bread of life
“Choose this day whom you will serve…” Joshua 24:15
The other day I passed a gelato stand in the city, and I was baffled by the variety of flavors. There was the predictable chocolate and strawberry, but add to that tiramisu, pistachio, sea salt caramel, key lime pie, black raspberry, pina colada, and – I’m sorry about this one – avocado. So many choices – not all appealing, but I’d try most of them.
It got me thinking about how overwhelmed we are by choices each and every day. On that same day, there were multiple ways to travel – walk, drive, train, subway, Uber, Lyft, taxi, bus. What determines our choices?
When we want to watch a television show or a movie, once again the number of choices is crazy. Stay at home or head to the theater? Watch something on demand, use the Roku or Apple TV or Chromecast, or stream something online – but with what? Amazon Prime, Netflix, or Hulu or something I haven’t even heard of yet?
These are not life-altering decisions for the most part. Choosing the mango gelato over the cappuccino does not determine the fate of the world. But other decisions feel much more momentous. I keep thinking about all of our newly graduated folks heading off to begin college this month. I’ve been praying for them, and I’m reminded that this time a year ago they were faced with the challenge of choosing what colleges to pursue. We have several high school seniors who are beginning that process right now. I’m praying for them too because I remember how intimidating it can be. Where will you choose to apply? And where will you be chosen for admission?
It seems to be a peculiarly American mindset that it’s great to have lots of choices. The more choices, the better. Whether you’re staring at a wall full of yogurt in the grocery store or the hundreds of cars lined up in the dealership parking lot, choice means power. Choice means you have arrived. It means you have options. And who doesn’t love options?
But the language of choosing can get tricky when we’re talking about faith. When we talk about “choosing” in the context of church, it’s tempting to fall into the language of some of our sister denominations, the ones that believe that in order to be saved, each of us must choose Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior. They insist that your salvation is not assured unless you can state with certainty the date, time, and place that you made such a choice. There’s a moment built into worship so that people have the opportunity to make this choice on the spot.
The front page of my old NIV Children’s Bible, in fact, documents the many times I decided to “get saved.” June 1st, 1981. January 5th, 1983. Easter Sunday, 1988. Some of the dates are crossed out, signifying salvations that apparently didn’t “take” (who knows why?) and required do-overs.
As the years went by, I got tired of this relentless choosing. Tired of stumbling down the aisle Sunday after Sunday, consumed by guilt. Tired of wondering if my confessions were earnest enough to earn God’s favor. Tired of not knowing for sure if I was saved, once and for all. Tired — most of all — of feeling like so much depended on me.
As Lutherans, we have a different way of understanding the role of choice in faith. We believe that first and foremost, Jesus chooses us. Jesus chooses to live among us as a flesh-and-blood human being. Jesus chooses to die to make sure the powers of sin and death don’t have the last word in our lives. Jesus chooses us in baptism, marks us with a cross that we carry for the rest of our lives as a sign that we are claimed by a grace more generous than we deserve.
So what do we make of all the language about choosing in today’s scripture? The first reading finds Joshua gathering the tribes of Israel together for an important message. They are at Shechem, the place where many years ago God had appeared to their ancestor Abram and promised him the gift of the land. Standing in that holy place, Joshua gives the people this challenge: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” The choices are all around them. Just like their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, these Israelites have many opportunities to worship other gods, to pursue idols that are shiny and alluring but offer nothing in the way of relationship.
The people are not choosing in this moment whether to be in relationship with God. That relationship already exists. They are, after all, God’s chosen people. God has been with them from the beginning. The people even acknowledge that deep history in their response when they say: “”Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed.”
The people do not choose God, but they do have to choose how they will live in response to that relationship. Will they be distracted by those other gods, all those false promises of prosperity? Or will they follow the one who led them out of slavery into freedom? You see, that’s the potential pitfall of freedom. You can choose to turn your back on the One who gave it to you in the first place.
That’s what seems to be on Jesus’ mind as well. As he nears the end of this long bread of life discourse, he can see that he’s losing many people in the crowd. “This teaching is difficult,” many of those people complain. “Does this offend you?” Jesus asks. Does it scandalize you? Shock you? Make you want to run away?
I suspect it’s not just all the colorful talk about flesh and blood that has people inching toward the parking lot. They’ve seen what Jesus is about. He’s been hanging out with those undesirable people – women at wells and people with diseases. He’s healed those people, but he’s a rulebreaker. He did some of that healing on the Sabbath, after all. And while he seems to be able to pull off a good miracle – didn’t he just feed thousands? – he’s already made both the religious and the political leaders angry. There is no way that all of this will end well. Who in their right mind would choose to follow such a person?
We don’t choose Jesus as our Savior. That’s done. He has already chosen us as his own. But we do choose how we follow him. And make no mistake: We struggle with that choice every single day. Like the Israelites, we are surrounded by all the bright and shiny things that try to lure us away from our faith. False promises come in different forms in the 21stcentury, but they are just as enticing. And like those early disciples, we know that following Jesus will have consequences. At the very least people will think we are strange. Jesus is telling us to go hang out with the outcasts, to be withthem and forthem. He’s telling us to love our enemies. Not just tolerate them or like them. Lovethem. He teaches us to pray while the world mocks us for shouting into the void.
Many days it would seem easier to pretend like we don’t even know Jesus. Or to do our best to follow some of what he taught us, but do it in such a way that maybe no one will pay attention.
Some days I feel like Jesus is asking me that some wistful question that he asks his twelve closest followers: “Do you also wish to go away?”
If I’m honest, some days the answer is yes. Yes, Jesus, I do wish to go away. Following you is hard, and I’m not sure I’m up for it today.
Even on those days I still know that he has chosen me. I am still marked by that cross on my forehead, still held by a love that won’t let go. And then it becomes easier to follow him because I feel so grateful, how could I do otherwise?
As Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” John 6:56
If you had to name a food that you strongly associate with the place you grew up, what would it be? A Philadelphia cheesesteak? Iowa corn? Pork roll…or Taylor ham…or whatever it’s called?!? As a southerner, I have many examples, but one of the foods I love most are hush puppies. I hope you have had the pure joy of eating hush puppies – all the better if you were able to eat them with some good fried seafood and maybe some cole slaw. Hush puppies are so simple – just fried balls of cornmeal and a couple of other ingredients. But they are delicious, especially when you eat them with some honey butter.
I remember an evening when I lived in the Bay Area of California. I headed to San Mateo for dinner with some friends, and Jeremiah, one of our hosts, had prepared a wonderful menu that included (you guessed it) homemade hush puppies. He had worked so hard to find the right recipe and to perfect the technique of frying them – which, for the record, I have never been brave enough to do myself. I remember biting into those hush puppies and thinking, “Oh my goodness. This tastes like home.” I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. It was amazing.
That’s the power of certain kinds of meals. Wherever we might be when we gather around a table and eat certain foods in the company of loved ones, we experience more than a good meal. And it’s about more than wonderful hospitality, although that’s important. It’s also about identity. Food prepared in love, offered in love, and shared in love shapes the story of who we are. It nourishes not just our bodies, but our very souls.
That’s the kind of meal of which Jesus speaks in today’s gospel. I know you’re wondering if he’s ever going to be finished with this bread of life language, and the answer for today is “not yet.” Last week we heard how many of his listeners scoffed at the thought of Jesus being the bread that had come down from heaven. He was someone they knew. They knew his parents. He couldn’t be all that special, could he?
This week the pushback is getting worse – although we can hardly blame people for their skepticism. To those of us listening to Jesus’ words after centuries of Christianity, we can’t help but hear the language of Holy Communion in what Jesus is saying. But remember that at the time Jesus is speaking, Holy Communion doesn’t yet exist as a practice. However, Jesus eating with all kinds of peopleisa common practice – with sinners, outcasts, the sick, the struggling, foreigners, outsiders – generally the people no one else invited to dinner parties. Just before he launched into this big, long speech about bread, he’s fed thousands of people on a mountainside. Jesus loves sharing food with people, so it’s no wonder that the early church made eating together a central part of gathering for worship.
But long before all of the ritual developed around Holy Communion, we hear Jesus saying words that would of course have baffled anyone who heard them: “Thebread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh… Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” Without knowing the layers of meaning that would emerge over time around these words, the crowd has every right to be confused.
Even with all the baffling talk of eating flesh and drinking blood, it’s important to hear that Jesus talks about it in terms of relationship. He uses the language of abiding: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” That word – abiding – shows up a lot in the gospel of John. It means that we remain in the presence of Jesus always – no matter what. It means that Jesus comes to us and stays with us through all of the joys and perils of this life. The times that make us laugh and the times that make us cry and the times when we are too exhausted to do either.
That’s what we experience when we receive Holy Communion. We may not feel it like some sort of magic spell week after week, but this meal is about Jesus abiding with us. It’s not just gathering around a table with loved ones, although that’s important. And it’s not just about hospitality, although that’s important too. It’s also about identity. Jesus gives us his very self, and this food prepared in love, offered in love, and shared in love shapes the story of who we are.
I’m convinced that the relationship between food and identity is one reason that the imagery of feasting appears so often in scripture. We hear it today in the first reading as Wisdom is personified as a hostess preparing a meal for her guests. The animals have been slaughtered as food. The wine has been poured. The table is set. And while the invitation may not be the most flattering you’ve ever heard (it is, after all, addressed to “those without sense”), it seems appropriate given that Wisdom is summoning people to enjoy this meal she has prepared: “You that are simple, turn in here!…Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”
What an invitation. Here’s how God counters the foolishness of this world – the divisions, the pettiness, the backbiting. By inviting us to pull up a chair to Wisdom’s table and enjoy a meal together. Here we can lay aside immaturity and receive what only Holy Wisdom can give – new life, new beginnings, the way of insight.
The extraordinary writer and scholar Elizabeth Alexander has described her late husband’s experience of fleeing Eritrea, a small, war-torn country in Africa.[i] He arrived in the United States in 1981 as a refugee, forced from his homeland to avoid being slaughtered. When the death squads were getting too close, when too many of his classmates had disappeared, his mother sent him away as a 16-year-old. He walked to Sudan and then to Italy and then to Germany and eventually made his way to the United States, where he settled in New Haven and became a citizen.
A few other family members followed later. Elizabeth writes this about her husband’s sister:
One of my sisters-in-law, also a refugee, began a new life from scratch in the United States before her husband and remaining child at home could join her. She left everything material behind in Ethiopia — home, car, furnishings, jewelry. A few things eventually made their way back to her. She’d get a call to meet a plane at Kennedy Airport and a package of something precious would come: spices, fabric, a packet of documents.
The best was when her small coffee table came, with compartments for coffee cups, and a small rug made of artificial grass. She did the sacred Eritrean coffee ceremony and for a moment was no longer a refugee but rather a woman performing the rituals she had performed all her life.
“I am home now,” she said, as she poured us cup after cup of coffee…
We may not all be refugees in a literal sense, but we know what it is to feel disconnected from the places we’ve known as home. We know how much it matters when we can gather and share food in a way that reminds us of our history and our identity – where we came from, who we are, whose we are.
This morning God extends to us a holy invitation to be fed in the way that only God can give, to abide in the presence of the One who never lets us go. Come, eat of this bread and drink of this wine. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]See, for example, this piece, from which I quote: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/21/opinion/sunday/how-to-make-a-life-from-scratch.html