Sermon for Oct 23rd, 2016, “Kicking Up Dust”
Scripture: John 6: 56-69
I can still remember the cold, January morning in college when I peeled myself out of bed to get to church. It was an ordinary Sunday, I thought. What’s the point to get up and go to church? No, no, I’ll go today, I thought. I got ready, trudged through the snow and cold and sat down in the sanctuary. What I didn’t realize is that it was the day before Martin Luther King Day, so my church in Fort Wayne was celebrating. There was a special guest that morning who spoke and I’ll never forget her or that day in church.
She was a short, older, African American woman, who slowly made her way up the aisle to speak. In a rather humble and unassuming tone, she told us about the opportunity she had to march with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Alabama in the 1960’s. As she spoke, she held a small bag in her hand. Slowly, she opened the bag and pulled out a pair of shoes. What are the shoes for, I wondered? To make a quick escape? She told us that those were the very shoes she had worn when she marched with Dr. King. They were still covered in the red clay dust of the Alabama country roads. Her commitment to racial equality was a direct response to her faith in Jesus Christ that reminded her that she and everyone is created in the image of God. Her work, her story and her shoes inspired me.
Perhaps you have had the experience to choose one path over another. The disciples who followed Jesus had choices as well. Do we keep following or go back to what we know? Being a fisherman wasn’t too bad. I guess I could go back to collecting taxes. There are always other options. If the accommodations aren’t the best, we can find another room. If the road is in bad shape, we’ll find another route. If this Rabbi doesn’t work out, there are teachers out there.
John Chapter 6 is known as the Bread of Life Discourse. It’s all about a community of people wrestling with a teaching, but also with what it means to follow Jesus. It’s a full chapter that begins with, you guessed it, the miracle of Jesus feeding a rather large gathering of 5,000 with just 5 loaves of bread and two small fish. Pretty amazing! But if that’s not enough for you, the very next story is Jesus walking on water.
After these miraculous events, there’s a crowd chasing Jesus down the dirt road of the Galilean countryside demanding more and more, give us another sign, those other miracles were great, but they aren’t enough. They want another sign. Give us the manna, the bread given to our ancestors that came from heaven, they demand of Jesus.
As we know from the title given to this chapter, Jesus goes on to explain that he is the Bread of Life. Then we start to see a reaction from the community that included disciples and seekers alike who followed him. Words like “they began to grumble” because he said this. Questions like “Is this not the son of Joseph, whose parents we know? How can he now say, I came down from heaven?” They began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat.” They questioned, they grumbled, they argued, doesn’t sound like church! They had a choice to make, leave the community of Jesus or go it alone.
After all that Jesus had shown them, after the miracles in John 6, they wanted more. They weren’t going to follow unless Jesus fed them with not more loaves and fish, but with the manna from heaven. Jesus explains to them, “I am the bread of life. I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” As you can imagine, the disciples and others who gathered around him didn’t understand. We are conditioned to hear Jesus’ words in the context of Holy Communion, but the disciples at the time would have no experience with this addition to the Passover meal. So of course they would question this teaching. In fact, as faithful Jews, this teaching would have been absurd and offensive.
“Does this offend you?” he asks the disciples. Then we come to one of saddest verses in Scripture to me, at least in responses from the disciples. “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” They chose to leave the community. After the miracles, the teachings, the grace, this one teaching was too much. They had a choice and they chose to turn back and no longer followed Jesus. All I can picture is the dust coming up off the dirt road as several of Jesus’ followers turned back and went the other way.
Being a follower of Jesus is hard. Jesus meant for discipleship to be lived out with each other, the church; the community of faith. We can’t do it alone. We need each other, to encourage, to challenge, to love, to strengthen. Yes, we will face a hard teaching or a difficult situation and we have to choose to stay committed or walk away. There is a cost to discipleship. Are we willing to pay the price? We might have to wrestle with hard teachings, give something up and maybe even suffer. Maybe the cost is losing control. Maybe the cost is broken bread and the disciples couldn’t handle the thought of a God who doesn’t take away suffering, but suffers alongside us. Maybe that’s part of the cost. It’s hard to accept such a teaching. Maybe it was their own expectations of Jesus that hadn’t been fulfilled for them. Whatever it was, they walked away. Their feet kicked up the dust and they went the other way. Just like the disciples who followed Jesus, we have a choice.
