Year B, 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16 August 26, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”
We’ve got some demanding scripture this morning. This is what, our fifth week with St. John’s Bread of Life discourse? It is some deep water. It is about time that those disciples fessed up that “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” I mean really, first there is all the definitive nature of our relationship to God stuff, and then Jesus talks about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, and doing that is all about our relationship with God? If we think that sounds outlandish now, imagine when it was being said for the first time? A “difficult” teaching to be sure, and Jesus is right there this morning, telling us that it is up to us to believe this stuff. Just like Joshua told Israel hundreds of years before, you’ve got to choose whether to believe or not.
So fast forward 2000 years. Here we are, on the penultimate weekend of summer, fall and all its fallish-ness is nearly upon us: school is about to start up again, the church program year is almost here, the rain (God willing) is coming, mid-term elections will happen. All sorts of occasions to buckle down are before us. We have all sorts of choices to make. Some simple, easy ones; some less so, a lot less so.
I mean thanks be to God, right? Choice. Having choices. Having choices is a definition of freedom. In the beginning, God gave us the ultimate freedom, free will. We tell it through the Adam and Eve story. Our mythical parents didn’t know about Good and Evil to begin with, but they were able to choose to disobey; and being human, they did. We are free to make bad choices, and good ones. We are free to make choices contrary to the will of God, to how things are supposed to be, and those in alignment with that same Divine will. That is true existential freedom. The little kitty cat doesn’t have that freedom. Seeing the cute mousy running across the kitchen floor, he doesn’t have a choice but to pounce on it and noisily chew on it while I am trying to write a sermon. That’s just his nature. We, on the other hand, have a choice. That is a gift from God.
We are not automatons. And our form of Christianity, the Anglican form embodied in the Episcopal Church, treats us as such. We don’t have a list of things to believe: there is a God to trust, relationships to have, choices about what you do with that to make. Thanks be to God for spiritual freedom!
That link between choices and freedom have much more mundane manifestations, too. The poor have fewer choices, and poorer ones, than those with enough. Education widens perspective, informs you of choices you wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Living in a democracy means that theoretically at least we have choices about who governs, though sometimes it is, as Senator Lindsey Graham said, like a choice between being shot or poisoned, but it is a choice! And while it is a high privilege, a divine gift that we get to choose, it can also be an onerous burden, having to choose.
Joshua was the right hand of Moses. Remember, Moses saw the promised land, but he was not to make it there himself, that was for Joshua and the rest of Israel. Starting with the trumpets circling Jericho, and its formidable walls coming down, Israel conquered. It is a fascinating story, one that continues to inform events in that part of the world, though one that likely informs us better spiritually than historically.
In any case, Canaan was conquered, and the land was divided up amongst tribes of Israel. That brings us to the reading today, the Renewal of the Covenant at Shechem. Joshua calls Israel together and recounts their history, from Abraham through the 40 years in the desert tht had just ended, and all the ways that YHWH blessed them. Then, he clearly tells them what he thinks they should do, but he doesn’t take anything for granted. “Now therefore revere the Lord, serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” That’s what he thinks they should do, but he leaves it up to them. “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve…” He tells them that there is a choice, that they can make that choice, and that they have to choose.
Now fast forward 1200 to 1300 years, to the synagogue in Capernaum and Jesus teaching that He is the Bread of Life. It was difficult teaching, offensive even, “…who can accept it?” Fair question. You know about it, we’ve had five weeks of St. John in a row. The followers asking this were beyond the 12, it was the crowds who were complaining about it, grumbling like the opposition did at the beginning of this discourse, like Israel did in the wilderness about the food. And Jesus doubles down, no, in fact, “…no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” And knowing who believed and who didn’t, who would betray Him and who wouldn’t, seeing how many had turned back, had left, Jesus puts it the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” He is telling them to choose. It is up to them to make that choice, but they had to make it: then. O the choices we have!
It is all about choice, these readings. Choices we need to make about our relationship with God in Christ, about what we believe, how we practice, how we determine right from wrong, what we teach our children, what we are willing to sacrifice, how seriously we take it all. We have choices to make. It was pressing then, and I fear it is becoming pressing now, too.
For the past year, I have not talked about our political situation much. Some of you are very glad about that; some of you are not. I’ve heard as many kudos as complaints. It is a conscious choice that I made coming back from sabbatical, a choice based on what I believe is the most important and effective thing I can do as your priest in our current dumpster fire of a political climate. What I chose to do was change my focus from my the work in the wider community, out on the streets in particular. I chose to not focus on offering piercing theological critique of late stage free market capitalist empires, as much as I love doing that. Rather, what I think is most effective and helpful is to focus on you, on here, this parish, our little corner of the creation, our sliver of the beloved community. And from focusing on the basics, atonement, evangelism, basic theology and religious literacy, from Jesus Christ the cornerstone on up, I would help to build a strong, resilient community here, doing my work here to support you and your work in the world out there. And it radiates out from those basics, from theology, Holy Scripture, the Sacraments we share around this table, building a firm foundation of informed faith, because, as one commentator starkly puts it, “There is real evil in the world – institutional, systematic, authoritarian evil, (and) such formidable forces require spiritual weaponry.” There are plenty of partisan and economic and social and identity battles to fight, but the war we are in the midst of is moral in character. This is about right and wrong; spiritual issues. And the victor in this moral war between the agents of empire and death and the agents of light and life will be the ones willing to sacrifice the most for their cause. I have not a single doubt in my mind about that, hence some of my cynicism. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” That is the winning formula from the moral heroes of the ages from Jesus through, Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, King, Romero, Day, Tutu and the countless anonymous saints the world over. This is a moral war and we need spiritual weapons. We need to put on the armor of God like St. Paul writes of in his letter to the church in Ephesus. (I love Mike’s visualization of this on the cover – what a natty knight).
