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Sermon August 22, 2021

Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone

At Grace Church, Great Barrington

John 6:56-69

56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

60When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But 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. 65And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

           Crossroads & Choice

My wonderful Aunt Macky had a phrase she used to use all the time, which she’d borrowed from Vietnam protestors back in the 60’s and 70’s – and which I’m only going to paraphrase here: “Heck no! I won’t go!” Do you remember that? Macky used it, sometimes, as a kind of a joke, when she didn’t want to go to the doctor, or to the dentist, or to some obligatory social event. But she used it also when she was at her most serious. “Heck no, I won’t go!” she used to tell me when she talked about the truth her prayer sometimes called her to; “Heck no, I won’t go!” when she sensed Jesus might have been demanding something of her that she didn’t want to let go of… “Heck no, I won’t go!” she said – and then she laughed and went anyway most of the time, because she was one of the most faithful people I’ve ever known, and because, anyway, what else was there to do? 

The journey of faith is like that sometimes, it seems. Sometimes Jesus holds us gently in his arms and rocks us like a mother, bringing us all that we need and more. Sometimes he drenches us with beauty and grace, even in the dark places. And then sometimes – well, sometimes he brings us to what seems like a crossroads and suggests that we simply turn left, when what we want to do, and have planned to do, and believe others are expecting us to do, is turn right. “Turn left,” he says, beckoning us to come follow him. And we stand there and look left, and then look right, and then look left again and think: ‘Uh…Actually…That looks like the road away from where I am trying to get to. So…Well, thank you, but no. Really, thanks again, but…heck no, I won’t go!’

I don’t know, of course, what it is that causes you most often to hesitate, or falter, in your journey with Christ. But I’m pretty certain that there have been, and will be, and may even be right now, times big and small when you have been brought to a place where a real choice is necessary; where it is no longer possible just to trundle along; where there is a need to say either: ‘Yes, yes, Lord, I don’t get it, but I’m with you.’ Or to say ‘No. No, I’d like to but it’s too much, or too frightening, or too tiring, or too painful and –  so no, heck no, I won’t go!’ 

And of course what makes these moments so difficult, the real dilemma underlying these crossroads of choice, whatever they are, is always the same and it is this: If we say no to whatever path Jesus seems to be offering us, which we are entirely and always free to do, well then, what are we left with?

What are we saying yes to when we say no to God-who-is-love? 

It’s a profound question. And a startling one.  And it’s been asked for millennia it seems and is scattered through both the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures for which I am grateful beyond belief.  We hear it twice just in the readings selected for today!  First, in the reading from Joshua, where it is framed extraordinarily starkly: “If you are unwilling to serve the Lord,” Joshua tells his people, “Choose this day whom you will serve…” 

Isn’t that clear?  

What would you say if that that question was being put to you, right now? “If you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom (or what) you will serve instead?” 

What is it that causes most resistance to rise up in you in your journey with God? Fear of losing, or of taking on, what exactly holds you back? A need for a certain sense of comfort or security, perhaps? A fear of something? Or an addiction to something? Or a desire for control, or ‘peace’, or success?  It’s different for everyone. But we most of us have something we turn to in place of God, at least sometimes, and some of us have many – whole great bushels of things — myself included, I’m sorry to say.  

Jesus’ closest followers are in a place of real choice like this themselves in our gospel reading today. Once again, they misunderstand what Jesus is saying and mistake his invitation to become one with him, with a request for them, literally as they thought, to eat his flesh. For a people with rigorous rules about what to eat and what not to eat, this was deeply, deeply shocking and many made the choice to leave Jesus right then and walk away, we are told. Seeing this, Jesus turns to the 12 and asks, movingly: “Do you also wish to go away?” to which Peter responds with some of my favorite words in all of Holy Scripture. He doesn’t say – at least not yet – “What are you saying, Lord?! Are you kidding?!  I will never leave you!” He’s still far more ambivalent than that and replies at this point with a kind of desperate question of his own: ‘Where else can we go?’ It’s his own answer to Joshua’s question, right?  ‘Who else could we follow?’ he says. ‘I mean – if not you – who?  You have the words of eternal life.’ 

I love this answer not despite, but because of its ambivalence. And because it is so honest too, and, in my experience at least, because it is so absolutely the best we any of us can do when we find ourselves at a real crossroads of choice.  There is Jesus, asking us to do, or say, or go to a place entirely at odds with what we ourselves would choose to do, or say, or go to. Sometimes we say, honestly, ‘heck no, I won’t go — at least not yet, not today.’  And other times – if it really is the kind of crossroads I’m talking about – we are graced to say: ‘Ok — ok, I’ll stay with you. I have no idea why you are inviting me in this direction and, frankly, it makes no sense to me, but – well, what else can I do? You have the words of eternal life…’

Here’s a little story to show you a bit more clearly what I mean: 

Just yesterday, my friend Arrington and I set out for a walk along the Appalachian Trail.  It was a beautiful day: the ferns were green, the sky was blue, the path was clear and we were on our way – heaven! After a little while we ran into a couple of extended section hikers and we stopped to talk. Arrington settled in with the slightly frail and grizzled older man who walked more slowly than his walking partner and seemed enormously weighed down by his pack, bent over, while I settled in with the woman. She was about my age and was fresh looking in a clean bright red shirt, though she’d been out on the trail for days. After a few minutes of causal chit chat, she made it clear that she hadn’t set out with the man, but that he just seemed to have found her on the trail a few days back and then stuck around. Before she’d set out on this leg of the trail, she told me, leaning in and talking more quietly now, she had imagined linking up with another female hiker, someone who walked at about her own pace, and with whom she could talk about real things in real ways. “But instead I got him,” she said, jutting her chin gently back a bit towards the older man behind her. “He is unfit and unhealthy and has no idea how to look after himself,” she said. “And he’s so scared he might need something at some point – another tarp, another bottle to carry water, that he hoards everything he can find, and every morning I have to empty out his pack so he can actually walk. ‘You’re a hiker, not a hoarder.’ I tell him. ‘A hiker, not a hoarder!’”  

There was so much care in her voice, so much gentle concern, that I knew to say nothing in response to this – I would only get it wrong. Instead, I stayed quiet and waited, and soon out of that quiet she said: 

“This is not what I wanted at all. It is just not at all what I wanted.” 

Again I was silent, and, after a pause, she continued: “…and now there’s a hurricane coming, which means I have a decision to make. He’s old, and he’s not quite right in the head, and he’s smelly, and he can’t carry a conversation, and he basically has no idea how to look after himself, and I have to choose — Do I hole up with him for the next couple of days to make sure he stays safe? Or do I leave him and go my own way?” 

It was an incredible moment. Sacred. She was at the crossroads. 

I have no idea what she chose, of course. And it’s astonishing to think of them both – out there in the green still, together, or alone, or with others, who knows?  All I do know is that that woman in the red shirt – ‘The Lady in Red’ folks on the trail call her – was an angel to me yesterday. She had a heart full of love, and a gentle kind of generosity that would lead her to the right decision, I knew, whatever that may be.  And when I picture her now, I see her clothed in her red shirt, of course, but also in the lighter-than-air armor of love and life and courage and truth that St. Paul talks about today, and I feel grateful beyond measure to have met her. 

Her willingness to lean into the crossroads of choice strengthens me, and returns me, and draws me on and in to my own crossroads… And you? What is it you have decided you want these days? And also… What is it that whispers to you in the quiet of the dark before the sun rises, or out on the trail in the green, that flies in the face of that stated desire? Where is your crossroads of choice right now? Which path will you choose? 

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