Father Nicholas Lang
The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Make good choices. That’s the theme of the lessons we hear today. The Old Testament reading describes the covenant-renewal ceremony between God and the people of Israel. Joshua, the successor to Moses who actually brought them into the land of Canaan, gives his farewell address just before he dies. “If you are unwilling to serve the Lord,” he tells them, “choose this day whom you will serve.”
For Joshua and his household there is no question: they will serve the Lord and that is not a matter of just an individual commitment; serving the Lord is a communal decision. The covenant that God makes with us as God’s people is a covenant—a promise we make to God and that God makes to us—to share in God’s life with one another in community.
Make good choices. What does that have to do with us? Yes, we know those Israelites were prone to throwing their loyalties to false gods and idols at the drop of a hat, but that’s ancient history. Or is it? What about the gods of our time and place in human history: Money, Power, Greed, Prestige—to name a short list of forces to which we can add the privacy of our own soul. We do have choices and we do make choices about whom—or what— to serve and about what will rule and consume us. I imagine that the COVID 19 pandemic has given us a new perspective on making choices.
Joshua, a novel-turned-movie, is about a stranger who walks into the quiet town of Auburn on a cool summer evening carrying only a backpack and a gentle smile. The place would never be the same. Their several congregations are mingled into a thriving metropolis. They live in harmony but never extend a hand to their neighbors.
Joshua fits in well with folks. They like him. He is a fascinating character, although a bit mysterious, but many people desire to have him as a friend. Joshua moves into a dilapidated old barn on the outside of town and begins to make changes. In addition to befriending a hurting widow, a troubled teenager, a stuttering would-be pastor, and a confused Priest, he begins to rebuild a burned-out church building—and slowly everyone becomes involved, from Catholics to Protestants and Jews.
When Joshua shares his religious insights, people are captivated, deeply touched, and overwhelmed. They feel as if he knows them intimately, and knows God intimately as well. Joshua quickly becomes a popular person in Auburn. But his popularity doesn’t last. People begin to get more and more uncomfortable with Joshua. His speech is too bold and, sometimes, too blunt. He is quick to point out the follies of organized religion. He calls people to freedom and joy, upsetting their safe, routine lives. He challenges people to change the way they live. People get suspicious of Joshua. They begin to realize there is more to Joshua than meets the eye. He seems to be much more than just a plain and simple wood-carver. Joshua is, they discover, Jesus in their midst.
In the Gospel today we find the last of the four part series in which Jesus is teaching about the bread of life. Today, however, we find him claiming to be the bread of life, and he insists that people eat his body and drink his blood. Now we’ve heard these passages over and over but imagine what it must have been like hearing it for the first time. Hebrew Scripture strictly forbids the drinking of blood so you can understand why they began shaking their heads, walking away, and saying, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?” Once again—and we talked about this a few months ago—Jesus offended his audience. That’s the trouble with Jesus.
So it makes sense that, watching a lot of the folks who had up to this point followed and admired and believed in him walk away, Jesus would wonder if the last twelve holdouts wouldn’t want to do the same. “Do you wish to go away?” he asks them. Peter pipes us first, probably giving language to what they were all thinking “Lord, to whom can we go?”
As confusing as all this is to Peter, as indigestible as the entire notion Jesus has been teaching, Peter has caught a glimpse of something in Jesus from which he cannot turn away. He has seen the face of God in him and, if that meant he would have to struggle with some things that were hard to digest, then that’s what he would do. I wonder if a little voice inside his head that day wasn’t saying “Make good choices.”
The late theologian, Verna Dozier, said “If Jesus had gone about the countryside singing songs and praying in front of the crowds as the world says Christians are supposed to do, he would have died in his sleep of old age.” The message Jesus continues to give us is not “a sleeper.” It is meant to wake us up and keep us on tip toe—waiting to see what’s in store next—right around the bend— because of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst. She will, in the end, prevail.
In her book, Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor looks back on her years as a rector, she reflects on what she misses most about parish ministry. High on her priority list are baptisms, funerals, and children. “Because they were not old enough to serve on committees or wrangle over the order of worship,” she writes, “the children often had a better grasp on what church was all about than the rest of us did. When one four-year-old rode by the church with his mother and her out-of-town friend, he interrupted them by tapping on the window. ‘That,’ he announced to the friend, ‘is where God gives us the bread.’”
In the end, it comes down to our covenant relationship with one another. It’s all about how God gives us the bread and how we give it to one another and how we carry it into the world. It’s about making good choices—connecting with a community of seekers and sojourners who are hungry for that bread and longing to experience God’s unwavering, extravagant love. It’s about sisters and brothers who can see the face of God in one another and who support and accept and endure one another. Yes, it’s all about us. But I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. And, good Lord, to whom can we go—and find all that?