Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2012
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that I was a straight-A student in high school. Oh who am I kidding, I was a nerd. I studied hard. I always did my homework. Teachers loved me because I would quietly put my head down and do my work. And this was true across all subjects. English, history, math, science – I dutifully put my nose to the grindstone and did my work. I never really had any trouble in any of my classes – everything was smooth sailing.
And then came pre-calculus. I had done well in algebra and geometry, but this was some new beast. Suddenly, numbers disappeared from the math equations and all I had to work with were strange symbols. My head reeled as I desperately tried to cope with pre-calculus.
But no matter how hard I tried, no matter how times I worked at those equations, I failed. It was just too much for me. All my buddies understood pre-cal, but I was lost. So I had to swallow my pride and admit that pre-calculus was too much for me. I put in a request to get out of the class, and rejoiced when I was placed into another history course. Finally – something that made sense.
Faced with a similar sense of helplessness, some of the first disciples had some pretty serious problems with Jesus. After a lengthy talk from Jesus about being the bread of life, some of the disciples admitted that this teaching was too difficult for them. They wandered to themselves, “does anybody else get this? Is this guy making any sense to you?” It was like me in my pre-calculus class, leaning over to my buddies asking, “how are you doing that problem? What’s that crazy little symbol supposed to mean?”
Eventually, some of Jesus’ words were so difficult, so worry-inducing, that some of the disciples left. John’s gospel doesn’t make a big deal of it – it’s laid out pretty simply: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with Jesus.” For these one-time disciples, Jesus’ teaching about the bread of life was an obstacle. They couldn’t wrap their minds around the mystery of Jesus and his unstoppable love. The teaching was simply too difficult, so they gave up and wandered away.
Today is Rally Day, your opportunity to check out all of the Christian formation classes for children, youth, and adults. And as we embark on all of the classes for the fall, let me warn you – there will be some difficult lessons. On Sunday morning we are going to look at some common misconceptions about the Bible. And during our gospel of Mark study, we are going to learn some new things about Jesus. We are going to be challenged by the Christian faith.
And our children will also be challenged. In Godly Play and Children’s Chapel and in the other Sunday School classes, they will be challenged into becoming stronger Christians. Children don’t become Christians by playing with crayons and play-dough. Children become Christians by being challenged to mature into the full stature of Christ. We don’t ask fifth graders to learn the same things they did as when they were in second grade. We challenge them, we give them new things to learn.
Some of the lessons you and the children will learn this fall are going to be difficult. There will be new things to explore. You may even hear some things that you don’t believe, that you disagree with. Chances are, at some point in all of the various classes throughout the fall, you will say, “This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it?”
But I ask you, don’t walk away. And don’t let your children walk away. Don’t give up like I did in my pre-calculus class. When you encounter a hard lesson in our bible studies and classes, don’t throw your hands up in despair. Don’t walk away from the hard lessons. There is danger in that. The danger isn’t that God doesn’t love you anymore, because that loves knows no boundaries. The danger is that you won’t grow. Think about it – I never had to take another math class since my junior year of high school. And I had eight more years of school after that. I saw an obstacle, and I turned away. I didn’t grow. Considering only my pride, I said, “This teaching is too difficult – who can accept it?”
But where we see an obstacle, God sees an opportunity. After some of the disciples left Jesus and walked away, there is an opportunity for God. In our passage, Jesus turns to the twelve disciples and says, “Do you also wish to go away?” And Peter responds: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Some of the disciples saw this teaching as an obstacle, but God saw this an opportunity to strengthen Peter’s faith. The same Peter who would go on to be responsible for the spread of Christianity throughout the Middle East. When the chips were down, when the people were scratching their heads, when an obstacle stood in the way – God took the opportunity to make Peter into a more faithful follower of Jesus.
This fall, as you study the Bible and dive deep into the gospel of Mark, be like Peter. Don’t see difficult lessons as impediments or roadblocks, but rather use them as occasions for deeper spiritual growth. Keep up with the hard lessons. Stick to your studies and your reading, even when things don’t make sense, even when the lessons are hard to accept. Take obstacles as opportunities.
There is one final lesson about Christian education that we can take from this passage. Any and all questions are permissible. Please don’t envision me as the all-wise priest who knows everything there is to know about God – because I’m not. I am growing, and maturing, and trying to figure it all out just as you are. The disciples who abandon Jesus, and even Peter, ask questions of our Lord. So please, please, never hesitate to inquire. That is how you learn. Rather than walking away, ask a question. Dig deep into a subject you don’t know about. Use your mind – as well as your body and your heart – to follow Jesus.
And remember, God loves you. God loves you the same yesterday as today as tomorrow as forever. There is nothing that can change God’s attitude or love for you. Christian education is not about coaxing God into loving you more. For that is impossible. Christian education is about learning how much God loves you.
That is what makes studying the bible and our faith so rewarding. So don’t be like the other disciples, don’t be like me in high school, don’t quit. Because there is sin in quitting, and you miss out on how much God loves you. Sure, the teaching may be difficult, be the reward is infinite. Take the obstacles as an opportunity.