September 17, 2017

Pentecost – Proper 19

Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103; Romans 14: 1 - 12; Matthew 18: 21-35

The Rev. James M.L. Grace

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

            While life in the Heights seems to be more or less back to normal after Harvey, a trip to flood affected areas in west Houston tells a very different story.  Streets lined with piles of mucked out sheet rock, flooded appliances: televisions, washing machines, refrigerators.  The horizontal water line, an eerie reminder of just how high the waters rose, is evident across buildings and walls.  Upon seeing it for the first time, it immediately brought me back to working in New Orleans after Katrina, seeing the water line there, how high the water got. 

            So what has St. Andrew’s done?  You all have done a lot, as I shared last week. We have collected and distributed cleaning supplies, water, food, clothing, diapers, and more all across the city.  We have partnered with Episcopal churches in Houston including Lord of the Streets, San Pablo, and San Pedro and with Christ Church in Covington, Lousiana, to bring assistance to people who need it most.  So many of you have stepped in to lend a hand.  We are making an impact on this city. 

            We’ve also collected money these past two Sundays, and I want to offer a brief update on the funds we have received for both Harvey and Irma relief.  As of last Sunday, St. Andrew’s has received approximately $8,000 to go towards relief work.  And I want to thank you for your generosity, whether you wrote a check, volunteered at the Heights Interfaith Food Pantry, at our supply warehouse with PJ (introduce her).  You all have been so generous with your time and your resources.  Funds for Harvey have already been dispersed.  An example of what we did with some of those dollars was to help three of members of St. Andrew’s School staff who were affected by the flooding and so as a church we have given them money, along with our prayers, to help those employees of the school begin to rebuild their lives.  The School community has been incredibly generous in collecting clothing, furniture, appliances, and more to create warm new homes for school employees who had lost so much.

            For money collected last week for Irma relief, I am coordinating with the Rev. Canon Simon Bautista at Christ Church Cathedral to get our Irma dollars down to Puerto Rico, which Canon Bautista informs me has was heavily hit by Hurricane Irma.  Thankfully, the Dominican Republic, especially vulnerable to natural disasters such as Irma, was largely spared.  Canon Bautista has personal Episcopal Church connections in Puerto Rico, and he can help us bypass

bureaucracy and red tape to get the dollars you have given to where they will do the most good.  If you want to contribute to either Harvey or Irma relief, you can write a check payable to St. Andrew’s and notate in the memo line either Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma relief, and we will get those funds to where they can do the most good.    

            This morning I want to talk about forgiveness, and I want to do so through story.  The story begins this way: I was standing out in the street outside my home a day after the hurricane blew through.  It was the first day we had sunlight after what seemed to be an eternity of cloudy dark days.  Remember how good it felt to look up to the sky and see blue?

            The streets were still wet, and I was outside throwing a football with my son, and because the football would land in wet areas, the football got wet, which meant that my hands got wet from touching it.  My wedding ring, which I have had for thirteen years, was loose on my ring finger.  Somehow, when throwing the ball with my left hand, because I am left handed, the laces of the football caught my ring in some kind of unpredictable way, and the ring flew off my finger along with the football.

            When my ring fell off, I didn’t hear it hit the ground, so I assumed it didn’t fall into the street but into the grass somewhere.  We looked for it for awhile, but it never showed up.  So the ring I wear on my finger now is wedding ring 2.0.  What have I learned from this?  Nothing is permanent.  When Marla put that ring on my finger twelve years ago, I thought “I will wear this ring until I am an old man.”   That thought was also coupled with this one: “I hope I don’t ever lose this ring.”  When I told my wife that I lost my ring, I don’t really know what I was expecting, except maybe she would be angry, maybe it would be hard for her to forgive me.            I was kind of apprehensive to tell her.  When I did, she didn’t say “You did what!!!???”  She didn’t seem angry at all, and I think I heard the tone of forgiveness in her voice when she said “oh, okay.  My dad has a metal detector.  We’ll see if we can find it.”  That’s forgiveness.  If I were to run through the whole list of things I have asked her forgiveness for, we would be here a long time, but I share that one, because in that moment I was made aware, yet again, that relationships are not strong because of things.  Relationships are strong because we forgive.  That’s the point of Jesus’ parable this morning.  That’s the point of the reading from Genesis where Joseph forgives his brothers.

            Forgiveness is our greatest strength because it gives us an opportunity to look outside of ourselves.  Several weeks ago when my son and I were part of a human chain off loading humanitarian aid from a United Airlines truck at the George R Brown, I looked at everyone helping - women, men, people of all color, people who voted for Hillary Clinton, people who voted for Donald Trump, and no one was arguing or fighting.  It was great - people setting aside their differences for a much greater good.  I told my son to look around and watch - that this was our city at its finest.  We saw people reaching out beyond themselves to help others, and when you see that again and again, it makes you realize the good that we can do.   

            So much was washed away in the flood.  People’s dreams.  People’s homes. People’s hope.  But that was not everything.  Other things were washed, too.  Anger, cynicism, selfishness - they didn’t have a chance when the waters rose - they too washed away.  Did you notice that?  Perhaps the great irony of the flood in which so much was lost, was that buried in those piles of garbage lining our city streets, we rediscovered our dignity.  At the bottom of every one of those piles there is forgiveness.  That’s how forgiveness works.  We have to pull away all the garbage and find it there, buried in the rubble.  And once we find it, once we rediscover it, life becomes new for us all, and the garbage, the trash heaps - they disappear.  AMEN.