Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Basics: Water, Spirit, Honesty

Scripture for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

What is more basic to life than water? You might hear that question rising from our first reading—and from the daily news, national and international (even extra-terrestrial, as we keep looking for evidence of water on the moon as an indicator of life).

Migrating Israelites were looking for water to slake their thirst during their long seasons and years of wandering in the wilderness, searching for a new homeland. Thirst, profound thirst, did not bring out the best in them. Leaving Egypt, these Hebrew refugees had had a uniquely profound experience of water: as our psalm announces, God “split open the sea and let them pass through; God made the waters stand up like walls.” At that moment they knew without a doubt that God was with them.

But we witness a different moment in today’s portion from Exodus. These were not avid campers. These were folks who liked hot and cold running water. These were people many of us can relate to. They even asked a very modern question, “Is the Lord among us or not?”, indicative of how hard a pendulum can swing from facing too much water and so much grace all at once, to facing the absence of water and a strong sense of abandonment on a march through the desert. Even religious faith appears to hang on what’s in your canteen at the moment.

In this story of the migration of God’s chosen people, God keeps accommodating their needs, but only when those needs reach the proportion of crisis. It’s as if first the President must declare a federal disaster, then FEMA moves in. But in this story, the President, Moses, feels even more helpless than his people. They’re an organized mob. He’s surrounded by their anger. He’s the one who now most must behave as if the Lord is among them. He cries out to God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!”

There’s a passage that evokes sympathy for presidents.

The back-story in Exodus is how God loves Moses. God may have a demanding way of showing that love, but greater than the burdens placed by God on the shoulders of Moses is the power, the grace, the spirit with which God endows him. So at this critical moment God prompts Moses to surround himself with some of the elders of Israel (not to go it alone) and to lead that angry crowd to a certain rock at Horeb. “Take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing in front of you. Strike the rock, and let the people find evidence that I am among them.” There and then, as the psalmist sings, “God gave them drink as from the great deep.”

A legend sprang up among later rabbis, how that rock followed the Hebrew people throughout the rest of their journey. Perhaps they meant the memory of it never left them, but the tale they told for imaginative refreshment was that the rock went with them: a wonderful sacramental answer to the peeving question, “Is God with us or not?”

And if you think that’s an astonishing legend, you should hear what St. Paul makes of it in one of his letters: “And the rock was Christ!” I’m not making that up. That is what Paul said, perhaps his way of declaring that Jesus Christ is the living water of God, constant in its flow to keep alive the wandering, the thirsty, all whose resources are dried up.

May countless Somali refugees, fleeing drought and famine, find him with them in their desert migration. And victims of drought in the American Southwest, their homes in ashes after wildfires, may they find him in their desert.

Meanwhile, we in the Northeast are awash as rivers rise and super-saturated air shows us what monsoons can do to a settled way of life. If three days without water can kill a person, one day of a tropical storm making landfall can devastate the vulnerable parts, the vulnerable people, of a community.

What is more central to life than water? Spirit. That is one truth we discover, after a disaster. When a river overflows its banks, neighboring victims experience a flooding of anxiety, a drowning of hope, a washout of energy, the components of depression. As spirit sinks in people whose homes were submerged, the supportive spirit of the wider community helps carry them.

This is what St. Paul talks about when he writes to the church at Philippi, in a different crisis, a time of persecution when the emperor’s men imprisoned and executed Christians who refused to treat the emperor as if he were a god and not a man. Listen to the simple but powerful dimensions of spirit that Paul names and commends among the Philippians: encouragement… consolation… love… sharing…compassion… sympathy…unity… humility… By these spiritual powers a community comes together, people look beyond their own interests to the interests of others. As if defying gravity, people learn to regard what is best in others, what unites them, not separates them. A common mind emerges, and it is one of self-emptying service; it is the mind of Christ.

This is not only Paul’s experience in the first century: it is ours in this community in this 21st century, on the heels of a hurricane.

