Sermon preached by the Rev. David Norgard at All Saints Church, Pasadena on Sunday, August 23rd. (RCL #16B - Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; John 6:56-69)
It was a delight to welcome David Norgard -- friend. mentor and Integrity president-elect -- to the All Saints pulpit yesterday. David shared a copy of his most excellent sermon with me via email and now I'm sharing it with you. Enjoy!
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen
Simon Peter answered, “Rabbi, where would we go?”
When I first joined the Episcopal Church (many years ago now), people seemed to be leaving it in droves over what was then the new Book of Common Prayer. Later, when I became active in the gay rights movement, I was continuously meeting people who were leaving their churches over homophobia and sexism and patriarchy, not to mention bad music. Still later, when I became rector of a church in San Francisco, some left because I was too innovative.
I was just getting started, though. If they had waited a little while, they could have argued with the people who would leave because I was too traditional. At least, by then, I didn’t take it personally. It was just the way religious life is in post-modern times. People become attracted to faith communities by all the talk and symbols of eternal verities. Yet when that talk moves in a direction different from where they think it should go, it is often tempting to go looking for newer or older verities somewhere else. We want the Truth…unless it is the one we don’t want.
Even so, in all my years as a priest (more than I say in public anymore), I have remained convinced that belonging to a faith community is one of the fundamental ways we grow in the knowledge and love of God. There are other ways, of course. Experiences of awe and mystery and silence and transcendence and compassion and struggle for the good can bring us that moment, that place also.
Yet life in a community is a unique experience and irreplaceable as a spiritual discipline. It teaches us virtues – like patience, for instance – and prudence and, when we are really in the groove, justice. (That was what I first most admired about All Saints, by the way – its indefatigable pursuit of justice.) Yet that is why community life is also inevitably so very, very difficult. Sooner or later, even the most wonderful faith community tests its members. It’s the nature of community life. The community asks too little and we feel ignored; it asks too much and we feel put upon.
That is why Joshua’s line in the first lesson has such an appealing, romantic ring to it: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” There is something compelling and reassuring about such a solid declaration. We want to have and show that solidity, that same strength. We want to serve God and we want to do it without feeling ambivalent or torn or conflicted. Good luck with that.
To give a little context to Joshua’s statement, he was not just being rhetorical. There were choices, in fact. They were in a new land. Joshua and his people could have transferred their loyalty to the god of the people among whom they had come to live. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, as the saying goes. It is a reasonable line of logic. On the other hand, there was the God who had led them to the place they were…What to do? What to do?
That brings us to today’s Gospel. Like those in Joshua’s hearing, the people in Jesus’ hearing faced a real choice. We like to think that to know Jesus is to love him. We like to assume that all his first disciples were totally devoted to him. We like to picture them sitting in rapt attention around his feet when they not busy polishing those nimbuses above their heads. But two thousand years of piety tend to dull the shock of his message. Waxing on about eating flesh and drinking blood and the very King of the Universe living in us and us living in God sounds perfectly familiar to us.
But imagine hearing it for the very first time. Imagine that you had always understood God to be utterly transcendent, categorically other, not just on the mountain-top but way above the mountain, above all the mountains, utterly separate from everything in creation. Imagine that. Put yourself in that mindset. …And then imagine someone whom you trust and like and love and admire telling you that God is right here, immanent, not near you even but within you, inside you, internal to you. How would you react? It would be disturbing, of course, even scandalous, not just unacceptable but incomprehensible. To use the Episcopalian idiom, it would be inappropriate.
Yet that is just what John describes. He portrays Jesus as almost coy at first. Jesus seems to say, “Is this a problem? Do you have a problem with what I am saying?” And instead of demurring or deferring, he amplifies his point by explaining it: “It is the spirit that gives us the life we live; the flesh in itself is useless.” Now, he is not unaware of the effect he is having. He goes on to say, “I realize there are some among you who may be having a hard time with what I am saying.” But if we are at all still in the mindset of those original hearers, we just want to throw up our arms and say, “Enough already! Are you kidding? You have got to be kidding. We love you but enough is enough.”
Jesus expects that kind of reaction, though. Maybe he is sly and coy. He says to the shocked crowd, digging himself in even further, like some pundit on a cable news show: “This is why I told you…following me is going to require listening to that of God within you.”
Well, that was the proverbial last straw. From that point, many who had been following Jesus simply could not put up with the impiety, the absurdity any longer. And many left. Jesus’ ministry was not altogether a success – by the numbers. And how could it be really? That the God of the very Heavens would be dwelling inside people!?
Just consider the implications: that of God within that odd neighbor next door, that of God within the pesky brother-in-law across town, that of God within those people who don’t actually help you on customer help lines, that of God within the people on MSNBC and on Fox. How could that be!? There was just no point in even staying with someone so misguided. No, that wouldn’t be good. It wouldn’t be smart. It probably wasn’t safe. It wasn’t meet and right so to do.
And so we arrive at the most poignant moment of the story. Jesus asks Peter, the one who had already been with him through so much, “Are you going to leave me too?” And Peter responds, with an air of resignation, really, as much as affirmation, “Teacher, where would we go?”
It was a true dilemma. Would they stay, simply out of sheer love for him – and each other perhaps? Would they do the wrong thing in their minds for the right reason? Or could it be that in the midst of the dilemma lay the real point of the lesson? Could it be that the reason was the thing…that love must govern all our comings and our goings? Amen.