12th Sunday after Pentecost

Phyllis Anderson—August 27, 2006
Mt. Carmel Lutheran Church, San Luis Obispo

Joshua 24:1 - 2a, 14-18
John 6:56 - 69

In a couple of weeks this college town and congregation will receive a flood of young people. Their worlds will be radically enlarged in the course of their college education. Away from their homes and congregations, they will encounter people very different from themselves. They will be exposed to ideas that challenge the way they put their worlds together. And they will pay good money to have this happen to them. I remember a student who said at graduation: “I feel as though I have stuffed myself in a blender and paid someone to press the puree button.”

A big part of that encounter with difference is getting to know, sometimes for the first time, people of other faiths. Not only Episcopalians and Mennonites, which can be mind bending enough, but increasingly Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and Jews and secularists who call into question all faith perspectives.

Of course this is not simply a campus issue. Wherever you live, whatever stage in life you are, religious pluralism is a fact of contemporary life. More pointedly, real people deeply committed to very different religious traditions are literally on our doorstep, across the street, in the next cubicle, and surely on the television screens in our living rooms. My 90 year old mother said to me a few days after the collapse of the World Trade Towers, “I guess I have to learn more about Islam.”

The world situation and our changing society at home demand that we all become more knowledgeable about other religions; that we free ourselves from stereotypes and caricatures. We need greater understanding and tolerance to survive together on this shrinking green-blue planet. We are past the time of imagining world domination by people like us under the Cross of Christ. For me that Christendom vision is a perversion of the very spirit of Christianity

But that is a practical and an ethical matter. What does the reality of religious diversity mean for believers like us? What does it do to our faith? Does it shake our confidence? Adapting to this changed world situation will take much thought over years and decades. But sometimes is seems as though the choices are not good—at least on the extreme edges:

  • On the one hand we might succumb to a kind of religious relativism. It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere. A lot of interfaith work seems to lead to a vague spirituality that borrows from many religions and skips lightly over the particularity of each faith tradition, especially those parts that don’t easily blend. That often means speaking generally about God, but never naming the name of Jesus. And the cross simply doesn’t fit. It becomes an offence and a stumbling block—as Paul anticipated from the beginning.
  • On the other hand we might revert to a kind of Christian exclusivism that is blind to the beauty and truth in each faith tradition. Jesus alone is the way and the truth and the life. Our way or the highway. This kind of exclusive claim seems arrogant and out of touch in this day and age. Many young people are leaving our churches because they can’t identify with the sense that we alone are right.

The lessons for today raised for me this question about religious pluralism. And they seem to show us a way. They speak from long-ago times, but these were times of religious pluralism not so much different than today. The writers of these stories assumed that there were other religions. No faith was dominate or self-evidently true. They do not seem to think it likely, nor do they encourage the idea, that competing religions should be wiped off the face of the earth. In these lessons, pluralism of religion creates a situation in which people have to make choices. Each person must choose their way—with all the risks implied in choosing—and then they must pursue the way they choose with a single-minded, all-demanding commitment.

The first lesson from Joshua poses the dramatic question: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Here is the situation. The children of Israel have completed their forty-year journey out of Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land. God has liberated his people from slavery, fed them along the way, and delivered them safely into a land flowing with milk and honey. Nevertheless in this long, long journey, the people often forgot the God who saved them. They slipped back into old patterns of worshiping the gods their fathers worshipped back in Egypt or now the gods of the Amorites, in whose land they were dwelling. It is clear there were competing religious options. And Joshua is clear about his choice: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

But the options remain. Joshua says to the people: “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve, the gods of your fathers, the gods of the Amorites.” They could go another way. In fact it might be easier. He warns them about the seriousness of the choice. If they chose to serve the Lord, they must serve the lord completely and sincerely. It is not an option to choose both, to maintain a shrine or two to the other gods just in case. Joshua urges them to take the risk. Make a choice. And there will be implications of that choice. Joshua goes on to establish a covenant, making perfectly clear what the rules are, all that is involved to serve God truly and faithfully. The choice is demanding and irrevocable. But the choice is theirs.

