I would like to start with a little story this morning. As many of you know, I am involved in disaster relief work. In the past, the Church has deployed me to various locations after some disaster has struck. I have been to Newtown, Connecticut, and Blacksburg, Virginia after the tragic school shootings ripped through both communities. But the most impactful deployment I have been on was to New Orleans. Actually, we were deployed to Baton Rouge after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
First, let me clear something up, I do not believe, nor does Scripture hold, that God sends storms to wipe people off the face of the earth. God made a covenant with Noah and a covenant with all of the humanity when he sent his Son Jesus Christ for us. God is the God of love and compassion, and no God I worship does this.
I bring up the deployment to Louisiana as it is green in our minds with the recent devastation that has befallen that state. I arrived in Baton Rouge shortly after the winds stopped blowing. When I left, I had no idea where I was staying when I got there. All I knew was I had a rental car, so if needed I could sleep in that I guess.
We are usually deployed in teams of three or four people with various skills and we coordinate our activities with and through the local church. On this particular deployment, we worked very closely with Catholic Charities. Another thing you quickly learn after something like a hurricane happens is that all of this nonsense about who is and who is not a Christian simply fall away in the trash heap they belong in. All of the stupidity that divides denominations does not seem to matter when you are all pulling people out of the water and plucking them off rooftops.
So we set out on our work making sure supplies arrived at where they needed to get to aid the people they intended to aid. This was not an easy task, as you can imagine, truckloads of supplies and people were arriving in record numbers, and it all needed to go somewhere. The group I worked with was tasked with putting all of the pieces together.
Shortly after our work began, a man came into the area we were working out of and asked if there was any way we could help support the shelter that had been established at a local church right around the corner from where we were. We quickly drove over there to find the church filled to overflowing capacity with people who had walked from New Orleans and were now living in the shelter. They had no food and water was quickly running out. We did what we could for them on the spot and arranged for others to take over. While there we heard about another group of people that was hold up at the airport.
So we worked out the network of people and ended up at the state command center to gather info about whom and how many where there and what we could do to bring them, aide. We were told no one was there, that everyone had been evacuated from the airport. We were told this by local, state, and federal officials that were, in fact, true. But the people we had spoken with had just been there and saw all of the people.
A decision was made to attempt to get to the airport and see for ourselves. We made arrangements with the folks running the shelter at Louisiana State University for buses and security. Keep in mind the military had taken over control of the streets in New Orleans, and it was not a safe place to be. We needed a permit to enter the city from State, and Federal health officials and since they denied anyone was there, they were not going to give us the necessary permit.
We thought all hope was lost, and our mission was going to be a failure. We thought if we just went they would let us in. Then I saw, sitting on a desk nearby, a permit. Doing what needed to be done I “borrowed” the permit and we quickly exited the building. That night we set off on our journey.
If you have ever been to New Orleans or any large city for that matter, you will understand when I saw how creepy it is to have no one on the roads leading into our out of the city, but that is what it was like. Various checkpoints were set up along the path. We stopped at each one secure in the knowledge that the “borrowed” permit had been reported, and we were all going to get locked up.
We came to the final checkpoint, this one was military, and they were not at all impressed either with my collar or the permit from the Louisiana Health Office. The soldier, just doing his job, was told no one could get into the city no matter who they were or what permit they had with them. We had come this far we were not going to let this get in the way.
As I mentioned, we had security from LSU with us. These were not the mall cop types there were fully armed and kitted out in riot gear police and the one guy, assigned to protect me, not sure why I needed individual protection but I was glad he was there on several occasions, went toe to toe with the military and I thought for sure we were going to jail. After a few tense moments of “negotiation,” we were allowed to pass.
The next part of this story needs to come with one of those TV disclaimers about what you are about to see, but I need you to understand, as best as I can tell it, what we experienced so the story will make sense.
We arrived at the airport and were directed around to the back of the terminal building; this is where the luggage comes in off of the planes that have arrived. We were escorted into, what we had been told was an empty building, to find it filled, and then some, with people. The first thing we saw was a pile of bodies stacked like cord wood, right inside the door. We next encountered a doctor who ran up to me, I was wearing the clerical collar, so I was easy to identify as clergy, and he grabbed me by the shoulders and looked into my eyes and was shouting “tell me I did the right thing.”
It seems this doctor was the one who had to decide who got to live and who had to die. They were running out of supplies, and with the denial of the government, they were not getting more. I will never forget the look in this poor soul’s eyes, I cannot remember what I said to him, but after a few moments he calmed down and was able to take us around.
All services had broken down, and basic human functions were just that, basic. The rest of the team set off on a needs assessment; this is basically what we do when we first arrive to determine what needs to be done and make a priority list and start to move services into the area. I was taken, with the doctor, and my ever-watchful security detail, to another part of the airport. I was taken into what is called the black ward. This is the place where people are taken who are not expected to survive, the place they go to die and where they are made as comfortable as possible.
I talked with the staff and thanked them for everything they had done, and we prayed together. They asked me to pray for each person; there were sixty-five men and women in cots around the room. I knelt beside each person, prayed with them, and anointed them. Just as an aside I was harshly criticized for doing this as the prayer I read was technically the “last rights” and those prayers are only for people of the church I used to belong too. Anyway, went to the room and prayer with each one. I can still see those faces in my mind’s eye as clear as if it were yesterday.
I left there, and we had determined to take as many with us as the busses would hold. We worked with the medical personnel to decide who needed to go. First, we loaded the buses, and we left. We brought them back to the shelter at LSU, and they were treated and found a place to sleep that night. The next day we had the task of trying to convince the government that there were, in fact, people there. We knew they knew this because the medical folks at the airport were all military.
Why do I tell you this story? Because it fits in with the scripture passage, we heard this morning.
A woman who had been crippled for eighteen years approached Jesus and asked him to heal her. He did just that, and he was criticized by the authorities for doing so. You see he healed this poor woman on the Sabbath, and you know rules are rules. This is not, nor will it be the last time, that Jesus was criticized for healing on the Sabbath.
Jesus answered them, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
I did what I had to do, the security guy did what he had to do, the doctor did what he had to do, and Jesus did what he had to do, take care of the people right in front of him regardless of the law, the consequences, or the worthiness of the person.
You see our job is to help people no matter what. Our job is not to judge if they are worthy or if they deserve our help. Our job is not to call them sinners and scream at them, our job to bring them healing of whatever it is that ails them and in the end, our job is to simply love them.
Did the people lying on the floor that I prayed with an anointed know I was there? I do not know most of them were not even conscious. Did it help the medical staff, knowing I had prayed with them, I believe it did and it made their job a little easier. I mentioned I was criticized for doing what I did and I would do it again.
What Jesus is saying to us this morning is that we have to do what we have to do regardless of the consequences when it comes to helping people. This is what loving your neighbor means.