We have finally completed our quick sojourn through John and Jesus’ teaching that the signs so valued by the Jewish people pointed to Him. For those travelling these last few weeks: Jesus has one-upped Moses by feeding the 5000 men besides women and children with no intercession and with plenty of leftovers; Jesus has walked on water, again signifying His control, not just over nature, but chaos; Jesus has taken upon Himself the so-called ego eimi, the Great “I AM” that spoke to Moses out of the Burning Bush; Jesus has declared Himself the Living Bread that has come down from heaven; Jesus has prophesied His death; and all this, and a bit more, take place under the theme of Passover. Truly, these were significant times in the lives of the disciples and Apostles! This all, of course, followed those signs of power which had attracted them in the first place. Perhaps they had seen Jesus cast out demons. Maybe they had seen Jesus enable a cripple to walk, a blind person see, someone with a fever restored, talk about someone unseen sitting under a tree, or any other of the countless signs that convinced them He was Messiah. Some, as Jesus has criticized in our readings these last few weeks, followed him simply for His ability to meet their material needs. All, though, had been attracted by something they saw or heard in Jesus.
Until now. . .
As I warned last week and we now read today, Jesus’ teaching is incredibly hard. Those who eat My flesh and drink My blood abide in Me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of Me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors at, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever. Imagine yourself in that audience hearing this teaching. Imagine yourself in this audience, having been drawn to Jesus by some sign or signs that convinced you that He had been sent by God, was possibly the Messiah, and hearing this teaching. Wait, I’m supposed to be a cannibal? I have to eat His flesh and drink His blood? His flesh and His blood are better than the manna in the wilderness? That came from God. How can this be? And why is God performing these signs through this nut? John tells us that the disciples complained about the teaching and how hard it was.
Jesus, of course, does not back down from His teaching. In fact, He pushes it, according to most commentators, telling them His teaching is of the spirit and not the flesh. I like to think, rather, He is planting a seed in the minds of those who fall away at this time. He plainly tells them that He will be ascending to the Father. Imagine struggling with this teaching, falling away, hearing of His death, hearing rumors of His Resurrection, and then hearing about the Ascension. Might this prophesy be enough to get you to reconsider your decision to fall away? Think about it. He reminds the people that unless the Father grants it, they cannot come to Him. He has already reminded them and us that the Father is dragging them into the boat like a fisher is hauling on a net. The implication is that the fish will continue to try and struggle out of the net and swim their own way. He has used an image that most in this port town can grasp. But they are descended from Abraham and Sarah. They already belong to God, in their minds, just because of their birth. Yet here is this prophet like Elijah teaching something else entirely.
The truth, brothers and sisters, is that neither you nor I truly need to place ourselves in the story to understand the decision by the disciples to fall away. All of us have felt that temptation to fall away like the disciples of old. When we are truly honest with ourselves, we know Jesus is true. Was God not hauling on the nets, how easy would it be for us to swim away! The world teaches all kinds of false gospels. At times, their message is like a siren’s song of old. Who wants to pick up a cross and follow Jesus when we can have it our way? Who wants to labor endlessly, serving as Christ’s hands and feet in a broken world, when we know we deserve a break today? For heaven’s sake, all of us gathered here this morning are Americans, I believe. Jesus is teaching us that service to Him is perfect freedom. We know that’s a lie, don’t we. And then this presumptive idea that He has about being the King? Come on. Democracy is the real path to liberty and freedom. Our candidates for president are proof of that. Why are you all laughing?
Seriously. Who hear has not been tempted by the idols of the age. Ever give up the worship of God who saved you and offered you life eternal for a football game? I see the squirms here in SEC country. Ever decide to skip the worship of God who offers you rest renewal because your bed seemed to be calling your name on a foggy, dark morning? Ever decide to choose the embrace of a lover, not your husband and wife, over the embrace from the hard wood of the Cross? Ever decide to hedge your bets and place your hope in the money you make, your own strength, your own intelligence, your own will, and not trust God entirely? Of course you have. Of course we all have.
