Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. 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.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 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 believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
The working title of this sermon is “How Do We Know When It’s Time to Go or Time to Stay?”
It’s a topic I’ve been pondering for most of the summer, as part of a long-term writing project. I’m trying to better understand and articulate what’s at stake for us, and what God might be doing within and around us, when we need to make a big decision, and in particular, the decision either to go or to stay.
Apparently I’m not alone in this thinking. Surveys indicate that as a result of the pandemic, as many as 30% of the American workforce is considering or has made a change in their vocation,1 that an equal number of people has made or is considering a geographic move.2 You may be among them. Or someone you love may be asking questions like “Do I quit school or go back?” “Is it time to leave my apartment or house and look for another?” “Is it time to leave my faith community for another or perhaps no community at all?” The drop-out rate in religious affiliation is alarming, particularly among young adults. The Barna Research Group published a study about the exodus of young adults who had been raised in the church with the haunting title, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith.3 What is it that causes some of us to stay in the faith we were raised in, while others choose to go?
In whatever realm of life, these are big decisions. How do we make them, and how does God show up for us in the decisive moments, if at all?
I tend to believe that if I really listen, in one way or another God will tell me what to do. My job then is to be obedient to what I determine is God’s will in my life. Sometimes, however, God is frustratingly silent on the matter I’m struggling with, or I can’t hear God. Perhaps a part of me doesn’t want to hear, and yet the decision looms. My husband Paul tends to relate to God differently, on the assumption that God is too busy to micro-manage his life, and that God is curious to see what Paul, and all of us, will do at the moment of choice.
Either way, the process of deciding, or to use a term with spiritual overtones, of discerning is rarely immediate or completely clear, at least not for me. A theologian and Episcopal priest named Urban Holmes wrote several books on the Christian life in the 1980s. In one of his books, Spirituality for Ministry, he defined discernment this way: “The ability to intuit God’s will by casting a particular question the Christian faces in a given situation before the judgment of the deeper self. The result of discernment will be a willingness to risk decisions and take actions whose surety is enigmatic at best.”4 The result of discernment, then, is a greater capacity to act in the face of uncertainty, and willingness to risk failure in the service of what matters most.
On the global stage, we are witnessing the consequences of President Biden’s decision to keep to the timeline he established for the withdrawal of American troops and military personnel in Afghanistan. Honestly, I don’t know what to make of that decision, and for that matter, the multitude of decisions our leaders have made regarding Afghanistan in the 20 years since 9/11. Except to state the obvious: the humanitarian crisis is devastating and demands our compassionate response. The grief, worry, and survivors’ guilt is palpable among those with friends, family, and former colleagues caught in the chaos. They and countless others are doing whatever they can to help and to advocate. If you are among them, thank you. Later this week, I’ll share the ways we are organizing ourselves across the diocese to assist Afghan refugees who are arriving in our region.
For today’s purposes however, suffice it to say we have many global examples of how our decisions to stay or to go affect other people, and that’s true in every realm of life. Imagine the conversations taking place right now in Afghan homes across that country–do we stay or do we go? How do we stay or go? For them and for us, the process involves making decisions and taking actions whose surety is enigmatic at best. That is to say neither staying or going is always the right decision, nor the same decision for everyone.
I spent a big part of my early adult life on the go. Almost like clockwork, every 2-3 years I made a significant change that involved leaving some place or endeavor for another. I wasn’t always happy about the move. It often felt that I had to leave just as I was learning how to thrive where I was. But the pattern established itself such that when the rhythms of life eventually slowed down a bit, it didn’t feel right, as if something was wrong because nothing was beckoning from the horizon. It took me time to realize that staying put didn’t mean staying the same; that there was a deeper call involved in deciding to stay, and that at certain times, the most courageous decisions we make are the ones that no one sees.
In those years I read a novel by Anne Tyler entitled St. Maybe, which is about a young man named Ian who at age 17 feels responsible for his brother’s accidental death. With the subsequent death of his brother’s wife, he decides to drop out of school to help his parents raise his brother’s three young children. It’s a slow-moving story on the surface, with a lot happening emotionally and relationally within Ian as the years pass.
At one point, Ian tells his minister that he thinks that it’s time for him to go back to school and get on with his life. His minister asks him to say more. Echoing the words of one of the several young women who broke up with him because of his commitment to the children and his church (and the church, made up of every kind of social misfit, plays a sweet role in this story), Ian cries out to his minister, “I am wasting my life!” To which his minister quietly responds. “This is your life, Ian. Lean into it. Accept it for the gift that it is.”
