Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
St. Agnes Church, August 27, 2000
(Based on Joshua 24:-12, 15-17, 18 and John 6:60-69)
In today's Gospel we are confronted with perhaps the most painful moment in Jesus' public ministry apart from his passion and death.
For the past five Sundays we have been following the account in John's Gospel of the discourse on the Bread of Life. All of that was taking place in the synagogue, between Jesus and the Jews. We heard how they grumbled at what they were hearing: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"
Today the scene shifts, to his own followers. They have been listening and now it's their turn to face the challenge. We can hear them talking among themselves. Remember, these are men and women who had been so drawn to Jesus that they left their homes and wandered with him from village to village. And they begin to say "this is too much; this is over the edge. I was excited to hear his message, and then walk with him; to see how he dealt with the ordinary people and challenged the religious leaders. But this stuff about eating his flesh and drinking his blood? I'm out of here with that one."
And many walked with him no more --- people who had already paid a great price to follow him. And so he turns to those who were his most intimate circle, the Twelve, and voices a plaintive cry: "Will you also go away?" His whole mission could disintegrate; he's very vulnerable.
Both the Old Testament reading from Joshua and this Gospel are about a test, a choice, a decision. The moment of truth. In Joshua it's the end of his life and he's putting the people before the choice: worship the gods their fathers served "across the River" before they experienced the deeds of Yahweh, or the Lord who had shown them such care on their journey. In the Gospel it's a choice after which there is no turning back.
But I believe the readings are really about something deeper than that: they are really about the source of the energy which can enable us to make that choice. They are about remembering.
And indirectly they highlight one of the greatest challenges to our spiritual life: our capacity to forget. To forget who we are and who God is, to forget our own story. To lose touch with our very experience.
Each of us is a unique story, and all of us are one story. And what is that story?
Every last one of us at some time or other has wandered off on our own and gone astray. We have become lost and worshiped "the gods beyond the River, the gods of the Amorites". Each of us has been confused and disheartened and disoriented. Each of us has had moments of disbelief and despair and hopelessness.
Each of us has known sin, and shame.
But that is not the heart of our story. For never at any instant has our God been more than a heartbeat away from us. God has given us a very long leash, respecting our freedom more than we prize it ourselves. But God has never abandoned us, has always been there for us and, when we were finally ready, has always welcomed us back. Always inviting, always forgiving.
If each of us has known sin, so much more has each of us known grace.
That's not an abstraction, a piece of dry doctrine, it's our story, our experience. It's who we are. We have not come to this moment on our own.
And our story is more than that. It is the story of these ancestors of ours, in the book of Joshua and the whole Old and New Testaments. These are not the stories of some weird ancient figures. They are us. Our family, our heritage. We were slaves in Egypt and God delivered us; we were trapped against the bank of the river and God opened the river for us to cross through the safety; we were in the fiery furnace and walked and sang in praise of our God. If we do not understand that, if we forget our presence in these people and their experience, we have lost the thread of our own story.
Have you ever wondered how Jesus became the man he was?
Now remember, we can't answer that question by jumping off into his divinity; that's heretical. We have to come to terms with the fact of his humanness, un-'contaminated' by divinity. He was like us in all things but sin; he had to learn and grow and figure out his mission in life as we do. How did he?
It's clear from the Gospels that he was immersed in and imbibed the heritage and story of his people. He participated in their events and rituals. We hear of him going to the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Lights and Passover. He went to the synagogue and heard the scriptures proclaimed, and he even journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem. And most significantly he must have learned it all at the feet of Mary.
When he prays, it is with the images and phrases of the Psalms. Mary's own great prayer, the Magnificat, is really the prayer of Hannah in the Book of Samuel, when she brings her first-born before the Lord and says "My soul magnifies the Lord." When Jesus confronts the scribes and pharisees for their distortion of the Law, it is because he has himself so thoroughly absorbed and grasped what the Law was about.
I am always fascinated to hear of the prayer of our ancestors in the Old Testament.
For example, take Moses. In Exodus there comes a moment when the people have abandoned God in utter idolatry, and God calls Moses and says, "This people of yours are a stiff-necked, wicked generation. I am going to destroy them and begin a new people with you as a new Abraham." But Moses doesn't fall for this seduction. He says to God, "Oh, no, you're not going to get me to play that game. These are your people, not mine. You have made a covenant with us and you can't get off the hook like that. We are holding you to your promise."
In our own time there is that wonderful story of the prayer of St. Theresa, the Little Flower, also part of our community. We sometimes get the romanticized, pious picture of the soupy little Carmelite nun. But she didn't pray like that. Once when she got angry with God she stormed into the chapel and said, "the way you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few of them!"
Do we pray like that? Do we realize the familiarity our great models of faith show toward God? Do we know they are a part of us, that we are who we are because of our solidarity with them?
Oh no, we have not come to this moment on our own.
But our story is not complete even yet. Besides the story of God accompanying each of us at every turn; beyond our share in the great story of our people down through the ages, there is our story in this parish community. We are shaped by its rituals and celebrations, its prayer and very life.
Have you ever stopped to consider all the holiness present when we gather in this church together? We are blessed with wonderful elders; wisdom figures, men and women who have "been there", who have confronted pain and tragedy in ways we can't imagine, and who are here for us; who keep on keeping on, in very modest ways modeling uncommon fidelity. Have you ever thought of the holiness of our high-school young men and women? I sit in the choir, as you know, facing the congregation. And I watch how they care for our smallest kids. I watch when the little ones return from their own service of the word, how the high-schoolers take them and watch out for them; I see teenagers who are not embarrassed to bring these little guys and have them sit on their laps and hold them. And we have parents among us --- many single parents --- doing that most difficult service of helping their kids grow up, even as they watch the kids turning out different than they had expected, participating in the mystery of a human person's unfolding story.
We do not come to this moment on our own. And anyone who thinks they''e making it on their own is living an illusion.
We get in trouble when we forget our story and think we can go it alone, when we let ourselves get cut off from these relationships which make us who we are. If we think we can do it on our own, we don't know who we are or how we are made --- or who our God is.
At the end of the Gospel story when Peter answers Jesus' question, he says "Lord, to whom shall we go? We have been with you and come to know that you are the Holy One of God", it's not some abstract statement of doctrine, much less dogma. It's a declaration of their experience. As the First Epistle of John puts it: "This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked on and our hands of touched -- we speak of the word of life."
In a few minutes we will welcome into our community a new life. This child, Charlie Miller, will live out his own unique story, a story never told before or ever to be repeated. But first he will have to be taught our story, the story of his-and-God's people, the story of this community, and the story of God's always abiding presence at his side. As we receive the Bread of Life today, let us ask that each of us, and all of us together, may be for his parents the kind of a community to which they can point as his story, as they fulfill their awesome responsibility.