Joe Sroka: Sermon from August 4, 2016

What is the most memorable story you have ever heard?
A favorite book of mine is The Lord of the Rings. Many of you may recall that fellowship of hobbits, dwarves, wizards, elves, and men seeking to destroy the One Ring in Mordor. And with the Olympic games upon us, the Catholic Worker where I live recently watched Cool Runnings on movie night. It is the story, albeit the Disney version of a true story, of former Jamaican track athletes teaming up to compete in the four-man bobsled. They began in a country without snow, ice, or even winter as poor, black Jamaicans and qualified in a sport dominated by countries with winters and better- funded, white athletes. Both of these stories have a group of people on a journey. Throughout their journeys, they are changed and become something they could not have been on their own.

Another kind of story that was important to me for some time was that of triathlon. It had a community of training partners, learning from each other’s strengths and aware of each other’s weaknesses. And it had a terrific chase. Rarely does a triathlete excel at all three disciplines—swimming, cycling, and running—on race day. There was always motivation to get better.

We also have other stories. Stories of life, careers, and relationships. Even our current political elections have become a dramatic narrative where each side appears to itself to be on the side of justice while it combats evil.

Although these stories shape our lives in some way or another, and some may for the better, these stories ultimately fall short. Should these stories influence us as much as they do? As the Church, we are participating in the story. It is a story first and foremost about God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God chooses us, not of need, but out of his divine desire for genuine relationship. Today, the Psalmist tells us: “Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord! / Happy the people he has chosen to be his own!” Today’s collect reminds us that “that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live.” This is the story of generations of Israel and the Church being sought out by God, culminating in God himself coming to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The Holy Eucharist that we celebrate today calls us to continual remembrance of his life, death, and resurrection. The Eucharist is the way by which the sacrifice of Christ is made present today, and the Eucharist is the way in which Jesus unites us to his one offering of himself. Now, that is some story. In fact, it is the story.

Today’s lessons show us that we know our story—our relationship with God—is founded on faith and gift, and we know what faith and gift are through the Eucharist.

The story of Abraham and the Lord was based on faith and gift. “The word of the Lord came to Abram.” The presence of God, revealed in his Word, is a gift to Abraham. It comes to him. It seeks him out. And this Word still speaks to us today. In response to this Word read aloud in the liturgy, we respond “Thanks be to God” acknowledging the gift.

The Lord says to Abraham, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Abraham pleads for the gift. “O Lord God, what will you give me?” And again “You have given me no offspring.” Abraham does not ask for riches as a greedy person. He does not ask for long life as one who fears death. Rather, he asks for an heir worthy of his relationship with the Lord. Abraham desires the gift of offspring who will inherit the faith. He wants descendants who will inherit the story.

Then the Lord takes Abraham outside. And where else could one see the stars but outside? By taking him outside we see Abraham following the Lord. He steps, not only literally outdoors, but, through faith, he steps outside himself, now able to see and hear the Lord. “And he believed the Lord.” Abraham’s faith and the Lord’s gift shape the story.

The Letter to the Hebrews further clarifies the relationship between faith and gift in our story. In fact, it presses an important point that faith and gift are ultimately about God, not us. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the Lord and set out for a place, not knowing where he was going. By faith, Abraham and Sarah conceived Isaac although he was too old and she was barren. This was possible because they “considered him faithful who had promised.” Our faith depends on the faithful one. It is God’s faith toward us that makes our faith possible. Therefore, with this faith, God is not ashamed to be called our God.

How, then, do we live faithfully to this story? How do we put our faith into action so to speak? It seems like one thing to claim Abraham as part of our story, but how do we claim the challenging words of the Gospel too? We are shaken by Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel.

“Sell your possessions and give alms.”
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
“Be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Although these words appear frightening and we may feel helpless, let us return to the story. Let us turn to the stories of the Church. ‘Sell your possessions and give alms’ is just a necessary part of the Lord’s story—a part that we have witnessed throughout. By faith, Abraham left what he had and set out. By faith, the first disciples left their boats and followed Jesus. And this Wednesday we celebrate the feast of St. Lawrence, a deacon who was martyred in 258. After the death of the pope, the prefect of Rome demanded the treasures of the church. St. Lawrence quickly distributed as much Church property as he could to the poor. When ordered to give up the treasures of the Church, he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering, exclaiming that these were the true treasures of the Church! “Do not be afraid, little flock” for our story already embodies Jesus’ words. Abraham, the disciples, the saints—by faith received the gift and in turn gave of themselves.

When we gather every Sunday for Eucharist, we are reminded of this faith and gift. Through faith, we receive Christ’s gift. The preparation and posture for the Eucharist cannot be missed in today’s gospel.

Jesus says “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” The priest is most obviously dressed for action. And we did light a couple of candles. But we too are ready for action. This is in fact the liturgy. As we heard at the beginning, the liturgy is the work of the people and it is what it is because each of us contributes to it.

Jesus also says “Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him.” As the Lord brought Abraham outside, we too anticipate meeting him as we sing praises, read his Word and open the Gospel, and confess our sins. The Lord comes down from the heavenly banquet to meet us, right here. The Eucharist is a big deal. It is the most important story that we tell.

Jesus goes on “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.” And this is where the story climaxes. Having dipped our hand in the waters of baptism and making the sign of the cross over ourselves, we are alert. Then, we offer our gifts at the altar. Gifts of financial treasures, gifts of food resources, but we also return to Christ the gift he gave us – our selves, our souls and bodies. Only through Christ’s gift do we know how or what to give. And only by faith can we “Behold what we are. May we become what we receive.” Amen.