On Friday I went to my friend’s house in Darwin for lunch. We were keeping it simple…. Just salad and bread, so I had picked some things from my garden in the morning and stopped at the bakery in St. Joe for a baguette. We began preparing lunch and served ourselves, and Sue looked at me to ask a question. Is the bread terrible? She asked. I looked at her in horror. “No,” I replied, “It’s from Flour and Flower. It’s really good bread.” She looked back at me in confusion. Then we both started cracking up with laughter. She had been asking me if the bread was tearable…. As in would we need a knife or could we rip it with our bear hands. Not if it were horrible, nasty bread!
I thought of this story when I re-read today’s scripture. There, was this crowd that had followed Jesus to Capernaum from the other side of the sea. They sought him out and began to speak to him. In response he asks, are you just looking for tearable bread? Or are you willing to follow me and see how terrible the bread of life can be? For I am the bread of life….. but to follow me is not an easy journey. At times you will be amazed. At times you will have fun. But there will be times that are hard and horrible. Yet, I tell you, if you choose to follow me, you will never again be satisfied with hunger for tearable bread.
It’s a choice we, as Christian, need to make many times over. Do we just want the bread that we recognize and that tastes good, or are we willing to follow into the horrific parts of life? And Jesus’ words don’t make our choice any easier. For he says things like,
"“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.””
Alongside things like, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
So what are we to believe? Is following Jesus easy? Is it hard? Will we ever hunger for material things again? Will we ever fit through that narrow gate? Or even find it?
Of course, the answer to all these things is yes. Following Jesus is easy and hard. We will feel filled and we will hunger for more. The contradictions of the mystery of Christ are many and never leave us knowing, when we try to know with our heads. But if we listen to our hearts, we find a whole different kind of knowing that goes beyond what words can say.
I went to a city council meeting this week in Cold Spring. While I don’t live in the city, I do shop there and eat there… it’s just a few miles form my home. And for a while I have been seeing posts on Facebook about a family that has been targeted by a man. It all began 87 days ago when the mother of this family went to the school board to tell them that her daughter was being bullied over social media. Her daughter is black and has lived in Cold Spring all her life, and is now a beautiful, quiet, composed 15 year old young woman. When she started high school the cyber attacks began, including threats to lynch her and all the other black students in the school. The school board did nothing, the bullying continued, the daughter, Olivia, even contemplated suicide. And this is when her step mom, Andrea, started to speak out. And her advocating for her daughter got her noticed by a man who decided to begin targeting the family. Over the last 87 days he has smashed car windows, ignored restraining orders against him, stalked the family, shot the security cameras they installed to try to keep safe, harassed them, gone on to their property and called the police on them, and last Saturday, he stole an SUV, put a granite block on the accelerator, jumped out of the car and watched as the car smashed into their home causing extensive damage and almost hitting a child asleep inside. He even hung a teddy bear from a noose in the car as his warning. All through this, the only consequences he has received are a couple of nights in jail. And after this latest attack, he is being charged with property damage and not assault or a hate crime.
The family, fearful for their lives and feeling let down by the system, asked to speak at the city council. And word went out for supporters to come and join them. So, on Tuesday evening, I, along with 120 or so others, crowded into the city hall and hallways of the building to stand in support of the family.
Many people stood up to speak, some sharing stories of their own, where they, too, had been harassed in the town, some educators speaking of how they had been told not to speak about the incidents with the students in their classrooms as the school board did not want to upset parents, some spoke of the horror that the main bully at school had been awarded a prize for good behavior at the end of the year. For more than two hours people shared their stories. And everyone, except the council, was moved to tears, especially when the two daughters spoke .. one white, one black, both strong, both in tears and both demanding action from these people in power.
And then the council responded. Not very well, in my opinion, seeing to be concerned for the family but not really willing to commit to doing much different. But then one council member said to the father, “I meet with my friends at 6:30am every day for coffee. Come and join us one day.”
