The Rock and the River

Sermon for Sunday, August 23, 2015 || Proper 16B || John 6:56-69; Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

rockandtheriverToday we complete our long, five-week march through the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John. We read every last word, some of them multiple times. Jesus fed the crowds – five thousand strong – with one person’s groceries. He walked on water to meet his companions across the sea. He spoke to the crowds at length, hoping to move them past their rumbling tummies to the deeper craving for the “bread of life”; that is, the sustenance of abiding relationship with him. But the people don’t get it. They aren’t ready to hear what he has to say. And yet, Jesus keeps pushing. He keeps extending the metaphor, making it more explicit, until he’s talking about eating and drinking his own flesh and blood.

To this many of his disciples respond, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” And they stopped following Jesus that day. They “turned back and no longer went about with him,” John narrates. I bet – in that moment as they were wandering away back to their old lives – Jesus could feel the power to compel them to stay surge up within him. I bet he knew that if only he willed it, they would turn around and come back, like dogs on leashes. But Jesus knew better. He knew that every person had to be free to choose to leave, or else it wouldn’t ever be worth staying.

After they leave, he turns to his twelve most faithful companions, his inner circle, and asks them a question. I always hear a thick sadness in his voice when I read these words: “Do you also wish to go away?” In that moment teetering on despair, Peter gives Jesus a gift: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

In John’s Gospel, belief is synonymous with relationship. So when Peter says these words, he affirms his relationship with Jesus, despite any perplexity Jesus’ words about flesh and blood might have caused him. This is the same Peter who later denies knowing Jesus three times on the terrifying night of Jesus’ arrest and trial. And this is the same Peter who even later has this denial healed when Jesus asks three times if Peter loves him. Peter’s real name is Simon. Jesus nicknames him Peter, which means “Rock.” You may recall in another account of the Gospel Jesus making a pun: I call you Peter/Rock, and on this Rock I will build my church.

When you call someone a rock, you mean she is steadfast to the end. “Patty was a rock the whole time her daughter was in the hospital.” That may seem true from the outsider’s perspective, but the real story probably looks more variable – like Peter’s. Maybe Patty held it together whenever she and her daughter had visitors. After all, in an odd but predictable reversal of roles, it often falls on the people involved in a tragedy to comfort those coming to visit. Of course, she was a rock when visitors came around. But how many times did Patty break down sobbing in the middle of the night by her daughter’s bedside, alone but for the steady beeping of the machines? How many times did despair creep in? How many times did she rage at God (a totally appropriate reaction to her situation, mind you)?

I seriously doubt that anyone who’s ever been called a “rock” ever felt like one themselves. In our example, Patty might even feel some misplaced shame for her lack of stability if people label her “rock,” no matter how well meaning they are. Throughout the Gospel and the book of Acts, we can see Peter trying to live up to his nickname, only to fail on multiple occasions. One of these failures actually leads to a huge expansion of the early church, when the Rock realizes he is wrong and changes his mind.

All this to say that the life of faith is much more variable than many of us desire or are comfortable with. None of us is on a perfectly straight road like the Interstates out in the mid-West. Rather our lives of faith run more like rivers or streams – twisting around boulders, bubbling through rapids, tumbling down waterfalls, flowing swiftly, flowing lazily, sometimes stagnating, sometimes surging.

And it has always been this way. In the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning, Joshua puts a choice before the Israelites: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Will it be the lifeless and false gods of the peoples of the land or will it be the Lord. Joshua answers for himself first: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” All the people answer the same way: “We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” But it doesn’t take long for this promise to fade into obscurity. In fact, the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures narrate the story of the people of Israel oscillating between following God and throwing their lot in with some other convenient deity of the month.

So why is the life of faith so much more variable than many of desire or are comfortable with? Well, because we don’t have two lives – a normal life and a life of faith. We just have life. And life is all about change. If we labored under the delusion that our faith could not and should not have some variability, then that faith would never line up authentically with the rest of our lives. It would be as disconnected from us as a Midwestern Interstate is from a stream meandering down a mountain.

I urge you, therefore, not to beat yourself up when you don’t feel as faithful as you did last week or last year. There are periods of time when each of us – including me – are lost in the desert. But the good news is this: in the end, our faith or lack thereof is only a part of the story, and a small part of the story at that. God’s steadfastness matters much more than ours. The story of the Hebrew Scriptures is not just the one about people turning away from God; it’s also the one about God continually calling them back. Remember, God was there in the desert, too.