More central to life than water is spirit. But our hierarchy of values is not yet complete. We take Jesus’s little parable to heart: Honesty is also central to life.

Jesus turns the tables on an argumentative gaggle of clergy in the temple. They try to corner him into naming the authority by which he heals and teaches. What are your credentials, they ask him. Who gave you this authority?

He replies to their question with one of his own. It is designed to put them in a bind. His question takes them right into the muddy waters of the Jordan River. He has stood there, but they have not. Countless other people have stood there, experiencing the baptism of John the Baptizer, an open-air ethical-spiritual revival movement that would have given those temple clergy the heebie-jeebies. But now, when Jesus asks these establishment figures whether John baptized by divine authority or just by his own will, these men cannot answer Jesus. They don’t believe for a moment that God would utilize the outspoken loose-cannon unordained likes of John the Baptist—but they won’t say so in public because they fear alienating the residents of Jerusalem and Judea, in whose eyes John was popular.
When these men refuse to answer Jesus, he refuses to answer them.

But he does tell them a parable, a pithy little story designed to tweak their imagination enough to wonder what he meant by it.

Two sons of one father. The father approaches one son and orders him to work in the family vineyard. “I will not,” this first son sasses back; but later he changes his mind and goes to work.

Then the father says the same to the other son. “I go, sir,” he answers, but he does not go.

“Which of these boys does the will of his father?” asks Jesus. “ The one who contradicts his father but then acts to honor his will, or the one who claims to honor his will but never acts?”

That’s easy, answer the temple clergy, “The first.” But it’s not so easy, is it? Of what does honesty consist? Action, not talk. Remember the touchstone question of Micah the prophet:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
--Micah 6:6-8

A similar message is remembered on the lips of the prophet Amos:

“Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
--Amos 5:23-24

Jesus drives home his point. Honesty is the paramount value of the spirit, honesty is required in the kingdom of God. But Jesus finds more honesty among tax collectors and prostitutes than among the established religious community.

It takes honesty to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, placing of first importance what matters most, letting go of the rest. It takes honesty to recognize our need for God. And honesty to recognize that God is at work in us, making us able to see and make our best choices, avoiding the worst. Perhaps that gives us a working definition of honesty: It is the courage to choose what is best, what is true.

Honesty is of paramount importance now as our nation struggles with recession, as too many leaders appear to be bent on trapping one another in corners, turning tables on one another—even at the expense of such urgent business as funding FEMA.

Honesty is needed in this community as we come to terms with what is happening at The Spruces—for mobile homeowners to discern what is in their own best interest, for Morgan Management to come to fair terms with respect to their own future and the future of the residents, and for our wider community to recognize how best to support Spruces residents, and respond to the urgent need for additional affordable housing that is both adequate and safely located.

It may be that we feel like the psalmist who cried, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck!” But we are here today to affirm that Jesus Christ is the living water of God, constant in its flow to keep alive the thirsty, to renew all who think their resources are dried up, to support us all and teach us how to carry one another.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Letting Grace Rule

Scripture for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 16:2-15; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

When was the last time you were queued up in a long line, and someone cut ahead of you?

How did you react?

At the Post Office, it’s a small thing… at least if there are two clerks behind the counter, I wouldn’t lose more than a minute or two of my day. I could handle that.

But what if, at the end of the line, there isn’t enough to go around? What if everyone in line believes there’s free beer (or a limited number of something even more desirable), to the first however-many reach that counter? What if it’s Black Friday at Best Buy? Or the customer service desk at Delta Airlines, after a cancelled flight?

Then we might see some passion stirred, anxiety felt, and anger rising—as happens in our Lord’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard. More accurately, it is a parable of a generous landowner. We’ll get there in a few moments, but at first blush it looks like there’s more heat to be had if we get in line with those workers.

The early-birds have put in a full day’s work, bearing “the burden of the day and scorching heat,” and it was with a strong work ethic and a keen sense of how much they could earn that day that they had set their alarm clocks to get them out on that street corner, ready for the landowner’s first drive-by in his pick-up truck.

