The text of the sermon, based on Joshua 24.1-2a, 14-18 and John 6.56-69, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 22, 2021.
It is the 12th century Before the Common Era. For the Israelites, the exodus from Egyptian captivity, the 40-year trek to the Promised Land, under the leadership of Moses, and the bloody conquest of Palestine, led by Joshua, Moses’ handpicked successor, are behind them. It is time to renew their covenant relationship with God, who led them through it all, fulfilling the promise of liberation and new life.
Joshua delineates the covenant renewal in the clearest terms: “Revere…and serve the Lord…put away the gods of your ancestors…choose this day whom you will serve.” No ambiguity. No relativity. Either God or something else, something less.
Jesus has described himself as “living bread” come from heaven; the partaking of which, that is, believing in him, grants eternal life, both before and beyond physical death.
Some regard Jesus’ language as offensive; violating all accepted wisdom. Others consider it incomprehensible; contrary to human experience. Many, who, having seen and heard Jesus, had begun to follow him, now, finding his teaching intolerable, abandon him. Jesus turns to his handpicked band of disciples, asking, “Will you also go away?”
Whether Jesus spoke sorrowfully at the loss of followers or sharply as a challenge to those who remained, it is a summons to the renewal of relationship. A call as clear as Joshua’s declaration to the Israelites. Jesus might have said, “Walk with me or walk away. Choose.”
Choose. The word signals a crossroad-experience. A momentous thing occurs and a choice, new or renewed, is demanded.
I think of our present-day America and our impossible to miss or dismiss over-heated climate of political, social, and racial turmoil.
Of all that divides us, which I lament and daily pray with the intent of healing, I am troubled by how easily many (I hasten to add, not all) of the protagonists, antagonists on each side of any given conflict make some claim to loyalty to a higher calling whilst charging the other side with one transgression or another.
Liberals portray “the other” as ideologically narrow and puritanical or woefully out of step with a dynamically changing culture. Conservatives in regard to history and society seek to stem the tide of unjustified revisionism of tried-and-true American principles of free and private enterprise and rugged individualism.
And stirring the fray even more, the vicious epithets fly: Socialist! Fascist! Anarchist! Supremacist!
And when Christianity is the subject, the church remains, in the words of the hymn, “by schisms rent asunder.” Progressives celebrate inclusivity and diversity, which, they believe, is the character of creation and the Creator. Traditionalists in doctrine and discipline stand on the side of Jesus, defending the “faith once delivered to the saints” and perceive “the other” as wildly relativistic, relying on the teachings of anthropology, psychology, and sociology and downplaying scriptural teaching.
However, in my view, it isn’t… it ain’t that simple! Ever. For all progressives, say, about human sexuality, are not as open-minded when it comes to inclusion and diversity in matters of race and class. Nor are they all biblical illiterates or theological neophytes wedded solely to the insights of the social sciences. And all traditionalists are not intolerant, knee-jerk reactionaries resistant to change. Truly, all of the people involved in these conflicts and their points and counterpoints are highly and heavily nuanced.
Yes, sometimes I wish the choices were as clear as Joshua and Jesus indicate. However, when I trace the chronicle of the Israelites from their entry into the Promised Land unto this day and when I read the stories of Jesus’ disciples in the Book of Acts and throughout Christian history, clearly, neither had an easy, uncomplicated or convenient time after their moment of decision. Rather, they continued to confront always-complex circumstances and often-unclear choices.
Nevertheless, I am convinced of one thing. One thing worth remembering, particularly for our branch of Christendom, which, given our Anglican ethos, claims scripture first, then tradition, reason, and experience as our authoritative foundations for doctrine and discipline. We never are talking about the Bible, even and especially, when we say, “The Bible says…” (I digress. It always concerns me whenever folks say, “The Bible says…” and it concerns me even more when they continue; as if they have the first and last authoritative word on the Bible’s meaning and application!) We always are talking about our interpretations of the Bible. How we read it. What we believe it may have said in its original context and what we believe it means to us today.
If this is true and if we would remember it, then we might come to our debates with a spirit of honesty, knowing that we speak from a given perspective, and humility, knowing we don’t possess all truth and acknowledging our need to listen to other viewpoints.
I prefer talking with people with whom I agree. I also need, want to stay in conversation, in relationship with those who see the world, politics, society, race, the church and God differently than I do.
My friend Jeremy and I, in regard to almost any issue, are opposites. He, thoughtful and faithful, is my conservative. And I, also wanting to believe that I am thoughtful and faithful, his liberal. Our conversations, frequently, are intense. Yet not disrespectful. I have learned a great deal from Jeremy about how to see the world through a different lens than my own. I also want to believe that I have broadened his vision. At the least (and, I believe, this least is a lot!), we can say to each other, “I understand your point of view.”
I prefer talking with like-minded folk. However, the search for truth requires, demands courage and compassion, honesty and humility, so to speak with clarity and to listen with charity.
When Joshua and Jesus say, “Choose,” I’d like to think that something like this might be a part of what they have in mind.
© 2021 PRA
 See John 6.47-51
 From the hymn, The Church’s one foundation (1866); words by Samuel John Stone (1839-1900)
 A reference to Jude 1.3