When a Slogan Won't Do It

Adapted from a sermon first delivered by Rev. Ken Streitenberger, Associate Pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church following Hurricane Katrina's wrath in the south.

I need to be in church today.

Now, maybe that sounds like a peculiar thing for a minister to say. Most people would assume a minister needs to be in church every day –and for sure every Sunday. But I say this morning that I need to be in church for a different reason.

It has been a difficult week. It's been a hard week. It's been a tough week. And not just for me, but for many of us. I have officiated at three funerals this week. I've said good-bye to people I care about. I have seen people this week in hospital beds fighting for life…fighting for peace in life. I've heard of others for whom life is a struggle.

Maybe it was a test with serious results. Maybe it was a diagnosis with somber consequences. Maybe it was a relationship or a series of relationships that seem to be on the rocks. Maybe it was turmoil in peoples' lives or their careers or their institutions and the changes and hurts and pains that turmoil brings.

I had planned this morning to preach on a whole different topic. Had the bulletin turned in, hymns picked, scripture selected, knew how it was going to flow. Renee even had the bulletin all typed. And then something just hit me. I thought, given all that has happened this week…in my life, in the lives of others of Epworth, in the life of our nation…how could I preach on "The Gunnysacker." --that was the title of what I had intended to preach. You'll have to wait for another day to hear about the gunnysacker.

My apologies to Renee for the extra work I caused her. But I need to preach this morning on the week that has been. I need to preach to myself, mainly. I need to preach about the hurt and the heartache that have surrounded many in the last seven days. I need to hear where people, where Christian people, turn "When a Slogan Won't Do It."

Of course the slogan I have in mind is one many of you have used on occasion –I've used it, too. But this time, a slogan wasn't enough. A slogan wouldn't suffice. A slogan didn't speak to the need. The slogan I have in mind is, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

Those are good words. Those are encouraging words. Those are words that have helped us all from time to time. But not this week. This week has been too tough for a slogan. This week has needed more than clever words.

This week I needed God. I needed the faith I was raised in. I needed to be around people of the faith. I needed to be in church. I suspect that some of you have had a tough week this week, too.

If you are at all like me, last Sunday you were perhaps worried about the people in New Orleans . Maybe you even whispered a prayer of strength and safety for them knowing what we were all expecting for Monday morning.

By Monday night, though, we all felt pretty good, pretty relieved. The hurricane's direct hit missed the heart of New Orleans, and while there was, we expected, some damage to Mississippi and Alabama, nothing near what could have been.

But then, that is while it was still dark. It was before the counties and parishes began to report in just what had happened. Even New Orleans most of Tuesday felt pretty good about itself, about its survival.

And then at least for me, as I sat down late Tuesday night and saw some of the footage of the damage, of the disaster, of the catastrophe that had hit our gulf states. –Well, that is when I knew I had to change the sermon.

I wanted to weep as I saw the destruction. I wanted to throw up my hands in despair as I witnessed the seeming hopelessness. I wanted to rail at the unknown power that caused such widespread devastation. The lives lost. The property destroyed. The homes obliterated. The routines turned to chaos.

I sat there and wondered how in the world anybody could cope with what had happened. I wondered if I could cope. I wondered whether I could survive the ordeal. I wondered where the strength, where the energy, where the will would come from to tackle such monumental damage –not just to property, but to lives, to hopes, to dreams, to futures, to plans, to expectations, to civilization itself.

So I came to church. I came to the faith I was raised in. I came to see what God had to say about it. Are the words of Isaiah 43 appropriate enough?

"But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you." Isaiah 43:1-2

That's why I came to church this morning – to hear those words. To be reminded of God's love and care; to be reminded that in God there is hope; to be reminded that this is not the first disaster God's people have suffered and this is not the first time God has rescued and seen his people through hardship.