Imagine their shock when they witness the last shift, the johnny-come-latelies who hadn’t shown up until five o’clock in the afternoon, called out first to get paid, and get paid the very same wage that the early-birds had computed on their pocket calculators! “What is happening here?” they ask one another. “Are we going to receive more than we expected?”

When they do not—when they receive the same wage, each and every shift the same wage—their shock turns to anger. Shift by shift that anger grew as they saw no discrimination: each was paid the same. And when the first crew received their wages, they grumbled against that landowner. You bet they did. What screwy kind of way was this to do business?

Here’s where we’d better recognize that this parable is primarily about the landowner, not so much the workers. “I am doing you no wrong,” he says to the early-birds. “Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last (shift) the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Feel the heat as the lesson of this parable is taught: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” As often as we’ve heard that saying, and recognized it as somehow central to Jesus’s message, and perhaps admired it as being about justice… have we appreciated how painful a lesson this can be?

At the same time, this landowner had it in mind to ease the pain of the last shift. Who were those who were last? “Because no one has hired us,” they answer, when the landowner asks, “Why are you standing here idle all day?”

They are unemployed. Not lazy sleep-abeds… they’ve been at that street corner all day, waiting for their chance, daring to believe (even at five p.m.) that there might be an opportunity, and they’re ready to take it. That approach to job-hunting may seem passive to us, but in those days (as is still the case in many places in our own country) day laborers gather at certain street corners in what is truly a buyer’s market. Taken simply (and parables are meant to be taken simply), they were unemployed through no fault or shortcoming of their own. There just weren’t enough jobs. And not enough landowners who cared to go out of their way to give workers a break.

Why did they need a break? Beyond the unemployment rate, were there more reasons? It’s still taking the parable simply to imagine certain age-old factors: that this last shift included some who were physically or mentally challenged, some who didn’t speak the dominant language, some who couldn’t provide a proper form of identification, some who were very young, some who were old. Some forms of discrimination just don’t change much, do they?

At the heart of this parable is a landowner who is generous. He is not capricious: every single one of those workers went home adequately paid in keeping with the handshake made upon hiring. No, that approach would never agree with union guidelines; and that’s because there’s a higher passion at work in this story than the power of earning. The power of grace is pulsing through this parable.

The Prayer Book defines grace as “God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved.” There’s the rub, there’s the source of the heat in this parable: the arithmetic of grace is not the calculation of earning. The landowner is a champion of grace. The landowner is God. And when you queue-up at God’s table, there is enough to go around to all. There is abundance.

Our Sunday menu of readings often shows us how the scriptures speak to one another. Today that story from Exodus, manna from heaven, quails falling into the stewpots of starving refugees, drives home the nature of God as we meet God in the Bible: generous, gracious, merciful, passionately devoted to finding the lost and saving the endangered.

With that in mind, our parable asserts that it is the power of grace, not the power of earning, that makes the Kingdom of God go ‘round. Christian Socialist Vida Dutton Scudder said it ever so much more elegantly and boldly. Writing before and after the first World War, she scolded American Christianity for carelessly depending on a generally affectionate God and practicing “a domestic religion… calculated to make life pleasant in the family circle—but curiously at ease in Zion,” by which she meant avoiding all agonies of social conscience and all agonies of the inward life.

In 1894, as a brand-new professor at Wellesley College, Scudder attempted (with little success) to stir up the faculty to protest a large gift from the Rockefeller family because it was tainted money, gotten through unjust competition and unfair labor practices. She put the Episcopal Church (and Wellesley) on notice that her agenda for the Church and for the Academy was to move people beyond philanthropy and beyond social reform, and on to social transformation, changing the structures of society that cause poverty. In Vida Scudder’s view, everyone needs transformation: socialists and capitalists, religious and atheist, workers and landowners.

