13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 22, 2021, John 6:56-69
The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas
I imagine every one of you has a member of your family or extended family who you love very much, despite the fact that this person will sometimes say things so embarrassing, disgusting, and humiliating you wish you could distance yourself as far away from that individual as possible. Suddenly, because you are related to that person, others render you guilty by association.
I’m especially mindful of political campaigns in which one slip of the tongue, or statement that can be taken the wrong way, or discovery about illegal activities may be the deadly blow to a candidate’s bid for office, possibly to that person’s reputation and career. Suddenly those who followed and committed themselves to that politician’s vision and objectives are rendered guilty by association.
The disciples of Jesus, according to John’s gospel, found themselves is such a situation. Jesus would often say and do things with the intention of upsetting others and uprooting the status quo, because his vision of the earthly realm of God, where the last would be first, was radically different from the messianic expectations of his day.
But Jesus also had a tendency to say things that could easily be misinterpreted from what he intended. And the graphic analogies of himself as the bread and wine people consumed for eternal life seemed so repulsive and embarrassing that even many of his disciples ceased from following him anymore.
Have you yourself ever said or done something so embarrassing or humiliating that people did not want to be around you? I hope not.
Yet there are those who have done things far worse, so evil and despicable that, even after years removed from the events, they find it hard to forget and forgive themselves. I met a number of such individuals locked up in maximum security prisons when I participated in a criminal justice ministry program in Arkansas.
I’ve also met a number of individuals who had done evil and despicable deeds living freely with no sense of guilt or remorse, for they were their own gods, judges and jury, whose wealth had constructed their separate, secluded and barricaded heavens on earth, removed from the reality and cares of most everyone else.
Still, we are stuck with them and each other on one planet chipping away at other’s barricades with a faith and power of God we trust can move mountains and tear down walls.
I remember, as a high school student, traveling home one evening from an event with three friends of mine. The driver, Don, was an Italian American; Craig, an Irish American, sat next to him; and in the back seat, next to me, was Bob, a Chinese American. As we passed a group of black youth laughing and having fun, Craig casually uttered a racial epithet as if oblivious to me and the rest of us in the car.
Don slammed on the brakes lunging me forward to the point where I felt my hands around Craig’s neck. I quickly regained my seat and composure as Don turned to Craig and shouted, “Get out of my car!”
Craig leaned against the car door in crouched humiliation having revealed the racist environment in which he lived and, up to that point, had suppressed until it burst out of him like an unexpected reverberating belch. Suddenly we knew what we were to him and what he was to us.
Don once again shouted, this time so loudly I had to cover my ears, “Get out of my car!” But Craig shouted back with a whining apology and plea to not leave him behind. I knew what he meant. He didn’t want to be left alone with the group of black youth. But that was exactly what I wanted. My rage wanted to push him into that group plastered with signs, front and back, declaring him a racist and to do with him as they wished.
Everyone in the car became silent, except for Craig’s nervous, muffled pleading to stay. Then Bob, sitting next to me, took my hand and said, “Arnold, it’s your call.” That’s when my faith got the better of me. “Don,” I said, “take us home.”
Jesus said and did things that were life-affirming yet repulsive to others, even his disciples. We live in a world where people say and do things that are repulsive and life-negating. Still, our response should be similar to that of Peter, “Lord, to whom can we go?” (John 6:68)
Craig went on to become a popular city councilman and an outspoken advocate of racial justice and human rights.
Where can we go? We are stuck with each other, like passengers in a car trying to find our way home together, nourished with the bread of life, the power to move mountains and tear down walls. Amen.