Joshua is going to die, soon. In today’s first reading he stands before the people whom he has served, first with Moses, and now on his own. These are the People Israel, a people he has loved and led. He has claimed this Land of Promise with and for them, the land they wandered 40 years to find, the land they had heard about for generations all the way back to Abraham. Now, it’s all true for this people. The promises are fulfilled. Now, they drink from wells that they did not dig. Now, they eat the fruit of trees they did not plant. And now, Joshua’s life draws near its end. He calls the people together at Schechem, the center of that Promised Land. He reminds them of all that God has done. And he says this: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Choose. The gods of your ancestors? The gods of the strangers in whose land you now live? Or the LORD: the God of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, the God of Isaac and Rebecca, the God of Jacob and Leah and Rachel…the God of promise, fulfilled. Choose. Choose this day who it is that you will serve.
Jesus stands in the synagogue at Capernaum, in today’s gospel. He talks about bread and wine and flesh and blood and the father sending him and who will live forever. “This teaching is difficult,” his followers say. “Who can accept it?” Pay attention here to who is named in this gospel: John doesn’t call them Jews or Gentiles or Pharisees or scribes or crowds or regular old people. He calls them disciples. These are people who have declared their colors, named Jesus as their leader. These are people who have given something up in order to go where he goes, to listen to what he teaches. They’re his people. Or at least they thought they were…and he thought they were, too. Until now. So they complain among themselves about this crazy teaching of his. And Jesus, being who he is, doesn’t soften things for them, doesn’t make it easier for them to stick with him. No. He makes it more difficult. “Oh!” he says. “Does this offend you?!” And he makes it even harder, with talk about how people must come to him, and how they must not…with talk about who will have eternal life, and who will not. And that’s…kind of…it…for these followers. The ones who were complaining are now the ones who are packing it in, deciding “not to go about with him” now, returning instead to what they think was, to what they think is not so difficult, to what they think they can accept. “And what about you?” Jesus asks those who remain. We know the twelve are there, we don’t know how many – or if any – others have stayed. Can you see them in this exchange? Avoiding eye contact with him, watching the others gather their stuff and go, kicking the dirt around in circles with a sandaled foot. “What about you? Are you going, too?” Jesus asks them.
“Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua challenges the People Israel at Schechem.
“Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus asks his friends at the synagogue at Capernaum.
It’s the fifth week, now, the fifth of five Sundays in the Bread of Life discourse. Congratulations, people of St. Augustine’s. You’ve made it. We’ve made it, through five weeks of Jesus saying to those who follow him: “I am the bread of life,” “I AM the bread of life,” “I am the BREAD of life,” “I am the bread OF life,” and, finally, today: “I am the bread of LIFE.” By the end of today’s service we will have sung every hymn I know of about bread. We will have had our fill, like those 5000 besides women and children who sat down on a great deal of grass to watch Jesus bless and break what was five loaves. We will have had enough bread, already. And more than enough, perhaps.
Here’s the thing, though. I wonder if, as your preacher for several of these weeks, I missed an important point before now. Because in those others sermons I talked a lot about the “bread” part. But I’m not sure I paid sufficient attention to the “of life” half of the equation. And isn’t that really the heart of it, the point of the whole thing? Jesus says: “I come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” At the very earliest moments of creation, God takes a handful of dirt, shapes it into a person, and breathes sacred life into Adam’s mouth.
So today we have two passages from scripture from that other half, the “of life” part of the statement over these past weeks, passages challenging the people to choose…life. They can choose those other gods – the gods their ancestors worshiped, the gods of strangers in foreign lands now claimed – or they can choose to worship the God who has fulfilled promises, promises that nurture their lives as people and as a People. They can choose to remain steadfast in the midst of teachings that are difficult, things that are hard to accept, or they can turn back with the others, stop going about with the leader who teaches such things.
Jimmy Carter is teaching Sunday School today at Maranantha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. I was five years old at the time that he took office as President. And I don’t know much about his politics, beyond what’s on the list of historic events of the late 1970s. And anyway, politics are not why I bring him up. The reason I bring his name into this space is because he served as an illustration to me about what it means to choose whom you will serve, and to live that choice.
The former president gave a press conference this week, as many of you probably saw. He had surgery in recent days to remove a tumor from his liver. Tests and a scan later revealed that the cancer was melanoma, that in fact the doctors had not gotten it all, that there are four small spots on his brain, that it’s likely to be found in other places in his body as well. Later on the day of the press conference, President Carter would have the first in a series of radiation treatments aimed at shrinking the cancer, at slowing its progress.
If ever somebody had an excuse to say, “This is difficult! Who can accept it?!” and pull the covers up over his head, he does. Instead, Jimmy Carter spoke as somebody who knows in his bones that life is short, that we do not have too much time. He talked about what a good life he has had. He said that marrying his wife, Rosalynn, to whom he has been married for almost 70 years, is the greatest thing he has done in this life. He talked about his hope that Guinea Worm, an awful disease that he has worked through the Carter Center to eradicate, would be gone before he is. He said he hopes to make one more trip to build houses for people who need them, this time in Nepal. And he’s teaching Sunday School today in Plains, Georgia, perhaps right now, at Maranantha Baptist Church.
“Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua tells the people as his own life draws to a close.
“Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus asks those who have followed him.
“Choose,” the scripture tells us. Choose what you will serve, and whom. And yes – choose, knowing that things are difficult, they’re hard to accept, and that some will turn away…understandably.
Isn’t that what is set before us every day? Choose whom you will serve. Choose if you will be kind to someone who maybe doesn’t deserve it. Choose to fulfill your promise to come home at the end of the day, instead of putting in an understandable couple more hours at the office. Choose to pick up the phone and talk to someone you love but have been avoiding. Choose to spend your money in ways consistent with who you want to be. Choose to pray. Choose to take on the hard work of reconciling what has been broken, and see your own fingerprints in the breaking. And do that now, instead of assuming there will be a chance for it in some distant future. (Life is short. We do not have too much time…)
We have chances throughout our days to make choices that, together over days and weeks and years and decades, shape who we are. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua says. “As for me, as for my household, we will serve the LORD.”
In the end, the twelve stay with him. Yes, Jesus’ teachings are difficult, hard to accept. And maybe there’s a part of each of them that does wish to go away also, with the others. But in the end, at least for now, the twelve stay. Not because they’re smarter or stronger or even more faithful. They stay with him because they have chosen.
“Do you wish to go away also?” Jesus asks them.
“Where are we to go?” Peter responds. “You have the words of eternal life.”
(Life is short, and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those we travel with. So be swift to love. Make haste to be kind. And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be with you and remain with you always. Amen.)