I looked at several scriptures to remind me of those things about God. I read a passage from Romans where Paul wrote asking a similar question to what I have asked this morning. Paul's answer was:

"What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? …Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 8:31,35,37-39

I thought about the occasions -- in bible times -- when God has rescued his people. I thought about the Exodus and the forty years of wandering in the desert and how difficult and hopeless that must have seemed for the Children of Israel. I thought about God's leading the people and remaining with them through hardship and warfare and hunger and thirst and heat. And I remembered that eventually God brought the people home to the Promised Land.

I remembered a people in Exile. Led off from their homes, led away from their sacred temple, driven from their places and moments of remembered beauty. It was a devastating blow to Israel . It was the worst time they had ever known – and it lasted for not just for a year or two, not even a decade or a generation, but for seventy years. But eventually God redeemed his people. He sent messengers of aid and assistance. He reminded them of the stories of their faith. He reminded them of his steadfast love. He restored to them their faith and their homes.

My favorite verse from that time of struggle – and if you know me, you know this verse well -- is Isaiah 40:31:

"Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

I thought of some of the great hymns of the faith. Hymns that tell the story. Hymns that speak to my life and faith journey. Hymns…some of which we are singing this day. Some of the words say:

"How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, Is laid for your faith in his excellent word! What more can he say than to you he hath said, To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?" ("How Firm a Foundation," No. 529)

I thought of another hymn. One of the hymns that formed my first wrestling with a call to ministry:

"The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord; She is his new creation by water and the Word. From heaven he came and sought her To be his holy bride; With his own blood he bought her, And for her life he died." ("The Church's One Foundation," No. 545)

The story, the life, the world began to regain its hope in my mind. Because of the faith of our ancestors on the journey and their care to record their own experiences and their own fears and their own doubts and eventually their own victories and overcomings, my faith was bolstered.

My faith was revived. My faith felt again like I could tackle a difficult week. One of the remembrances I had as my faith was restored is a favorite quote from way back in seminary days. Probably came from Harrell Beck, my Old Testament professor and one of the people I credit with making me the pastor I am today. The quote proclaims: "What God has done once in the past, God can and will do again in the future."

The encouragement I hear in that phrase is that as God was faithful to our ancestors in the church, as God redeemed those who suffered in earlier days, so will God redeem and be faithful to us.

One of our own church members put it into perfect perspective for me Thursday as I talked to her. I had called to check on her family because I knew she had grown up in the Gulf area and still had relatives and family living there. They were all fine, she said. Damaged. Undergoing stress and hardship, but alive and well.

And then she said to me, "Ken, you and I both know that ten years from now everything there will be wonderful." She was talking about resurrection. She was talking about the restoration of life. She was confirming what I already knew, God will rescue and redeem his people.

How did the Psalmist say it, "I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, And set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure." (Psalm 40:1-2)

And I -- and you -- have already seen the beginnings of that resurrection, that stirring of God. How many people have called Epworth Church this week or e-mailed or stopped by in person wanting to contribute, wanting to help, wanting to know if we were going to provide a channel through which they could be a part of God's restoration. They wanted to be the hands and feet of God in action. Those envelopes in the pews, they are just the start of what you can do.

Other people were having conversations about how they could support the victims of this disaster -- through prayer, through encouragement, through simply letting the survivors know someone cared. One person was going to check and see if there wasn't an Emmaus group somewhere in the devastated area or nearby where we could make contact and person-to-person share the grace and hope of God.

A favorite story I remember from years ago, tells about an horrendous scene of carnage on a distant battlefield. In the midst of the battlefield a chaplain and a few surviving soldiers were huddled together. One of the soldiers who had lost many companions in the fight was bitter and angry. He confronted the chaplain accusatively. He wanted to know, where in the midst of all this devastation, where in the middle of all this carnage, was God. "Where, Chaplain," he demanded, "do you see God?"

At just about that moment the chaplain spied a soldier carrying over his shoulder a wounded comrade. In the heat of the battle that soldier was risking his life to care for a wounded friend. The chaplain pointed to what he saw and said, "There! I see God there!"

