The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 26, 2018
It just wasn’t worth it anymore. The relationship had gone bad. Yes, we had our good times and our memories. We had our moments together. We had our rituals, when we really got to spend time with each other. Until, it just wasn’t working anymore. The relationship was costing too much money, too much stress, there was no joy in it anymore. So, I did it. I ended it. I called the cable company to cancel my cable tv package.
It really did feel like a breakup. The person on the phone, they acted like they were hurt. “Was it something I said?” Me, the cold hearted budget cutter than I am, just said, “no, I just don’t think it’s worth it anymore.” “But, but, but…how are you going to watch TV? Sports? The news? What are you going to do with yourself?” Something like this conversation is happening all across the country. “Well, we have Netflix. That works for us.” “You mean, you mean, you want to start seeing someone else?”
And then, once you do cancel cable, they start calling you in about a month. “Let’s get back together! Don’t leave me!” They are desperate. They manipulate you, coerce you, shame you into staying. It’s an awful, awful feeling and it happens more than with just cable tv. You so desperately want to break free but you’re just being squeezed. You just can’t walk away.
This is what, I think, makes the difference between a religion and a cult. In a cult, you’re stuck. You cannot get out. The service agreement you signed is binding. And if you do try to get out, you feel an enormous amount of pressure to stay. It has the appearance of strength. But it’s really not. The cult, the group, that applies that much pressure, that maintains that much secrecy, is actually weak because they have to stoop to such base tactics. We should own up. The Church has done this. We’ve held on too tightly. We’ve manipulated, coerced, and shamed people into doing what we want them to do. Lots of money has been raised that way, churches have been filled that way, but at what cost?
Christianity, on the other hand, should be open and free. Free to come, free to stay, free to go. That is the Church at its best. Your presence, your gifts of time and money, are just that - gifts. Not payments on a contract, but free gifts. This has the appearance of weakness. I don’t tell people they’re going to hell if they have doubts, or worries, or concerns, or that their life isn’t working out the way they thought it would; even though they believe in God. See, in the Church, in a life with God, there is no coercion. No shame. No manipulation. This is the way the Church ought to behave. Because the point has never been to just get more people - the point has always been to grow in love.
We learned this from Jesus himself. Jesus is speaking about his body as the bread of heaven; his blood as the gift of eternal life. Some of his disciples get weirded out. Remember, the ancient Jewish people had strict dietary codes which forbade the drinking of blood. They push back against Jesus, they say, “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”
Eventually, some of his disciples leave Jesus. It says, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Jesus then asks the disciples that have stayed, “do you also wish to go away?”
Notice the implicit message there. The disciples started following Jesus of their own accord. No one forced them to. They have remained with Jesus of their own accord. And they are free to go whenever they wish. No squeeze. No manipulation. No coercion. No shame. Think of that for a moment - a movement that has changed the world was started by people who could’ve simply walked away.
This makes Jesus look like a weak leader to the world. I mean, if you’re trying to start a movement, if you’re trying to capture the energy of the people to do something new, wouldn’t you want their hardcore, ironclad commitment? Wouldn’t you want them locked in, totally loyal to you? A commitment at least as binding as the one you signed with Comcast?
But of course, God’s wisdom looks like foolishness. God’s strength looks like weakness. Bullies are actually weak leaders. Their bluster is just a cover up for their own insecurity. You know, the cable television companies are actually terrified of Netflix, and that’s why they squeeze you to stay. Bullies are the same; the weak leaders, they need you. They need you desperately. They are so weak, so insecure about themselves, that they resort to fear to get you to follow them. They make you afraid of following anybody else, afraid of people who are different from you, afraid of anything. They manipulate you into follow them because they need you.
As odd as it may sound, God does not need you. God’s existence is not contingent upon your belief in God. No, God is going to exist whether you believe or not. Whether you follow Jesus or not. The nerdy, theological way of saying this is that God is sovereign. Really, that just means that God doesn’t need you in order for God to exist. But God wants us to believe. God wants us to be close. God wants us to follow Jesus. Not out of fear, but out of love.
This is how we know that Jesus loves us. We are free to come, free to stay, free to go. There is freedom in love. Jesus turns to Peter, “Do you also wish to go?” Peter responds, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter knows that Jesus loves him, and that is why Peter stays. For life, for love. And actually, because Peter stays for the right reason, he’s actually more committed. Precisely because he hasn’t been bullied is the reason Peter sticks it out to the very end. Those disciples who stayed there with Jesus, despite the difficult teaching, are the same ones who later die for Jesus. Peter and Andrew are crucified. Thomas is shot with bows and arrows. Bartholomew was skinned alive. Thaddeus was beheaded. They could have all walked away, but they didn’t. And it’s precisely because they could have walked away that their love for Jesus is so strong. They wanted to be there, they didn’t have to be. They are committed because they want to be committed, they are committed because of love. And that, my friends, is far stronger than any of the fear that the leaders of this world can conjure up.
Commit yourself to love. In that love of God you will find perfect freedom. You will be fear from the bullies, from their insecurity. You will be free to love. Like Jesus, commit yourself to love so much that the world is offended. That’s the sharp edge to this story - Jesus loves the world so much that his disciples are offended. That’s why they turn away.
Or, to put it another way, the original Greek word for “offended” also means “scandalized.” Scandalized. The world was scandalized by just how much Jesus loved his disciples. They were scandalized that Jesus would dare, that he would dare to love us so much that he would give himself up for us, even his flesh and blood. The powers of hate and fear are scandalized by love.
The world has had plenty of scandal lately. But I say we give them one more. I say that we, Christians, the Church, scandalize the world by how we love our neighbor as ourself. I pray we scandalize the world by loving God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and body. I pray the whole world starts talking about us, because we are a scandal for love. I pray they are scandalized by just how free we are.