I am a native of Wakefield, Nebraska, a town of about 1,500 in northeastern Nebraska, 35 miles southwest of Sioux City, IA. My father’s family emigrated from Sweden around the turn of the 20th century and has farmed in Wakefield for over 100 years, I think – close to it, anyway; we grew up a mile away from the farm where my great-grandparents raised their family. My mother’s family emigrated from Germany around the same time, and has lived and farmed in nearby Winside, Nebraska for quite a long time also. As a matter of fact, my mother’s kindergarten teacher in her country school moved to Wakefield three years later, where she taught my father in another country school, then myself and my two younger brothers in sixth grade. Our family was becoming tightly knit even before I was born.
Being European immigrants, my great-grandparents followed their ethnic ties to church. While I was doing a research paper on the Augustana Lutheran Church during seminary, I came across some old district reports for the Nebraska Synod of the ALC, and found the giving records for my great-grandparents during World War I. When my home congregation celebrated their 125th anniversary last August, they made their pastor an honorary Swede by changing his last name from “Cloninger” to “CloningerSON.” My mother’s side of the family grew up in the Wisconsin Synod, but when my grandmother and her sisters all married Missouri Synod Lutherans my great-grandparents followed them into a new Lutheran church. When my parents were married in 1968, an Augustana-Missouri Synod marriage was still known as a “mixed” marriage in some circles.
So, that’s the faith story of my ancestors. What’s yours?
[time for sharing ancestral faith stories]
[time for sharing ancestral faith stories]
So, let me ask you this question: why are you here?
It’s more important than it sounds. People come to worship for all sorts of different reasons. Some of you are like my parents: you grew up in this town, in this church, and being here is almost part of your genetic structure. For some of you, it’s what you’ve always done; it’s like a part of you would be missing if you didn’t come. For others, you have this feeling it’s something you SHOULD be doing more often, but it’s hard because your job or your family obligations or, let’s be honest, your desire for sleep and/or rest overwhelm your good intentions. For some of you, being here is an obligation: you’re the Sunday School director, the choir director, the secretary or the janitor. Or maybe the obligation isn’t quite so obvious. Maybe you’re concerned about your standing in the community, and you’d rather sacrifice an hour or two on a Sunday morning than worry about what people will say if you don’t come to worship. Maybe you grew up in a more Pentecostal faith, and this more relaxed style of worship and a more grace-filled way of preaching has come to suit you better. Maybe, like my mother, you married into this church and have long since left the church of your childhood behind. Maybe you heard there was a new guy coming from Ames and you thought he might be worth the price of admission – I hope I haven’t disappointed you thus far.
Let me say this as plainly as I can: there are as many different causes for being in worship on a Sunday morning as there are people in the pews. No one comes here for precisely the same reason. But whatever the reason for your presence may be, it’s not the important question to be answered this morning. Here’s the important question to be answered: do you follow Jesus?”
When Jesus spoke to the crowds on the hillside in these passages from the Gospel of John, there were all kinds of people coming to see him, and they came for many different reasons. Quite a few of them came because there had been free food the day before, and they wanted more of the free food. Some of them were the strong, upstanding members of the church, the folks who wanted to be as holy for God as they could be. Some of them felt threatened by Jesus and the things he was teaching, so they showed up to question him and see if they could take him down a few notches. A very small group of them had already decided to follow Jesus, but they had no idea what it was they were getting into. All of them came for many, many different reasons – but they all had to answer the same question: do you follow Jesus?
Jesus said, “No one comes to me unless they are drawn by the Father who sent me.” Later in the Gospel of John, Peter draws in his nets as he fishes, and the bounty is filled to overflowing. That’s what Jesus is talking about when he answers the question, “Why are you here?” Whatever your reasons for being here may be, it really comes down to this: God has drawn you here. You have been swept up into a net composed of your family, your hopes and dreams, your faith and your prayers – God has used all of that to put you in this place, at this time, with these brothers and sisters around you, caught in the same net.
Here’s where the fishing metaphor ends, though, unless you’re a catch and release person at heart. In a few minutes the sermon will be done, our singing will cease and you’ll be off into the free waters of your week. From the moment you shake my hand and head out the door, you’ll begin answering the far more important question: do you follow Jesus?
One of the great mysteries of our church in the U.S. over the last 200 years is the way in which we have become focused on so many things that can distract us from the central question of following Jesus. The church has been a social hub for communities, a means of ethnic preservation, a refuge and helping place for those who cannot help themselves. The church has been an agent for social change and also an agent for restraining or even denying social change. In a few weeks, our ELCA Churchwide Assembly will be meeting in Minneapolis, and if you listen only to the news reports, you’ll think that all we Lutherans ever talk about is sex and money. But these are all secondary concerns for the church, and they always have been. The central question God asks when believers gather together is always the same: do you follow Jesus?
Jesus said as much to the people gathered around him that day on the mountain. To those who came proudly proclaiming their ancestry, Jesus reminded them: “your ancestors at the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” And to those who, like me, have a long, faithful family history in the church, Jesus reminds us of the same thing: “your ancestors were faithful to God during their lives, and they died.”
It sounds like I’m preaching to myself now, but this is really for all of us. As we’ve agreed, there are as many reasons for being here as there are people in this room. But the reasons we come will only get us in the door: the real question is this: what will you do with what you’re given here? Will you follow Jesus? Will you trust and hope in God above all else – above your job, your spouse, your children, your ancestry, your standing in the community, your need for acceptance by other people, your need to be right about the pressing social question of the day? Instead of putting all of those questions first, will you answer this instead: “do you follow Jesus?”
Whatever your reason for being here, what Jesus wants to give is simple: abundant life. Jesus promises a life that is more than the reasons we have for being part of the church. Jesus promises a life where our reasons for being here are put to death and our joy at being here is raised out of the grave and set free to follow him. Jesus promises grace to overcome our sin, love to overcome our fear, light to overcome our darkness. And when you come back next week, he will do it all over again.
I’ll bet that some of those who followed Jesus after he said the things we read today thought something like this: I came because I was hungry for bread. I followed because Jesus made me hunger for something more. Jesus fed with bread so that we might hunger for something more - even today, the bread Jesus provides is but a foretaste of the feast that is to come. Follow, friends, and God’s grace be with you. Amen.