Sermons That Work

Praising God for the Little Bits in Life, Proper 13 (A) – 2002

August 04, 2002

I will open my mouth in a parable;*
I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.
That which we have heard and known,
and what our forefathers have told us,*
we will not hide from their children.
We will recount to generations to come,
the praiseworthy deeds and the Power of the LORD,*
and the wonderful works
he has done.

Today’s Gospel reading recalls the story of a brand-new seminary graduate, just returned home from his studies and invited to lead an adult education class in his home parish. Still riding high on his wave of celebration, and very much aware of himself as a “master” of divinity studies, he began to hold forth in a session on the story of Jonah. “In my exegesis of this pericope, I found no empirical justification whatever for a substantive faith in the notion that a human being could be ingested by a whale and survive. However, our efforts to spiritualize this foundational myth yield great promise for deeper theological and hermeneutical exploration.”

Whereupon the recent graduate’s grandmother, who was sitting in the back row, sucked her teeth and hissed under her breath, “Lord, you sent the boy to school, and he comes back here a fool. Anybody knows that it doesn’t matter whether Jonah got swallowed by a whale, a goldfish, or a guppy — the story is still true.”

This morning we are like that seminarian — challenged to look beyond the limits of what we think we know, to find the truth underlying another miraculous event in the account of the Scriptures. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus starts out with two fish and five little loaves of bread, just enough food to feed one person for one day of travel. By the time he had finished blessing this small offering of food for the needs of the people, it is enough to feed thousands, with food to spare. The very notion boggles the modern mind — but not those people who read the story through the eyes of faith. For people like the grandmother in my story, the rich truth of this Gospel parable is summed up in the lyrics of the Gospel hymn writer: “God chooses ordinary people…and little becomes much when it’s placed in the Master’s hands.”

But sadly, like the young seminarian, we often appeal first to safety of truth that we can comprehend. Since God’s miracles elude our efforts to organize reality into neat packages we like, we stiffen our necks in denial and insist that we can create what we need by our own power. Like the Israelites of the Old Testament readings, we are blinded by the power of the petty idols of our own imagining. So we often focus on the smallness of what we have and not on the greatness of the God who claims us. What did the disciples tell Jesus? “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” They were too blinded by the size of their little offering to see how Jesus might make it grow.

Like them, we become distracted by smallness. We forget the true Source of our greatest good, as often as not because we hate to think of ourselves as little or struggling or in need. Our God is a big God. So we want to be big, too, forgetting that our strength is perfected in weakness, that our freedom is in the service of God, and just as the great St. Teresa taught, “the one who has God has everything.” Instead, the voice of our wonder-working God is drowned out by the “tapes” of our fear and insufficiency. Events, situations, and people we see as “bigger” assume superhuman proportions, as we accord them the power to diminish or destroy us. We forget that we have learned from the truth of Scripture as taught by the Apostle Paul, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress,
or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No,
in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor
things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth,
nor anything at all in creation will be able to separate us from the
love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

So, yes, we feel small when we are suffering; we feel powerless, too, and try as we might to hang on, we fall into despair. But thanks be to the God of mercy, who continually calls us out of our self-absorption, always reaching out to us with reminders, in the words of the Gospel song, that “it is no secret what God can do.” When we turn in prayer to that place where nothing can separate us from the love of God, miracles happen in our lives. When we surrender our wills and offer back to God whatever we have received, no matter how small or worthless it seems to be, we are sustained and upheld and restored, and we find our pain alleviated, redeemed, and transformed-not by our own hand but by the hand of the One who has loved us into life.

African-American cultural traditions give us many rich examples of this principle at work. Slaves, given nothing to eat but table scraps, took them and turned them into gumbos and Brunswick stews and other rich dishes that kept them alive, that reminded them of the Providence of Almighty God, and to this day are known among African- American people as “soul food.” Similarly, old scraps of clothing were cut into pieces and transformed into marvelous quilts that not only provided warmth and beauty but were also used to tell stories and to pass signals that led them out of bondage and into freedom.