It’s customary to understand today’s parable as talking about religious transformation. The early shifts represent the law and the prophets, the last shift are the johnny-come-latelies of the Jesus movement, the parable showing an evolution that brought even non-Jews to the abundance of God’s table. But for Scudder, this wouldn’t be enough. This wasn’t where she felt the heat of our Lord’s teaching. His gospel must speak to present-day society.

And any attempt at transformation that would apply Christian principles to social and industrial and political life, limited only to a spiritual sphere, would contradict the sacramental philosophy of Christianity. Hear her own words: “The very point of the great truths radiating from the Incarnation (of God in Jesus Christ) is that one harmonious law runs through all spheres of being, wherever the grace of God controls the world; and since our business is to regulate earthly dealings by this divine law, we have no right to deny economic significance to this parable (of the landowner and the workers in his vineyard).”

I take her to mean that we are obligated to labor on so as to make sure that the last are put first, even at the expense of a good deal of grumbling by the first as they get asked to pay higher taxes and to reconsider why they need more of a daily wage than do the poor. And that the last should be put first is not a matter of allowing them to cut in line: it is a matter of ushering them to the front of the line. It is a matter of stitching up the many holes we’ve torn in the safety net that Vida Scudder and her generation stirred this nation to create in the last century.

That’s the kind of talk that generates heat and pain, isn’t it? Without that, thinks Scudder, there will be no transforming of anyone.

I want you to hear one more passage of her own thought, this from her 1921 book “Social Teachings of the Christian Year”: “We are not allowed to forget that our industrial system virtually says, Cursed are the poor, Cursed are the meek… Christian manufacturers, instead of giving unto the last as unto the first, are likely to buy their labor as cheap as they can get it, and are often disposed to fight a living wage to the finish… The permanent contradiction between Christian morals and world morals is a puzzle, and a permanent disgrace.”

Our parable today, being timeless, is perfectly well-timed to be heard in a great and global recession, and well-suited to be considered in a presidential election year. At its heart is the one harmonious divine law that with God, grace rules; and our obligation is to see that it does—to run our shop, school, parish, family, personal life in ways that emulate the landowner’s commitment to engage and advance all who need a break, emulating the practice of generosity that starts in the abundance of God and causes us to recognize that in addition to the bottom lines of profit and losses there is in business a third bottom line: responsibility for transforming society, letting grace rule.

(Vida Scudder's words are cited in Richard H. Schmidt's "Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,2002. Schmidt's essay on Scudder was useful in the preparation of this sermon.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Shattering of Illusions

Scripture for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; and Matthew 18:21-35. This Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

"O God, Our Hearts Were Shattered"

A hymn written for the tenth anniversary of 9/11

“O God, our hearts were shattered On that horrendous day;
We heard the news and gathered To grieve and then to pray.
We cried to you and wondered, "Where did the violence start?"
The world as we had known it Had just been torn apart.
We heard of those who perished — Of heroes' sacrifice.
We paused again to cherish The gifts of love and life.
We worried for the future; We hugged our loved ones then.
We cried, "Can peace be found here?" "We can't let terror win!"
Some sought to answer terror The only way they knew —
With anger toward the stranger And calls for vengeance, too.
Yet this is not your answer, Nor what you would create.
May we live toward a future Where love will conquer hate.
God, give us faith and wisdom To be your healing hands;
Give open minds that listen To truth from all your lands.
Give strength to work for justice; Grant love that casts out fear.
Then peace and not destruction Will be the victor here.”
- Carolyn Winfrey Gillette

“O God, our hearts were shattered.” They really were. In those first moments, newscasters speculated that perhaps it was a small plane that had hit the first tower, perhaps a dreadful accident. Explanation and motivation were imagined in their very simplest terms.

But as distracting moments gave way to mesmerizing endless minutes upon minutes, the enormity of that fateful morning came clearer and clearer to us. Our minds and hearts were dragged kicking and screaming to face what was unimaginable beforehand. Even battle-hardened veterans had never seen the ravages of war enacted like this on the soil of our homeland.