If we jump forward to the Gospel lesson from John, we have the last in this long series from Jesus discourse on the Bread of Life. The situation is similar to Joshua’s time and our own. Religious diversity is the reality and people have to make a choice. He is talking to Jews who have become disciples. They have been following Jesus, listening to his teaching, marveling as his powers, eating from the loaves of bread he multiplied before them. They are intrigued, fascinated, perhaps even titillated by what they see.

Jesus forces them to make a deeper decision. Jesus talks to them at great length. He forces them to think about what all is at stake here:

This is the living bread; those who eat from it will never die.
This bread is my body. Unless you eat of my body and drink of my blood, you do not have life in you.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and me in him; the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.

He is saying to them that this is not something to dabble with. This is not a head trip, but an intimate connection, close to the bone. It will affect your whole life: what you do, whom you love, how you act. To be my disciples means to participate so deeply in my life that you become one with me. As you eat my body and drink my blood, you grow more and more like me. You are what you eat. If you chose to follow, you must make an ultimate and absolute commitment and pursue it to the end.

The disciples begin to murmur among themselves. This is too much. They cannot go this far. “This saying is hard: who can accept it?” They begin to fall away. The writer says, “As a result of this many returned to their former way and no longer accompanied him.” There is sadness here, but no condemnation. They had a choice and took it. They will follow another way.

Then Jesus asked the twelve, his most intimate companions, “Do you also want to leave?” It is an option. He is asking them to make a choice. Peter answers with the profound response that has become a regular part of our communion liturgy: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have become convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter gets it—although he will still falter. He is able to give eloquent voice to the magnitude of commitment required. He is able to take the risk and make a binding choice.

And what then are the consequences of making this binding choice for us? Some will leave. Some are leaving our churches. Some find them forbidding and arrogant, closed, and irrelevant. Some find them too wishy-washy. But for those of us who take the leap to eat of Christ body and drink of his blood, become more and more like him. We will become more and more clear about who we are, more and more humble, more and more open, more and more loving, more and more forgiving, more and more generous, more and more lovely—like Jesus.

As I think of our respective ministries in this time of growing religious pluralism, our responsibilities come into focus in a fresh way. In this congregation and in your campus ministry, you need to be learning and teaching about other religions with respect and openness. And I know that you have. You need to be forming Christian communities that make for peace not war. And at the same time you need to be challenging one another to make the choice and to go deeper and deeper into the way, the way of life, the way of Jesus. And you need to open your arms like Jesus to those who do not know this way and invite them to walk with us, to make the choice and take the plunge. And you need to be the kind of community that feeds and supports and nurtures and celebrates this company of people who are choosing to follow Jesus, choosing to eat his body and drink his blood.

At PLTS, our job is to make sure that we are preparing ministers who can lead and support congregations in this work. We need to be forming more pastors like Jana Scholfield, who know how to proclaim Christ with integrity in this world in which we live, which we share with people of many faiths and many people of no faith. We have a great advantage located as we are as one of 9 seminaries of different denominations that make up the GTU. Our students take a fourth of their courses in those other schools and all of their classes include Catholics and Episcopalians and Baptists and the rest. The GTU also includes centers for the study of Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. We are located in one of the most diverse corners of the world in the Bay Area—a microcosm of what the American society is becoming. Our faculty has come to one mind and they have agreed to teach all of our courses through four guiding perspectives. They include Lutheran identity—a firm grounding in our own tradition—and the cultural and religious pluralism of our time and place.

I invite you to learn more about PLTS at the forum. I want to thank you for your support as a congregation. I also want to thank individuals in the congregation who have made the preparation of ministers for a world like ours a priority by making an annual gift to the seminary and putting PLTS in their wills. I give thanks for the ministry of alums like Pastor Schofield who make us proud and remind us of the grace and power of ministry shaped by the gospel and open to the world—a world of many cultures and religions.

And finally, I give thanks for the gift of John Cummings, who is driving up to PLTS to begin his studies for ordained ministry. As we push the puree button on his personal blender, we will surround him with love and guide him wisely as he grows to be the kind of pastor this world needs now.