Homily – 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

A few years back, I shared a reflection from Sister Mary Eliot of the Rochester, MN Franciscans who was speaking of the relationship that the Sisters of her order strive to have with the lay group of Cojourners and vice versa. She describes most beautifully what she means by referencing the story of The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams. 

   Most of us recall that this is a story of a toy rabbit that becomes real through the love of a little child.  In the character of the Skin Horse, who is real, the rabbit learns what it is “to be real.”  “It’s a thing that happens to you when a child loves you for a long, long time…then you become real.”

   The rabbit wants to know, “does it hurt?” The skin horse answers, “Sometimes, [but] when you are real, you don’t mind being hurt.”  The skin horse goes on to say that it doesn’t happen all at once, [becoming real] and it doesn’t happen to those who “break easily,” or have “sharp edges” or have to “be carefully kept.”  And by the time you are real, “most of your hair has been loved off, your eyes drop out, you get loose in the joints and very shabby.”  The skin horse concludes by saying that “those things don’t matter…because “once you are real you can’t be ugly except to people who don’t understand.” 

  I know there are days for me when I feel like the Skin Horse, with all, “my fur” rubbed or loved off—tired and misunderstood like Elijah in today’s first reading.  Each day I bring to my life and work all that has made up my years, the ups and the downs, the joys and the mistakes and each day, a chance to give it a try once again. 

   I have been thinking about “racism” of late as I am working my way through, Ibram Kendi’s book, Stamped from the Beginning.  Thus far, I am impressed with the fine job he is doing uncovering “why” racism is so deep and long in our country’s history.  And like so many other “isms” that our country and Church faces, it is about power and control. 

   Our founding fathers and mothers grew their wealth and prestige on the backs of African slaves, plain and simple.  The old eastern colleges of note, Georgetown, Harvard, William and Mary, and many more are in present day being called upon to make reparations to slave families for their labor in building these institutions. Many times, this was done under the auspices of religion.

   Thomas Jefferson, a graduate of William and Mary, who wrote beautifully about inclusivity in his, and eventually our, Declaration of Independence from England, clearly didn’t consider his 120 slaves that basically made him a rich man over time, part of those he wrote about when he penned, “All men are created equal under God.” If this were not the case, he could hardly have kept slaves.  A sidelight—he wasn’t necessarily thinking of women either, but that is another story.

   Kendi lays out in extensive detail how, from the time colonists came to our shores, white people set up a system of hierarchy with themselves on top and anyone of darker skin less equal and as a result, able to be used and abused, and again, they found ways within their religious beliefs to do just that, such as, “we can use their bodies, but save their souls.”  This, in their minds, justified the abuse.  It is perhaps easy for us in present day to look at some of this abuse and say, “I would not have been complicit in this behavior!”  But do we know that in all certainty—if we were raised in the milieu where keeping slaves was commonplace? Kendi really calls us to go deep and get to the heart of the matter, so to speak. Many religious orders of Sisters today, are looking into their histories for any complicity with racism. 

   Part of what Kendi and others writing on this topic are lifting up for us, “privileged white folk” to look at and address, is how in fact, we all have been part of the problem. Remember how last week we talked about the fact that because we may not have an answer to a problem doesn’t give us permission not to see the problem.  Each of us white folk can wake up each day, send our kids to school, go to our places of work, and so on, and never even give a thought to how we might be misunderstood, accused of wrongdoing with little or no proof and be treated more harshly than others because of the color of our skin. White folks have “a pass” that black folks don’t!

   This was never more clear to Robert and I then on one of our last camping trips where we crossed the southern border and returned later having to go through security before entering back into the country.  When our turn came, the guards, noticing the color of our skin, gave us an immediate pass and didn’t ask to check the back of our camper, which could have been filled with undocumented immigrants.  Across the way from us, in another line was a car with several dark-skinned individuals pulled over and the car was being searched.  So, let’s leave this for a bit and see what the Scriptures today can tell us about how to proceed. 

   Elijah, in the first reading flatly states, “I have had enough!” – a statement that anyone who has ever tried to minister to others has probably expressed a time or two.  I think of that “skin horse” whose fur has all but been rubbed or loved off.  God answers his plea by sending an angel with food, water, and rest, not once, but twice.  If we were to walk away from this story with nothing else, let it be that this God who loves Elijah, is consistent, is constant. 

   We, my friends, can look for the same from this God.  I think here of the beautiful New Testament story of the Prodigal and of how the Loving Parent (God) holds nothing against this “Lost- one- for-a- time,” but runs to meet and greet and welcome this one home!  The psalmist today says it well, “O taste and see that God is good.” (Psalm 34)

   So even though we may have, “had enough” too at times, our baptisms and confirmations call us again and again to, as Paul says to the Ephesians, and I paraphrase, get rid of all the negative traits, bitterness, anger, malice of every kind.  Instead, be kind, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, imitating “God as beloved children.” 

   These past Sundays of Ordinary Time have continually been calling us to “be bread” for our world.  Jesus, in John’s gospel today says that “he is the bread [coming] from heaven.”  This is a multifaceted statement, one that we can’t take lightly, or we will entirely miss, like those in the gospel today did, the height and breadth of our brother, Jesus’ message.  This statement has physical, emotional, and spiritual content for us to take in and digest.

   All of Jesus’ hearers would have understood the surface message of “bread”—physical bread that feeds our physical bodies.  We can’t though, as some did, get stuck there.  We must see Jesus’ larger, grander message.  He said elsewhere, “I want you to have life and life to the fullest.”  That means friends, that our God, through Jesus, was telling us that, his presence will be with us in physical, emotional, and spiritual ways.  Look for me in all the people I send you, in my name, to care for you and give you life in the fullest of ways.

   We all know the story of the person crawling to the top of their house to avoid the rising flood waters, refusing all the help that God sends in the form of a boat and a helicopter, awaiting instead for God-her-him-self to be the savior.  Did this person really believe that the Creator of the Universe was going to come and snatch them off the roof?!

   Our God, friends, is a universal God—here for each and every one of us—bringing life to the fullest, if we can simply be, “the bread” needed at any given time.  Jesus, our brother said, “I am the bread, [coming] from heaven.” Because we are part of this great family, aren’t we too part of the “same loaf?”  I would say we are! And even though we may be tired of it all at times and maybe have no answers to present-day problems, we have to keep in the game!  We may need a nap, some bread and water, like Elijah and the knowledge that as Jesus said, “I will be with you all days,” and holding onto that, keep moving into our world, with love.  Amen?  Amen!