Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 26, 2018

Lessons:

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?

Of all the things that the disciples say in all four of the Gospels, this one might be my favourite. It is such an unvarnished, such a direct, such a real response to a teaching by Jesus.

And it’s also kind of hilarious.

Although maybe we don’t actually have to choose between real and hilarious. Maybe the two often belong together. I have sometimes wondered if a serviceable definition of a joke is that a joke is something that tells the truth in an unexpected way.

Children often give us the gift of telling us the truth unexpectedly. Maybe that is the reason that Jesus tells us to become like the very young. My friends Jeremy and Heather tell the story of visiting a friend’s home to attend a party. Their youngest child, Theo, went to the bathroom and there he discovered that the toilet was outfitted with a bidet. Now bidets are common in Europe and in Japan, but they are unusual in our part of the world.

And so Theo came marching out of the bathroom, got the attention of everyone at the party and said, “You guys! In the bathroom they have a butt wash station!”

That’s hilarious – and it’s true. I suspect that Theo wasn’t the only one at the party who wanted to comment on the bidet, who was curious about it, who thought that it was really cool. He was just the only one who was brave enough or, maybe, unscarred enough by life to name his curiosity and delight out loud.

The disciples do something similar today. The disciples are not children. But many of them are young people. Some of them, perhaps, are what we would today call teenagers; in Jesus’ time, adulthood starts at around age 12 or 14. And, like Theo, they are brave enough or innocent enough or guileless enough or trusting enough in Jesus to listen to what he has to say (just like us here in church over the last several weeks, the disciples have been listening as Jesus says I am the bread of life and eat my flesh, drink my blood) and then to say out loud:

This is hard.

Who can accept it?

One of the churchy words that we use from time to time is discipleship. Discipleship means something like being a follower of Jesus, it means saying yes to the Gospel with your life, it means being friends with Jesus. And the example of Jesus’ first friends is that a legitimate and faithful way of being alive and responding to Jesus is to say:

This is hard.

Who can accept it?

This response suggests that faith is something more complex and more beautiful and more broken than a flawless and finished piece of art that we hold in our hands, that perhaps we ask other people to admire.

Have you seen my faith? It’s perfect.

It suggests that faith is something more like a verb, it is something we do. Maybe, to borrow an image from the book of Genesis in which Jacob meets the stranger in the night underneath the stars, faith is like a wrestling match, like a struggle.

Friends, to my mind naming out loud that faith can be hard is good news and freeing news. Because I suspect that many of us – most of us? – have moments of when we wonder if we are impostors in church or impostors in life, moments when we say: I’m the only one who doesn’t get what this passage from the Bible means or why it is in the Bible at all; I’m the only one who sometimes finds the worship service confusing or weird or even boring; I’m the only one who has moments when I experience suffering or loneliness or unfairness and I don’t feel the presence of God at all.

What if we were brave enough to name those experiences out loud? What if, like Theo telling everyone about the butt wash station, we could name when discipleship is hard, when being a Christian is hard, when believing in God or believing in ourselves is hard?

I wonder what would happen if, when we did a reading in church – imagine the first reading that we heard today, a reading from the Book of Joshua, a book that sure can be read as celebrating genocide and God’s presence in genocide – imagine if we heard that reading and then the lector said:

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

and instead of us replying, “Thanks be to God,” we all said,

This is hard. Who can accept it?

Or imagine if we said the Creed together and at the end, instead of Amen, we said,

This is hard. Who can accept it?

Or what if we had a litany? A litany like we do at the start of Lent every year, where I chant or say a prayer and we all respond in prayer. A litany that names what is hard about being a Christian and being alive. Wouldn’t it be cool if someone wrote a litany like that? Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone wrote a litany like that?

I’ve written a litany like that.

Let’s try it out:

Cantor:           The Trinity is comprised of three persons but only one God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Jesus is fully human and fully divine.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           In the Book of Kings, some boys make fun of Elisha for being bald. And so he curses them. And then two she-bears come forth from the woods and maul 42 of the boys.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Our parish is discerning the possibility of a major redevelopment project, we are wondering if God’s preferred future for us will see us replacing most of the buildings on our campus.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Our holiest of books, the Bible, has been quoted to defend slavery.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           When you pray to God asking for forgiveness, even for that thing that you think might be unforgivable, before your prayer begins God has already said yes.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           You are made in God’s image and God has designed you for a life of joy, but that doesn’t mean that you will not get the phone call that floods your life with loss and grief.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Sometimes when you come to communion you will kneel beside someone whom you find it hard to respect or like.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           The homeless person sleeping on the street is a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           The woman at the border who has her baby taken out of her arms is a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           The President of the United States is a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           You are a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Amen.

Maybe there is more to be added to that litany. Assuredly there is more. This thing we call discipleship is hard. This thing we call being alive is hard.

I’m always sorry when I meet someone who tells me that the reason that they don’t go to church is that they don’t know what they believe. But what if church is the perfect place to not be sure what you believe? What if the odds are high that when we come to church unsure of what we believe we will stand beside someone who, at least some of the time, is not so sure what they believe either?

In the story that we hear today, some people encounter the hardness of discipleship and they leave. We’ve all been those people. God knows I have. This is too much, too confusing, too exhausting, I have to stop. But some of them stick around. Even after they say, this is hard, maybe because they have named that this is hard, they have the strength to stay, to remain with Jesus. And maybe some of them leave and then return.

Jesus says that the truth will set you free. So let’s tell the truth.

I was at a party and they had a butt wash station; it was the most amazing thing. Someone close to me, someone I counted on, disappointed me profoundly and I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to trust people after that. Someone close to me died, and I felt like that time when I got punched in the gut on the schoolyard, I couldn’t quite breathe. Sometimes I pray and I wonder if all I am doing is whispering to an empty room. One time I was in a public space and I had something like a vision in which there were bands of light connecting everyone and illusions of separateness fell away. But I was embarrassed about the experience and so I didn’t tell anyone.

This is hard. This thing called faith is hard. This thing called life is hard. Who can accept it?

But when we keep on showing up with Jesus, we may be surprised to remember that it is also so, so beautiful.