Sunday, July 26, 2009

A homily for Proper 17 Year B

Readings for this day
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice proclaims to the White Queen, "one can't believe impossible things." And the Queen replies: "I daresay you haven't had much practice. When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
I think that sums up perfectly the good news in our readings this morning and the good news we all need to hear in time of great challenge and transition in our church.

All the readings this morning are about seemingly impossible things. In the ongoing saga of David’s kingship over Israel, he deliberately organizes to get Bathsheba’s husband Uriah into the front lines of the battle so that we will be free to have Bathsheba as one of his own wives. Earlier in David’s kingship he had been equally manipulative and immoral in order to win the hand of Abigail as one of his many wives.

What is nearly impossible for me to believe is how and why God chooses someone like David to be king over his chosen people, to be the composer of the beautiful psalms which have been the centre of Judeo-Christian worship for several millenia, and even more important to establish the kingly line which Jesus the Messiah will fulfill. David is a womanizer, a flouter of the law, someone who manipulates others and uses his power for his own ends. He would never make it through the psychiatric and moral screening that candidates for the priesthood have to go through in our church.

So this shows us how God uses even the basest human instincts – lust, jealousy, and power – to further the building of the kingdom.

But David is only one of many people in the Biblical narrative that seem to be the most unlikely leaders. Think of Moses, and Saul, and many others. Virtually all the leaders of the Kingdom (until we come to Jesus) broke God’s law. None of them were what we would consider models of Godly life.

As we move into the New Testament story, we see a similar pattern. Jesus chooses for his disciples a group of men who are rough and ready, uneducated, unrefined, and who might not even be welcome in some congregations of Christians in our city. Peter denied him, Judas betrayed him, and all of them ultimately ran away when the moment of testing came.

There is something about this religion of ours that says to me that the Kingdom of God is different from our expectations of good and efficient government. And there is a lot of good news in that, because so many of us feel unqualified to fulfill a role in the church much less a role in bringing about the kingdom of God. If God could choose such people to work out the plan of salvation, then maybe we aren’t such impossible candidates ourselves!

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians this morning, we see a different way of measuring the kingdom. It does not come about by human effort or special qualifications, but by being called into a relationship of love with Christ, within the Christian community. We ourselves, in our local communities, are part of the larger kingdom. Paul’s prayer in Ephesians is for us as much as the early Christian community of his time, when he prays that we “may have the power to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.” What an amazing prayer that is. It seems impossible that we should aspire to such joy.

But then Paul uses those inspired and courageous words which we recite at the end of every Eucharist in a slightly different translation. He gives glory to God “who by the power at work within us” – that is, God’s power – “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” The impossible becomes possible.

And that power is seen in the two stories we heard in the gospel this morning.

The narrative of the loaves and the fishes was apparently one of the favourite miracles circulated in the early Christian community, because it appears in all four of the gospels – there are actually 6 slightly different versions of the story. John tells us that it takes place near the time of the celebration of the Passover, and it reminds us of some elements of the Passover and the journey in the desert that followed. A little boy provides a few barley loaves and small fishes – this is a seemingly impossible situation – “what are they,” Andrew says, “among so many people?” But Jesus just replies “Make the people sit down.”

Well, you know the rest of the story – everyone has plenty to eat with lots left over. Not unlike the manna which God gave Moses and his people in the wilderness.

And not unlike the Eucharist itself, in which one loaf is divided among many people with – usually – lots left over. In the Orthodox tradition, special bread is blessed at the Eucharist and taken home by parishioners to nourish their families. In our tradition – especially here were we don’t use real bread – the left-overs are more symbolic, and perhaps more powerful for that reason. What is “left over” after the Eucharist is the love which is given to us and which the sacrament signifies – and there is so much of that love that we cannot but take it home with us, out of the walls of the church, into the areas where we live and work and go to school.

Impossible things – small barley loaves and dried fish multiplied to feed thousand of people with plenty left over to share; bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, nourishing us with the love of Christ to feed thousands more people.

And then there is the storm at sea. Another impossible event – Jesus walking on the water, and the boat landing immediately safe at the other side. That story, too, is told in different versions in all four of the gospels, and again there are 6 different variations. The early recorders of Jesus’ ministry were obviously fascinated with impossible things which, in God’s kingdom and in God’s power, are in fact possible.

We call these impossible things miracles. John calls them “signs.” In other words, the miracle of the loaves and fishes or the calming of the sea are not the most important thing. They are signs of the Kingdom, signals that we are called to go out and build that kingdom and that we are given the tools to do it – most importantly the knowledge of the great love of God for us and within us.

There are many spiritual practices, or disciplines, that we can follow which help us in our Christian life and will help us through this time of great transition. They include daily prayer, coming to the Eucharist to be fed and receive the strength we need, and participating in the life of our local parish or community. We all are aware of these central disciplines of the Christian life, along with many others.

But there is another spiritual practice that may be new to us – and that is to following the advice of the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland and practice believing six impossible things every morning before breakfast – particularly the six we have heard about in the readings this morning – and I’ll just summarize them here:
  1. God’s criteria for choosing leaders in the kingdom are truly counter-cultural.
  2. By extension, we who are just ordinary sinners, trying our best to follow Jesus but failing often – we are the people chosen to work out God’s mission here in our neighbourhood.
  3. God can take the least that we have to offer, and multiply it beyond our imaginings. All of us in this church this morning, with our limitations and fears and reluctance – we already have the gifts we need to reach out to people around us with the good news of Jesus Christ. We just need to believe it.
  4. After we have offered all we have to God and for God’s purposes, there will be so much love and generosity left over that it will spill out into all our relationships, our jobs, our school life, and our family life.
  5. God is able to calm the storms of our lives simply by his presence among us – without doing or saying anything.
  6. And through something so simple – just being aware of God’s presence with us – we are enabled us to do the same for those who are suffering.
All that is required for us to believe these six impossible things is to commit ourselves to growing in love for God – to let our roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love, as Paul says it, and to stay rooted in the Christian community. The more deeply we know God as our creator, our redeemer and friend and brother, and as the Spirit of life and renewal, and the more deeply we experience that in community, the more we will come to know that we, even we, can be used by God for the building of God’s kingdom.

And so as we look to the future of our communities and our church, let us not be overwhelmed or skeptical like Alice, but follow the Queen, and every morning before breakfast practice believing six impossible things.
Glory to God, whose power working in us
can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
Glory to God from generation to generation in the church
and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.
Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD
July 26, 2009

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