Sunday, August 26, 2018

Hard to believe

Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18; John 6:56-69

Last week, my husband Mike and I were in North Carolina at a retreat for pastors and church leaders. We had meals with different people at almost every meal. Mike volunteers at the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. He loves to take photos of the animals and show them to everyone. He also tells the stories about the animals.

One of the things he is working on is learning the titles for the groups of animals. He was sharing these titles with our lunch companions one day. For example, what do you call a group of crows? (a murder) What do you call a group of flamingos? (a flamboyance) The people with us laughed at how appropriate such names were. Then Mike asked, What do you call a group of roseate spoonbills? When Mike said, a bowl, the folks found it hard to believe.

In our Bible texts today, one of the themes is how hard it can be to believe in a God whom we cannot see, in a God who takes on human flesh only to die like a criminal, offering up his own body and blood for those who believe.  

At this point in the story from Joshua, the invasion and conquest of the land has been completed. Now it is time to reflect on how they will settle in and become a people. One of the big questions is, whom they will worship.

It was common in ancient times for each kingdom and even each town to have their own gods, who had different responsibilities, such as fertility or war or healing. These deities were represented by statues, some large and housed in temples, and some small and portable, within each home.

But the Israelite god was invisible and yet responsible for everything. This was a challenging difference, and made the Israelites stand out from other peoples. It was hard to believe in such a god, unless one had direct experience of the blessings offered by this god.

At this point, Joshua reminds the gathered people what the invisible God has done for them. He invites them to make a choice. Do you want to worship a god of stone or an invisible yet powerful God?

Joshua then says the words that many of us have now memorized. “Choose this day whom you will serve. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” This day, the people agree and promise to serve the Lord, though it will not always be so in the future.

About 1,500 years later, Jesus has been preaching and teaching and healing people. For several weeks, we have been reading and talking about the way Jesus fed thousands of people with a small amount of food. He has been explaining to the disciples and the crowd what this sign means. Now, he is in the synagogue back home in Capernaum.

“I am the bread of life, sent by God. Those who eat me, who eat the bread, will know eternal life.” This is hard to understand, hard to believe. Of course, this won’t be fully understood until the resurrection, and many of those who had been following Jesus turn away. Jesus asks the closest disciples, “will you also leave me?”

Peter, blessed Peter who speaks first and thinks later, says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? [Only] you have the words of eternal life.” You should have caught the word I inserted – only – Jesus has the words of eternal life. No other gods offer the same benefit.

These days, many people find it hard to express their belief in Jesus. Sometimes, it is people like us Lutherans, who are simply shy about talking about our faith.

Sometimes, it is because something happened in a church to make us angry at organized religion. We still believe, but we don’t want to join with others to express our faith.

Sometimes, it is because God didn’t do something we wanted done, like healing a loved one, or stopping a fire, or preventing a disaster. We used to believe, but are angry and can’t bring ourselves to believe now.

And sometimes, it is because no one has told us about a loving, caring, powerful Jesus. It is hard to believe in what we have never experienced.

Y’all are here this morning because you have chosen to persist in believing in something that is hard to believe. We believe that Jesus is God-with-skin-on. We believe that we experience his presence through the Holy Spirit and through the bread and wine we consume each week at the altar.

We believe that when we pray, God hears us and laughs and weeps with us. When we pray persistently sometimes God does what we were praying for. Just as easily, God changes what we are praying for into something God can use to help us grow in faith despite not giving us the answer we were hoping for.

This week, I invite you to reflect on those times when it has been hard to believe in Jesus. What happened to help you continue to believe? Or, if you have never doubted, what has kept you faithful?

I give thanks for all the faithful people I have known and served with throughout my life. And for all the faithful people in your lives as well.

Please pray with me. Lord, we turn to you for comfort, for wisdom, for courage. Lead us to believe even more firmly in you as we seek your words of eternal life. Amen