A Homily by The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens

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1 Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43

Ephesians 6:10-20

John 6:56-69

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About 18 months ago, I stood in the trauma room of a busy Los Angeles hospital. For probably the 7thor 8thtime my phone went off alerting me that there was an emergency. I walked in and saw the usual signs of a gang shooting. This was the first night I met Mark, whose name is not really Mark. Mark had been shot twice, looked to be about 15, and was covered in tattoos. As I searched for identifying gang symbols, I came across a tattoo of the rosary on the underside of his forearm. The mixture of religious and gang symbols was not uncommon. After speaking and saying a prayer, he went off to surgery. A few visits, and days later, the DCFS worker informed the hospital that they were out of placement options. Child protective services had nowhere for Mark to go when he was discharged, so they asked us to keep him while they “worked something out.” In the ensuing months, Mark and I had countless conversations.

He openly shared about his life and place in the gang, including the crimes he committed on the streets and even the strategies for not getting caught. Marks whole family belonged to different gangs. A dangerous fact and a harsh environment. When I asked Mark what he wanted to be as a kid he told me, “I never had a choice. The only choice I ever got in life was which gang I was going to choose.”

Over the course of the months, we talked a lot about faith and spirituality. Mark considered himself spiritual but not religious, as so many young people do. He shared how the rosary was a source of comfort and protection for him, which is why it was tattooed on his arm. He would continually ask me for rosaries because he would give them out to his friends and fellow gang members. In fact, the night he was shot, he had given his rosary to a friend, a fact that only reinforced his quasi-magical, or perhaps mystical, view that the rosary was a source of God’s protection.  

As we talked, I discovered that Mark was angry with God. When he was thirteen, his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. He stopped going to school to care for her and prayed every day for her healing. As far as I could tell, she was the only family member that ever cared for Mark, so when she died he lost the most important person in his life. He stopped going to Mass, for all intents and purposes he stopped going to school, and he was “adopted” by a local gang that he would later join. Mark was angry with God for the death of his grandmother. He felt pushed away, belief and trust were too hard, and so Mark walked away. He told me of the bargains he made with God if only God would save her. Good grades, a clean life, perhaps even serving the Church. But they did not work.

I imagine there are those of us who have made similar bargains to no avail. When life and faith do not go the way we plan or pray, it is easy to become frustrated. To be angry. Perhaps even to lose hope. Being angry, mad, sad, sorrowful, full of lament these are all normal feelings and expressions that occur as a natural part of life. Even losing hope can be natural; yet, the stormy waters of despair cut to the core. The loss of hope comes with a side effect of paralysis. Time slows and despair stretches. It is so insidious for its capacity to make people feel trapped. A loss of hope can feel like a loss of life itself.

In these times, one can feel that God has turned God’s face away. It can feel like, either God does not hear prayer or God is choosing not to answer. Sometimes it just feels like we are being pushed away. It can be hard to reconcile our image of God as all loving with feeling pushed away. Our Gospel reading today is somewhat puzzling in a similar vein. In these past few weeks, we have traveled through John chapter six where Jesus consistently calls himself the bread of life and draws the people to him. He fed the 5000 men and countless woman and children, taught from the mountainside, had to avoid being made a king, calmed the sea, and walked on water.

In fact, when Jesus tried to get away from the crowd by traveling to the other side of the sea, the people followed him. He had the crowds following him and eating out of his hands. It is here that Jesus delves into what is known as the bread of life discourse. And at first, the people want the bread that Jesus is offerings. He tells them about the life that it provides and they ask for it. They seem desperate for it and really, who wouldn’t be desperate for bread that provides life and hope. At first, they are willing to believe, based on the wonderful signs that Jesus has done. They believe that he is able to provide them with this living bread from heaven.

Yet, Jesus goes on. He not only has the audacity to say that he is the living bread sent from heaven but also that God is his Father. Jesus calls himself the bread of life from Heaven and reveals his deep and personal connection to the Father. This claim of a special relationship is a cause of complaining, but it does not yet cause the people to walk away. The desperate need for life and hope is still more potent, at least for a time.

Perhaps Jesus was not well versed in the church growth literature of the time. Because it is at this point, a potential climax for his ministry, that he seems to drive the crowds away. The signs, the miracles, and the teaching have brought the people. All is going well for the fledgling community and hope is so much easier to maintain when things are going well. Yet, the tide turns and in the midst of the grumblings, Jesus pushes harder.

 He goes on to use cannibalistic terms, saying that eating the Son of Mans flesh and drinking his blood are now requirements for his followers. You can almost hear the people say “I didn’t sign up for this.”   As they slowly back away. But some of the more ardent supporters, some of those more desperate for this bread, may have thought they had misheard Jesus or that Jesus did not mean what he said. So, verse sixty says “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Perhaps this was an attempt to help Jesus back off on this teaching. It is interesting that John uses the term disciples here. “When many of his disciples heard it…”

When we hear “disciples,” we often think of the 12 but there were many other followers of Jesus, some who were present for most if not all of his ministry. Here we have not just the crowds grumbling and questing Jesus, but his disciples as well. Those who had traveled with him and heard his teaching over time. These people knew Jesus and Jesus knew them. The text says “But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?”…

Does this offend you? While avoiding offending people at all costs is a hallmark of society, even our abhorrence for giving a reason for offense does not capture the sentiment as it is recorded in Greek. The Greek word is skandalizei from which our word scandal is derived. So, when Jesus is aware that the crowds and his disciples are complaining about him, he asks if his teachings are scandalizing them and then he doubles down. The crowds leave. Most of the disciples leave.

