since then, we have tried to learn as much about that conflicted nation as we can. And so it was that I picked up a recently published book from National Geographic, a book by one of Sudan’s lost boys. The unsettling title of this incredible story is God Grew Tired of Us.
Those words shock us. How could God grow tired of us? But they also speak to a deep spiritual reality that we have faced on the Mississippi gulf coast. I first saw Katrina’s wrath two days after the storm came ashore. By the time I got there, I already knew the tally from the institutional damage. There were six churches totally destroyed, two were flooded, eight clergy had lost their homes. But I was totally unprepared for the enormity of the devastation that I was to encounter, and so I planted Episcopal Church flags at the sites of the slabs of the churches—a suggestion from my wife—made contacts with the clergy, and after the last contact, simply sat down and wept.
A tragedy, you see, of any kind, and certainly a tragedy on the magnitude of Katrina or an earthquake in China or a cyclone in Myanmar, raises ultimate questions in our souls. My God, why, why have your forsaken us? Has God grown tired of us?
A few weeks later, I came across a description of what I was experiencing and, I suppose, thousands of others across the coast. They were words from Joseph Conrad in his novel Typhoon. Conrad wrote, “First there was an overpowering concussion. In an instant, men lost touch with each other. This is the disintegrating power of the great wind. It isolates one from humankind. An earthquake, a landslide, an avalanche, overtakes one incidentally as it were without passion. But a furious gale attacks him like a personal enemy, tries to grasp limbs, fastens upon his mind and seeks to root the very spirit out of him.”
And there it was. The deepest malevolence of the storm. Its most demonic characteristic was not merely to break you but to convince you that you are utterly and completely alone. My God, my God, why have you forsaken? And that is why the worship services on every one of those slabs, four days later, after the storm, and every Sunday since, were so important. I gathered at the congregation of St. Mark’s, where people were seeing each other for the first time, and they held onto each other, the unwashed and the unshaven, and sang a familiar hymn that I will never sing the same way again: “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ’Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
We held onto one another that day. We held onto those who came to us. Some of you in prayer, in contributions, and so many willing bodies. And because you came to us, we summoned as much courage as we could and said no to the evil one who wished to convince us, in his always deceptive ways, that we were completely and utterly alone.
And because of the extraordinary outpouring of thousands, we began to hear words of very personal and intimate reassurance from the Lord of our lives. Look at the birds of the air. Are you not of more value than they? And as you and thousands like you reached out to us, we have found the gentle grace of our Lord’s touch, even if for the longest time we were incapable of any response save tears of deep sorrow and gratitude. And because we encountered the risen Lord in those who reached out to us, we had begun to understand, in a very mysterious way, that our very brokenness has become an instrument of grace, not simply to ourselves but to others.
Flannery O’Conner once wrote that Southern identity came from our own history of defeat and violation, producing a distrust of the abstract, a sense of dependence on the grace of God, and an acknowledgement that evil is not simply a problem to be solved but a mystery to be endured. If she was right, then what I’m saying about Mississippi has its roots deep within our very broken and tortured and courageous history, and it is a gift that we might offer this very proud and strong and this day very broken church.
You see, it is out of the experience of being broken by life that we come to a perspective that is unavailable to the proud and the strong. We have been given a cross to bear. It was not a cross of our own choosing, but the very cross that was given to us has become, I believe, the cross of our salvation. You see, we live in a state that has been broken many times and yet has found grace within that brokenness. We have been broken by poverty, injustice, and economic failure. And by God’s grace we have learned about courage and perseverance and the grace-filled simplicities of family and faith. And, my goodness, we’ve been broken by bigotry and violence and are now able, I believe, better than many, to confront our past and speak the truth to each other in new and redemptive ways. And we’ve been broken by our recent church conflicts, but that has pushed us deeper into the baptismal unity that unites us.
We have learned to lay down our swords and shields that we have heretofore used to carve each other up, down by the riverside—rather, down by the seaside, for we have been profoundly broken by Katrina. But I do believe that God is doing something new in giving a gift to use in our brokenness that may yet be our great gift to this church, dare I even say to this country. For we are learning what it means to be a vulnerable and broken people through whom God seeks to build something dramatically new.
For those who have been knocked or washed to their knees by life and have discovered that all is indeed grace, and for those who have had the courage to live into the new life that flows from that brokenness, the world and our place in it looks very different. And so it is we are no longer as strong as we once thought we were, and yet we are no longer as isolated as we once feared we were, and the devastation to our coast congregations has transformed those churches in their pain into unprecedented mission and outreach communities.
A very traditional church now has an outreach program to the entire community, where children who have no other place to go in the summer gather at that church. Another church makes the decision as everybody else is leaving downtown Gulfport to stay and rebuild on the water, because it is in the middle of town, and they understand themselves to be a downtown ministry. Another church gathered here with young people deals with the issues of institutional racism in unprecedented ways, as youth groups gather together in their brokenness and are now on pilgrimage, stopping first here and going to Boston to offer their gifts, their discovery, to the people in that diocese.
Broken hearts, broken bodies, broken spirits, finding ways to touch other broken hearts, bodies, and spirits in the same way that our brokenness, our vulnerability, is touched by God’s brokenness, God’s vulnerability, week after week, at God’s altar, and we are finding healing and hope and grace.
Now before I leave, a word to you in this great diocese. You are part of a diocese known for your commitment to social justice and outreach ministry, and this particular community gathers in this extraordinary place to gather strength for the enormously complex and challenging work in the various office buildings downtown. May God direct you in this faithful calling. May I offer you this day the wisdom gleaned from our tragedy: as you feed the hungry here and abroad, don’t be afraid to face the starvation in your own soul. As you give drink to the thirsty, don’t be afraid to acknowledge the dryness within, and as you visit the sick and the prisoner, don’t be afraid to look squarely at the walls we construct to protect ourselves, only to discover that they have imprisoned us.
And if you do come to Mississippi, we still need help. Dare to come, not as saviors, but as we have come to this day, as pilgrims to holy ground. Your vulnerability can go places your strength will never enter, and grace will abound where strength and power are no more. It will scare you to be that vulnerable, but don’t be afraid to wade in the waters of your baptism. Waters that require a death before life truly begins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.