First Congregational Church
August 26, 2018
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
How can a person go eight days without sleep? They sleep at night.
The other day, as the glovebox of my car was being cleaned out, I got to wondering, seriously, does anyone keep gloves in the glove box of their car? Or does anyone keep a foot in a foot locker, for that matter? Going back to the glove thing, I wonder, too, how it came to be called a glovebox. Did people leave gloves in cars back in the day? Where they afraid of the wind blowing the gloves out of the cars or someone stealing them? While we’re in the mode of question asking, what is the best question anyone has ever asked you?
As a good Minnesotan, I truly took the teaching about humility to heart - for a long time. In fact, like a host of others, self-esteem is not always my best friend. I don’t remember the exact words, but one day, when I was speaking with one of my ministry mentors about how everyone else is more deserving of about everything than I was, she asked me ‘what made me so special that God would raise you above everyone else’? She’d turned what I thought was humility onto it’s head - that of superiority, and it was one of those moments that a question truly changed my life. Not that I don’t still struggle with stuff, but I can still see her face and hear the reproof in her voice those twenty some years ago.
Jesus said a lot of things during his three years of ministry, but he also asked a lot of questions. Some of his questions were rhetorical: Which of you who has a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath will not take hold of it and lift it out? (Matt 12:11) Some were simple and straightforward: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Matt 20:32) Sometimes he asked multiple choice questions: “which is greater, the gold or the temple that makes the gold sacred? (Matt 23:17-19) He used accusatory questions: “Why do you make trouble for the woman?” (Matt. 26:10) And then there are the questions that go right to the heart: “Who do you say I am?” (Matt. 16:15)
This morning’s scripture passage has some interesting questions, too. It follows Jesus feeding the 5,000+ and the walking on water event. The first “miracle” in this 6th chapter was witnessed by thousands of individuals directly affected by that same miracle, and a second “miracle” was witnessed by the twelve disciples only. When the crowds realized that Jesus was missing, they went looking for him the next day on the other side of the lake on which he walked. Then things started to get really weird, and Jesus started talking about things that either made no sense or were gruesome, to say the least.
56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
Many Disciples Desert Jesus
60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Thank you, Bill. Giving this passage a little more context, when it was written, the Lord’s Supper wasn’t practiced as it is now. They ate meals together, but the tradition of holiness had not yet been bestowed onto bread and wine, so the readers and listeners of this scenario most likely took it more literally than we do today. What confused the people of the day even more was when Jesus mentioned the word “manna.”
In case it’s been a while, manna was the heavenly wonder-bread that kept the Israelites alive on their forty year wilderness wandering. Every morning, they would pick up as much as they needed for the day. Any leftovers rotted overnight. Breakfast, lunch and dinner; manna. Manna pancakes, maybe with pine nuts they may have found along the way, manna sandwiches, made with manna and maybe some dandelion leaves for a little tang or some prickly pear sauce for dessert. But then there was manna for dinner - manna souffle, roasted manna with sage and manna dressing, or manna chops, with a little side of yucca crustinis, made with yucca and manna. Forty years of manna this and manna that, but the complaints about the manna weren’t really about the manna, but about the lack of trust in God that it represented.
At first the Israelites were massively impressed with the availability and no-cost of their provision, but forty years of three meals a day comes to the modest little number of nearly 44,000 dishes of manna per man, woman and child. God had provided 23,783 manna meals, but would God really provide number 23,784? Was God really leading them after 34 years of touring in the desert? Sure, God had taken care of them over the course of a few dozen decades, but what about tomorrow? Which all boils down to the question of trust - trust that God would truly take care of them.
144 decades later, people stuck with Jesus, who called himself the manna of his day, listening to his words, followed by questions; questions big enough to dissuade them from continuing their following of Christ. There seemed to be only two options: follow Jesus or not. When given the options, Peter’s answer revealed the singularity of the answers - for him and the disciples: You’re the one with the answers, Jesus, so we pick you.
We can say we pick Jesus, too, but sometimes we have a little trouble wondering about his follow-through. Sure - you got me through the cancer before, but what about this time? You were my grandmother’s best friend, Jesus, but I’m not feeling it so much myself. The disciples were - for the most part - totally devoted to Christ, but none of them escaped pain or difficulty or ridicule or old age. We - like the disciples - and even the Israelites of long ago - have options, even if the options are rather few in number. So why tie up our boat to God’s dock? In all the freedom of will that we have been given, the question Jesus asked the disciples back then still hovers over us: “Are you going to leave me, too?”
Truth be told, it may have been easier during Jesus’ earthly lifetime, because there he was performing miracles and healings and all sorts of other-worldly chores. But without his earthly presence, it’s much easier to “take a walk” than to take a stand for Christ.
The other day, I was listening to the classical music radio station, which was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. They played a spot of the overture he wrote for the operetta, Candide, and as it was playing in the background, the person being interviewed mentioned that when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra plays that piece, a member of the orchestra gives a downbeat, and then the rest of the piece is played without a conductor. It is their homage to the composer-conductor that his spirit lives on in the assembly of that body of musicians.
Our homage to God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, is in the coming together each week, giving our time to receiving and giving encouragement to one another, collectively lifting up our praise of God and the offering of our hearts to some of the most outstanding sermons ever preached on the face of the earth.
Over the last 200 decades, not much has changed since Christ rose from the grave. We still have the Holy Spirit, we still have God’s Holy Word, we still have our witness to what God has done in our lives. And yet, because we are so very human, we still sometimes have doubts. And we still have Peter’s question: “Lord, to whom would we go?” What is our alternative?
We have Peter’s answer - Christ has the words of eternal life - words that are so much bigger and longer and deeper and broader than our human minds can comprehend. Like the disciples and the Israelites, our job is to merely have the faith, one minute and moment at a time, that God is leading and guiding us as we make our way back home to eternal life.
There was a French philosopher, mathematician and physicist in the 1600’s names Blaise Pascal. He came up with a philosophical “argument” that has become known as Pascal’s Wager. His “wager” is that the wise thing to do is to live your life as if God does exist because such a life has everything to gain and nothing to lose - even if a person doesn’t really believe in God. If God doesn’t exist, then what have we really lost? It’s a sort of apathetic reason for choosing to follow Christ, but somedays, even apathetic reasons have validity.
Until then, God offers us opportunities to strengthen our faith - stretching it and exercising it in ways that are not always to our liking. But still, Jesus keeps saying, “You have come this far, come a little farther. You have committed this much, commit a little more. You love these people in this arena, now open your arms to these people over here. You have compassion for the one hurting person in front of you, now broaden that compassion to all hurting people in God’s world.”
As it came time to wrap up this morning’s message, it seemed that a prayer written in the 1500’s by Teresa of Avila might be tweaked to serve as our ending prayer. So let us.
God of Light and Life, let nothing disturb us. Let nothing frighten us. We know that all things pass, that you don’t change. Help us to have the patience that achieves everything. Remind us often, that whoever has you, lacks nothing, that you are more than sufficient. Help us, too, to remember that Christ has no body now on earth but ours; no hands but ours; no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on the world. Ours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Ours are the hands with which He is to bless His people. For the gifts of healing and purpose and love and forgiveness and every other thing under the sun, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.