August 26, 2012
(Proper 16B2) Joshua 24: 1-2, 14-18; John 6: 56-69
Good morning, and grace and peace to you as we move along into these transitional weeks between summer and fall.
I don’t’ know about you, but the readings appointed for this morning would catch me at a somewhat uncomfortable place in the temperament, as I so often describe it, even deep down in my DNA as the descendant of a long line of Northern European introverted males.
I heard a piece on the radio the other day, in the midst of the early election season, about who these folks are who identify themselves and even register as “independent” voters. So they found this one guy who was registered as an Independent in Wisconsin, I think. And first they asked him about his political philosophy, values, issues of concern, and actually they all sounded pretty much on the liberal side of the spectrum. And they asked him about who he had voted for in the past for President, and he said as I recall Mondale, Clinton, Gore, Kerry, and Obama. And the interviewer said, “it sounds to me like you’re a Democrat.” And he replied, “I just don’t like to be put in a box.”
I guess this is on the political front what the girls on the old “Sex and the City” t.v. series would call a “commitment phobic” male. And actually it’s quite interesting to type the words “commitment phobic male” into the Google search engine, which I did this week. There are quite a few folks who express some strong feelings on the topic, it turns out.
I remember when I was twelve or so seeing the small one-room house back in North Dakota that my great-grandparents first lived in when they arrived out there on the bleak northern edge of the Great Plains back in the 1880’s. About the size of our Narthex here, I would say, and I think they had not only husband and wife and several kids and maybe some of the farm animals during those brutal winters. Pretty much I think the rule was, if you had a strong opinion about something, you kept it to yourself. At least until spring. And no whistling indoors!
I wonder if there isn’t something of this in the phrase you hear fairly often, when people will say to survey-takers that they are “spiritual but not religious.” I think that actually can sometimes a pretty complicated and multi-layered statement. But maybe there is something to it simply of registering as an Independent. In a diverse society, where there are a lot of consumerist pressures sometimes not just in terms of political philosophy but also in terms of religious allegiance, and a kind of free market commercialization. Buy this product, buy that product, sign up today! And maybe people sometimes feel like they’re standing in a used car lot with a salesman who seems to be pushing a little too hard to get you to sign on the dotted line. Even when you know you need to buy a car and you are pretty sure this is the one you want, it’s really hard. We know there are games out there, and that you can get taken for a ride if you’re not really careful, and you’re never really sure if you’ve been careful enough. And if the stakes are high enough, if the car is going to cost a lot of money, or if you’re talking about asking someone to marry you, say, to get back to the “Sex in the City” girls, it may seem pretty odd if you’re able to manage that situation without having your blood pressure spike a few points or feeling at least a little shortness of breath. We’ll say that it can be stressful even to hold a strong or clear opinion, much less to express it, in a world where many of those around you, and even those nearest and dearest to you, are likely to disagree. Risk there, as you know if you’ve ever ventured a political comment in your Facebook status. So some relationship between being commitment averse and being conflict averse, perhaps.
Joshua was Moses’ right-hand man, his protégé and the heir-apparent in succession to the position of leadership in those years as God’s people moved in that wandering journey from Mount Sinai to the land that had been promised them, and then through the years of settlement and internal and external conflict as Israel found its new home among the Canaanites and Philistines and Jebusites and Hivites and Midianites and all the other tribes and peoples all around them. But eventually the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, and it was the end of one chapter, and the beginning of another, and no one really knew what lay ahead for them. This fluid jumble of wandering Hebrew nomads, former slaves, the flotsam and jetsam that had joined the rabble along the way. Now to be householders, farmers, builders, town and city dwellers. One people, but in a very new way.
And as he comes to the end of his life Joshua gathers all the elders and judges and officers of the people, and following the example of what Moses did first at Sinai and then at the end of his life, as the people were about to cross the Jordan and enter the land that he would never himself enter, Joshua calls them to renewal of the sacred Covenant Relationship, reminding them at this new moment of the Promises that began between God and Abraham, in those ancient days. “I will be your God, and you will be my people, and I will make you great, as many as the grains of sand along the shore of every ocean, as many as all the stars of the heavens, and through you I will redeem and bless the world.” The commitment that lay at the very source of their identity as a people. If anything held them together and made them one, it was that. Renewed at Mount Sinai with the Giving of the Law. The heart of the words of Moses as he commended them to the God who had brought them out of their Captivity in Egypt and through the Waters of the Red Sea. And now again, as the new chapter begins.
As perhaps there is a sense that as we settle down and begin to pay attention to all the concerns and demands of our day to day life in this new world, we might find ourselves not remembering that identity, losing track of those ancient promises and that foundational relationship. As perhaps some new folks have joined us along the journey or have come into our lives as neighbors, and even into our families, over these years, who may not themselves share all those deep memories. And so Joshua, the words ringing out over the assembly. “Remember Abraham, remember Moses and Aaron and the sufferings of Egypt. Remember the miracle of your rescue, and the power that continues to sustain you in this place, and the great destiny that has been promised.” Remember, remember, remember. Say it again, and make it fresh, make it new, make it yours, and ours, today. If you have ever been a guest at a Passover Seder, this will sound familiar. Remember who you are, where you come from, why you’re here today.
“Now therefore fear the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness . . . . And if you be unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day—this day!—whom you will serve . . . . But as for me and my family, we will serve the LORD.”
You can date forever, weeks, months, even years. I’m a visitor, a fellow-traveler, an associate. But always as a short-term rental. Keeping options open. But if it’s going to be a marriage, and a family, then something needs to be said. Sooner or later, to fish or cut bait. “Choose this day.” Certainly Billy Graham caught this years ago when he decided to give his organization’s monthly magazine a one word name, “Decision.”
And so this critical moment in St. John’s gospel, as Jesus has set before both his friends and his enemies the challenge of his mystical and supernatural character and identity, in language that strikes at first as poetic and metaphorical, and then, as we listen to the tone of his voice and look into his eyes, we realize that it is poetic and metaphorical language that is about something that must be understood as true or not true. So difficult for those of us who appreciate the gray areas and the ambiguous margins, who will register Independent and seek spiritual meaning without a commitment of faith. As the guy says to the girl in romantic comedies without number, “our dating relationship is great . . . so why does there have to be anything more?”
Jesus the preacher, the teacher, the ethicist, the interpreter of scripture, the prophet of justice and the advocate of a new social order, even Jesus the healer, the miracle worker. All fine with that. But then: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. This is the bread that came down from heaven . . . and the one who eats this bread will live forever.” John says, “because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. “ So Jesus asks, “what about you?”
The question that echoes. Line in the sand. Challenge. Invitation. Proposal. As the Valentine’s Day card so succinctly puts it, “will you be mine?”
To decide. Commit. Take a stand. Turn the page. Say who you are, and whose you are. Of course it’s a process. We hear the words spoken to us at different times, in different ways. Perhaps we hear them countless times, and then one day we hear them and we know they are now for us. And we respond as we can. In the mix of personality, character, life experience, in the hopes and fears of our lives, each of us individually. Without a template or a timetable. Knowing his compassion, his patience, his infinite tenderness, as he knows us better even than we know ourselves.
But the question spoken in our hearts as we come to the Table for the Bread of Life, the Cup of Salvation. Abide in me, as I in you. Will you be mine?
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.