As I was considering a number of illustrations that tied in these last few weeks’ of Jesus’ teaching that He is the focus of history and salvation and the reality of the hardness of His teaching, that we must be baptized into His death and raised into His Resurrection to be His, I was engaging in a number of conversations in my office. Several people shared with me they wished they were like me and did not struggle with their faith. After some snorts and laughter, I shared some of my personal struggles. In fact, I let them in on a little secret: most of us in collars have the exact same struggles. Many of us try hard to hide them, but all of us live in the hardness of these teachings of Jesus, whether we are good clergy or bad clergy. Those in our care and cures expect us to be beyond those struggles, and that is part of the reason why a clergy’s failure creates such headlines. But, imagine yourself praying for healing and, instead, find yourself celebrating a Eucharist at a funeral. Imagine serving as a mediator between two Christians who, time and time again, put ego over love, and so are never reconciled to one another. Imagine standing in the presence of true evil with the impotence that comes from knowing your efforts are like a grain of sand on the beach or a drop of water in the ocean. Imagine holding a hand to someone in need of rescue and them refusing to take it. Look around you for a moment. Imagine trying hard to pastor this herd of cats. We are laughing now. But my guess is that you each can think of times when you were an unruly bunch and truly tested the faith of your pastor.
As I was sharing stories this week along these lines, too many people in my office said they wished there was a way I could share the stories with everyone. In fact, I laughed out loud the fourth or fifth one because I knew the readings and I understood what they were saying. I tend to shy away from personal stories in sermons because the focus should always be on Jesus. I do not want you placing your trust in me; I desperately want you placing your trust in Him. I promise you I will fail you. He promises that He will not. Only one of us has been raised from the dead and ascended to the Father. I hope to join Him one day in the future, but I will only do so because He made it possible. But I also understand the idea of sharing with you some of those things that inform my faith. Sharing my hurts and my fears can sometimes cause people to open up truly about their hurts, their scars, and where they struggle, thereby making me a better pastor to you.
The story that resonated most with those in the office this week was from my seminary days. Some of you may have heard it from Clayton and Theresa while they were there. This might startle you to hear this, but Karen and I only planned on having four kids when we got married. When Robbie was born we really thought we were done. All jokes about someone needing to explain to us how this happens aside, we understood and took measures to see that it did not happen again.
It was the practice of my seminary to place students in small groups that met each week. The idea was that there would be a mix of first-years, second-years, and third-years that would serve as an accountability group, and later in life, as friends. During our time there, four of the wives of those in the group became pregnant. In fact, that year I think we had something like fourteen pregnancies. It was enough that the single ladies were forced to start drinking bottled water only. Hey, we thought it was funny at the time, too.
In any event, our group had two families that were dealing with first babies and two families that were dealing with fifth babies. Scott & Sarah and Bryan & Lisa were going through all the worries of having a first child. Paul & Kristti and Karen & I were going through the “what in the world is God thinking” of having a fifth. I cannot begin to describe to you the wild swings in conversations in our group meetings. You will likely meet Bryan in a few weeks, so you will better understand our interactions. But we were all over the place about babies and struggling with this prospect of serving God in ordained life. It was terrifying, but a good terrifying. It was exciting. It was full of promise.
Then Scott came to the group one day to share with us that their baby, Josiah, had been diagnosed with anencephaly. In case you are not familiar with the condition, all or part of the baby’s brain is outside the skull. The medical advice was to terminate the pregnancy. Many of you work in health care, so you understand the diagnosis and the reasons for the recommendation. Scott & Sarah discerned that they were to see the pregnancy through. God willing, Josiah would be miraculously healed. If not, then Josiah would be born and live as long as God gave him life. They were trusting that God would redeem their situation and their son.
You can well imagine the effect on my group. Paul & Kristti and Karen & I found ourselves in the midst of what mental health professionals call survivors’ guilt. Bryan & Lisa went from the normal “first pregnancy worries” to their own version of survivors’ guilt and these new additional worries. Scott & Sarah also had what most of us would think of as a normal reaction. I won’t share specifics, but you can well imagine the different emotions at play in our group. Fear, hurt, anger, self-blame, impotence, worry – you name it, we went through it. And truly, we were probably not as aware of the struggles with those in our group who were not yet married as we should have been. It was only some time later that I realized their difficulty. How does one celebrate and mourn appropriately within the same group?
Josiah was born and lived a few minutes. He was, of course, baptized immediately. Scott & Sarah held their precious son as he passed from this life into glory.