I couldn’t figure out why this statement felt uncomfortable to me, so I sat with it. Then it hit me. The council member had asked the father, Phil, to step out of his safe zone once more to meet with this white man and his white friends. And while I truly believe his intention was good and kind and he wants to help, he doesn’t see what a sacrifice this would be to Phil.
I didn’t tell you this story to shame anyone. But rather because it really made me think about how I can act in the world. I want to eat the easy tearable bread of following Christ, but am I willing to be uncomfortable and eat the terrible bread of Christ? Would I be willing to step out of my comfort zone to enter the world of Phil and his family, would I be willing to stand guard at their house in the night, or is showing up at the council meeting the only bread and risk I am able to take? Would I go to Phil and his friends and enter their world, or am I only willing to sit in the council meeting where I’m expecting others to make a difference?
The contradictions that Jesus spoke so easily felt heavy inside me. I want to examine my behaviors, as Psalm 51 says, so my heart can be made clean, so I can know my transgressions, so I can see the ways I have sinned. For I think what that council member did is something that many of us have done in other situations, thinking we are acting with compassion and kindness. But are we really seeking God, or are we just looking for the bread that makes us feel good about ourselves? Are we doing the very thing that makes us look and feel good for doing something, and not really placing God’s desire in the center of our action.
I think we can all fall into that trap… what can I do that stretches me some but not too much? What would be a kind act, but one that doesn’t really take me too far?
It’s this kind of safe action that Jesus was speaking to in the Gospel reading today. He had seen the crowd coming across the sea to find him, but he challenges them, saying, Why are you looking for me? I don’t believe you want to be my followers, but you only came because you like the bread and fish I gave you on the other side. You don’t want to live a sacrificial life, that might cause you to leave your families, to leave your homes, to risk your lives as you go about healing others. No…. You just want to be fed earthly food.”
Jesus saw the crowd, and knew they were not ready to really do what it took to be a disciple.
That maybe they just wanted to be able to say…. Yes, I followed Jesus across the sea after I saw him perform the miracle of feeding me. I followed him in a boat. I want to know him.
But Jesus wants to make sure they know what they are agreeing to. And while, in this story many say, “Give us the bread of life always,” I wonder how many soon got back in their boats and returned home.
And, indeed, at the end of this chapter in John it says,
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” …
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
This is something many of us are tempted with. We long for the bread of life, yet not if it stretches us. We long to drink from the cup, but only if it doesn’t spill all over us leaving a mark on our clothing that others can see.
I wonder how long the council member from the other night would sit around if Phil showed up with 20 of his friends each morning at 6:30am.
I wonder how many more meetings I might show up at if they begin to get uncomfortable or I’m asked to do something that challenges me.
I wonder how many of us would hop back on a boat and return to the other side where things are easier and less demanding?
Thankfully John Wesley described this pull of our journey of faith by calling it sanctifying grace… the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit that changes us so that our lives are increasingly conformed to the mind of Christ. He called this lifelong process sanctification or becoming "perfected in love.” And he said that if anyone thought they had reached this place, that was a sure sign they still had a ways to go! It is not a state we can reach in this lifetime, for there is always more room to move toward greater love. Our task is simply to be going on to perfection in love. For none of us is Christ. None of us ever will be. But if we choose to follow him, then we will, step by step, little by little, move closer to what Wesley described as having a heart "habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor" and as "having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.”
So while the council member reached out in love…. What could he have done that was even more loving? I went to the meeting on Tuesday, but what more can I do to examine the ways I hurt others and what new ways is God encouraging me to stretch closer? For I know that following Christ is easy and hard, it’s getting the tearable bread of life along with the terrible. It’s that the yoke will be easy and that the way is narrow. And I know it will lead us all closer to perfection in love!
So God, create in us a pure heart, renew a steadfast spirit within us, grant us a willing spirit, sustain us and stretch us and feed us. And then we can follow you toward perfection in love.