Metaphors never behave themselves perfectly. For a heart to shatter, it must be made of what is hard and brittle, and that’s where this metaphor falls short. Though we know that hearts break, we also know they bleed, they tear, they hurt when injured directly; and, when indirectly they experience the suffering of others, hearts move in compassion towards the injured.

We have seen such compassion recently, with residents of the North County giving generous neighbor-to-neighbor gifts to temporarily shelter homeless residents of The Spruces. People have gone far out of their way to volunteer their time, their strength, their talents to help their neighbors, here and in battered communities in Vermont and flood-soaked New York and Pennsylvania. Compassionate hearts have resulted in smalltown markets giving away their inventory rather than letting it go to waste, back-country inns putting on free community-wide meals, restaurants and food coops providing meals for shelter guests, flood victims wading over to help a neighbor whose need seems greater than their own. What a country we live in! A land of big and open hearts.

However the metaphor may work about hearts shattering, we know that Illusions shatter. What is false and inaccurate breaks under the pressures of reality, and that happened on this day, ten years ago, when a nation that assumed itself safe and unassailable discovered how vulnerable its open society is. And while we know ourselves a big-hearted people taking care of our own, what happened ten years ago today shattered the illusion that America is globally admired. We had met such hatred before, in smaller doses; but never before, such committed bitterness.

The ultimate shattering of illusions comes when we become like our worst enemies. Violence begets violence, and bitterness breeds bitterness across battlefields. Injury also triggers injury across any fault line that divides people whose calling is to be united in one body: houses of congress, religious denominations, extended families, all can have the worst brought out in them. In fact, we mark today a decade of increasingly deepening challenges to what is best in the human race: the building of peace and the practice of forbearance and the charity of generous respect.

But if we think this has been a tough ten years for us humans, this must have been a really tough decade to be God.

Each religious franchise is convinced that God is fighting for them, and they are fighting for God. I wonder if God wouldn’t like to take some white-out to some portions of the Hebrew Bible, and the Christian testament, and the Qur’an. Today’s portion from the Book of Exodus might be a candidate: how much delight do we expect God takes in being known as the clogger of chariot wheels and the tosser of soldiers into the sea?

Is it not the more consistent message of holy scripture that God is merciful and expects us to show mercy to one another? So we hear Jesus aim his parable today, when that king reminds his incorrigibly selfish servant that he who has received his master’s mercy ought to show mercy to his fellow servants.

And isn’t it the consistent theme of what we treasure in scripture that the worship God desires is neighbor loving neighbor, especially when it’s hard and costly to do so? And that we are to love, not hate, our enemies?

I know, even so we get our Lord’s parable at the cost of a tag line about this king having that wicked servant tortured until he repays every penny of what he owes. And, even worse, Matthew claims that Jesus himself then threatened his hearers, “And so my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” I fear that could be a hard and brittle heart, don’t you?

But perhaps we can hear one or two disciples suppressing laughter in the background (“Aw, go on—he doesn’t mean that!?” “Does he?”). But if you propose that we build a healthy theology on this text taken at its face value, will you forgive me if I imagine God reaching for the white-out?

Because the deepest shattering of our illusions in this past decade has revealed to us our need for the Word of God to restrain us from, not permit, torturing our adversaries as a means to a higher end.

And in the end, says St. Paul today, each of us will be accountable to God. There is another consistent message in holy scripture: each person is responsible for what he or she builds in life, creates in life, chooses in life. We can blame political parties for distorting the truth. We can blame religious traditions for distorting God’s truth; but in the end we are, each of us, responsible for our choices, accountable to God for our behavior.

And so it is mighty important to know who God is in mercy, justice, and love—and so take our bearings for the living of this next decade from the God who is.

In the long run, it is good for us to have our illusions shattered. Then what is finer and truer can take their place.

What will that be?

Perhaps a finer, truer engagement with Islam, a deepening of interfaith understanding and solidarity? I pray so.

Perhaps a humbler walk in the world for America, less the superpower harvesting the world, more the agent of change who is willing to change, ready to learn? Let’s hope so.

