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Sep 05, 2017 | The Rev. Lisa Hines

Bright Love

Most days in August, water in Texas is a good thing. To drink, to swim in, to soak the withering lawn, to stand under in the shower as you rinse off the day’s swelter. But then came Harvey, with a wind-driven storm surge that devoured a coast, 27 trillion gallons of rain, and miles of city submerged with snakes and alligators and its own waste in an enormous bathtub with a stopped-up drain. Water that is no longer life-giving but terrifying, isolating, deadly. The images on television have been mesmerizing in their incongruity between what was and what is, coastal rubble instead of weekend retreats, flat-bottomed boats somberly navigating a neighborhood of second stories and car roofs, amphibious military vehicles driving into suburban lakes that lap the highway. And who will forget those drenched and stunned people plucked from their roofs by boats or helicopters, grateful to be rescued yet betrayed all the same, some fundamental trust or maybe just naiveite drowned unceremoniously. While I’ve grown tired of hearing reporters say it was a flood of “biblical proportion,” as if only events of mass destruction are worthy of holiness, I admit it’s been hard not to think of Noah and the mythic Flood that tested God’s commitment to the messy experiment of creation.

“Take up your cross and follow me,” says Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. We would be forgiven, I think, for believing that Harvey is the cross that tens of thousands of soaked and battered Texans must pick up, their slice of misfortune in a pie that’s never been divided fairly. After all, isn’t that what we mean when we say, “that’s our cross to bear,” the suffering we can’t escape? those crosses that come crashing down upon our shoulders when we have no choice at all, or maybe when we choose the wrong thing, like choosing to stay instead of evacuate or to build a house by the water near sea level instead of on a mountain in the desert. But when Jesus says, “take up your cross,” he implies we have a choice. He is, after all, choosing to walk on to Jerusalem where he will be crucified, not because he has a death wish, but because that is where gospel truth must be spoken even if it kills him.

So, the cross that we are invited to pick up is always one that we are free to refuse. Jesus asks each of us, and each of those spent refugees emerging with their children from the water, to choose to take up our cross and follow. He asks us in every moment to make “choices for the Kingdom” of God and to suffer willingly whatever consequences come into our lives as a result.[1]

Last Sunday, I shared with you my childhood memories of hurricanes in southern Louisiana. But like many others in Bastrop County, the prolonged devastation of Harvey delivers me back to that time six years ago almost to the day when we fled fire instead of water and returned later to sift through ash instead of debris soaked in a toxic stew. But to be honest, I am not so much haunted by the trauma and loss of the wildfires as I am quickened by remembering the sound of God’s voice in that wilderness.

For some of us, the flames that scoured away the accumulation of a lifetime also played the burning bush to our reluctant Moses. It lured us into turning away from wherever it was we were going to approach something that burned but was not consumed. I’m not talking about the kind of fire that feeds on wind and pine needles, but the kind that can’t be quenched by watery miles of waste or overwhelmed by a storm surge. What bid us to turn aside and remove our shoes and listen in that wilderness was the impossible brightness of Love that burns at the heart of it all. And what we heard, saw, felt in that brightness was the God who says, “Go. Leave the complacency of your unburned pastures where you have hidden from me, and go where I will send you.” What we encountered in that brightness was Jesus, saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

The call of Jesus was nothing new to us, but something, everything, had changed. I remember how for a few precious days, the things we thought we couldn’t live without suddenly seemed almost obscene in their excess. We felt in our bones that the life we desperately thought we needed to save wasn’t really the life we are meant to live. We’re meant to live at a deeper level that connects us to what remains after everything else is gone. By God’s sometimes brutal grace, we had been stripped of the illusion that our pain was separate from the pain of the whole world. The wildfires had led us to a place where we finally understood that it was compassion for this world that kept Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, and it is out of compassion for the world that we are called to pick up our crosses and follow—to suffer as Jesus did without passing that suffering on to others, to continue giving and forgiving in an opportunistic and vengeful world, to speak truth even when only lies pay well, to love as Jesus loved, trusting always and only in that bright Love that survives loss and death.

In the wilderness of water and destruction that Harvey has left behind, Love’s flares are everywhere, in the selfless risks taken by rescuers, in a dry bed and plate of food that someone schemed and labored to bring to a stranger miles away, in the gentleness shown to those who mourn, in the neighbor who picks up a tool to rip out flood-swollen Sheetrock in a ruined house. While Harvey has our attention, while we still remember what it was like during the wildfires to stand before God, emptied of our pretensions to a life apart from the One who is the source of all life, before we close the window that compassion has thrown open in our hearts, stop and turn aside to listen for what God is calling you to do, what choice you can make for the sake of God’s Kingdom, what particular cross you will take up to follow Jesus. Amen.

[1] Richard Rohr: “The ‘cross’ in the New Testament is precisely the suffering that comes into our lives by the choices we make for the Kingdom.”

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