People forbidden to read and write and forced to speak a “pidgin” version of a foreign tongue took the new words and used them to create a lyric tradition that has survived as the “slave spiritual,” and is the foundation of the rich Gospel tradition that has developed over the centuries.

And the light-skinned “free women of color” in Louisiana, forced by law to cover their heads in public to ensure detection of their African lineage, fashioned their “shameful” head wraps into beautiful jeweled and feathered adornments, now known to the fashion world as “turbans.”

All these things have a common message for us this morning, along with the Gospel parable of the widow’s mite and the mustard seed, and today’s story of the loaves and fishes: “It’s not what you got, it’s what you let God do with what you got.”

How often we miss blessings because we are too busy focusing on the worthlessness or “smallness” of what we have. We live in a society in which “big” means better, might means right, and no one wants to talk about humble beginnings. But if we dare to claim to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, we are called to an active witness to the power of our Creator God-the God of water in the rock and manna in the desert, the God of Providence who continually “makes a way out of no way.” We serve a God who will take one hundred percent of our nothing and turn it into the fulfillment of hopes and dreams.

Just ask any member of the Episcopal Church Women (ECW) to share their organizational history with you. The little band of the faithful who founded this association for the support of clergy had no idea that they were laying the fiscal floor for the international Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society that we now know as the corporate face of the Episcopal Church. Similarly, many a beautiful parish church has had its beginnings, not with stained glass dreams but with a tiny handful of people who prayed about having a youth program or a feeding program or a bible study fellowship — and the rest of the history grew out of God’s will and their willingness. They all started by simply offering up what they had, even if all they had was their desire — and God has transformed their little into abundance, in spite of challenges, over the years.

This is the Good News of the Gospel this morning, at this moment in history when we sometimes fall into thinking that we are the source of our own successes. The greatest thing we can create is but a puff of air in the mouth of a God who has breathed life into each and every one of us. When we can release our hold on the little bits that we hold onto for our own enrichment and offer them up to the transforming power of God, we share with God in the greatness of Creation that can enrich life for everyone. In this way, we turn our own stories of life in Christ into the miracle stories of daily living. As soul singer Luther Vandross tells us: “Miracles happen every day.”

This morning the Scriptures call us to take our stand with Christ and help miracles happen to enrich and transform life in the here and now, whether we are at high or low points in life. And we are also called to respond to Christ’s free gift with continued faith and deepened gratitude for the never-failing blessings of God.

When we see through the eyes of faith, we don’t hesitate to thank God for the miracles. For instance, the childcare that showed up when you needed someone reliable to watch your children while you interviewed for a job. The anonymous witness who appeared on your behalf after a speeding driver ran a red light and crashed into your car. The scholarship that was given to allow your son or your daughter to attend a school where you could not afford the tuition after your company downsized you out of a job. The prescription medicine subsidy that was provided in the same month the doctor put you on a medication costing 80 dollars a week. All of these events are not only the fruits of human generosity, they are the proof of the miraculous hand of a living God at work in our everyday lives, protecting, supporting, and sustaining us. To thank God is to affirm to ourselves and to the world that we know who and Whose we are.

For we cannot claim that power as our own; we cannot harness, control, or manipulate it. We can only choose whether to reject it, or to receive it and show our appreciation by sharing our experience of the goodness of God. As grateful recipients of Christ’s miraculous ministry, we are called to share the Good News of a God who provides for us while we are yet trapped in our own limitations, who reminds us that mercy and love are ours anytime we open our hearts to receive them.

So as we come to the Table this morning, let us come with hearts grateful for the compassionate forgiveness of God, who knows and loves us at our weakest moments. Let us give thanks for the small places in our lives where the greatness of God has shown through in miraculous ways. Let us come away from the Table rejoicing and stepping out into the world, sharing the Good News of God in Christ Jesus, whose loves helps and heals and provides and sustains us for all of life’s journeys. And let the People of God say: AMEN.

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Christopher Sikkema


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