Skip to comments.Jerry Kramer: A Thanksgiving Day Sermon [New Orleans]
Posted on 11/26/2005 9:42:04 AM PST by sionnsar
Thanksgiving Day 2005
Greetings in Jesus Name from the Church in South Louisiana. Now right off the bat, let me explain the funny outfit. Im a member of an Anglican Religious Congregation, the Order of Preachers, better known as the Dominican Friars. My wife Stacy says I look like the flying nun. Together with Stacy we have three children, John 14, Nina, named for my great grandmother, 8, and Blaise 6.
I stand here before you not only as Dominican Priest, but as thirteenth Rector of the 161 year old Church of the Annunciation in New Orleans. We have only been in Louisiana a short while. I accepted this call in January after returning from the East African Nation of Tanzania, where our family of five served as missionaries among the Maasai Tribe. The name given to me was Oloongishu, meaning Fond of Cows. Stacy was dubbed, Enongishu, meaning Mrs. Fond of cows. And our little boy Blaise was Christened, LEngai, meaning Gift of God. We moved 10,000 miles to be with the Perrys. Then they moved 1,200 miles away. Were trying hard not to take it personally.
Our blessed time in Africa prepared us well for the troubled waters that lay ahead. There we saw the power of the Holy Spirit transforming lives and communities, the power of Gods word proclaimed without apology or hesitation, and the power of Christs Church growing like wildfire, undaunted and unfettered. Despite the glory and simple beauty it was in all honesty a tough life. But my bishop said he was sending us to Africa to get us ready for New Orleans. The only difference is that the schools, roads and hospitals were better in Tanzania.
Im grateful for this opportunity today to share with you the story of Gods grace and glory, lived out and experienced deeply in our New Orleans congregation as we prepared for, endured and pressed on in the wake of our countrys largest ever natural disaster. As the Psalmist tells us today, Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness.
Let me first tell you a bit about us before Hurricane Katrina landed on the shores of the Gulf Coast. 70125 is one of the poorest zip codes in Louisiana and the Nation. Forty percent of neighbourhood families live below the poverty line. Forty percent of adults do not have a high school education. Eighty percent of all children do not live with both natural parents. On the national index of violent crimes, we score a nine out of a possible ten. Gunshots at night were a common occurrence.
Our schools were miserable. Medical care for the uninsured and working poor deplorable to non-existent. This past Easter Sunday, I had to go into the mens room of the church and change the catheter of an elderly, handicapped African American man because no hospital would take him, no ambulance would come. It was simply hard to believe at times that we were indeed living back in the U.S. This was no different from third world Tanzania where we ran a pharmacy from the Cathedral vicarage. I was working my way up to minor surgery and getting pretty good at diagnosing illness with some help from the Internet.
Standing in the middle of this mess, Church of the Annunciation is a beautiful tapestry of varied colours and walks of life. Were the headquarters for the Belizean Caribbean community who bring much life and joy to our worship and fellowship. Young families, like ours, were just starting to move back into the old, struggling neighbourhood. New life was springing up around us after generations of urban blight.
We have numerous active elderly folks, like little Helen Jeffries, 84 years old who runs our altar guild. Do what she says and no one gets hurt. She thinks I use too many altar linens during the week so she hides them from me in creative places. Helen became very upset one day because the holiest of holies, the sacred sacristy pen used for signing the Service book went missing. I told her, Helen, Im going to get us a special pen. Ill hide it somewhere where only you and I will know. So I took a pen from the office, hid it in the baptismal set drawer, and reported back, thinking this would score me some major points. I was finally in with Miss Helen. When telling her of our secret hiding space, she bellowed back at me, thats where I hide the communion sets from you! Now I have to look for somewhere else!
Adina is a beautiful sixteen year old girl of Caribbean and African American descent. Her father is a hopeless street drunk. Her mom, Dorla, has Hepatitis C and despite the inability to work, has been refused benefits. Her Uncle Ramon, who lives with them, has severe autism. They cant afford a car. Adina was excelling in a pre-pharmacy programme through a local University. Annunciation is a haven for her. She discovered us by participating in our recent summer mission trip to prayer walk and evangelise in the Islamic neighbourhoods of Chicago. This experience changed, and perhaps saved her life when things went so wrong, so quickly.
