Sermon: “Lord, to Whom Can We Go?”

‘Lord, to Whom Can We Go?’
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
August 26, 2018

Psalm 84:1-7, 10-12

How lovely is your dwelling place,
Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.

Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my Sovereign and my God. 
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise.

Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion. 
As they go through the valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools. 
They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.

For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness. 
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
God bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does the Lord withhold
from those who walk uprightly. 
Lord of hosts,
happy is everyone who trusts in you.

John 6:60, 66-69

When many of Jesus’ disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to trust and know that you are the Holy One of God.’

This morning’s Gospel reading picks up where we left off a few weeks ago. Jesus has just talked about being the “bread that comes down from heaven” and his followers are finding it a bit hard to swallow, pun intended. This is, after all, Mary and Joseph’s son, whom they’ve known since he was in diapers, claiming to be THE spiritual sustenance that comes from God. Some complain, some are offended, and a whole bunch decide to pack up and leave.

Jesus is revealing who he truly is, and the result is that those who had been so ardently on board when he was performing miracles and healings simply abandon him. Even for the Son of God, it must have stung – that so many were so unwilling to open themselves to his message of love and transformation. Against this poignant backdrop, Jesus asks the twelve disciples whether they, too, will leave; Peter responds with heartfelt simplicity: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Over the course of their time with him, Peter and the others have come to know Jesus up close and personally, not just as spectators, and their experience has convinced them that Jesus has got the goods – that what he offers is not just a wise saying or a full belly or a healed illness, but a life for the ages, a life made up of the things that truly matter.  They have seen through him what life looks like when lived in compassionate love for others: a life that prioritizes wholeness over hierarchy, a life that welcomes and forgives and nurtures rather than excluding or judging or shaming. And once they’ve experienced it, there is no turning back – nowhere else will satisfy their longing to steep themselves in this challenging, yet life-giving, way of being.

Have you ever glimpsed a life like that? Have you ever tasted it?

Stop for a moment and think about the last time you felt truly alive – saturated with joy, deeply fulfilled, energized by real connection, truly present, deeply transformed, truly challenged and growing. Maybe it was attentively listening to your child tell you about their day. Maybe it was the satisfaction of solving a problem with a coworker or of contributing to a good cause. Maybe it was while you were out for a walk, glorying in God’s creation. Maybe it was going out of your way to help someone in need or to be with someone who was hurting. Maybe it was an apology after a fight. Maybe it was creating something that spoke to your experience and resonated deeply with others’. Maybe it was finally feeling pain in a way that led to healing, or finally letting go of the burdensome weight of guilt or shame.

Can you imagine your whole life made up of these deeply lived, life-giving moments? That is what the disciples had with Jesus – and it’s what Jesus offers us, as well, if we would only follow him into each moment, inviting him into every mundane corner of our lives.

And yet.

And yet we so often do go elsewhere. We turn to food, or alcohol, or shopping, or the Internet to numb us of our feelings. We let the brute force of headlines rob us of our power to make a difference. We choose busy-ness over being present with our loved ones. We turn away from someone in need because it challenges our own sense of security. We let our discomfort with someone else’s pain prevent us from simply walking alongside them. We hide behind our phones and our email instead of pursuing true connection. We let our anxieties about tomorrow drain away our peace today. We think “I’ll make time to pray later” or “Geez, God doesn’t really want me to show up like this. Better wait ‘til I’m not feeling so selfish/angry/materialistic/ whatever…before I connect with God.”

So how, in the face of all that tempts us to go elsewhere, do we choose to go to Jesus, to go where there is spirit and life? How do we uncover, recover, that longing to be with God about which the Psalmist so eloquently writes – a longing that so often gets buried under the stresses of daily life?

As pastor and gospel artist Wintley Phipps says, we so often “see life as a symphony of activity, punctuated by those interlude moments of prayer” instead of turning “that on its head, and see[ing] life as a symphony of communion with God, punctuated by distractions. [O]nce the distractions are over,” he encourages, “go back, go back to that symphony.”

I recently listened to an interview with Brandon Stanton, the man behind the hugely popular photography and storytelling project Humans of New York. If you’ve ever spent time looking at his portraits and the excerpts of conversations that go with them, you’ll know that he has a gift for cutting through the distractions straight to the symphony – for going right to where the goods are, so to speak. People freely share with this person they’ve known for ten minutes about their challenges in raising a family; the shadows in their past; the rocky places in their relationships; their most precious dreams and their secret shames; their attempts to make their lives meaningful. People regularly tell him truths they’ve never told another soul, or never even realized were true until they spoke them out loud.

Why? Brandon has figured out how to hack the system – to quickly and consistently get back to the symphony, to what matters in life, every time. “How you get to that place,” he says, “is 100% presence. You’re 100% there. You’re not thinking in the framework of an interview…you’re not thinking of your next question, you’re not thinking of how this person fits into your idea of them and what you know about them; you’re 100% there and you’re 100% listening to them. And your questions are 100% coming based on curiosity about what they are telling you, and nothing else. …There’s this energy that happens there…[and] it’s that energy and that presence and that being there” that brings the magic.

What if we were able to be the Brandon Stanton of our own lives, to practice returning to the symphony on a consistent, regular basis? We wouldn’t be thinking of what’s for dinner, or the next thing on our to-do list, or trying to make ourselves or those around us conform to some idea of who we should be; instead we would be present to the miracle of what’s in front of us, in our own lives and in others’ – and we would be able to spot the places where God is calling us to deeper communion, to a better way.

Here’s all that’s required to do that, to return to the One who gives us a life worth living: pause, notice, appreciate, embrace. That’s it; pause, notice, appreciate, embrace. Pause, notice what God has given us or is right now inviting us into, and appreciate it, giving thanks for the beauty of what’s already there, for the opportunity to go deeper. Then choose to embrace the resulting feeling of peace, of abundance, of joy, of compassion, of connection – even of discomfort for a new, but rewarding, challenge. Choose to embrace those feelings, and to act on them, over everything else. Then repeat, as often as necessary.

This week I had to set some firm boundaries with someone who had pushed past all the limits of what I was able and willing to do. Setting boundaries is rarely a pleasant task; it often makes me feel like not such a nice person even when it’s the very best thing for all involved. So for a few days this task became a big distraction in my life as I tried to ignore it: I talked to a friend, and a colleague, and then my spouse about it as a way to put it off. I didn’t pray about it beforehand because I was afraid I’d be told to do what I knew was necessary. But afterwards I did pray, and even though I didn’t feel better about what I had had to do, I did feel Jesus inviting me to do some other things I had been putting off, since I was already on a roll. So I made a phone call that had been on the back burner for a week, and lo and behold I was able to connect someone who needed some work done with someone who had been looking for a job. If I hadn’t been paying attention to where Jesus might be calling me after that first hard thing, and instead had just gone to eat a cookie or watch a show to feel better about having to do something painful, I would have missed the symphony.

As you can tell from my story, this whole turning to Jesus thing is often easier said than done! But really, when it comes down to it, where else can we go? To what other person or thing or idea can we turn if we want a life lived truly and deeply, out of love instead of fear? Where else will we be fed so satisfyingly; where else can we add our part to such a beautiful symphony? If we can pay attention to Jesus’ deep love and transforming compassion in every moment of our lives, as Peter and his friends had the opportunity to do, we’ll come to know that nowhere else does it get as good as this.

“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”