“Today’s gospel is the conclusion of a story that began with the feeding of the 5,000 with one little boy’s lunch. It is a crowd-pleasing story,” said the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “Does this Offend You?” and the Scripture readings were Isaiah 30:8-18 and John 6:56-69.
The day after feeding the 5,000, Jesus preached in the synagogue in Capernaum, and all he heard were complaints.
“This teaching is too difficult; who can accept it?” the thousands said.
“Does this shock you, does this offend you?” Jesus asked.
The crowd answered “yes,” and decided “they could not accept what Jesus was offering and saying. They turned back to their other lives,” Gaines-Cirelli said.
This is the nightmare of preachers, pastors and people-pleasers. Because of one sermon, the thousands became only a dozen.
“What is so offensive? Sometimes it does not take much,” she said.
Jesus was hard to understand, using confusing words to talk about abiding in him and eating and drinking his flesh and blood. The people could not stomach such talk and asked, “What does this have to do with life in God? And by the way — gross.”
Jesus was not trying to make nice; he was using earthy, provocative words. In John 6:56, the Greek word for “eat” used there means to chew on or gnaw.
“True eternal life is found by gnawing on the flesh of Jesus,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “This is not the height of refinement or delicacy.”
He also challenged one of the people’s most cherished beliefs — his flesh was more life-giving than the manna in the wilderness. Others were challenged by the messiness of a community that requires self-sacrifice. Still others did not want to acknowledge that “God is in control. Period.”
“We don’t like to recognize our limitations and inherent vulnerability,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “We like our control. Any one of these issues maybe offensive, to them and for those who hear this gospel today and struggle with the same thoughts.”
Thousands walked away, but what is it that Jesus was offering? Jesus, she said, offers what God offered through the prophets — life. This is a “life enfolded in God’s life, formed by God’s wisdom and God’s way of compassion and justice. It is fueled by God’s steadfast love, love that is our sustenance, and freedom offered in the flesh and blood gift of Jesus.”
If we are what we eat, why not consume Jesus, she asked, to be and become that life? Because there is a lot of junk food around that is easier to chew on, that looks better than it tastes, that is not “calorie-worthy.”
Empty calories fuel negativity, apathy, bitterness, cynicism, fear and gossip. Drinks with empty calories are filled with grievances and “lead us to think that there is only one right way to do things — ours.” We forget, she said, that “bad news is not the only news out there and even though we know better, we read the comments. We allow those words more power than God’s word of love for us.”
Things that do us harm can be addictive, which is why it is easy to consume food that does not satisfy.
“We have been asking those questions all week,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “Try to answer them in your own life. We can fill our plates with God or idols, hope or cynicism, grace or fear, courage or all that keeps us small and silent.”
She cited C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters as an example. Screwtape is a master tempter writing to a junior devil about the differences between what they do and what the “enemy,” God, does. The tempters are empty and need to be filled. For them, humans are food to be consumed, cattle to be eaten, and their aim is to absorb human will into theirs.
God is full and flows over, wanting to feed humans. Screwtape admits that service to God is perfect freedom, and that is what makes his job hard. God wants to fill the universe with miniatures of God, whose wills freely conform to God’s will. God wants to turn servants into family.
“Junk-food voices want to consume us and keep us dull and drugged,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “God wants to feed us, to fill us with life, spirit, joy, freedom, strength and courage, to share in God’s own life and be fully alive.”
She added that God wants to share life with us, but somehow people are offended and choose to turn away.
At the end of the Gospel reading, Jesus turned to those who were closest to him and asked them if they wished to go away.
“It is not easy to understand what other love will sustain us better for the living of these days than the love of God offered in Jesus Christ,” she said. “The table is set with spirit and life. Why not dig in?”
The Rev. Susan McKee presided. Mary Giegengack-Jureller, recently retired professor emerita of philosophy from LeMoyne College in Syracuse, read the Scripture. She and her husband, John, are enjoying their 26th summer visit to Chautauqua Institution. Having discovered Chautauqua in middle age, they quickly invited their whole family to visit. She sings with the Chautauqua and Motel choirs, and is a member of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Class of 2000 and the Guild of the Seven Seals. Joseph Musser, piano, and Barbara Hois, flute, played “Hamburger Sonata” by C. P. E. Bach as the prelude. The Motet Choir, under the direction of Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, sang “Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service,” arranged by Randall Davidson. The Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund and the Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy provide support for this week’s services.