“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good…”
When the city of New Orleans planned its 3rd Katrina Anniversary observance, none of us had in mind a reenactment. This is déjà vu, all over again. Same weekend. Same timing. Same scripture lesson. But we have learned a lot from the last time. If this is a test, and I believe it is, we know a whole lot more about the answers.
I say this is a test. But I am not saying that God is looking down from heaven saying, “Pop quiz time. Let’s see what these guys are made of.” But I do believe that life is not bowl of cherries. Sometimes. Not always. The sooner we make peace with the fact that life is difficult, the better off we will be. For life is created in such a way that you and I will be tested. This is a test, a multiple choice test. Key word: choice. We have a choice.
On April 15, 1912, when the Titanic struck an iceberg and within 2 ½ hours sank to the bottom of the ocean, there were 2200 people on board, but only 712 survived. There were hundreds on board that night who panicked, pushed, shoved, screamed, and cried, desperate to get a place on board a lifeboat, those who fled thinking only of themselves, those who put a gun to their heads and ended their own lives, those who poured a glass of brandy as the boat went down. But then there were those who helped to rescue, helped to calm those who were frightened, those who gave up their places on the lifeboats that others might be saved, and those who prayed. If we had been there, if we too had been tested, given those multiple choices, what would we have chosen?
Or on September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in NYC, there were so very many who responded like heroes—the firefighters and police risking and sacrificing their lives, volunteers who poured into the city, people lined up giving blood, churches that opened their doors. But even as the towers were tumbling to the ground, jeans were being being emptied from the shelves of The Gap, watches being lifted from department stores. Indeed, in the midst of the smoking rubble at the 16-acre sit, thousands of items that had been taken from retail stores were found. It was a war zone that brought out the best, and sometimes the worst in us. It was a test, a multiple choice test.
Remember the shocking stories that came out of Guantanamo about the humiliating abuses that Muslim prisoners endured at the hands of a few American soldiers. I can imagine the anger on the part of those soldiers toward those who were suspected of terrorism and how tempting it might be to retaliate. One prisoner who had been especially cruelly treated asked the American, “Why are you doing this to me?” The soldier replied, “Because I am a Christian.” One reporter made the comment: what a difference it would have made if the soldier had actually being showing unusual kindness and compassion and had been asked the same question, “Why are you doing this to me?” “Because I am a Christian.”
There are those people who can live their entire lives without ever being tested in such a dramatic way. But we are not among them. Katrina was a test. Gustav is a test. We have a multiple choice. Sometimes under stress or in the midst of crisis, we are tempted to think we can lower our standards, relax our morals, conduct ourselves in ways that we otherwise would never deem permissible. Isn’t that okay? Aren’t we entitled? Do the rules change when crisis comes? Do the Ten Commandments no longer apply? Do we still have to love one another, forgive one another, practice patience and kindness? Or are we allowed—entitled—to bend the rules, backslide, to do unto others what they do to us, an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, to bite back?
Remember in the aftermath of Katrina all the looting and shooting that occurred? Even Faye Cannon’s St. Germain shoe store with all those cute little pointy toes and spiky heeled, totally impractical, Italian ladies shoes was looted—I have this image of some looter wading through the toxic water in his St. Germain shoes. I can’t help but remember one of the articles Chris Rose wrote in the aftermath of Katrina about going into a Walgreens that had already been looted, its shelves virtually emptied, and taking a bottle of mouthwash. After he was caught red-handed by a National Guardsman, he promised to come back after the store reopened to pay for it. In times like that, is it okay to take something that does not belong to us? How do you decide? What rules apply?
I read about a woman who discovered she had a brain tumor the size of an avocado. It was a shock to her and to her family. In the weeks that ensued as everyone tried to absorb the reality she grew very irritable, angry, yelling at her husband, at her children, excusing herself by saying, “I have brain cancer! What does God expect?” But then she began to ask, “What does God expect?” And then that became her prayer everyday, “God, what do expect of me?” And that became her longing: to receive God’s commendation in that seemingly impossible situation. What if that was our prayer today? We will pray many things in this place, at this altar, in the days ahead, for God to save us, help us, comfort us, sustain us, others. But what if that was our prayer too: God what do you expect of me?
That’s what this passage of scripture is about. This is what God expects of us. Not just when life is a bowl of cherries. But when life is under stress. When you and I are tested. In this passage, writing to a persecuted church in Rome, Paul is not lowering the bar or relaxing the standard. We Americans talk a lot about a high standard OF living and usually what we mean is lifestyle, money, cars, clothes, homes, restaurants, and private schools. A standard OF living. But the Christian life has nothing to do with that and everything to do with a high standard FOR living. It is up UP to this high standard FOR living that Paul summons us to rise. And here is the key: “hold fast to what is good.”
With everything pulling us down, tempting us to lower ourselves, hold fast to what is good. As the storm nears, as waters rise, as anxiety builds, in the midst of trial, hold fast to what is good. By the grace of God, sustained by the Spirit of Christ’s unfailing love, let us hold fast to what is good.
Hold fast to the One who even now holds fast to you. He holds you. As Julian of Norwich wrote, “Jesus did not say, ‘You will not be assailed, you will not be belabored, you will not be disquieted,’ but he said, “You will not be overcome.’” Hold fast!