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September 4, 2005
The 16th Sunday after Pentecost

The Center Will Hold
The Rev. Margaret Jones

Gospel: Romans 13: 8-14

On Friday, a friend who is also a priest and a respected theologian here in Memphis called me. “This hurricane is the most catastrophic event in my lifetime," he said. Since he served in World War II and has been a priest for 52 years, I said, “What do you mean? How is this different from war, or even from 9/11?”

“It feels like civilization is coming apart,” he responded. “After 9/11, we could take our pulse; we were focused, centered, and unified. Now there is such confusion and chaos. We desperately need to hear more about the providence and grace of God.”

“Oh,” I said weakly, “Did you know I’m scheduled to preach on Sunday?” “Yes,” he said, “That’s why I called; I’ll be praying for you.”

That sobering conversation reminded me of a graphic poem written by William Butler Yeats in the 1920s. It’s called "The Second Coming", and it begins:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

"The center cannot hold." Is that what people of faith believe?

No. As inadequate as I feel to speak in the face of such tragedy and loss, I want to say clearly and firmly that our Center, our God, does hold. Perhaps more than ever, in the midst of crisis, God is with us.

I believe this with all my heart. Over thirty years ago, I lived through my own personal hurricane, a time when I felt, like Yeats, that the center could not hold. But good and caring friends put their love for me into action. One of them took me to a silent retreat where, the first night, I heard this passage from the prophet Isaiah:

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.
You are precious in my sight,
And honored, and I love you."

Those words changed my life. I heard them, I somehow believed them, and I have not been the same since. That Scripture, plus the action of friends, helped me regain my Center, and I urge us to use the same tools as we walk together through this tragedy.

At least 12,000 people have come to Memphis, wondering what became of their Center, how they can possibly hold their lives together. Let’s offer them words of hope and encouragement, but also, like my friends, let’s put our words into action.

How to do this? Hear what St. Paul says in today’s Epistle: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Have we heard this so often that it has lost its punch? Paul is not talking about love as a feeling, an emotion. Love here is an act of will; it means doing something for the good of others, even if you don’t want to.

This week, Episcopal clergy in West Tennessee gathered with Bishop Johnson to strategize and coordinate our efforts. At that meeting, Craig Strickland, senior pastor at Hope Presbyterian Church, was guest speaker. He said that last week he and his wife had each thought about inviting a family from New Orleans to stay with them, but each was afraid of what the other would say. “It is scary,” he said. “It is risky. Things can get stolen, or broken. We would screen people, but it’s still a risk, and it may not be very smart. But then I think of the gospel, and that stops me short.” As it turned out, his wife was thinking the same thing. They decided to have their adult children and grandchildren move in with them so they could offer two empty houses to two large families who had come to the church.

I felt acutely uncomfortable listening to him. Just how open am I to welcoming strangers into our house? Or moving out of ours so someone else can move in?

The bishop encouraged us to roll up our sleeves, open our churches, and cooperate with each other. He also warned us that this is a long-term situation. “Get busy,” he said, “but don’t overextend yourselves now, and burn out prematurely. This will be with us a long, long time.”

He is right, and we need to remember that. We also need to remember that God is with us, in all circumstances. This week, I talked to two women who are beset with personal crises and feel guilty! One woman’s mother-in-law has died, one woman was told her cancer has returned. They both said the same thing: “How can I feel bad when those people are suffering so much from the hurricane?”

God is with us in all things, not just in these national disasters. If you are suffering already, please don’t heap guilt on top of it. There will be plenty to do for a long time to come.

Speaking of doing more, it occurs to me that we could also do less: drive less, even buy less gasoline. If each of us bought one gallon less than we think we need, there would be a lot more available for everyone in the short term.

This sounds wildly impractical from one who has just driven back from Maine, but I wonder: Might we all learn from this hurricane that we can do with less?

As many of you know, Frank and I go to Maine every summer. People have started asking me, “What is it about Maine? Is it the lobster? The weather? The boating?” “Sure,” I say. “It’s all of that, and more.”

It is much more. This summer I realized what it is: I see better in Maine than anywhere else. I see the way the light slants on the water at sunset; I notice wildflowers along the dirt road we walk on; I watch ospreys build their nests and feed their young.

And then there is the sea glass that I love so much. Every time I find a piece, whether it’s an amber chunk or a tiny green sliver, I am thrilled. I pick it up and think, “This is how God feels about us, no matter what shape we are in. I rub the smooth surface across my face and remember how God has smoothed my rough edges. I bring it home and give it away. “Here,” I say, “take this and remember that no matter how battered or broken you are, you are precious to God.”

I wish I had enough glass to give a piece to every person who went through the hell of that hurricane, people whose lives are awash with chaos and confusion. They need to hear that God is with them, that they are loved and valued, and that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. They need to know that they need not be afraid: the Center will definitely hold, now and forever.


Copyright ©2005 The Rev. Margaret Jones
Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN

Gospel Reading: Romans 13: 8-14
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment. are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is fulfilling the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. NRSV (New Revised Standard Version)


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