A sermon preached at St. George’s Anglican Church Calgary, by the Rev. Clara King, August 5, 2018
Proper 18 - Year B
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
The plot of today’s Gospel reading is this: the 5,00 who have just eaten the bread and fish Jesus multiplied on the hilltop now know that he is the Messiah.
And now that they know that he is the Messiah, they know how the rest of the story will go - and they’re very excited by this story. He will become a great military hero, lead Israel in rebellion against the Romans, and then take the to the throne in Jerusalem to rule over them as the greatest king they would ever know. That’s what the Messiah would do. That’s what they’d been waiting for for something like 400 years.
So now that they know that he’s the Messiah, they know that’s how the story was going to go. And they knew their part in it too: they would follow him, fight for him, ready to die for him, and in the end they would triumph under him.
They are so ready to follow him as their Lord and King. So ready, and so excited by the possibility they don’t quite notice - or don’t quite understand - how the story just doesn’t seem to be unfolding the way they were expecting.
First, he slips away from them, and from the defensible position he’d taken up at the top of that mountain - a great location to rally troops. But he slips away from them. They have to track him down a long way away, and then they have this very confusing conversation with him in which they are trying to bring the story back to the plot they know, and Jesus just keeps insisting that the story is going another way.
Friends, this is a common feature in our lives of faith. We think we know the story, but Jesus has a different vision for which way this story is going to go.
Let me tell you a story about something that happened at St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Prince George. This would have been, maybe 20, 25 years ago now.
St. Mary’s had what we would call a small but lively congregation of about 20 members. And chief among the members of this lively little congregation was a wonderful lady named Margaret, one of the real saints of the church. She sat on Vestry, and on the Outreach Committee, and she had been Directress of the ACW for a couple decades. And she coordinated the schedule for the Altar Guild, and took communion to the seniors at Jubilee Lodge. And she never forgot to send you a card on your birthday, and she somehow always remembered people’s big anniversaries, and when anyone needed a casserole, she had an extra one waiting in her freezer.
Margaret was that kind of woman: the kind of woman who cared really deeply, who loved people and wanted them to feel loved. And for a while, it had been bothering her that the church wasn’t doing anything about the young people who hung around the front steps of the Church.
See, St. Mary’s had a rather welcoming front entrance leading on to the street, but this entrance was hardly ever used by the congregation - they had a dingy back entrance off the parking lot everyone used - and at some point that summer, a group of local youth had noticed the front steps and the railings, and had seemingly colonized the whole front area as an informal skateboard park, and the members of the Church had become just a little afraid of the entire front side of their building.
But Margaret wanted to help these youths, so she brought the problem to Vestry. There’s got to be something we can do for them, said Margaret. And there was also the issue of safety: the steps were slowly coming to pieces, had been so for a number of years now. It was a growing liability to the Church! –what if someone got hurt, could they be sued?
They talked about phoning the police, or hiring a youth worker, or even forming a delegation to go talk to them, to ask them to leave the Church property altogether. But they couldn’t agree on what to do, no one could figure out what the right compromise was. They’d taken to praying for the youths during the prayers of the people, but God apparently didn’t know what to do with them either.
As the Summer rolled into Fall, most of the church folks hoped that the problem would disappear with the onset of winter. But meanwhile, Margaret worried that those kids needed help that no one was giving them. She had been thinking for quite some time now that God had maybe brought those youths to the front steps of the church so that the church could save them - if only they could figure out how. And, truth be told, she was worried someone might get hurt on those rickety steps.
And that’s exactly what happened, one cold Fall afternoon at St. Mary’s: Margaret, spying on them as she had been doing rather regularly of late, saw one of the kids slide down the bannister, overbalance mid-way, and fall out of sight. And all of a sudden, Margaret knew that this was her moment: she must save that boy!
She sprinted out of the old Sunday School Room, wrenched open the unused front door, and dashed purposefully down the front steps, calling out helpfully to the youths that she was a retired nurse – and just at the moment that it happened: the steps, long neglected by the congregation, unused to vigorous pounding, gave way under Margaret’s saving dash and sent her crashing down.
It was the youths who saved Margaret, of course. One of the older girls sprang into action, and sent someone to call 9-1-1. She held Margaret’s hand while they waited for the ambulance. She stayed with her, talking calmly while the paramedics lifted her out of the broken steps. When they finally got her onto the stretcher, the girl reached out for Margaret’s shaking hand again, and Margaret held onto that girl for dear life. The girl just stayed with her, strong and calm, until Margaret was in the ambulance and the doors were closed. Then, she melted away into the crowd.
It took a couple of weeks for Margaret to return to St. Mary’s: a couple of weeks of receiving casseroles and home communion, and being the recipient of intercessory prayers and well-meaning visitors. And when she returned, she asked Vestry for a special favour.
And so, for the next few weeks, posters were put up all over Prince George, stacks of flyers were handed out, and the local newspaper, the Prince George Civilian, printed a full-page interview with Margaret in which she issued a general invitation to the town - and a special invitation to all skateboarders. And finally the day came: St. Mary’s hosted a special lunch, in honour of the young people who had saved Margaret; and the cake was made by Margaret herself: carefully decorated to look like a skateboard. It was cut by the guest of honour: Amanda, the girl who had stayed by Margaret’s side and taken care of her.
At that lunch, the parishioners found out that the kids had noticed how dangerous the steps were, and were careful always to avoid the worst parts. That morning when they’d arrived, the morning of Margaret’s accident, there had been ice on the sidewalk, so they had spread sand so none of the old folks would slip and hurt themselves. And the girl, Amanda, well she had always dreamed of being a paramedic.
Things changed after that at St. Mary’s: it had been years since the congregation had any young people in its midst, and they adopted this whole group. The kids steadily got to know the congregation, and the congregation got to know the kids. And they became involved in one another’s lives in life-changing ways.
The congregation at St. Mary’s flourished under the new relationship with the skateboard kids: they found new meaning and purpose and joy, and the congregation started to grow. It was like that bumper sticker says, “who saved who?”
See, we all make assumptions about how God works in our lives; and how we fit into God’s plans. And we’re often wrong. And when we make those assumptions, it gets easy to miss what God is actually doing.
All those people who crowded around Jesus on the shores of Galilee had a fixed idea about how the Messiah was going to act and how they were going to benefit. But God had other plans.
And just like them, God invites us, gently, lovingly, yet persistently, to broaden our minds about what God is up to in our lives. Just like Margaret, we may yet learn that this story doesn’t go the way we thought it would. And just like Margaret, we may learn that there’s a lot more beauty and grace than we’d ever expected.
This summer, most of us are making plans - and for many of us, things may not work out quite as we had thought. So let’s keep a watch out for what God might be doing when the plot line changes, and keep our minds open - for God can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
And thank God for that