Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, August 22, 2021

YEAR B 2021 pentecost 13

Pentecost 13, 2021
Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, for over a week now I’ve had this pain and numbness in my left arm.  Last Sunday afternoon, I went to urgent care and they did an EKG, which thankfully ruled out a heart attack.  I figured the pain would resolve itself, eventually.  By the time I got to Friday, I’d had enough pain, and went to the hospital to have it checked out.  I was compelled by the pain and really had no choice but to go.

Then after dinner that night, my family gathered around the television to watch the latest episode of Ted Lasso, which is quite possibly the best TV show ever created.  No one made us watch that show; we were compelled by our love for it, and nothing was going to stop us.

You can in these two examples the dual nature of compulsion.  Sometimes we are compelled in order to avoid suffering and pain.  And sometimes we are compelled by the sheer joy of something we love.  We usually think of compulsion as a bad thing, especially here in America.  Compulsory anything to be resisted.  But there is another side of compulsion, a side where we cannot help ourselves from doing the thing, no matter what our brain might be telling us.

For example, we think of putting a leash on a dog and compelling her to go where we want on a walk.  (Well, you know, a small dog.)  But if you shine a little red laser on the floor, your cat is literally compelled to chase it.  They cannot stop themselves from doing it.  It’s how they are wired.  Or, we think of someone being found guilty of a crime, and being compelled to go to jail.  But I am sometimes compelled to hold hands with my wife in a gazebo.  Point being, sometimes we can’t stop ourselves from doing something good, or fun, or worthy.  We are compelled.

I was reminded of that duality of compulsion when I was looking at today’s gospel text.  And we’ll get to that in a minute.  But first, I just want to let you know, that we have come to the end of the bread series.  This is the fifth and final Sunday of hearing Jesus talk about being the bread that has come down from heaven, and that the Israelites who ate manna in the desert did not live forever.  It’s been a long run, I know.  Believe me, I know!  Every three years we get this five week series, and every three years, many priests decide to take their vacation in August, rather than in July.  Because there’s only so much you can say about bread, right?  

On the other hand, since Communion is such a central and important part of our weekly liturgy, it really should be the easiest thing to preach about.  You know, in theory at least.  But if you read through the second half of the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, where all these readings come from, it does get a little repetitive.  It’s almost the same reading for five weeks in a row.

Jesus keeps saying, I am the bread of life, which has come down from heaven.  Not like the manna that came down from heaven, which your ancestors ate and died.  Those who eat my flesh will live forever.  Then someone questions how this can be true, and Jesus says it again.  Then someone scoffs, and Jesus says it again.  Rinse and repeat.  And then in today’s reading, some of the disciples start grumbling and leave, and Jesus asks the 12 disciples we know if they want to leave also.

And we get that line from Peter who says, ““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.”  And that’s the side of the compulsion that I want to talk about.  Eventually.

But first, let’s go back and look at the other side of compulsion.  The time when the manna came down from heaven like Jesus keeps mentioning.  Do you remember that story?  Back in the 16th chapter of Exodus, Moses has led the people out of slavery in Egypt.  And they have crossed the red sea and are now wandering around in the desert, and they have run out of food.  And the people begin to “murmur” or “grumble” to Moses and Aaron that they would have been better off back in Egypt, where at least they had food to eat.

And flipping back to John’s gospel, we hear that the disciples are complaining at this hard teaching from Jesus.  But the word that gets translated as “complaining” has an intentional connection to the “grumbling” back there in the desert.  The connection gets lost, because, well, English.  But the words are intentionally similar in origin in order to make the connection:  The people in the desert have the same reaction to the promise of manna as the crowd has to the promise of Jesus being the bread from heaven.  They scoff, they grumble, they complain.  Same reaction to the promise of being fed by bread.

Which leads us back to the compulsion I mentioned.  In the case of the Israelites, following Moses around the desert, where else are they going to go?  They might complain, but they are compelled to stick with Moses.  They have no choice.  It’s not like they can walk away and join up with some other group of people wandering around the desert for 40 years.  Though they may grumble, the compulsion to remain is real.  It’s Moses or death.

Now, let’s cut away to Joshua for a moment.  In today’s first reading, we’re at the end of that 40 years of wandering.  The people have found their homeland, the promised land.  And Joshua is going to die soon, and wants the people to decide which god they will serve.  The reading as assigned jumps from verse 2 to verse 14, but that whole section that gets left out covers everything God has done for the people, from freeing them from Pharaoh, all the way to living comfortably in the land that was promised.  

And then, Joshua says, given all that stuff that God has done for you, freeing you, feeding you, saving you, housing you, you all go ahead and choose which of the available gods you think you’d like to serve.  “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  And, well, given the reminder of everything God has done for them, the people choose wisely and say, “we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

So, we could say this is the middle ground between the Israelites in the desert and the Disciples in Capernaum.  The Israelites in the desert with the mana were compelled out of necessity; they had no choice.  The Israelites in the Promised Land with Joshua look at the history, and then logically decide to dance with the one who brung them, or whatever that phrase is.  They are not compelled so much as making a decision based on evidence.

Now . . . let’s look at the compulsion of the disciples.  Remember, the set up is similar: Jesus says that there will be food from heaven, just like in the desert; the people listening begin to grumble, just like in the desert.  BUT, whereas the Israelites have no choice but to stick with Moses, in today’s gospel  we heard, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”  The twelve did not leave, but some other disciples did.  They all had a choice whether to continue to follow him, and some decided not to.  These others were not compelled out of necessity, as the Israelites in the desert were.  They were not convinced by hearing the long history of God’s saving work to dance with the one who brung them.  They just . . . walked away.

But what about the 12?  Were they compelled by having no choice?  No.  Were they are argued into staying by hearing the history of God’s saving work?  No.  They were compelled from the other side.  Not from fear of death, but from the hope of life.  Compelled not by the law but by love.  Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”  The Israelites were compelled by fear: Don’t die.  The Disciples are compelled by love:  Choose life.

We could sum up these five weeks of readings with this idea of flipping compulsion to be a good thing rather than a bad thing.  In the desert, God’s people were eating just to survive, compelled to follow Moses to stay alive, and they still died.  But because of Jesus, God’s people are eating to have life, compelled to follow Jesus out of love, and now have eternal life.  

May God continue to draw us all to follow the way that leads to life.  Not out of fear or necessity, but because we are drawn to the one who is our constant hope, the one who was compelled to lay down his life for us because of his overwhelming love for us:  Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  The one who has the words of eternal life.


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