Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
August 24, 2003
The Gospel: John 6:60-69
Sermon: "Hard Decisions about Faith"
The Rev. Dr. William H. Morley
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father." Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "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."
"Hard Decisions about Faith"
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost - August 24, 2003
Once upon a time, there was this man who had a disability in his leg. He was a man of great inner strength and was determined to walk normally again. And so he walked, slowly, often for long distances. One day he was out in the countryside surrounded by rolling hills with rough, rocky, and uninhabited terrain. He was a couple miles from home -- more than usual this day -- and felt exhausted. He prayed that someone would come along soon who could offer him a helping hand.
Eventually, he saw a short distance away someone riding a donkey. He whistled his attention and the man came to him. As the rider drew closer, he noticed the face of the man. It was the ranch owner making his daily rounds to various points on the property. The crippled man explained his problem, that he just couldn’t get back home without some help. He asked to borrow the rancher’s donkey to carry him home.
The rancher was glad to help. “Oh, there’s no problem. I can loan you the donkey. I have a good friend in town. If you’ll just leave the donkey at his place, and I’ll pick him up later.
“However, before I let you go with the donkey, I have to tell you some things about him. This donkey is a bit unusual. He’s been trained to follow different cues than most donkeys. When you want him to go, you don’t say, 'Gitty up!' You say, 'Praise the Lord!’ He won’t move if you say, 'Gitty up!' And once you get him going, if you want to speed up, just repeat, 'Praise the Lord!' And then, when you want to stop, you don’t say, 'Whoa!’ You say, 'Amen!' “Now it’s real important that you use the words this donkey understands, 'Amen!’ to stop, and 'Praise the Lord!’ to go. If you’ll remember that, you won’t have any problem at all.”
Grateful for the rancher’s generosity, the crippled man mounted the donkey. Comfortable in the saddle, he said, “Praise the Lord,” and the donkey moved right out. Now that he was riding, he decided to go the longer route. So he said to the donkey, “Praise the Lord!” He moved faster and faster. The road was winding and going downward and around a bend. He had never been down this road, and he didn’t know what was there.
As he came around the curve, immediately he saw what looked like a river bank, but no bridge. It looked dangerous. He began to say, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” but the donkey didn’t stop. He was getting closer and closer to the dangerous edge. He couldn’t think of the right word. Finally, he was just where he began to see how deep the pit was over the dangerous edge and, somehow, he was able to recall the right word, “Amen!” and the donkey stopped right on the brink.
Overjoyed, the man raised his hands toward the sky and shouted, "Praise the Lord!"
I want this story to represent for us the symbolic implications about being on the brink, being at the edge of daily decision making around life choices. Whether we recognize it or not, we are always “on the brink” or at the edge of making some form of personal choices. Rarely will your brink be as dramatic as that of the man on the donkey, but every decision, every choice, every commitment you make, be it ever so small or seemingly insignificant at the time can impact and effect you on your life’s journey.
I would like us to explore this morning what is required of us to sustain a continuous, unwavering commitment to a cause, a goal, a personal relationship, a faith relationship, or even living with a disability. For Christians, we are talking about unwavering commitment to the Person of Jesus Christ.
In Saint John’s Gospel for today, we have come full circle with the “Bread of Life” theme. It all began with the small loaf at the party beside the lake where thousands of people were fed. Then we learned that the “Bread of Life” is more than ordinary bread. It is: hope, belief, faith, purpose, vision, curiosity, intimacy, love, peace, forgiveness from guilt. All the ingredients that put quality into living every day while, at the same time, giving us a taste of God’s promise for eternal life.
Last week, you may recall, we learned that the “Bread of Life” is Jesus Christ himself in the forms of Bread and Wine. We have tasted and will again shortly, the bread which satisfies hunger and the bread that “does not spoil”. What’s next? Will it become just a tasty picnic that can get old and boring? Or, will it opened up something exciting that demands our continuing commitment? And, if so, are we up to keeping that commitment?
Recall for a moment the feeding of the Five Thousand: it must have felt like a honeymoon for the people gathered on that hillside. They were being attended to. There needs were being met by Jesus and his disciples who provided for them until they were full.
It must have been a honeymoon experience for the Twelve as well. I’m sure they were thanked and praised for their efforts. They thought they had struck the right chords with the people. “Bread of Life”: words that sounded great in people’s ears until they realized something very important: Jesus was not going to wave a magic wand and remove the troublesome conditions of famine and poverty. Jesus’ message about Bread of Life was about unseen matters: like belief, hope, loyalty, courage, vision, purpose, allegiance, commitment, yes, decision-making and personal choices, and as we heard a few minutes ago, their interest rapidly dwindled.
Now, we have come full circle. Most people “could not stomach” Jesus’ talk about “eating” his flesh and “drinking” his blood. They did what we all do when we can’t “stomach” something or somebody, they voted with their feet. And Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Do you also want to leave me?” Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Your words are words of eternal life. We have faith, and we know you are the Holy One of God.” However, I can only imagine the question Jesus must of asked himself: how will they maintain their commitment when I’m gone?