Perhaps an open society reclaiming the vision of being open to all who bring good will and good work to the table? Let’s help that happen.

In the long run, the illusion we most need shattered is the one that tells us repeatedly that people of another nation, another religion, another sex, another sexuality, another ethnic group, another income level, are inherently, ultimately, essentially different from us. That people from the other side of our issues, or people from another part of our globe, are really much other than we are.

“Some sought to answer terror The only way they knew —
With anger toward the stranger And calls for vengeance, too.
Yet this is not your answer, Nor what you would create.
May we live toward a future Where love will conquer hate.
God, give us faith and wisdom To be your healing hands;
Give open minds that listen To truth from all your lands.
Give strength to work for justice; Grant love that casts out fear.
Then peace and not destruction Will be the victor here.”

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

This Week the Cross is Red

Scripture for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost includes Exodus 12;1-14; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Perhaps you too found it ironic and perverse that a destructive hurricane should be named Irene, from the Greek “eirene”, peace. Irenic it was not. Lives were lost, property damage was devastating, and just when we might have thought the storm was losing its punch, it battered our neighbors in Vermont to an extent beyond our imagining—except for some in this room, who have seen it.

While that was a surprise, it was no surprise that the Hoosic River rapidly flooded, overflowing its banks, and, at The Spruces, even the berm. What followed was the inundation of that mobile home park, 229 homes becoming uninhabitable, at least for now. An estimated 270 residents have been left homeless. We thank God that the angel of death passed over that place: no lives were lost, and for that safe evacuation we can thank Williamstown’s Fire and Police Departments, Village Ambulance personnel, and Brian Grady and his Harper Center colleagues who went door to door.

Town Health Inspector Jeff Kennedy, Town Manager Peter Fohlin, Board of Health members, and town Select Board members, among them Jane Allen, worked tirelessly to triage emergency relief. Red Cross volunteers had been deployed to the Northeast before the storm hit, and they hit the ground running when this disaster happened, quickly opening a shelter at the elementary school.

With school opening the next day, the shelter was moved here (because Jane Allen asked if we could help, and I was sure I knew how you would answer that question). On hand to greet the shelter folks on Monday night were Margot Sanger, Robin Lenz, Polly Macpherson, Tim and Jo Sunn, and I. What we learned instantly was how prepared Red Cross volunteers are, what clear focus they have on their work, and from what great distances they come to perform it. Sue and Harriet drove that big red and white truck all the way from Omaha, arriving just before the storm. Another volunteer had come from Ohio, one from Arkansas, another from Green Bay, Wisconsin, yet another from Mapleton, Iowa, and others from nearer-by in the Northeast. This crew of seven or eight (it was hard to count them, they seldom stood still long enough) are among seven hundred Red Cross volunteers deployed to the Northeast last weekend.

If you stopped by during the week, you noticed intriguing electronic equipment out front and in the lower hallway before Barbara’s office. This was a high-tech emergency communication center manned by six local members of the Amateur Radio Emergency System, among them local educator Kevin Hartmann, who estimated that each of the six had put in forty hours this week monitoring communications from around the Northeast.

Meanwhile, our own Gail Burns was rolling up her sleeves at her workplace, the First Congregational Church, and from Monday morning on Gail and her boss, The Rev. Carrie Bail, have done an outstanding job matching donations with residents needing help. She issued vouchers from the Northern Berkshire Interfaith Affiliates for gasoline, food, and shelter. She distributed gift cards to local stores as she received them from townspeople walking in. She matched displaced residents with townspeople wanting to sponsor them for a few nights in a motel. She kept track of offers of available rooms in homes. If you see Gail, give her a hug.

Here at the shelter, nighttime guests have been few, no more than three on any night, though as many as 19 have sat around the tables at dinnertime (dinners have come spontaneously from local kitchens like Chef’s Hat and Wild Oats), and others have come and gone, perhaps referred on to the disaster assistance service center at the elementary school, open 9 to 4 daily, with representatives from FEMA, the Massachusetts counterpart MEMA, the Red Cross, and housing officials, all ready to give information and register residents needing help facing their loss. It’s expected that personal counselors will also be there this week.

