Sermon Remix: The Hailstorm & Wartburg College

 

Today Northwood was incredibly fortunate to have the Wartburg Choir visit us. The number of choir members was approximately equivalent to the number of other worshippers. The choir was full of energy, grace, and (most importantly) voices that moved us all to tears. The recording of Give Me Jesus, is currently playing on repeat in my ears. Incredible. This was to be week two of a sermon series on Sabbath, but I was feeling like it was important to tell the story of some of the lessons of this week, so I preached this sermon instead.

This week’s hailstorm, and the subsequent lessons that we’ve experienced as a church led me to abandon the “regularly scheduled programming” for this week and to, instead, talk for a few minutes about what spiritual lessons and gems I saw for us in this past week. There are way too many  be included in this message, but I’m going to take you through a few of the most poignant. One of the lessons that is a rather long story involves plastic flamingos. In the next couple of weeks, as you stop by my office, ask me the flamingo story, I love to tell it.

The first lesson is, not surprisingly, gratitude. We talk about this all the time, do we not?  When we have plenty: gratitude. When we are in want: gratitude. I’d say gratitude is one of the top three, if not the very number one thing I preach about. I have to confess, though, that I felt some very conflicting thoughts on gratitude this week. It’s not that we weren’t grateful. It was so very easy to be grateful this week. As we looked around at broken glass and soggy ceilings and dented window frames and shattered windshields, we knew that the force of ice that could do that type of damage could do damage to human beings and, mercifully, it did not. All week we were saying to each other “We are so thankful. It is just material possessions.” At the same time, ours was not the only natural disaster this week. There were earthquakes this week in Japan, Myanmar, Ecuador and Tonga. The earthquake in Ecuador that happened last night was particularly troubling and upsetting to our sense of gratitude, though, because, as we look at the photos, and read about the deaths, it becomes clear that at least part of reason the destruction is so devastating there is the lack of solid infrastructure. Do you notice that when you read about mudslides and floods in other parts of the world? The devastation is sometimes felt on a scale that is much larger than we experience here. Sometimes we think “Why doesn’t that happen here?” Well, it doesn’t happen because our houses aren’t built out of flimsy material on the side of a hill, they’re carefully designed and placed where they are by city planners with codes and regulations. Even in the most impoverished parts of our nation, we rarely see the kind of devastation with natural disaster that we see in developing nations.
.
I’m reminded that if our church were not made with a metal roof and brick and fancy noise abatement windows, but instead with a grass roof or a tin roof, or no roof at all, it would have been flattened. If our homes were not built on concrete foundations, or if we lived in refugee camps, that hail storm would have caused deaths. So the gratitude of which I speak so frequently becomes a real challenge sometimes. It gives us questions that aren’t easy to answer. Why us and not them? Yes, we are grateful for our safety and the relative inconvenience of this storm, but there’s something deeper there. I don’t think we can simply say “Phew, we’re thankful we don’t have to experience that kind of trauma.” I think we’re called to do something about that, to take the seed of “that could have been us” and let it bury deep into the soil of our hearts. What fruit will it yield?
.
The second lesson, is the idea that helpers and the recipients of help are constantly trading places. After word got out about Northwood to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, I received no less than three emails from volunteers and staff of that organization who began to advise us on the process for utilizing their services. Our Presbytery has requested an emergency grant from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance that would cover some of our immediate costs. Should we need further assistance, there are other long term grants available. One of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance volunteers, Alan Ford, sent me a photo of Northwood women with shovels and dust masks and wide brimmed hats, cleaning up from the floods in Bastrop in 2012. He said that he uses that photo in powerpoint presentations about the great work that PDA does.  Sometimes we’re the helpers. Sometimes we need the help. PDA’s motto is “Out of Chaos: Hope.” What a wonderful motto. What a beautiful image of what we do for one another in times of disaster.
This week there were so, so many examples of church members and staff providing order to the chaos. Some of the helpfulness created just a little bit more chaos, but in a glorious way. For example, since our staff knew full well what I needed, I had no less than three extra large store bought coffees with extra cream, just how I like it. Which coffee should I drink first? Ah, the glorious hope that coffee brings to chaos. In addition to coffee we had breakfast tacos, muffins and danishes brought by staff and church members who knew we would need them. The muffins turned out to be extremely valuable at 6:30 p.m. when Clayton and Samuel were still here and it was getting well past their dinner time. Our building and grounds person got here before I did and helped direct first steps. All day, people dropped in and said “How can I help?” I got many voicemails and texts and emails asking the same question. I couldn’t even respond to all of them. Please know that if you reached out this week and I didn’t respond, your calls and emails and texts were heard and received and so appreciated.  It’s this kind of coming togetherness that defines Northwood and has since our formation in the 1950s. Its one of our trademarks, and it makes me so unbelievably proud that God would give me the tremendous privilege of being your pastor. I deliberately didn’t name names of all the people who helped because I didn’t want to embarrass anyone or forget anyone. There are a few people to name, though. Besides our incredible staff (Libby, Owen, Rogers and Rebecca), I do want to mention one person who went above and beyond this week, someone who doesn’t get enough credit for everything he does for us, and that’s Elias.
.
When I was on the phone with the lead insurance adjustor in Des Moines, Iowa at 8:00 on Tuesday morning, I got slightly ruffled when he told me I should send my husband up on the roof to report back about its status. First of all, that’s assuming that I have a husband and not a boyfriend or girlfriend or wife or no partner at all. Second of all, I can climb ladders just fine, thank you very much. The truth is, though, I didn’t have to “ask my husband” to go on the roof, because, well, my husband already was on the roof. Because he volunteered. Elias spent a lot of the week helping out, heroically. Not because he cares for me, which he obviously does, but because when we were called to San Antonio, he also felt a deep sense of love and calling for this church community. Another beautiful lesson of the week.
.
The final story I want to tell is a reminder that we have a chance to minister in absolutely every profession we are in. No matter what vocation or job you have, there are ministry opportunities for you. This lesson was brought home when two contractors ministered to me. First of all, they arrived sort of like modern day angels, with a text message containing our address.
.
“Who sent you?” I asked them. They shrugged and said “We just go where the text messages say. We were just told to go here to board up your windows. “Well, I said, that is our address, and we do need some windows boarded up, so let’s make it happen!” (The mystery was cleared up a little later when our insurance company called and said “Hey, did any subcontractors arrive to board up the windows?” Ah, yes, yes they did.) These contractors were a father and son duo, and it was evident from the moment they started working that they were serious, excellent at their job, and kindhearted people. As I was taking them on a little tour of what needed to be done, I got to the choir room windows, the original stained glass doors of the congregation. A lot of history is in those windows, and it had been a long day. “I don’t know how you’re going to tape those up,” I said, and then I started to cry a little. “These windows are important to our history.” I said. “No te procupes, mija” the contractor said, and he patted my arm, “We’ll take care of your church.” A little later I noticed that their truck was gone and the windows were not fixed. I shouldn’t have lost faith. A few minutes later, they came back. They had gone to purchase a special tape, and I watched them lovingly tape together each pane that was cracked, preventing further damage, and protecting our historic windows.
.
Gratitude. Solidarity for those who are in similar or worse situations. Help from those we once helped. Chaos out of hope. Muffins. Coffee. Special tape. What a week. How many spiritual lessons for our congregation this week. Let us give thanks to God and keep our eyes open for what might be next. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of us all, Amen.