The last two weeks have been unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.
Hurricane Harvey causing historic floods across Houston and much of Texas. Epic wildfires raining ash across the West. The strongest earthquake in a century rattling our neighbors in Mexico.
Even the sun is having epic storms, throwing off solar flares among the strongest ever recorded.
And all of that before we get to the current breaking crisis – Hurricane Irma creating devastation across the Caribbean and pounding Florida even as we gather here this morning.
I know many of us have family and friends in Florida, some of us have homes and businesses there, most of us have enjoyed that state’s many natural treasures.
It’s hard to know how to respond in the face of so much devastation and suffering on so many fronts. We give money, we offer our prayers, perhaps we take in friends and family fleeing from danger.
Unlike some of our more conservative brothers and sisters, I don’t believe for a moment that God sends earthquakes and storms and raging fires as punishments.
But still I have found myself asking over the last few days, “What on earth is happening?”
Maybe you’ve asked that question, too. And maybe you’ve wondered where God is in the midst of all of this destruction and suffering.
We can’t answer the why of these tragedies. But God is very much present in the midst of them.
One of my favorite theologians, Mr. Rogers, who was an ordained Presbyterian, many years ago said this about situations like those being experienced now:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
There has been no shortage of helpers in the past two weeks. Here are a few of the stories that have moved me.
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Bakers at El Bolillo Mexican Bakery in Houston worked overtime in the days before Harvey hit, selling out bread as soon as it was baked as people rushed to stock up before the storm hit. When the store finally closed, four bakers found they could not get home, and were forced to stay in the bakery.
They were desperate to see their families, but since they couldn’t they did the only thing they knew to do. They started baking.
For two days they baked and baked and baked, as they watched the waters rise almost to the bakery’s doors, but not quite.
The owner of the store tried to rescue them, but couldn’t. When he finally reached them he was shocked by what he saw.
When he had left a little more than two days earlier the store’s shelves were bare. Now they were filled with bread. Four thousand loaves of it.
The bread was delivered to emergency shelters and people in need around the city.
The story doesn’t stop there.
A Cincinnati man heard of the bakers’ kindness and offered to pay for the cost of materials , 4,400 pounds of flour, and the men’s wages.
“Your act of humanity is what we should all aspire to and achieve,” he said.
* * *
Jim McIngvale, known in the Houston area as Mattress Mack, owns two furniture stores. As the city began to flood he realized there would not be enough emergency shelters to meet the needs, so he posted a video online with a simple message: Come on over.
And people did. Hundreds of them.
“We sell home furniture that you watch TV from, they’re sleeping on that,” he told a reporter. “They’re sleeping on recliners, sleeping on sofas and loveseats. We have sleeper sofas; they pulled them out and slept on them. They’re sleeping on hundreds of mattresses throughout the store.
“They’re sleeping wherever they can find a place that’s comfortable, and God bless’em,” he said.
McIngvale also sent his delivery trucks to collect people who couldn’t make it there on their own. He told them to bring their pets. He made sure everyone was fed.
“Think a slumber party on steroids,” he said. “That’s what this is.”
* * *
Then there was the Cajun Navy, a volunteer flotilla of bass boats, airboats, and other small recreational vessels, that caravanned to Houston from Baton Rouge, a nine-hour drive.
Once there they launched their vessels into rivers that were once residential streets and began rescuing total strangers.
“We’re trying to do what we can,” said Ben Theriot, an engineer whose house near Baton Rouge flooded last year. “I had people I didn’t even know showing up to help me. The best way you can thank somebody for helping you is to help somebody else.”
“We rescued 53 people last night,” said Ray Ortega, a salesman with a 23-foot fishing boat. Then he launched it once again, heading into the waters to find more people in need.
* * *
So many helpers. There are the professionals – the rescue workers, police, fire fighters, and paramedics willing to risk their own lives to save others.
Those who kept the shelters open. People who opened their homes not just to friends and family, but to total strangers.
Whole armies of volunteers dedicated to saving animals caught in the floods.
Journalists who joined rescue efforts and also risked their lives to keep their communities and the nation informed.
* * *
My last story is from Florida, near Orlando, not on the coast, but still in danger of Irma’s high winds and pummeling rain. Shelves there are bare of plywood, water, gas, and generators, as is the case in much of Florida.
Pam Brekke had spent days trying to find a generator. Her father is on oxygen and she was terrified that the storm will knock out their electricity for days, incapacitating the machines that give him life.
She heard on the news that a Lowe’s store 30 miles away had just received an unexpected delivery of 216 generators. She immediately jumped in her car and drove there, then got in the long line of people all there for the same reason.
She was next in line when the last generator was given out.
Brekke burst into tears, sobbing at the thought of her father without the oxygen he needs to live.
Another customer, Ramon Santiago, saw her crying, He doesn’t speak English very well, but he knew enough to realize she was distraught because there were no more generators.
So he gave her the one in his cart.
A TV reporter in the store captured the hug between the two on film, and aired the story, along with Brekke’s heartfelt thanks.
Later that afternoon Santiago had a doctor’s appointment. When he walked in to the office everyone stood up and applauded. He had no idea why.
When someone told him in Spanish that the story had been on TV, and that his generosity had potentially saved a man’s life, he was astonished. All he knew was the woman seemed desperate, so he shared what he had.
In response to that story, someone somewhere somehow got another generator to Lowe’s, and it was given to Santiago.
Through a translator, this is what he said in response to that act of kindness:
“Let’s take this moment that we’re all here for each other, helping each other out, and extend it beyond the hurricane. This storm is going to be over, and when it is, let’s remember how we feel right now.”
* * *
Ramon Santiago, the Cajun Navy, Mattress Mack, the Mexican bakers, and so many, many others have lived out the apostle Paul’s words that we heard this morning.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another. . . Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
All of these helpers acted in love. In a time of darkness they put on the armor of light, and God’s light shines through each and every one of them.
In the midst of tragedy, political, racial, and religious differences disappeared. Neighbor helped neighbor. People drove nine hours to a disaster to help total strangers.
Does this kindness make the suffering disappear? Does it make the disaster a good thing?
Of course not.
But it does remind us that we humans are capable of great goodness and kindness, capable of acting as God would have us act, capable of looking into the face of a stranger and seeing the face of God.
Let us never forget it.