It Makes a Difference
by the Rev. Sarah Buteux
August 23, 2015, Proper 16, Year B
Joshua 24:1a, 14-18 & John 6:56-69
I don’t know about you, but I often find coming back from vacation to be a little overwhelming. Anybody else feel that? In large part because I think life as most of us have come to live it, is pretty overwhelming.
For instance, I think there’s something paradoxically liberating about living out of a suitcase and having only a very limited number of shoes and clothes to choose from, something freeing about being away from your library and having only the book in your hand to read.
When there is no TV with hundreds of channels,
no fridge full of dozens of condiments,
no shed full of countless tools,
you learn pretty quickly to make do with what you’ve got and find that all the time and energy you would have put into making decisions is freed up to fritter away at your leisure.
I suspect that the lack of choice we face when we are on vacation has a lot to do with why we find it so relaxing.
And I wonder if the same principal can’t be applied, at least on some level, to our faith life, our life of faith. It’s a strange expression, but do you understand what I mean?
I want to talk with you today about choice with regard to our faith, specifically the choice of whom we will follow. In fact, if I may be so bold, I’d like to go right ahead and place Joshua’s ultimatum before us today.
*Now, he’s actually not one of my favorite characters in the Bible. He’s definitely one of those “my way or the highway” sorts, which doesn’t really sit well with me. Nor am I a big fan of ultimatums in general. But the choice he levels before his people is an important one.
“Choose this day whom you will you serve.”
I realize that this may seem a little foolhardy, given that we are liberal protestants in a city known for it’s tolerance and open mindedness, but I actually want to talk this morning about the challenge and the importance of making a clear faith commitment in today’s world; a world where we may actually have more faiths to choose from than we do cereals *…which is really rather sobering when you think about it.
There are so many religions*, so many competing truth claims alive and well on this earth, that it’s really not an easy or obvious decision to make. Like Joshua, we too live in a pluralistic society, an ever-shrinking world where we are confronted with the reality and the efficacy of other faith traditions at every turn.
And I know that for some people this presents an understandable and very serious problem. For some, the only way they can choose one religion over all the others with any sense of integrity is to deny the truth of all the others.
And I understand that mindset even if I don’t agree with it. I myself have chosen to follow Jesus, and I place my hope in him, but I have no problem believing that people of other religions can also attain salvation or enlightenment.
What makes me truly sad, though, are all those people who never make a choice at all, all those people who figure that if all the religions of the world are equal than anything goes and what you believe doesn’t really matter…
…because it does.*
The path you choose, the religion you practice, who or what you place your faith in, matters a great deal.
It will shape you. It will color the way you love. It will be your hope in life and your consolation in death.
You can choose to follow Jesus. You can choose to follow Allah. You can choose to follow the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, or Gaia.
I have no problem believing that there is one God capable of hearing us all no matter what name we use when we cry out to God, but choose we must…or at least ought.
For you see, the religions of the world may all contain in some form the saving power of God, but not a one of them can reach out and transform your life until you make a conscious decision to give your life over and follow: heart, mind, and soul.
There are many paths – Joshua himself acknowledged as much that day at Shechem – there are many paths but none of them will get you where you need to be going if you’re not willing to step up and follow one of them with integrity.
As a young child growing up in a Christian home, it’s no surprise that I chose to follow Jesus.
As an old man in charge of the Jewish nation, Joshua stood before his people and reaffirmed his decision to follow YHWH.
I am most grateful that on that day the Israelites did too, for without them there would have been no Ruth or Boaz, no King David or King Solomon, no Joseph or Mary, no Jesus, and hence, no us.
Who they chose to follow was a choice of consequence, not just for the Israelites as individuals, but for their entire nation, and ultimately for our world.
What you believe matters.
Likewise, when Jesus gave one of his most disturbing sermons ever, most of those who had been following him chose that day to walk away. Did you pick up on that in the reading? That couldn’t have been easy.
I don’t know how many disciples Jesus lost that evening, but I do know exactly how many remained because their choice came to define them for all of history. When Jesus stood up in the synagogue of Capernaum and said:
56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them…
whoever eats me will live because of me.
…a lot of people were offended by that. These were people who kept the dietary laws, after all, people who kept kosher, who went to great trouble to remove as much blood as possible from any clean animal meat they consumed.