Christianity is all about Commitment: commitment to Jesus Christ, commitment to His Word, commitment to His Church, commitment to serve all persons. And, I believe this commitment encompasses three acts: making a personal decision, continually deciding and choosing, and commitment requires our total self.
First, commitment begins with a personal decision.
Let me give you an example: Two young people knew each other in high school where they dated occasionally. After college and the beginning of a career, something brought them together again. They were married. They became parents. When the time came, they enrolled their five-year-old in kindergarten which began his long journey toward a life of high expectations and hope. Just recall your first date, graduation, getting your first professional job, buying your very first car, your wedding day and the birth of your children. What wonderful celebrations they were!
But no celebration or honeymoon period lasts long. The classroom demands that books be read, reports be written and tests be passed. A new auto is fascinating, but a $ 100 insurance payment every month, monthly bank payments and maintenance costs get old quickly. Baptism of the newborn child becomes a short extension of a couple’s honeymoon. But very soon life’s responsibilities become a drilling workout. Life’s challenges quickly become a daily routine. It is easy to fall into the pit of boredom where you feel like all spontaneity, enthusiasm, and vitality are gone forever.
You and I are practitioners of faith. We are members of a worshiping and serving community. Is it any different here? I really don’t think so. Participating in the liturgy, hearing God’s Word spoken and proclaimed, and swallowing the Eucharist constitute the baseline of this commitment. But there is more.
I remember a story about a church member who had been devoutly active for many years suddenly was absent regularly from church. One cold winter’s evening, the pastor knocked at his door. Actually, the pastor and the church member had been long-time good friends. As they watched the wood burn in the fireplace, the minister mentioned the parishioner’s absence from church. The man candidly confessed that he had decided he was just as well off without the church as with it. The minister didn’t say a word. He took the tongs from the rack, reached into the fire, pulled out a flaming ember, and laid it down by itself on the hearth. He still said nothing.
Both men sat in silence and watched the glowing ember lose its glow and turn slowly into a crusty, black lump. After some moments of thoughtful silence, the man turned to his pastor and said, “I get the message, my friend, I see what you mean; I’ll be back next Sunday.” And he was. Commitment begins with decision, but commitment is never a once-in-a-lifetime decision.
Commitment is continuous deciding and choosing.
Commitment is required at the beginning of the day, in the middle of the day, and at the end of the day. It is born out of continuous wrestling with alternatives. Just picture the crippled man, “Shall I jump off the donkey? No, I’d be more crippled. But what is the right word to say?”
I saw a seventeen-year-old Olympics entrant being interviewed on a television talk show. The host asked her how she kept her single-minded commitment to her goal. With a determined look she said, “I do workout eight hours a day: in the morning, from seven to ten, and in the afternoon from four to nine, every day”.
Continuously deciding and choosing: I once visited a parishioner in the hospital who had a tumor removed from her lung. The results of the biopsy had not come back and she still needed oxygen to breathe to reduce stress. I walked into the hospital room and she was sitting up have a smoke. She saw me and said: I’ve smoked all my life so why quit now? It won’t make that much difference. Or, the commitment to work through and discuss a troubling issue with a parent or a loved one so you can be reconciled? Or, following through on commitments and obligations we make with others? Or, the commitment we will make this morning to Parker Alan Jenkins to see that he is raised in the Christian faith and life? Will we make good choices for the health of our physical bodies, intimacy in our relationships or the deepening of our faith or, will we be like the people on the hillside and some of Jesus’ chosen disciples and make choices that are less difficult or demanding: shall we follow the crowds or stay with our Master? We may even have to ask the question that must have gone through Jesus’ mind: Am I going to have to take the hard journey alone?
As Christians, we continuously wrestle over values and issues. Many religionists give the impression that they think they have solved all problems when they recite their absolutes and close the doors to discussion. In the world where I live, I see people every day wrestling with the issues of economic freedom, a life free from political tyranny, hunger and drugs, family wholeness, job security, environmental matters, and even dealing with the ecumenical impact of the Episcopal Church’s decision-making. Life is a continuous encounter with issues and people, always searching for ways to make God’s love, peace and hope more visible among us.
For in reality, Christian commitment is about the total self.
Someone said, “It doesn’t take much of a person to be a Christian; it just takes that entire person.”
General William Booth, creator of the Salvation Army, once said, “The secret [of my success is], God has had all there was of me. There have been men with greater brains ... greater opportunities; but from the day I got the poor of London on my heart, and a vision of what Jesus Christ could do with [them].... I made up my mind that God would have all of William Booth there was ...”
Mother Theresa probably said it best: “Be always and only for Jesus without him having to consult you first.”
Commitment to Christ is a personal decision to respond in faith and love
Commitment to Christ is a process of continually deciding and choosing how to act in accordance to the Gospel
Commitment to Christ means committing your whole self to Him.
Praise the Lord! We won’t fall off the cliff, because we have His love in and through each of us to secure us from falling into the darkness. Rather, He lifts us up to the light of the Redeemed. Alleluia!