This interplay between God and God’s people finds expression in a curious grammatical ambiguity that crops up in many of St. Paul’s letters. In several places Paul is either talking about “faith in Jesus Christ” (that is, our faith) or “faith of Jesus Christ” (that is, Jesus’ own faith). It could mean either, and Paul probably wants it to mean both. The steadfast faith of Jesus Christ, who is the true Rock (no matter Simon Peter’s nickname), holds our faith for us when we are too angry or too sad or too distracted or too apathetic to access it ourselves. In this, the faith of Jesus Christ is like our regent, ruling in the place of us, the infant kings and queens, until we are ready to take up the mantle.

I like to think that some of those folks who walked away from Jesus came back another day because they realized they were still hungry and only his words of truth could fill them. I like to think they once again took up the mantle of faith. The same goes for us. The invitations that Jesus Christ offers to us to join him in his work of healing and reconciliation will never stop arriving at our doorsteps. His faith in us activates our faith in him. Our meandering streams can each day meet his surging river. Why not today?

A Gospel Medley

Several people who’ve heard me sing this live have asked for a recording, so here it is. And I’m including the lyrics because parts of it (especially the Peter Gabriel section) are a bit difficult to follow. If you want to play it yourself, let me know, and I’ll send you the lead sheet. I hope you enjoy it!

(Oh, btw, I’m working on a second Gospel Medley. If you think of a song I could use for a piece of the Gospel, let me know. Right now, I just have Bryan Adams for the call of the disciples.)

(To download, right-click picture and choose “Save Link As…”)

The Nativity (Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin'”)
Just a virgin girl when the angel said to her,
“You will bear the Son of God.” She said, “Here am I.”
Just a carpenter of David’s line from Bethlehem;
He took her for his wife (the angel told him to).
So Caesar made the census rule
Telling all to go back home
In a stable Mary bears her babe
He’s the Son, the Son, the Son, the Son.

Shepherds grazing up and down the countryside
The wise men searching in the night
Starlight, angels singing ‘bout the Incarnation
Shining on this holy night

Don’t stop believing
Remember it’s with God you’re dealing
Peace to people

– – –

John the Baptizer (John Mellencamp, “Jack and Diane”)
A little ditty about John the Baptist
Whose favorite dinner was honeyed locusts
John, he’s saying, “I’m just the voice crying out:
Prepare the way of the Lord, that’s what I’m talking ‘bout.” (Sayin’)
Oh yeah, it won’t be long:
the kingdom has come near, repent your wrongs
Oh yeah, it won’t be long:
He is coming soon, I can’t tie his sandals’ thong (now walk on)

– – –

The Feeding of the 5000 (The Proclaimers, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”)
Jesus looks up, and he knows he’s gonna feed,
He’s gonna feed the people coming to see him.
The disciples, they all say they’re gonna need
They’re gonna need denarii to feed them all.

But I see there five loaves of bread
And I see there two tiny fish
I will bless this food to feed five thousand people
So sit down in the grass
Gotta lot now! Gotta lot now!
Gotta lot of scraps of bread leftover now!

– – –

Peter’s Confession and the Transfiguration (John Parr, “Man in Motion (St. Elmo’s Fire)”)
Jesus asks, “Who do you disciples say has come?”
Peter says, “You’re the Son of God, the Chosen One.”
God revealed this to you, not some fleshly search
So I name you Rock, now go build my church.

Then they climb the highest mountain, underneath the starry sky
And they witness Jesus’ changing, whiter and whiter
Gonna build some tabernacles, but then a cloud descends:
“This is my beloved Son, listen to him”

– – –

The Last Supper (John Denver, “Leaving on a Jet Plane”)
All my friends are here in this upper room.
Their feet are clean, now my Passion looms:
Here’s a four long chapter speech to say goodbye.
See this bread I’m breakin’, it’s a special loaf,
The wine you’re drinkin’ is my blood’s merlot.
Let’s share this meal before I’m brought to die.

So take, eat: you’re sharing me.
Drink this to remember me.
Hear my words ‘cause soon I’ll have to go.
I’ll be dying on the cross soon,
But know that I’ll be back again
Oh, friends, I hate to go…

– – –

The Crucifixion (Peter Gabriel, “In Your Eyes”)
On his head’s placed a crown of thorns;
The temple veil will soon be torn.
Without a noise, without his pride, he reaches out to his bride.

They crucify: the blood, the sweat
His mouth is dry from thirstiness.
Eli, Eli, Have you forsaken
Me to die? You’ll be with me in
Paradise. Oh God forgive them.
Then he cries: I commend my Spirit.
I see the blood and the sweat, oh, but it’s not over quite yet.
Just come on down this Sunday, meet you there at sunrise.

