John 6:56-69, Psalm 111:1-10

“This is difficult,” they said.  “Who can do this?”

At the end of July I finally read Viktor Frankl’s 1959, Man’s Search for Meaning.  Frankl, an Austrian neurosurgeon and psychologist was, along with his family, deported first to a ghetto, then Auschwitz.  He was later moved to a camp near Dachau, which is where he was when the camp was liberated.  His parents and wife were killed.  After this experience his work shifted to assessing the psychological impact on both prisoners and guards in the camps.  How did some survive and others not?  What mattered?  He did some important work, writing and teaching in Europe and the US.  “Man’s Search for Meaning” begins with a lengthy description of his experience, then a little more analysis.  In page after page of horrors, he writes:

I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare.   Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man.  Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do.  At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.[1]

Frankl realized that no matter how horrible the dream was, waking up would be worse.

“This is difficult,” they said.  “Who can do this?” 

I bet there has been a time in your life when you have asked this question.  The couple of times I have it comes as prayer, anguish voiced to God.  Jesus.  Help make this better.  I can’t do this alone.  Be here, fix this, make him well.  What about you?  God, she’s too sick.  I’m too exhausted.  I can’t take the hurt, the betrayal, the loss anymore.  We experience it personally and we see our world.  The first anniversary of the evil rally in Charlottesville last year, you remember those torches that Friday night as all these young white men marched for the white race?  The first anniversary came and went with many more counter protesters in Washington DC, but the fact that even 30 people were willing to parade down the heart of our nation’s capital proclaiming their vile hatred is enough, and we all know means there are many, many more.  We have much work to do.

“This is difficult,” they said.  “Who can do this?” 

Their words, more precisely, were: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  They are speaking more specifically about the complexity of life following Jesus.  After Jesus called disciples he turns water into wine at a wedding, cleanses the temple, breaks every societal taboo you can come up with meeting the Samaritan women by the well.  He heals people rich and poor, prominent and despised, breaking the laws feeding on the Sabbath, feeding 5000, calming the storm and walking on water.  He has told them he was the bread of life, that they would not be fed for the day in Him but that they would be fed for a lifetime.  They believed it, but also saw the trouble he was getting into, reaching across lines of race and class and nationality, unclean become clean, outsiders become insiders, all of it mixed right up in the kingdom of God.  They’re excited.  They see something.  They want to follow, but it’s hard.  This teaching, they say to him, what you are calling us to, might be too much.  We’re not sure we can do it.

There’s always a space between who Jesus calls us to be and the decisions we make trying to follow Him.  We hear Christ’s call to be unceasingly generous, but the fear of not having enough is real, to live on a fixed income as we age, for retirement, for the kids – not enough for the things we need to do, and the things we’d like to do.  We want to reach out to our neighbors, but all of us, even those of us who pride ourselves on being the most enlightened, all have our own assumptions and biases against each other – differences that are small and need to be ignored, differences that are huge that we need to not be afraid to engage.  Time we don’t feel like we have.  Grudges we want to cling to.  I don’t know about you but I’ve got a handful of grudges I love to cling to.  We have all of this stuff, the stuff of our lives, the fears of who we can or can’t be, who our children will or won’t be, what will happen on all the regular days and the ones when it gets hard.  When we let our anxiety and fear get the best of us.  I haven’t fielded much of it yet and I am grateful for it, but in seasons of a lot of change in the world, like this one, people are nervous and aren’t often their best selves.  We’re moving into the heart of a mid-term election season and we MUST, we MUST, be a people committed to, here and way beyond the walls of this church, in person and online, be a people of grace.  You can speak for what you believe is true and still be kind.  It is possible.  In seasons of lots of change around this church – and it happens in any organization people care about when there is change, sometimes brothers and sisters (and I’m working on this myself, too) jump in and try and do too much, overfunction to try and fill a vacuum, real or perceived, or see a chance to jump in to effect the change they’ve been wanting to for years but hadn’t felt like they had space.  Uncertainty provides opportunities, but we must be faithful and wise.

Another book I read in July was Reinhold Niebuhr’s, “Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.”  Before his teaching career at Union Seminary in New York, one of the most important theologians of this century, he was a young pastor in Detroit in the 1920s, and writes of being new in ministry.  It is of such comfort to read him worrying his sermons are too dull, trying to figure out how things work, getting to know the community, trying to be a friend to colleagues.  But most of all he wrestles with discipleship.  He knows that regardless of how effective he is as a pastor, he needs to devote his heart, as all of us do, to being a ChristianTo following Jesus.

Niebuhr writes –the entire section is in the bulletin and you should spend time with it – of that wrestling that we all do both well and poorly every day:

It is Christian to trust people, and my trust is carefully qualified by mistrust and caution.

It is Christian to love, and to trust in the potency of love rather than in physical coercion.

It is Christian to forgive rather than to punish; yet I do little by way of experimenting in the redemptive power of forgiveness.  …I am too cautious to be a Christian.  I can justify my caution, but so can the other fellow who is more cautious than I am.

The whole Christian adventure is frustrated continually not so much by malice as by cowardice and reasonableness.  …And perhaps everyone is justified if he tries to prove that there is a particular reasonableness about the type of compromise which he has reached.

A reasonable person adjusts his moral goal somewhere between Christ and Aristotle, between an ethic of love and an ethic of moderation.  I hope there is more of Christ than of Aristotle in my position.  But I would not be too sure of it.[2]

“Because of this,” John writes – because these teachings were too difficult – “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”   Some didn’t believe it was true, found the words, maybe even more so found what he was calling them to do to be too much.  But others, like Peter.  Like these dear officers we’ll ordain in a minute who are going to have a little more to do than they bargained for when they agreed this spring.  I pray this will be us all and even more who will come, will look to Peter, who says, I imagine with a sigh, who says to Jesus: “What do you think I’m going to do?  I know it’s hard.  It feels like too much.  But who you are is so true, the truest thing we’ve ever know.  How can we do anything but live in joyful response to your grace, your compassion, your justice, your love?  How, Jesus, can we do anything else?

It’s hard.  A mighty calling.  But gosh, it’s worth it, to move way more towards love than moderation, to be ALL IN following who Jesus IS and calls us to be.  It’s difficult.  But it matters as much as anything does.  And we have work to do.

All praise be to God.  Amen.

[1] Viktor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” (Boston: Beacon Press, orig. 1959, 1992 edition), p 29.

[2] Reinhold Neibuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, 1980 edition, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1980), 131-132.