And yet here is Jesus, offering his human flesh for their consumption, his very own blood for them to drink. What may still seem a little gross to us would have put these poor folks right over the edge, and as a result many left. They walked out of the synagogue shaking their heads.
At which point, John tells us, Jesus turned and “asked the twelve. ‘Do you also wish to go away?’
*“Simon Peter answered him,” and said, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I love Peter’s response here. It is an undeniably beautiful moment. But it is also a defining moment.
For it is the first time in the gospel of John that Jesus’ inner circle comes into full view, the first time Peter and his cohort are referred to not just as Jesus’ disciples, but as the twelve disciples (Feasting on The Word, p 384-385.)
Their choice to follow Jesus, even when they didn’t fully understand him, came to define those 12 men forever. I know we often point to Pentecost as the birth of the church, but right here, in this moment, we may well be witness to the beginning of Christianity.
“Their decision not to turn away but to walk forward with Christ,” says Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm, “draws them together as a community of faith. It is not any particular creed, mission statement, style of worship, or service program that unites them as the body of Christ. (But) their professed willingness to follow Jesus…” (Feasting on The Word, p 384-385).
That choice, their choice, to follow Jesus above all else, that is what made them the twelve disciples and my hope this morning is that our church will grow to reflect that same choice more and more and more,
that it is our decision to follow in the way of Jesus that will define and guide us as a church.
Because, you see, I think it is really easy to choose religion over God, the Church over Christ, the comfort of our community as we have come to know and love it over the calling to follow Jesus where ever he might lead us.
Church can be challenging, no doubt about it, but following Jesus man, following Jesus is hard.
I know it’s easy to get the two confused, but they are really not one and the same thing. But as someone once said, sitting here in church does not make you a Christian any more than sitting in your garage makes you a car.
Perfect attendance on Sundays, serving on committees, getting confirmed, becoming a member, none of that makes you a Christian.
No, what makes you a Christian– literally a little Christ – is your decision not just once but every day, to follow in the way of Christ.
Is there overlap? Gosh I hope so. But are they one and the same thing, not always and not necessarily.
Our decision to follow Jesus is what should make us a church, rather than say our common interest in knitting or social justice or preserving this beautiful old building… and I’ll tell you right now, following him, is anything but easy.
For one thing he is forever saying the most offensive things and seems always to be asking far more of us than we think we can give.
Day after day, week after week, he asks us to love the unlovable and forgive the unforgiveable, to let go of our fears about the future and give away all we have, to die to this life that we might truly live.
To quote Wilhelm again:
The more we realize that faith (our faith) calls us to consume the body and blood of Christ, to embrace his death and resurrection and to emulate his manner of living and dying for others, the more difficult the journey of faith becomes…. Our calling is a strange and difficult one (she says). It is more than skin deep, reaching beneath the surface of our loves and into our workplaces, bank accounts, family relationships, eating habits, daily schedules, and all the other ways we choose to live and die for Christ and our neighbors.
… a “strange and difficult” calling, indeed.
Dear ones, choosing to follow Christ can and will and should be the hardest choice you ever make, for there is no part of your life such a choice can, will or should leave untouched. And yet, paradoxically, that is precisely where the freedom kicks in.
For you see, if we keep Jesus first, then what we should do as individuals and as a church becomes pretty clear. But if we put ourselves first, our vision for the church, our comfort, our preferences, our hopes, then all of a sudden we are faced with an infinite number of competing options.
Like a suitcase full of a finite amount of clothes, truly following Jesus severely limits our choices, narrows our focus, and comes to define us as surely as their choices came to define the Israelites and the disciples.
But trust me when I say there is something deeply liberating about knowing not just who you are, but whose. As crazy difficult as he can be, I can think of no one I would rather belong to then Christ. It is Christ who leads me, Christ who loves me, and Christ who is leading me home.
That is my hope for each and every one of you and that is my hope for our church, that we will be a people defined not by our denomination, our budget, our mission statement, our worship attendance, past mistakes, future problems, or even any of the cool things we are doing in the here and now, but by our commitment to follow Jesus wherever he might lead us, our willingness to follow him no matter where he asks us to go.
Let us pray:
O Lord, all you want of us is all of us. And all you want to give us is all of you. What you ask is staggering. What you offer is overwhelming. And yet Lord, we ask for the courage and the grace we need to lay all else aside, that we might open our hearts, take up our cross, and follow you. Amen.