I remember when I was in college I wanted to be a counselor. Differences in how people respond to situations fascinated me, and I particularly enjoyed abnormal psychology. I also enjoyed child psychology, nature versus nurture, and how children reacted during different circumstances and to various types of people. And, how situations in childhood could actually change a person, change behavior, change the way the brain fires information based on hormones and other chemicals. While the psych classes were stimulating, what I struggled so hard with was pre-med biology. I could not remember ATP and the Krebs cycle. I couldn’t remember the difference between mitosis and meiosis, nor could I remember which came first: metaphase or telophase. When I was on track to fail pre-med biology for the second time, even with a tutor, and I was struggling in Calculus, I thought, “Janie, maybe this isn’t the career path for you.” So, I made an appointment with an academic advisor and changed my major to English and nestled in and the whole world exploded with life as I learned about character development and rhetorical analysis.
In our gospel passage this morning, Jesus is engaging with the crowds of people who are following him, as he has been doing for many, many weeks. But today, in this reading, something changes. There is a response on the part of those following Jesus. Listen to what one of the followers says: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus has been teaching and showing them that it is the marginalized who will be raised up, the last will be first, the rich man must give up everything he finds precious in order to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. The followers want the reward without the work. They want the rules because they can control the rules, and it enables them to use the rules to oppress. It’s much easier to follow the reliability of rules than it is to live in compassion and forgiveness because the membrane between law and love is permeable. But, ultimately, love supersedes law.
So, the followers who feel that these teachings are too difficult to accept, they turn away and leave. But their leaving is much more profound that changing college majors in the middle of my junior year. As far as we know, they turned away from Jesus.
Imagine…. These followers have been with Jesus as he fed the 5,000, as he healed the woman of her bleeding illness, as he raised the Roman soldier’s daughter from death. These followers have seen it ALL. They’ve talked to the Savior of the world, the very Son of God. And they walk away! Those that stay are drawn together as a community of faith. It isn’t a creed or a mission statement or a building or a history in their community that connects them and commits them. Instead, it is their belief in something too incredible to explain and in a man too mysterious and beautiful to reject that draws them into community.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder what happened to those who turned away. What was the final straw in their minds that made them leave? I ask this question of them as I look up into my own world in this moment. There is so much pain and fear and grief. Refugees fleeing their homes and countries because of war and environmental disasters. Friends and families sick with illness and dying in isolation. Parents sending children to school in the uncertainty of school remaining open through Christmas. Loved ones who choose addiction over acceptance. There is so much that could draw us away, draw us apart from one another.
In our own grief or pain or anger or fear, we could stop. We could resist. We could reject. Life, especially life in these current days, is uncertain enough. We turn on the news or scroll through the internet and see much that can overshadow our hope. As NT Wright says regarding those who turned away, “It was more that what he had said made a huge hole in their world-view, and when that happens some people prefer not to think about it anymore.”
And yet, each one of us here continues to be present. Continues to show up. Continues to join. And I have to ask the question that only you, within your own heart, can answer. Why are you here? Why do you stay? Why do you pray? Why do you believe?
CS Lewis said in A Grief Observed, “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” Jesus isn’t Episcopalian. He isn’t Baptist or Catholic or Lutheran or any other religion. Jesus isn’t this building at 325 E Washington in McAlester. Jesus isn’t a dogma, a set of rules or doctrine that are undeniably true. Instead, Jesus is Truth. For each of us, the answer to the questions I asked just now could be something different. But the core of our response is Jesus. His actions, his behaviors, his compassion and love and purity are what draws us to him and what keeps us together. And, as NT Wright continued to offer, “Jesus is the Word made flesh, and it is his body and blood that are the vehicles of the inner life of the Word.”
As we sit in the presence of pain and uncertainty, we do have hope. We do have the fact of love. And, as we look around, we are not alone.