Sunday, August 23, 2009

When the Rubber Meets the Road: Sermon for 12th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16)

I have come to the conclusion that pastors should be careful what they preach about in the pulpit on Sunday mornings…because you never know when it might come back to bite you. Or, rather, you never know when exactly what you profess on Sunday morning will be directly challenged, even as soon as you drive away from the church building after worship.

Last Sunday, I mentioned in my sermon, just a brief statement, almost an aside, that I hoped that perhaps part of the purpose of the sermon could be that during the week you might be reminded to be kind when you’d rather not be, for example, in traffic. I think my exact words were that the sermon “might help you decide to take a deep breath and be kind to someone in traffic when you’d rather just lay on the horn.”

Do you know how many people cut me off in traffic on the way home from church last Sunday? And quite a few of them were the ones that sneak in there ahead of you, make you slam on your brakes, and then proceed to drive at least 5 or 10 miles BELOW the speed limit! And they’re also the ones you can’t get rid of. Every turn you need to make, they make, too. You try to think of alternate routes so you can get away from them, but there aren’t any. You are stuck, and seething, and ready to just tap on the horn just to let them know that you’re not happy and then – wait – you remember the sermon. Or, in my case, I remember the words that I preached. Didn’t even listen to someone else saying them; Oh, no, it was me who said them.

This is not the first time that something of this nature has happened to me, that the words I’ve preached on a Sunday morning have come directly back to look me in the face, either later on Sunday, or later that week. Especially with my family.

One of my good friends said one time that all the work that you do on your own self and your way of living and your choices to change bad behaviors gets especially challenged, and is the hardest to live out, when you walk through the door at home to see your family at the end of the day. You can walk around all day feeling very self-actualized and enlightened, and then the sight of muddy footprints on the kitchen floor can send you over the edge at dinnertime.

Another author tells a story about how she spends time in prayer and meditation each morning, and one morning she was feeling particularly refreshed and ready for the day, till she went into the bathroom and stepped—in her socks—into a puddle of water left by one of her teenaged sons after he had showered. Then she shrieked like a banshee and wondered if all that prayer was for naught.

Today’s Scripture lessons offer us a few opportunities to consider the ways that the rubber meets the road in our spiritual lives, and by extension, our practical lives. From the Old Testament, we have the lesson in Joshua that brings us the familiar phrase, “As for me and my house[hold], we will serve the Lord.” The passage tells us that Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel, and told the people that they needed to “revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness.” He told them to put aside the pagan gods they had been worshiping when they were still in Egypt, and now to serve the Lord God, Yahweh.

Joshua gave them a choice, saying: “Now, if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether [you will serve] the gods your ancestors served…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Then in the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus offers some confusing words, discussing the symbolic and spiritual nature of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and those who hear him, including many of his newer followers, say, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” And Jesus responds, “Does this offend you? … The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” The Scripture tells us that “Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.”

Two parallel options of choices about what to believe; who to believe in. Certainly, there is a difference. The Israelites in the Joshua passage didn’t know about Jesus yet; their choice was about serving Yahweh over serving their pagan gods. The disciples, who, by the way, were more than just the 12 that Jesus started with, were being asked whether they could buy into Jesus’ spiritual teachings, which were very difficult and obtuse, or if they would prefer to turn away from him and go back to their lives as they knew them before they started following Jesus.

We have two different outcomes: in Joshua, we see the people responding to the challenge with these words: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we will also serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

Whereas the Gospel lesson gives us a different reaction to Jesus’ confrontation. The Scripture says that “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?’” Now, of the twelve, their reaction is one of trust and steadfastness: “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.’”

In other words, Simon Peter says, What you are teaching IS difficult; you challenge us all the time; you make us a little bit crazy; you ask us to do things we sometimes think are impossible…and YET, who else can we follow? No one else offers what you offer; no one else knows us the way you know us; no one else loves us the way you love us; no one else speaks the words of truth to us the way you do. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Those of us who follow Christ today don’t do it because it is easy. We might find ourselves sometimes wanting to be like the ones who walked away, who threw in the towel and said, “This is too difficult. Who needs it?” The Gospel lessons give us countless challenges, asking us to be more loving, be more caring, give more of ourselves, be more patient, more forgiving, more spirit-filled, less materialistic. We’re not to hold grudges, we’re not to hoard our stuff, we’re not to turn anyone away when they ask for our help. Some days, it all seems like too much! And then, as soon as we think we’ve got it right, or at least that we’re on the right track, that slow driver cuts us off, or our kids spill their milk, or wreck the car, or worse! And what does God expect from us? Are we supposed to be perfect, and just turn the other cheek, or smile and say “No worries,” or get out the checkbook and pay for the repairs?

I think that Jesus, and in turn, God, understands our frustration. The challenge is not to stop ever getting frustrated about anything ever again. And I also don’t think that the Scriptures are asking us to be a bunch of holy (that’s H-O-L-Y) doormats. I think there is a balance. We make the pledge: “As for me and my house, WE will serve the Lord.” We commit to Jesus; we mull over the difficult teachings, squeezing from them what we can apply to our lives right now, and storing the rest in our hearts and minds as we continue to seek to understand them better.

Even though I’m sure some could read today’s Gospel lesson with an eye to the ultimatum presented and see it as an all-or-nothing challenge, when Jesus says, “I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father,” I think what Jesus is really putting back to the disciples is that choice, that they need to be the ones to turn to God, and in turn, meet Jesus through him.

Life gives us plenty of opportunities to live out what we proclaim to believe. It is not so much a test as it is just a way of life. Maybe we notice the challenges after we’ve asserted something, just because we’re more aware and conscious. Or maybe life really brings challenges our way to either strengthen our resolve or cause us to recalibrate. No matter which way we look at the challenges, we know that God accompanies us on our path. We are not alone in striving to be who we’re meant to be. We’re not alone in living out our faith commitments. Whether it’s the proclamation that our household will be serving God above all else, or the affirmation that we will follow Jesus, even though the teachings are difficult and might ask a lot of us, we’re not doing any of it by ourselves.

There is a poem called “I’m a Christian,” by Carol Wimmer, that details out the real reasons we need the church and Christ: not that we’re already perfect because of our faith, but that we’re always working on it. Here are a few stanzas:

When I say "I am a Christian,"
I don't speak of this with pride.
I'm confessing that I stumble,
And need CHRIST to be my guide.

When I say ... "I am a Christian,"
I'm not trying to be strong.
I'm professing that I'm weak,
And need HIS strength to carry on.

When I say ... "I am a Christian,"
I'm not bragging of success.
I'm admitting I have failed,
And need God to clean my mess.

When I say ... "I am a Christian,"
I'm not claiming to be perfect.
My flaws are far too visible,
But God believes I am worth it.

So, what happens when the rubber meets the road? It’s not a test of right or wrong; not a judgment of heaven or hell. When the rubber meets the road, we profess and affirm what we believe with our hearts and our lips. Then we get to the task of living it out. Amen.

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