It’s a costly choice to follow in community. What do we do when the teaching gets too challenging, when the expectations become too much, or when faith or church stops working for me and my expectations? There are times when we walk away, maybe physically, mentally or spirituality, in moments throughout the day or in seasons of our lives. Are our feet leading us back into the church community of faith, deeper in our walk with other, or are we moving the other way?
On some level, this is a question of commitment. The disciples who left Jesus that day couldn’t remain committed to this radical teacher. And they missed so much. Sure, they may have made a lot of money, caught a lot of fish and enjoyed cultured life, but they never sat at the Passover meal with Jesus. Their feet remained dirty not to be washed by Jesus. Yes, they never experienced the pain and heartache of the cross, but they also never experienced the joy of resurrection. They missed out on what Jesus and his followers would offer.
Yet there is always grace and the door always remains open. That’s the Good News! When we turn from Jesus or the community, the door is still open. Jesus’ way is always a choice. And thank God for the grace to let us return time and again. Because if you notice in this reading from John, Jesus refers to Judas, the one who would betray him, yet Judas keeps following. Peter would deny him, yet he’s there in the end. You and I betray and deny and go the other way, yet Jesus and the church community is always there, ready to welcome us again.
I know that many of you are familiar with Nadia Bolz Weber, who is a Lutheran pastor who founded the church “House for All Sinners and Saints” in Denver, CO. She is a spiky haired, tattoo wearing, fowled mouth preacher, and I happen to love her. She was Indianapolis on Thursday and we had a great group from Meridian Street at the event. Hearing her speak this week, reminded me of something she said the very first time I saw her. She talked about creating a community of faith that welcomes everyone. The commentator asked her what binds her church community together, was it belief or theology, and she said that on Sunday mornings when they recite the Apostles Creed, there are days when it’s hard to believe or embrace every line of the Creed. But in a room full of people, for each line of the Creed, somebody believes it. So we’re covered.
Or taken another way, when we feel like we have to walk away because we don’t fully understand something or question a teaching, we’re missing the point of community. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, we might not be able to pray certain parts of it one day or in a season of life, but there will be someone in this congregation who will say it for you. When we have lost the words to say to God, someone will speak for us. That takes commitment to a community of faith. There are others who are willing to offer the praise. There’s a whole community waiting for our return.
It’s a challenging, life altering, amazing, beautiful, grace filled experience being a follower of Jesus Christ. We have a choice to be committed or walk away. As I reflected on this Scripture reading from John, I began to wonder if Jesus was really less concerned about belief and more about commitment and faithfulness to the community of faith. Nadia Bolz Weber wrote this regarding this passage of Scripture, “I wonder if maybe those disciples didn’t have to leave Jesus…I mean, when we make the accepting of hard teachings the litmus test for being a follower of Jesus I wonder if we are perhaps missing the point all together.” What unites us then? Maybe it’s as simple as being the Body of Christ, being committed to the community of faith.
It’s easy to walk away when challenged by the teachings and expectations of church. A part of our task and responsibility as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ is to wrestle with what it means to live out the teachings of Jesus, not to walk away, but allow ourselves to be challenged, to think, to serve more or in a new way, to give beyond what we think we can and to allow ourselves to live out God’s dream in our lives. Too often our expectations are quite low and shallow. Again, the Good News is that Jesus takes us from where we are to where God calls us to be within the community of faith.
Everyday gives us opportunities to choose whether we’re going to engage or walk away. Will we live out our faith or walk away? Will we commit to the faith community or walk away? We have choices to make about who we want to be as a people of faith both individually and collectively. How far are we willing to go? How much are we willing to commit to this?
I can’t stop thinking about that woman I met long ago on that cold January morning who walked with Dr. King. She was committed. She walked with Dr. King, but she also kicked up some dust with a community, a movement of people. She wasn’t alone and she was committed. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.” Where will our feet take us? It’s time to take a deeper step into this community of faith and discover all that God has in store for us.