Then came the wonderful task for our group to plan and participate in a funeral for an infant. Seminary is supposed to prepare us for clergy life, but this is one of those lessons with which I could have gone without, or so I thought. People around here comment that George’s funeral was a real blessing, that I handled some difficulties with grace and resolve. Much of my sensitivity to the emotions and interpersonal play at wakes and funerals come from that year in seminary. You see, Karen & I, and later Paul & Kristti, had no problems. Sure, Karen and Kristti went through the hard work of labor, but our babies live. You know one as David.
To Sarah’s enormous credit, she made sure Karen was coming to the service with David. She had heard through the grapevine that Karen was likely to skip the service. Bringing a newborn to the funeral of another newborn just seemed . . . wrong. But it was that very wrongness that gave Sarah some hope. She needed to be reminded that this horrible tragedy was not what God had intended. She wanted Karen to come to remind her of God’s life-giving promises. Karen went. And even among future leaders of our church, she heard the questions, she heard the judgment. Don’t you think this inappropriate? What will Sarah think if your baby cries? You should have stayed away. Aren’t you rubbing it in her face? In the weeks and months ahead, we were fortunate to address the pastoral skills of some of those present, some gently. But it has served a reminder to me that things are not always as they seem to people. In that way, you have already been blessed by what I learned in that terrible tragedy.
You’d think, of course, that such was enough for one group of future clergy to suffer. You would be wrong.
Right around Bryan’s graduation, Lisa went into labor. I have to confess that, as a group, we could not wait to see Bryan as a dad. You will see him and learn a bit of what had us looking forward to it in laughter. Wait, they poop! Wait, they don’t bounce? Our only sorrow was that we were not going to get to watch Bryan learn to be a dad. That promised to be an adventure! Unfortunately, we lived another tragedy.
When Bryan called with the news that Samuel had died, I was so pissed . . . at him. I was absolutely convinced at first it was some sick joke whose humor completely escaped me. When I finally understood his seriousness, I was crushed. Like my group mates, I was just chuckling at the idea of Bryan being a dad. I was looking forward to the calls and e-mails of “how do you handle this?” To learn that Samuel had died for no apparent reason made no sense. I called others in the group to help get the word out among the seminary and headed to the hospital. I can see to this day the horror in his eyes. I knew his history and how he had cheated death. I don’t think we did anything but cry for the first few minutes. People speak of groaning in the Holy Spirit when there seems to be no words. I suppose we were at that point. At some point, I learned Lisa was alive. Naturally, I wanted to know what had happened. Babies just don’t die at birth in America. In third-world countries, but not here.
Over the next few months or years, their OB send the records to a number of hospitals for M & M, I guess you doctors and nurses call it. It makes sense that you want to catch your mistakes. I have no idea how many experts looked at Samuel’s case, but no one was ever able to give a diagnosis. It just happens.
Again my group found ourselves immersed in the planning and participation in another infant funeral. Thankfully, from our experience before, we knew better what to expect of those in attendance and from ourselves. But none of us could believe we were there. Again. We who were supposed to be the future priests in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, we who had been set aside by God, were burying a second infant in a semester! We had to hear the same words as those disciples so long ago. Eat My flesh and drink My blood and live! HAH! Hard words, indeed. I daresay most of us struggled with this for some time. I always felt a bit sorry for the members of the next class to matriculate who were dropped into our group. We were supposed to be talking about the difficulties balancing seminary with family life, of leading unruly vestries, of dealing with spiritual matriarchs and patriarchs of our future congregations, of dealing with clergy killers, and they walked in to our group. No, in many ways, we were and are just like you and just like Peter. Only He has the words of eternal life? To whom else could or can we go?
I am told by some among you that I speak convincingly of God’s redemptive power and plan. I should. We lived it. Yes, I can speak to you more specifically about my faith journey with God, but it is nowhere as impressive to me as to what He did within our group. If God can redeem the senseless death of newborns, and the grief of their parents, what can He not redeem?
Know first of all that both of those couples now have children. Both have healthy, beautiful, strong children who know and love God with all their strength, with all their little minds, and with all their little hearts. Cynics among us might say that is only biology. Given the high number of couples who divorce after the death of a child, I would tend to disagree that it is only biology at play. But I do recognize that God could give them a ton of children, and still there would be the tragedies of Josiah and Samuel deaths. No, God does far more than replace things and people that are lost. He does far more than we can ask or imagine.