Bill and Dottie are a couple starting to get on in age, although Bill still works full time to make ends meet. Hes good as gold. Dottie is handicapped and can only make it to church for special occasions; its a struggle to leave the house. I brought her Communion every Friday and it was such a blessing to be together.
Perhaps our largest ministry is recovery groups, which meet seven days a week. The Saturday morning AA gathering always draws a crowd of at least 100. Were a parish for people going on their fourth and fifth chances. We are an agent grace in the heart of a very broken City. Many are working poor: minimum wage jobs, no benefits, no savings, no credit, no transportation. We take in and love people who dont feel welcomed or appreciated elsewhere. And we get to witness the transforming power of Gods love in their lives. A number of todays parish leaders showed up at some point in the past homeless, addicted, lost. Annunciation welcomed them in and God changed them. Behold, I make all things new.
There are so many other wonderful, colorful characters at Annunciation. We look like New Orleans: unique, quirky, of good cheer, resilient enough to withstand yet another Saints loosing football season, and always at the ready to welcome in any comers. Its impossible to be lonely or skinny in our city.
The Sunday morning before Katrina arrived, some us of met up at the church for worship and to continue calling the parish directory with increasing urgency, making sure that everyone had a way out of town. I had been up since about three a.m. on Saturday organizing an evacuation plan and getting prepared. We did our best to reach everyone and most had the good sense to evacuate even before the mandatory order came a day late. Stacy and the children left for a retired priest friends house in Baton Rouge around 11pm the night before, with the infamous 84 year old little Helen in tow.
My treasurer and vestryman Noel Prentiss and I hadnt planned on leaving our post, wanting to ride out the storm, but the noon weather advisory warned of catastrophic building failure. And a number of people with no transportation came to the church seeking shelter of last resort. We had an obligation to get them to safety, so after packing a few items we fled for a retired priest friends house in Baton Rouge. What was normally a seventy-five minute drive took us more than seven hours. Twelve of us settled into the house as the first storm bands hit our locale. Overnight the power went out while the winds raged.
Despite Katrinas initial blow, New Orleans and its western suburbs made it through the night and early morning siege. Lots of wind damage, but we were for the most part intact. On Monday the media declared to the world that New Orleans had once again dodged a bullet. While they were reporters were crowing from the French Quarter, telling the world how lucky we were, just a few miles away the 17th St. and Industrial Canal levees began to erode and burst from the pressure of the tidal surge coming up the Mississippi and down from Lake Pontchartrain. Our lives would never be the same.
Initially the water from the 17th St. breech reached our neighbourhood in a two foot wall, rising to over six feet in the church. Our house, about five blocks to the north, took on nearly eight feet. This sludge was comprised of twenty percent fuel, lead, arsenic, and bio-toxins. Whatever it touched was killed and destroyed.
The so-called water reached well up the front door and windows at little Helens house. Shes lost everything and is now stranded in Atlanta, far away from the church and community she loves so much and which kept her young.
Adina and her little holy family fled to Memorial Hospital, across the street from Annunciation, where the waters stood at eight feet and the generators failed after a day. Forty-five people died inside. Adina helped fan and care for patients, stepping over bodies in the dark and sweltering darkness. She told me later, after spending a week trapped inside in the heat and misery, that our summer mission trip prepared her for this ordeal, enabling her to survive, care for her fragile family, and serve others in distress.
Bill and Dotties handicap van broke down on the highway while evacuating to Houma, a few hours to the south and west. Eventually they were towed into town. Unable to stay at a shelter because of Dotties condition, theyve been trapped at a local Ramada Inn going on 13 weeks now, entirely out of cash as Bill is unable to work. Their house and all of its contents were completely destroyed. This was our Good Friday moment. Everything seemed lost and in utter chaos. Almost every moment brought new, knee buckling, gut punching challenges. We just couldnt catch our breath in between crises. And there are so many little Helens, Bill and Dotties and Adinas. An area larger than the size of England was affected. More than 300,000 homes badly damaged or destroyed.
Once folks were allowed back into the City to clean up their homes, if they could even find them, you could easily tell if someone had been back more than once. On the first trip in, people simply go into shock. They cant do anything as the brain is simply unable to compute what the eyes are seeing. Once finally able to get down to work, everything in the house goes out onto the curb for the garbage haulers. There is a mountain of garbage on West End Boulevard seven stories high, 200,000 cubic yards of trash comprised of what once were a familys entire belongings. It just gets bigger every day.