On the heels of the flooding, Spruces residents went to stay with friends and families, dispersing them to the four winds. Genie Smith is staying with Eilleen Drummond. Matt Emerson, Melissa Keil, and little Sydney Rose went to Melissa’s family in Hinsdale. And many, thanks to Gail, went to local motels. Some were given beds at Williamstown Commons. I believe Sweet Brook took some. Sweetwood was preparing to welcome some. Displaced residents with pets have been bunking-in at town hall with their animals (what a sight that must be!), since animals aren’t allowed on-site at Red Cross shelters. Some residents with pets have slept in their cars with them. And I hear that already some people have chosen to relocate to other mobile home parks or apartments in North Adams.

The question so many are asking is, When can residents return to their homes? All have had an initial inspection and each mobile home evaluated. Four have been declared “off limits”, forty have been called “unsafe”, and all the rest “restricted”. There isn’t an encouraging adjective among those words! They are words meant to describe what kind of access owners have to their homes. Most are expected to be repairable, but repairs can’t start until the park’s infrastructure, such as underground electric lines, gets evaluated and fixed—so the uncertainty lingers.

And in that interim a mountain of needs must be met. With apology to St. Paul, we will need to mobilize to make provision for the flesh.

Volunteers are needed to staff the interfaith emergency response center at the First Congregational Church, giving Gail a needed rest (she worked yesterday and will be at it again tomorrow). Volunteers will greet displaced residents, lend an ear and a heart, write vouchers, and answer the phone. Like the assistance center at the elementary school, this office will be open weekdays from 9 to 4, weekdays at least.

Clothing needs to be collected and made available to residents. Members of the Community Bible Church will sort the clothing you bring to the bins on the porch here, and make them available at their facility. We’ll need help delivering bins from here to there.

Non-perishable food and toiletries that you bring to the bins here on the porch will go to a distribution point, probably St. Patrick’s Church. We’ll need help with that delivery.

As long as the shelter here remains open, hot meals at night are a blessing: the signup poster at the font includes this opportunity, if a small cluster of friends want to tackle meal preparation together.

Residents need help cleaning out their homes. Perhaps you’d like to help Matt and Melissa when they tackle theirs, and help Genie when she says it’s time, or offer your services as needed by someone you don’t yet know, who needs you. Yesterday, the new Muslim Chaplain at Williams mobilized twenty students for this work.

With those five examples in mind, you might find it easy to understand that with this kind of parishioner involvement being asked in ten or a dozen or more congregations this weekend, coordination is a must.

We discovered that quickly at Thursday’s emergency meeting of the Interfaith Clergy Association (which includes the chaplains at Williams). It didn’t take us long to see one smart answer, and we’ve hired Robin Lenz to coordinate the congregations in their relief efforts, and to be in daily communication with several local entities—Red Cross, Town Hall, Harper Center, Spruces Tenants Association, Interfaith Affiliates, Northern Berkshire Community Coalition—to ensure that information about needs and available resources flows. A few of us are seeking special funding sources for Robin’s stipend—it will not come from money given to help residents. In the meantime, Robin says our credit is good—and we say it’s a good thing, Robin, that you came home.

Love your neighbor as yourself. So St. Paul sums up what God expects, what God is pleased by. At a time like this, love must put very tangible help in hands that need it. I’ve named several ways, and you know I’m going to name one more.

Raile’s Bowl at the pulpit is open today to receive gifts in the form of paper bills and checks (made payable to St. John’s Church, earmarked Bowl), and a glass vase in front of the lectern will receive pocket change. It’s right that both of those receptacles are so near the spots from which God’s Word is heard, each Sunday, so that God’s Word is done, each Monday through Saturday. None of this money will go to overhead expenses; all will directly benefit our neighbors, those whom we are to love exactly as we want to be loved.