– – –

The Resurrection (U2, “Beautiful Day”)
They go to the tomb, on the first day of the week
But there’s no stone, so Mary takes a peak
She’s out of luck, and the reason that she had to care
Was apparently snuck away when they were unawares
But she knows she’s found a friend when the gardener says her name.
And then Jesus sends her saying, “My return proclaim.”

On this Easter Sunday, the grave falls and you know
On this Easter Sunday, death’s sting is wiped away
On this Easter Sunday…

Touch me, put your finger in my side
When I leave, my Holy Spirit will abide

It’ll be Pentecost Day, tongues of fire, you know
On that Pentecost Day, the Church is here to stay
On that Pentecost Day…

Food (namely herbs and stewed rabbit) for the journey

The following post appeared Wednesday, December 9th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

* * *

The hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee arrive in a heather-strewn woodland between the River Anduin and the mountains that border the dreaded land of Mordor. After some walking around and griping about the knavish Gollum, who is their deranged hostage and guide, they sit down for a meal, as hobbits often do. They eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) make stewed rabbit in The Two Towers (2002)

…I have no idea what happens next.

I’m twelve years old, and I have made it nearly two-thirds of the way through The Lord of the Rings. But I can no longer bear it, and I shelve the book. It’s just so boring. All they do is walk! They start in one place, walk for a bit, meet someone and chat, and then walk some more! I just want them to get somewhere! I want to yell, “Get to your destination, Frodo – don’t stop to eat herbs and stewed rabbit, which the author has described in painstaking detail! Just get to the mountain and be done with the ring! Enough of this walking…”

A year later, I’m thirteen (a much wiser and more mature age), and once again I pick up The Lord of the Rings. Maybe this year, I’ll finish it. I begin at the beginning, and they walk and meet folks and chat and run away from enemies and Frodo and Samwise reach the heather-strewn woodland and eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I have no idea what happens next.

My wisdom and maturity are no match for the walking. Again, I stop reading. The quest is just too long and arduous and their destination is still on the other side of the mountains and several hundred pages away.

A year later, I’m fourteen, and I pick up The Lord of the Rings again. On page 641, Frodo and Samwise sit down for a dinner of herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I keep reading. They find themselves in the middle of an ambush, Sam sees an oliphaunt, the hobbits are captured by people who are supposed to be on their side, and the story goes on and on. A few days later, I finish it. And I’ve read it at least eight more times since.

Finally, at fourteen, I could appreciate the journey, and let the destination take care of itself. Tolkien understood that a destination is more than a physical place. A destination is the culmination of all the shaping events of the journey that brings you to that ultimate location.

Every year, after the tryptophan has worn off, we begin just such a journey in our walks with God. While secular Christmas disgorges itself out of shipping containers every year the day after Thanksgiving, we have the opportunity to let Christmas happen only after the four weeks of Advent have run their course. Christmas is the destination. And Advent is about not arriving at your destination before you are shaped by the journey.

Have you ever had the soup du jour at a restaurant? It’s not some fancy French dish. It’s just the soup made for that particular day. Likewise, my journey happens every day. Every encounter, every decision, every road taken or not shapes me. The season of Advent gives me a dedicated four weeks to notice the shaping influence each day has on my journey with God.

On the first Sunday of Advent, we heard the psalmist pray, “ Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths…All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness” (25:3, 9). This Advent, I’m adopting this prayer because I’ve always had trouble not skipping to the end of the story. Every year of my childhood, I wanted to open the windows of my Advent calendar all at once. I just couldn’t wait to open tomorrow’s window tomorrow. Now, at twenty-six (a much wiser and more mature age) I pray for God to give me the patience to notice each day’s impact on my life. When I ask God to “teach me your paths,” I’m not hoping for some inside knowledge about the destination. I’m simply asking for guidance along the road.

Some time ago, I heard this illustration (the origin of which no longer resides in my brain). Have you ever noticed that headlights only show you thirty or forty yards ahead of your car on a dark night? But they still get you to your destination. Likewise, God teaches me God’s path even as I am struggling to stay on it. As I walk towards Christmas on this particular Advent journey, Christ walks a few steps ahead of me, illumining the road to his own nativity, to his own unique and wonderful expression of love and faithfulness.

Despite my opening description, my love for Tolkien’s works of fiction is deep and abiding. They taught me the lesson of Advent: don’t arrive at your destination before being shaped by the journey. I pray that, during this season of Advent, God teaches us God’s paths, which are love and faithfulness. And I pray that we may meet someday on the road, about which Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins rhymes:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.