My sermon from yesterday is available here, or you can read on.
American’s love the gift of choice. We got all sorts of excited when the possibility of choosing something comes up. Unleaded, Premium, or Super Premium gasoline in your tank? Fries or onion rings with your Swamp Burger? Standard or Bose 10 speaker surround sound for your four door luxury sedan? Whole industries have been created by the chance to choose. Take, for example, the glorious entity we know as “The Coffee Shop.” Starbucks has built a multi-billion dollar business because when you walk into their store, you walk into choice heaven. When the barista asks you, “What can I get you, today,” you immediately have before you 80,000 possible choices from a venti, black, drip, mountain roast to tall, sugar free, non fat, no foam, extra caramel, extra whip, extra hot caramel machiato with 2 packs of raw sugar, and a stir stick on the side. We love choices. God created us that way. The world is setup for us to make choices, and as we grow up, our possibilities grow and grow every day. We choose our spouses. We choose our careers. We choose our locations. We get to make all sorts of choices in the course of a lifetime.
At least it seems that way. It seems like we have the chance to make a lot of choices in our lives, but the stark reality is, almost every choice we make is a forced decision between a set of predetermined outcomes. Which type of gas you put in your tank is a forced choice based on your need for fossil fuels to power the internal combustion engine in your car. Choosing between french fries and onion rings is the forced choice between two greasy, salty, delicious side dishes. No matter which choice you choose, you’ll feel tired and bloated the next day My favorite coffee option is the forced decision between flavors in order to keep this caffeine addict from getting a headache. Every choice we make exists within a predetermined set of boundaries: even our choice to follow Jesus. As Bob Dylan once said, “You may be an ambassador to England or France. You may like to gamble, you might like to dance. You may be the
heavyweight champion of the world. You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls. But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord But you’re gonna have to serve somebody…”
Our lessons for today are all about that bounded set choice to serve the Lord. In the Old Testament lesson, Joshua lays it before the people of Israel, “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
Joshua makes his choice knowing full well the struggles of the Hebrew people. Born in Egypt, Joshua grew up as an apprentice to Moses. He escorted Moses part way up Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments. He wandered the wilderness for forty years and ate Manna and Quail with the rest of his people. He knew the complaints. He had heard the fear. As one of the twelve spies to Canaan, he also knew, first hand, what the Promised Land held for God’s chosen people. And now, having succeeded Moses as the leader of the Hebrew people, Joshua stands before the masses and says, “I will serve the Lord. Whom will you serve?”
In our Gospel lesson today, we have finally found our way to the end of the sixth chapter of John. Five weeks of bread and flesh and blood ends with Jesus losing somewhere in the neighborhood of four-thousand-nine-hundred-eighty-eight disciples. Note John’s word choice here, those who complain that Jesus’s teaching is “difficult” aren’t passers-by, or the Jews, or members of the crowd – these are disciples, those who had formally become students of Jesus. These weren’t your casual follower of Jesus, but folks who had been with him for a while. They had heard him teach. The had heard him preach. They had seen him heal. They had seen him cast our demons. They had watched him interact with the leaders of the Synagogue. They thought they knew what Jesus was all about. But The Bread of Life Discourse was just too much for them to handle. “Who can accept this teaching,” they asked among themselves, “Who, indeed?”
After five weeks in John 6, you might be asking the same question. The world being what it is today: full of violence and poverty, fear and depression; who can really believe that God is the God of infinite possibility and provision? Who can afford to forgo the cheap rewards of the short-term and wait for God’s provision of eternal life? Who actually believes that the Kingdom of God is available right here and right now? Who has enough time in their day to slow down enough to stop hyperventilating on mere breath in order to really live? Who can accept this teaching? Following Jesus is as hard today as it was two-thousand years ago. Probably even harder.
In Joshua’s time, the Hebrew’s were clear in their answer. Joshua asked, “Whom will you serve,” and they quickly responded, “we too will serve the Lord.” Three times Joshua asks the people this same question, and three times they respond, “We will serve the Lord.” And they did… for a while… until some other god clamored for their attention.
In Jesus’ time, the thousands that were following him realized that they just couldn’t handle what he was asking of them. Instead of choosing to serve the Lord, they left in order to serve other gods like fear, and comfort, and polite society. We can infer from John’s gospel that when the tough teaching shakes out, Jesus is left with little more than the twelve apostles and few women as he turns to them and says, “What about y’all? Are you guys going to leave me too? Is this too hard for you?” Peter, ahhh Pete. Peter answers for the group, “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.” It’ll take Jesus’ death, resurrection, and two appearances in the upper room until those who are left will fully understand that Jesus isn’t just the Holy One of God, but rather Jesus is God, but in this moment of choice, Peter, the twelve, and a few
of the women choose wisely. Within the set of options available for whom they would serve, this small group, including Judas, for now, have decided that they will serve the Lord.
What about us? In a world obsessed with choice, what is your answer to the most important decision you will ever have to make? Will you serve the Lord? Will you put your trust in him? Will you serve him no matter the cost? Will you strive for justice? Will you help to build the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? Or are you more comfortable serving something else? Would you prefer to serve your career? Would you prefer to serve the American Dream? Would you prefer to serve your debt? Or your family? Or your addiction? Or you anxiety? Or your to-do list? Or the church? Or a political party? Or any number of other things that would just as soon be your god of choice. “[You] Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk. Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk. You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread. You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed. But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.1”
I am certainly not perfect. From day to day and hour to hour, I make the wrong choice with regularity. But in this moment, standing before you, and the altar, and the Lord, I recommit to serve the Lord, and I pray that you will too. “Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”2
2 BCP, p. 832-3