But before any of that, any boots of truth or shields of faith, we need to do what Joshua and Jesus are talking about: we need to choose. Or, being uncharacteristically direct for an Episcopal preacher, you need to choose what you are going to do right now. You need to choose whom you will serve. You need to choose if you also wish to go away. This is deadly serious stuff. People feel threatened in this climate. It is less safe to be anything but a normative middle class, straight, white American than it was two years ago. You need to choose what you are willing to sacrifice in this moral war against evil.
I hear a lot of grumbling, like in the Biblical sense. A lot of grumbling about how things are. “He did this!” “He said that!” “This that and the other thing happened.” “The sky is falling!” Yes it has always been falling, but we can measure it now and it is accelerating: fair enough. Paying attention, though, is not enough. Being informed is not enough. Even reading the NY Times or watching Rachael Maddow or John Oliver IS NOT ENOUGH! (Nor is giving to One Revolution or clicking on a Move On! petition). And for those of you who don’t lean left in all or most or even some things, you have choices, too. A searching and fearless moral inventory of our system and your leaders is in order. The right doesn’t have a corner on scoundrels seeking power, not at all, but the right is in power so its scoundrels are more dangerous right now.
There is manifold evil in this world; some of it has a bead aimed squarely between our eyes. Evil doers exist. There is also manifold hatred in the world, some of it because of the evil we have manifested. By we I mean you and me. Things we do sows evil in the world, some of it near, some of it far. From our polite corner of existence here in South Eugene, it is impossible to appreciate how much evil has been done on our behalf so that we have $3-something gasoline, or (usually) don’t have to wonder if the tap will be drinkable, or that we’ll have 24-7 electric coverage, or that our streets, even all the way out to Jasper, are still controlled by the government. Oh the things we take for granted! Oh how much those things being taken for granted cost the rest of the world!
There are choices to be made. Moral choices. We have moral choices about how we make our livings, how we handle our wealth, how we consume resources, both how much and what kind. We have choices about how we raise our children, who gives them their moral educations, who forms them as people. We, you, all of us have moral choices about what we are willing to sacrifice in order to make this world the best that you can make it. The way Gandhi would say it is that for some of us, our karma is to change the world. His was, and he did. As Christians we might say purpose or vocation. For a few, their vocation is to change their nation. For a few more of us, it is our states or provinces. Even more of us are suited to change, to morally improve our cities and towns. For most of us, our spiritual/moral capacity is maxed making the community you are a part of, your neighborhood, ward, parish, church, village, making it a little image of the Commonwealth of God. Even if it is just your family, if that is all you care capable of doing, helping you family be the morally righteous institution that a family can be, that God intends for it to be, that alone could be super-hero material. Can you imagine if this world was populated mostly by people in and from healthy families? It would be paradise!
What should you do in this moment? Heavens to betsy, I don’t know, all of the above? No, that’s the boiler plate American answer that will get us doing a whole bunch of stuff, none of it very well thought out. No, that question is for you and you alone. What can you do? That’s the first stop on the discernment train. Really ask yourself that question. What can you do? We can do different things at different points in our lives. If you’ve got young children at home, or things are hard for you for one reason or another, or you are on the other end of it, convalescing, or just working hard to put one foot in front of another, maybe that is all you can do; so do it mindfully and well with some kindness. That will make the world you inhabit and the people you share it with better. Or maybe you can support this church and our ministries financially or with your time and talents. Or build a barricade in Portland with the antifa folks, or protest at the prison in Sheridan where ICE detains people, or be like Lucy and run for office. What can you do?
All tied up in that question is what are you willing to do; what are you willing to sacrifice? It is sort of like church giving. If you don’t feel the gift you pledge, if you don’t notice it in your life, there is no spiritual benefit. Sacrifice is good for us, and it feels good, in its way, like a hard work out. That is not shiatsu massage chair feel good, but sweat running down your brow after a run, or digging that fence post, or game of kick ball with the neighborhood kids good. It feels good and it is necessary to create a just and moral world.
Just like Joshua and Jesus put it to their people, we too have choices to make, moral choices about the nature of our lives in relation to God, the world an everything. Pray. Talk with your family, your friends, whichever of your partners in life and crime that you admire for their morality. Come talk to your priest about what it is that you can do, what you can contribute in this time of national what, need? turmoil? embarrassment? moral turpitude? The troubles of this world, they are moral, spiritual ones, and they require moral, spiritual remedies. As St. Paul tell us, “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The choice is yours. AMEN