This is your life became a mantra for me as I learned what it meant to stay in place long enough to grow up inside, and to create the kind of foundations that would allow others to thrive. In recent days, I’ve heard resonance of that same sentiment from people slowly coming to terms with some aspect of their lives that is theirs not only to accept but embrace.
We’ve just read, and you have printed in your bulletins, a passage from the Gospel of John. It comes from the end of a long section in which Jesus is expounding upon an event that shows up on all four accounts of Jesus’ life, which biblical scholars would tell us make it a really big deal. The event itself came after a long day of teaching and healing, when after the disciples urged Jesus to send the gathered crowd home, he insisted on providing them food. In John’s version of the story, a young boy offers what he has, a few loaves of bread and some fish, and from that offering Jesus provides food for the multitude, with enough leftover to fill 12 baskets.
In the other three gospel accounts, the message of this story is that God will provide, that Jesus cares for those who are hungry, and that we can participate in Jesus’ concern for others by offering what we have, even when we know that our offering isn’t enough to meet the needs before us. I love this story. Nearly every day, I feel that my offering isn’t enough, but Jesus invites me to offer it anyway and let him do with it what only he can do.
In John’s version, the take-away from the loaves and fishes story is different: Jesus asks those listening to think less of physical food, and he speaks of himself as the food that can sustain our souls. “I am the bread of life. Those who eat my bread and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” It sounds rather strange, put starkly like that. What lies beneath those words, however, is a growing understanding among first-century Christians that even when their physical hunger and other forms of suffering persist, even when their initial expectations of who Jesus was and what he was going to do for them were disappointed, even when they found themselves in situations that were hard or dangerous and it was clear that God wasn’t going to rescue them, even then Jesus was with them. They felt his presence, in a spiritual, mystical way. They felt called to abide with him, to trust in his presence. The question for them became, would they stay with him in this new way, or would they go?
For everyone raised in a particular faith tradition, or who chooses to be a part of one, this is something we’ll all experience eventually. Whenever being part of our tradition, or following Jesus, or belonging to a particular church turns out to be something other than what we originally thought, had hoped for or imagined, or when something happens that causes us to doubt what we once had no reason to question, we come to a moment of decision–do we stay or go?
Some of Jesus’ followers, John tells us, decide to leave. “This teaching is difficult,” they say. “Who can accept it?” While John, the Gospel writer, judges these people harshly, I doubt that Jesus did, or that he harshly judged anyone who chooses another spiritual path, or no path at all. Here’s why: Jesus’ love is unconditional. Such love isn’t withdrawn when people don’t do as we want. Jesus can no more stop loving us when we walk away than we can stop loving those who reject us.
But you can hear the poignancy when he turns to his closest friends to ask, “And what about you? Do you also wish to go away?” He truly wants to know: Then Simon Peter responds with words that can’t help but make us love the guy, “Lord, to whom shall we go? We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” They had come too far to turn back now.
Simon Peter and the others had come to one of life’s sweet moments of clarity. They don’t come often, but when they do, they have a settling effect on us. We become increasingly at peace with whatever we decide, no matter what happens next.
Their decision wasn’t merely to stay with Jesus, but to do deeper in their relationship with him. It wasn’t a choice between actively leaving and passively staying, but between two active choices–to leave (a conscious choice, not merely drifting apart and pretending not to notice) or to stay with greater depth and intentionality.
I leave you with this thought: rest assured, wherever you might be in the process of discernment about leaving or staying, that this is a particularly sacred time. Whatever you discern or decide, I pray that God gives you enough clarity to feel settled as you take what is for you is the next faithful step. As you act on your decision, may you be given grace and courage either to go or to stay wholeheartedly. And afterwards, should you begin to question your decision or feel that you need to change it, know that God’s grace will be with you, whatever happens next.
May I pray for you:
Lord, this is a time of change and transition and decision-making for so many on so many levels. Hold these your beloved ones as they discern and decide–give them the gift of wisdom and understanding and assurance of your abiding presence. Help all of us, Lord, who feel the call to follow Jesus to be given eyes to see him more clearly, hearts to love him more dearly, and desire to follow him more nearly, day by day by day by day. Amen.
1 Nearly a third of U.S. workers under 40 considered changing careers during the pandemic – The Washington Post
2 Pandemic Forces Moves for Many Americans, Survey Shows – Credit Union Times
3 David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI:Baker Books, 2001).
4 Urban T. Holmes III, Spirituality for Ministry (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1982), 138.