Aug. 26, 2018
I want to begin with a quote from a book that I just started reading. The author’s been talking about the lack of civility in our current cultural climate. She writes:
“If we disagree, we must hate each other, right? No. This is our culture’s lie du jour, and we must resist with our very lives. Before you read this book, know this: if you disagree with me on any social or political issue, I love you. If you agree with me, I love you… If you are a republican I love you. If you’re a Democrat or an Independent, I love you. If you are straight or LGBTQ, I love you. If your skin is brown, white, or black I love you. If you hate this book, I love you anyway; if you love it, I love you, too. If you’re Christian, I love you. If you’re Muslim, I love you. If you’re an atheist, I love you. If you’re Sikh, Hindu, Jewish, Baha’I, or Native American, I love you. If you’re an American citizen, I love you. If you’re a refugee or an immigrant, I love you. I. Love. You. All. Period. No exceptions – as badly as some days I want to make them.”
So, the book is called “Love Without Limits: Jesus’ Radical Vision for Love with No Exceptions.” Ironically, when she had completed her work on the book, the publishing house, which had paid her well to write it told her that she had to strike the chapters on loving a gay couple and loving a Muslim friend because most of their readers wouldn’t appreciate that kind of thing. When she objected, saying that they were missing the point of her book, they said that they owned the rights to the book, so if she wanted to keep those chapters she would have to void the contract and pay them back everything they had already paid her. So, she took the financial hit and committed herself to loving the publishers along with everyone else.
A common theme in our scriptures today is Christianity’s call to be radically different, to choose God and to choose God’s ways when the culture around us – the world – does not.
Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus, “Take up the whole armor of God… Stand therefore and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
In other words, in a militarized Roman world, in a pagan culture of values that they had shed, and in a community where they faced daily harassment, discrimination, and suppression, they were called to respond not violently but peacefully – with love and forgiveness and the invitation to receive the Good News of Jesus Christ. They were called to do a hard thing, but it was a thing faithful to the Christ to whom they had given their lives.
Christian history is full of mixed results in responding to this call. Biblical history is too. We see that in our gospel reading this morning. Jesus had just fed 5,000 people with two fish and 5 loaves of bread. This miracle launches him into series of lessons in which he persists with the somewhat confusing and somewhat jarring message that he is the bread of life, he is the bread that comes down from heaven, and to have abundant life we must consume him, eat his flesh and drink his blood.
We talked a bit about this same message last week, about the incarnational meaning of Christ’s words, about a God of utter immanence, uncomfortable for those of us who like to keep God at a distance, because Jesus as he wishes to be known wants to be consumed, wants to be brought into every nook and cranny of our beings. He is divine life filling every ounce of our lives, leaving no part of us unloved and unclaimed. To receive him is to accept this. It is to willingly allow him in, to surrender, to give ourselves away so that we might receive ourselves anew.
But, this kind of stuff was too much for many to take. “This teaching is difficult,” they said. “Who can accept it?” And, that’s when many of these disciples leave. It’s interesting that these are disciples. These aren’t spectators, interested folk who happened to be around when Jesus showed up in town. These were followers who decided that this life of discipleship, this life of faith was more than they could handle. Jesus could do it, but they just didn’t have it in them and so they go on their way.
I have to be honest; I have a hard time blaming them. This faith stuff can be hard. Who hasn’t wondered if they are just treading water, pursuing a creation of your own wishful thinking, seeking something that’s just not there. When God is elusive it can be so hard to keep faith.
It’s funny, but up until last week I had never heard of Debi Thomas. But since then I’ve seen her writings pop up in three different places. One article in particular has been on my mind. She starts off recalling words that her daughter told her as a preteen. “There’s a wall in front of me, Mommy. A thick, dark wall that keeps me trapped. It never goes away.”
I keep imagining the heartbreak Debi must have felt, the anguish of knowing your child’s suffering and loneliness. Debi would plead, Let’s walk away from the wall. Or, let’s go around it. Or, Let’s shatter it. And the child would look with weariness, contempt, and pity: “You know I can’t, Mommy. It’s too hard.”
Debi described a life in constant fix-it mode, trying to find a diagnosis that would lead to healing, dealing with doctors, researching medicines, changing up diets, worrying constantly about what her daughter might do to herself next.
She sought spiritual healing as well. She prayed for it. She brought her daughter to church where she thought she would feel safe. She looked for healing passages that might inspire her daughter. She would tell her again and again that God cherishes her.
She writes, “On my not-so-good days, I refuse to beg for healing one more time. I wonder if the whole religion is a sham. I resent that the Gospel stories so often end in miracle or abundance. What about the times when the sick stayed sick, the hungry stayed hungry, or the dead stayed dead?… On my worst days – or my daughter’s – I have thrown the words of scripture right back in God’s face. The peace that passes understanding? Abundant life? An easy yoke and a light burden? ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well – go in peace’? Are you kidding me?”
She says all of this because she’s honest, and yet her writing also ooses with faith, with passion for God, with truth.
She concludes, “These days, I don’t try to blow up my daughter’s wall or persuade her to climb over it or leave it behind. She’s technically and adult now, and my role in her life is shifting. So now I simply sit next to the wall. I face it and endure it. I live each day in its shadow, hoping my daughter will decide to keep living, too, even in that chilly darkness – and hoping that my presence at the wall shows her something of God’s steady presence in its shadow, too.
When I scour the Bible now, I skip over the miracle stories. I read instead about the wilderness, and I imagine how slowly time moves in that parched, barren land. I read about Jesus at Gethsemane, deserted and afraid. I read about manna – mysterious sustenance for one day at a time. And I read about the lost lamb the shepherd follows into the treacherous night, the little one who can’t help but wander. The exhausted, endangered one who needs so badly to come home but just can’t find her way.”
A bunch of the disciples turn away because this faith stuff can be so hard. Jesus turns to the 12, “What about you, do you also wish to go away?” Peter replies, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” I feel like Debi has joined her voice with Peter’s. It can be hard, but it’s so much harder without you, O God. I don’t always know what you are doing? I can’t always see your plan. But, I know your heart. I know that you are love without exception. I know your will to seek out and save each and every last lost one of us. And so, I will trust, and I will follow, and I will love the way you love, and I will allow you to do the work that is yours to do.
Sometimes, that’s the best and most we can say. But, when you think about it, that’s actually quite a bit. God can built upon that. And, I believe in my heart that God will.
 Jacqueline A. Bussie, “Love Without Limits: Jesus’ Radical Vision for Love with No Exceptions,” location 86 (Kindle edition).
 Debie Thomas, “My Daughter’s Wall,” The Christian Century, August 1, 2018, page 35.