The scandalous radical nature of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood is often lost on those prone to spiritualize this passage. This Johannine passage often gets filtered through the Eucharistic ritual where eating and drinking Christ is a regular practice. The idea of eating another’s flesh and drinking their blood has lost much of the scandalizing nature it held in ancient times. Perhaps though, other scandals can just as easily take its place as reasons why people walk away or lose hope.

Clergy abuses in all shapes and sizes, infidelity and sexual misconduct, financial mishandling, racism, sexism, the abuse of children. We see these across the country and across denominations. Scandals that cause people to question faith and hope. Now, unlike in John 6, Jesus is not causing these scandals through his teachings. Nonetheless, the church is burdened with them. Nonetheless, people are leaving due to failures of the institution and the people who are to be paragons of virtue. Certainty we cannot equate faith with the church and we might maintain that these failures do not occur in my church or our church. Yet, if we are going to hold that the Church is the body of Christ that there is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, we ought to ask the hard questions. Why and how? We ought to weep, lament, and seek change. We ought to recognize the challenge of holding onto faith in the midst of scandal. The challenging of hope when hopelessness is so much easier.

What do we do when faith breaks down? When the well-worn paths of piety perish? When it feels that God is calling us to the impossible or when despair looms so large that the valley of the shadow of death feels like a permanent dwelling place. What can we do? We can walk away and look elsewhere. Give up on finding ways to incorporate faith into modern life. Giving up that there are deeper meanings and purposes to life. Eschewing hope.

In the text, Jesus turned to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” We do not know if they were the only ones left at this point, but it is significant to note that this is the first time the Gospel of John mentions the twelve disciples as a distinct group. John records some of the early calling stories we find in the Synoptic accounts but here, for the first time in John, they are named the twelve. Perhaps the last 12 still standing.            Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

We don’t know the tone of Peter’s response. Perhaps this was a triumphant proclamation of courage and hope “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Perhaps it was said with a mixture of despair and realization “Lord, to whom can we go?” As if to say they would go somewhere if they could, but they’ve already left their jobs and are marked as your disciples no one else would ever take us at this point. We put our trust in you and now we have no other choice. “Lord, to whom can we go?”

Maybe it was said with a mixture of hope and despair. Certainty the disciples could not escape feeling despair as they watched Jesus and by extension themselves be abandoned by fellow disciples; and yet, they chose to stay which is fundamentally hopeful. The harshness of the teaching certainly would not have been lost on them. The reality that the people would go from trying to make Jesus king to having some try to kill him in the next passage would not have been lost on them. That even in the midst of rejection, even in the midst of hard teachings and hard times, twelve remained. Hope won.

Even a glimmer of hope, the smallest spark, and the dimmest candle stand in defiance to proclaim that all if not lost. Our summer preaching series is titled “Toward a Common Hope.” I love how Boston University’s paper titled their article about the series “The Necessityof Hope InspiresSummer Preaching at Marsh Chapel.” The necessity of hope inspires. Of course, the word inspires is derived from the Latin inspirare, in breath or in the Spirit. Hope is inspired in, by, and through the Spirit. The deprivation of hope in daily life means it has become a rare commodity. The need for hope is why people love stories about those who have beaten the odds or rise to the challenge.  People are so desperate for hope because far too many of us are starved of it. When Jesus says I am the bread of life, what he also says is I am hope.

It would be great if I could stand here and tell you that Mark, that young man I met with for months at the hospital changed his whole life. That he left resolved to get off the streets and go back to school. But I cannot. One day I went to the hospital and he was gone. As he had done in many foster care homes, he ran away. No goodbye. No forwarding address. For all I know, he could have left and been killed in the retaliation that was planned. I have no idea what effect my conversations had with him. What seeds germinated and which ones didn’t. But I choose to trust, hope, and pray that Christ is not done with him. That Mark has the opportunity to find nourishing hope that can only be found in the bread of life.

Even though life is not filled with story book endings, it does not mean that there is no hope. There is a sense in which the hope of Christ, the nourishment of the bread of life can be found in the most unlikely places. Faith and spirituality do not need to fit into neat boxes. Christ is not bound by the walls of the Church or words on a page. My friends hope is infectious. It only takes a little to grow and spread. But we live in a time where we must choose to search for hope. To plant hope. To nurture hope. And to share hope. Dear friends, choose hope.

-The Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens, Ph.D. Student in Practical Theology: Homiletics, Boston University School of Theology

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