We’ve all been watching the tragedy unfolding down in Texas this past week, and following the stories of hardship and loss. It has been a time of almost unimaginable suffering. Our prayers are with so many people who have been hit hard by Hurricane Harvey, and all those who will be struggling with the aftermath for months, if not years, to come.
On Thursday, The Washington Post published a story whose headline read, “With floodwaters rising and a rescue boat waiting, the urgent question: ‘What to bring?’”
What do you bring with you as you are being rescued?
One woman described filling a couple zip-lock bags with toothpaste, her kids’ birth certificates, and her marriage license.
Another woman filled up a trash bag with soap, shampoo and toothpaste. At the last minute, she tossed in some lipstick.
“If I have nothing left,” she said, “at least I can put on some lipstick.”
As the article put it: “Her mind focused on the small boat motoring up to her door. She thought about her still-stranded neighbors, and the man who was literally swimming toward her, and she decided she would bring nothing else. ‘I didn’t want to take up room for humanity with things,’ she said.”
How do you decide what to bring at a moment like that? How do you choose?
This Sunday’s Gospel is about choices—including the choice we have to live as God wants, or as the world wants. And part of that choice, I believe, involves answering the same question facing so many people in Texas:
What do we bring with us on the journey?
What do we carry? What do we really want or need?
And I don’t mean just things.
Do we bring anger? Resentments? Jealousy?
Do we bring desires and cravings that fill us up and leave us satisified and take up space—but ultimately, in fact, leave us empty?
Or: do we carry compassion? Mercy? Sacrifice?
Do we bring only what is easy and comfortable? Or do take up a cross and follow Christ?
What do we bring with us?
The letter from Paul offers this advice:
“Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”
The words of Jesus in the Gospel call us the same way:
“What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
The choice is ours. What will we possess? Or will we let what we possess possess us?
What do we bring with us on the journey?
These past few days, I think, have offered us a useful and illuminating lesson.
A couple of weeks ago, the country was being convulsed by acts of evil—declarations of hate by men bearing torches.
This week, as if in defiance of all that, we have witnessed something else: acts of courage and selflessness and grace.
The flames of fear, the torches of terrorism, have been replaced by the light of hope.
The hate of a few has been supplanted by the love and charity of countless thousands, strangers helping strangers.
These people chose love over hate.
What did they bring?
Some brought Christ.
There is story of Father David Bergeron, a young French Canadian priest who boarded his kayak last Sunday and went searching for those who were stranded. He stopped at a liquor store to try and buy wine, so he could say Mass for some of the people who were stuck, but they wouldn’t sell him wine before noon. But he paddled on, offering reassurance and a prayer. “God is still with us,” he told a TV reporter, and anyone else who would listen. “God is alive.”
Or I think of the seminarians from the diocese of El Paso, who were planning to start the fall semester, but found the seminary flooded with water and surrounded by fallen trees. So after helping with the cleanup, they went to a local shelter to volunteer.
And then there is a young man named Jeremiah, whom a reporter found wading through waist-deep water with just a backpack, holding the hand of his young son as they searched for someplace safe and dry.
“We lost the car, all the clothes, school clothes, everything’s gone,” he said.
“Where do you go now?” the reporter asked.
“We don’t know. We don’t know.”
“But you’re thankful?” the reporter asked.
“Yeah, we’re thankful! God’s good,” he exlaimed. “God is good.”
That man brought with him only the things he could fit into his backpack—but he also brought something no piece of luggage could contain, this simple acclamation to a frightened world: “God is good.”
And he does not abandon us.
This Gospel asks us to choose—and, in fact, to choose what is difficult. Christ asks us to walk with him, to carry a cross with him.
But know this: we do not walk alone. Christ walks with us. He knows the way. And he knows it is a way that does not end in death. It ends, as he told his disciples, in resurrection. It ends in new life.
This Sunday, a National Day of Prayer for the Victims of Hurricne Harvey, we pray for all who are flooded—including those flooded with worry or uncertainty or helplessness or doubt.
We pray for all who fear God has abandoned them. We pray for all who are facing storms, in whatever form.
The priest in the kayak put it so well. The waters will rage.
But God is alive.
Just look at what is happening in Texas. God lives in those who are serving, rescuing, comforting, feeding, and sheltering those who have lost everything.
He lives in the Word we hear proclaimed this Sunday, this cry of hope in the psalm: “You are my help, and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.”
He lives in the Eucharist we are about to receive.
And he calls us to live with him, to hope with him, to pray with him. He calls us to “put out into the deep” with him.
What will we choose?