Harrowing Of Hell
August 1, 2021

GOAT and Sheep of the Good Shepherd

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Good morning Christians, Seekers, and Friends!

It probably isn’t surprising to hear me say that I am not exactly a sports enthusiast. I think I may love enough of the standard PNW pursuits to allow me regional citizenship – I like to walk, swim, hike, and bike – all good Seattle activities, right? And as a young person I did a ton of different afterschool and summer sports and was even on the high school cross country team, for a short while. But, unlike a couple of my best friends in high school, I was never going to be a Lewistown sports star. And I convinced myself that I didn’t really want to be either. 

I don’t think I even thought about ‘not being good’ at sports in elementary or junior high school, but by high school I was absolutely positive sports were not my thing.  And you know what is so sad about this? When I think back on it, only one thing, or rather one person, changed how I felt about sports; our high school gym teacher – who, oddly enough, had LOVED my two sisters almost as much as they loved her. She, however, made the decision early on in my freshman year that she did not like me, and over the course of three years made me absolutely loathe gym class. And you know what I find so sad? Standing up here as a middle-aged and pretty happy woman, I sometimes can’t even believe how much influence this one person has had on my life. 

I started thinking about this in light of both this summer’s Olympics and today’s gospel. Because the truth is, that even folks like me and columnist Rebecca Solnitt—self-pronounced non-sporty spices—have spent the last week thinking about the courageous and wise decisions Simone Biles has made this week.  And while this may not be immediately apparent, her decisions speak directly to our gospel today. Because as we continue in the sixth chapter of John today, we meet Jesus and his disciples directly after Jesus has fed over 10,000 people (5000 men). And this miracle was not just observed by all these folks, each person actually is an individual recipient of it. Think about how amazing it must have been –even after everyone had eaten all their fill– the disciples still gather up twelve baskets of the leftover pieces of the original five barley loaves. Notice, too, that Jesus, also is apparently as concerned about food-safety as my late mother was and does not suggest that the disciples gather up the fish. But I digress.

Anyway, after all the people experience this truly miraculous meal, they can’t help but say, in the verses immediately preceding today’s gospel, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”  However, their desires for what this prophet should do wasn’t in line with the work of what a prophet would actually do. And more important still, it wasn’t in line with what Jesus knew he had come to do. To illustrate this, I want to draw attention to the following sentence: “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” Once more – “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”

As we begin our reading in the 6th chapter today, the crowd who remains after the feeding realizes that Jesus and his disciples are no longer with them, so they get in boats and make their way to Capernaum as the disciples had done. When the crowd reaches the other shore,  knowing the disciples had earlier left the shore without Jesus in their boat, they are perplexed about how Jesus got to Capernaum, which explains their question in today’s gospel:

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 

Because the crowds had seen the disciples leave in their boat alone, they wanted to know how Jesus had travelled to Capernaum so quickly. In Jesus’ reply, we find him questioning where they have chosen to concentrate their attention. Truly, they didn’t seem to really grasp the entirety of the miraculous event of which they were a part. They concentrated, instead, on the bread and fish that they ate. Jesus can obviously provide for and feed them. And that is, indeed, a wonderful thing. Can you imagine how powerful a nation could be if their ruler could provide food for its inhabitants at will? Imagine the possibilities for such a country. Imagine how unstoppable such a nation would be if they didn’t need to worry about food for their citizens or their soldiers. The crowd had just experienced Jesus feeding 5000 men (with women and children) and this is what fuels their desire to make Jesus their earthly king.

Jesus, however, tells them that they should, instead, center their minds on the real work of Jesus the Messiah because, if they thought the barley loaves and fish were great, then they hadn’t seen nothing yet. Jesus was here to enact something better still. So, Jesus warns them not to be so willing to set their sights on the food that perishes but rather to consider the food that endures forever. Because what Jesus had come to bring them was in fact the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat and never be hungry again. 

Now I always find myself having to check my own self-limiting thoughts when it comes to Jesus’ promises and miracles because even we Christians have been taught to think small when it comes to things like Jesus’ abundance and love. There are a lot of us willing to say we trust God to provide for us, even as we brace ourselves to be disappointed. But what Jesus is saying to these folks and to us is that while, as living and breathing humans, we and they will both hunger and thirst again, when we set our sights on the real deal, the one on whom the Ruler of Heaven has set his seal (or marked as authentically his own), they will live a truly abundant and eternal life.

Over the last week, we have seen Simone Biles – often referred to as the G.O.A.T. or the greatest of all time gymnast—making some difficult decisions which showed how setting our goals in alignment with God’s great love changes a person – changes a team—and changes lives. In an interview in April with Hoda Kotbe, Simone shared that she had decided to be part of the Tokyo 2020 team because she felt like she had more to give to the sport and that God had called her for a purpose:  to be a voice for the younger generation of Olympic gymnasts in a sport that for years (from the 1970s to 2000) was populated by extremely young 16 and 17 year-old women. In fact, she felt like God had called her to be a voice for her sport AND to keep a spotlight on the years of abuse that she and other young and vulnerable women endured under Larry Nasser. She openly stated that she didn’t want this issue to be swept under the carpet and that she knew that as the last survivor actively competing she needed to participate in these Olympics.  By choosing to withdraw from the competition rather than risk injury from a condition called the twisties, where gymnasts lose track of where they are spatially, Simone Biles did just that. And she affirmed that while she might be the greatest gymnast of all time, more importantly she was a child of God whose life and worth could not be measured by medals alone. 

As a woman and a non-athlete, Simone Biles showed me what true worth and freedom looks like when we refuse to accept anything less than God’s love. More years ago than I like to admit, one single person made me feel differently about sports and my own athletic abilities. I am always surprised when the yoga instructor compliments my form or when I serve my softball team well—and almost always walk away having achieved my goal of getting to first base every time at bat. It is sad that the word of one woman long ago changed my view of myself, but as Simone Biles has reminded me – I am worth so much more than what my body can do in sports. Because in God’s eyes each one of us is the GOAT – the greatest of all time human being that God made us to be. And that is something on which we can depend. At 4’8” inches tall, Simone Biles is shorter than even I am…. Yet she walks tall and keeps her eyes on the real prize—being the person God mean her to be!