Not too long after Josiah’s death, Scott & Sarah were recruited to join an anencephaly support group for those in the Pittsburgh area. I won’t bore you with the details or struggles, but you each understand well the concept of the Wounded Healer. Both were able to share in the pain and suffering of such loss and be used by God to speak His healing promise and His offer of forgiveness into the lives of those in the group with them. I never saw any of Scott’s conversations, but I heard about a few of them before we graduated. The impact of those conversations was typical. Some heard the redemptive message and fought all the harder against the net, refusing to believe that God was somehow not cruel or uncaring—their circumstances defined their relationship to Him; some heard the message and allowed themselves to be pulled into the boat! It is a cross that neither of them would ever have chosen to bear, but, like Peter, recognized that only the Lord offers such hope and such power in the face of seemingly certain death.
The beginning of the redemption of Samuel’s death was a bit more improbable. We might understand a couple’s willingness to put themselves out there in the face of tragedy, but Samuel’s had too big a coincidence and too big an impact. After our service at the seminary, Bryan & Lisa headed back to their sending parish in CT to inter Samuel’s ashes. As you can imagine, their home parish was crushed for them. They wanted to have a service there to provide some closure for the parish.
There was a site in those days—remember, this was the dark ages of the internet—called Mystery Worshipper. The idea was that a team went out to various churches and evaluates the worship to help people choose a church that fits their worship style. It seemed to me to be well done. Roman Catholics went to Roman Catholic churches; Presbies to Presbyterian churches, Episcopalians to Episcopal churches, and so on. The idea for us would be that, if we were travelling in NYC and wanted to find a high church or low church, a church with hymnal music or a church with contemporary music, we could read their evaluation and choose.
Wouldn’t you know it but that the mystery worship team showed up at that parish the day Samuel’s ashes were interred? Talk about a God-incident! Everyone was at church. Everyone there was in the same place—struggling with the senseless death of an infant of a couple they loved, of a couple upon whom they had discerned God’s call. The first image of the service recounted by the evaluators was Bryan carrying the Pascal Candle and reciting those wonderful words of introduction. I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in Me shall have life, even though he die. And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to Me in faith, shall not die for ever. Imagine stumbling into that scene where a father of a newborn proclaims those words! Kinda sets the tone, don’t you think? I think Paul Rodgers preached on the secret things of God, that we cannot know for certain why this happened or how God would be glorified in such a seemingly senseless death. But that He would, because He had promised. And in the end, all we can really do is trust His promises. Bookend that sermon and the Eucharist with a congregation singing Jesus loves me this I know as the little urn was carried out, and you can see how the service made a bit of an impression on the team. The team admitted at the time it had been, perhaps, one of the singularly most powerful services they had ever attended in a church. All the cares of the world had been given to God because, in the end, only He could truly manage them.
There are countless little stories of redemption that spring out of these tragedies. Over the years ahead that we journey together, you might hear a number of them. You will, of course, be witnesses to three important ones that are near and dear to my heart. Those of you who have dropped by the office since the arrival of Karen and the kids have remarked about the energy and excitement of a certain three children that hover around the office pestering Miss Tina. Not a few of you have wondered at our craziness at having seven children in this day and age. Now you understand us a bit better. Like you, we often wonder what He is thinking. But we also know, know that life is a precious gift to be treasured and offered back to Him. And so we have raised our kids to remember that and to share in the joy that, in the end, they truly belong to Him, as do each one of us gathered here.
Brothers and sisters, His teaching is hard. It is never an easy thing to be taught our limits, our weakness, or our need. And the world has such easier sounding messages and enticement that we wish, just wish, were true. But, as Peter reminded us this morning, only Jesus offers the words of eternal life. Only Jesus offers the means by forgiveness. That you might know His words were true and worthy of belief, God raised Him that Easter morning so long ago and made it possible for us to share in that glory some day in our future. Will you keep fighting His net and trying desperately to swim out into the dark and cold and deep, or will you commit yourself to doing all that you can to walk with Him, trusting in His teaching, His love, and His promises, that you will live for ever, basking in and sharing in His glory? Like those who stood among the shores on in the synagogue in Capernaum, He offers us far more than meets the eye. It is not at all easy, but then nothing worthwhile ever is.