My family had that hauling out to the curb experience last week. Most of all we owned is now enmeshed in that massive pile of sorrow. The furniture and appliances can be replaced, but pictures of our children, newborn, birthdays, holidays, family photos, Stacys only picture of her daddy while serving in the Navy, my great grandmother Ninas hand written cookbook . . . . all gone. Forever.
But something very telling happened when the volunteer team from the Diocese of Dallas landed at our house to help with the gutting and garbage hauling process. The only thing my wife Stacy asked that I try to find in picking through the rubble was her cross from Ethiopia. I knew this was a needle in a haystack assignment, as the cross along with all our possessions recently shipped home from Africa was in a now moldy, green-sludgy rotten box wrapped tightly within the soupy mess.
When one of the mission team members broke open the first floor door that had been completely under water, the cross simply fell at his feet. And I will never leave you orphaned.
We enjoyed another graced moment when our 8 year old daughter Nina was watching a story on the news about Hurricane Katrina and its effect on the people of our beloved City, especially the children. Nina who lost all in the storm herself, living in our eighth home and attending her third school this year asked if we could do something to help all those poor Katrina Kids. Nina had no idea she was included in the ranks of affected children.
We experienced an outburst of grace when the Clabbots, Ed and Mary, raced down from Wisconsin to our aid. Their presence and talents were invaluable as we ministered to people returning to the Lakeview neighbourhood that took on 9 of water. God put the right people at the right place at the right time. They were truly doers of the Word. The Clabbots were among the countless Christians literally around the world who reached out to us, sharing generously of their time, talents and treasure. Friends from Great Britain and Stacys bible study ladies from Tanzania sent relief and lifelines.
Where the government and other national organisations failed us, the Church responded swiftly and vigorously as the Body of Christ. Surely this was among her finest hours, as Christians far and wide stepped deeply into the brokenness as a bold agents of compassion, grace and healing.
Theres a lovely line in Alan Patons classic novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, where a young South African Anglican priest is consoling a senior clergyman whose family is in terrible crisis, The tragedy is not that things are broken; the tragedy is that they are not mended again. I quoted this line during my first sermon at Annunciation a mere ten months ago because it so powerfully illustrates the mission of the Church: to mend all that is broken, reconciling the whole world to Jesus Christ. And it is only in the Risen Lord that we will be made whole again. Behold, I make all things new.
We are battered, but not broken. We stand on the promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail upon the true Church. What is clear to us now is that God is opening up to us a tremendous new mission field. We neednt worry over What to eat . . . What to drink . . . What to wear. God is our refuge, bringing us into a good land. Something has to die completely for there to be a true resurrection. Thats why our Jesus let his friend Lazarus linger in sickness and ultimately enter into stone cold death. Jesus wanted to show without doubt that He is the Lord of all who swallows death. And it is in this state of utter brokenness that God is glorifying Himself by rebuilding, restoring and renewing what had sunken so far into the abyss.
The Anglican poet priest John Donne wrote in one of his Holy Sonnets, Batter my heart, three persond God; for you as yet but knock; breathe, shine and seek to mend. That I may rise, and stand, oerthrow me, and bend. Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.
God is doing a new and wondrous thing in South Louisiana. We will, by the power of grace, rebuild and carry on the work of the Kingdom with new commitment, new vigor, new passion. People are hungry anew for truth and insight into lifes meaning. We find ourselves squarely in the midst of a new and vast mission field one that had been so hardened, distracted and indifferent in the past. God is leading us into a good land where we will eat bread without scarcity.
While so many of us no longer have houses, and our church building is a loss, we are eager to join in fellowship, to worship, to share the Gospel and to serve Gods people. Ive told the folks many if not most of our parishes start under a tree.
On behalf of Little Helen, Adina and her family, Bill and Dottie, just a few familiar faces among hundreds of thousands who have suffered so greatly, I thank you in Jesus Name on this day when we are called to acknowledge and rejoice in Gods mighty blessings for standing with us as we await the dawn of a new day.
Our prayer today and going forward is that you will continue standing with us, as we together stand for the unchanging Gospel of Jesus Christ. Pray for us as we pray for you. Thank you and may God bless you mightily and abundantly.
This sermon was preached at Grace Church, Sheboygan, Wisconsin
A powerful message of hope and renewal.
Indeed. God's Holy Name be praised!
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