I would state the same answer if I were asked where I see God in the massive devastation of the Gulf States . On television night after night we have seen it. Rescuers risking life and limb to care for others. Coast Guard, military, civilians endangering themselves to bring others out of harms way.

And I see it in many of you. You who want to help. You who want to contribute. You who want to offer prayers. It is through people like us -- and our brothers and sisters of the faith -- that God brings resurrection and restoration.

There is something else I know about God and it is important for me to remember it on this day when I need to be in church. I know that God uses the broken to heal. I know that God uses the wounded to make wholeness. I know that God uses shattered vessels to provide mending. Vance Havner states it this way, "It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster jar that gives forth perfume."

One of the amazing things I know about God is that God uses the down and out, the wounded, the hurt, the wronged to right this world. I suppose anyone who does much preaching or speaking -- or for that matter much reading -- has a favorite illustration or a favorite quote. I have a favorite illustration that I hold very dear. I have used it many times over the years in many different settings. I don't remember whether I've used it here or not. Don't really care. It is important for me to say and hear again that illustration on this day.

The illustration comes from a play written by Lorraine Hansberry. The play is titled "The Sign in Sidney Burstein's Window." The lead character in the play is Sidney . Sidney is a very disillusioned man. His little newspaper is about to go broke. His ulcer is kicking up. His wife has moved out and his sister has committed suicide. Wally, the city councilman Sidney has backed, turns out to be in the hip pocket of the corrupt political machine. Now at the end of the play, Sidney says to Wally: "I'm going to fight you, Wally….Only this time…we shall be more seasoned, tougher, harder to fool, and therefore less likely to quit."

After a brief exchange, Wally, the corrupt city councilman, says to Sidney , "You really are a fool, Sidney." And Sidney replies in words that stir my soul, "Always have been. A fool that believes that death is waste, and love is sweet and that the earth turns and people wanna be better than they are and that flowers smell good and that I hurt terribly today, and that hurt is desperation and desperation is -- energy and energy can move things." (in Raines, " Success Is a Moving Target," p. 35-36)

I find deep, deep meaning and comfort in that scene. It touches me where I hurt, it touches me where I am wounded, it touches me where I cry. But even more, it gives me hope. It gives me hope because it reminds me again that God uses the broken things and the broken people of this world to accomplish his good will.

Friends, we are about to share in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. We are about to break the bread of life together. For me this day, the breaking of the bread will be a sign of hope -- not just for the gift of salvation and Jesus Christ, as important and as central as that is to our Christian faith. But for me this day the gift of hope will be for the restoration of life, the resurrection of life in all the places where life has grown weary and battered.

Oh, that restoration will not be easily accomplished. It will not come overnight. There is still much pain that lies ahead for our friends to the south. There is still much hurt and destruction and maybe even anarchy yet to be. But healing will come. Resurrection will happen. Restoration will be realized.

You see, I needed to be in church today. It has been a tough week. It has been a difficult week. It has been a hard week. I needed to be re-immersed in the faith I was raised in. I needed to be around people who understand the faith as I do. I needed to be with God. I wonder, with the week that has been, whether you don't have some of the same hurts and wounds and needs I have.

I'm glad I'm in church today. I hope you're glad you are in church today, too. Amen.

Rev. Ken Streitenberger is the Associate Pastor of Epworth United Methodist Church in Toledo, Ohio. Epworth is an exciting, growing, and dynamic church with a heart for missions and a passion to grow in its faith in Christ and service to the world. If you are looking for a church where people are friendly and welcoming, we invite you to try Epworth.

Epworth offers three Sunday morning services: at 8:30 a.m., our blended worship service brings together a traditional worship style and a contemporary flair. Our traditional worship service begins at 9:45 a.m., followed by the contemporary worship service at 11. We are located at the corner of Valleyview and Central Avenue in Toledo, across from Wildwood Metropark.

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Epworth United Methodist Church
3077 Valleyview Drive
Toledo, OH 43615-2237
Telephone : 419-531-4236
FAX : 419-531-7487

Corner of Valleyview and Central Ave, across from Wildwood Metropark