I wonder how many people you’ve depended on so far this morning, how many people have helped you? There may be some obvious answers. Perhaps someone’s made breakfast for you, or given you a lift. Here in church, people have given you hymn books, musicians have sung and played, people have set up the church for the service – we soon discover how much we need them when they aren’t there and everything goes to pot!
But you will also have depended this morning on many people who you’ll never see or know; those who produced the food you ate for breakfast and transported it to the shops you bought it from, those who maintain the infrastructure we all depend on, who provide electricity, gas, clean water and so on.
And it doesn’t stop there. Behind the people who help us in the here and now is a vast number of others stretching back into distant history whose work has made possible what we enjoy today. We can follow the service because people taught us to read – teachers or parents – and those who campaigned and worked for free, universal education. We may only have lived to see this day because medical professionals and scientists over the ages have laboured to discover and develop treatments for the diseases that would once have finished a lot of us off prematurely. I could go on, but you get the message. It’s only 10.2am, but we’ve already depended on an army of people today.
But how many of them have we consciously thought about this morning, let alone thanked? Probably not many, and my experience is that most of us prefer to think of ourselves as independent, self-reliant, self-sufficient, in charge of our own lives – not needing others. We like to think that we are “self-made” people.
The term “self-made man” only entered the dictionary in 1832 – US senator Henry Clay seems to have coined it to describe those pioneering people who made new lives for themselves in the USA. They’d had to reinvent themselves as they’d colonised what was, for them, uncharted territory. Some had chosen to come. Others were forced from their old ways of life in Europe by persecution, pogroms or famine. It’s easy to see why they might have felt as if any success they’d had was down to them alone and to their determination and grit. No wonder the myth of the “self-made man” or “self-made woman” caught on so stronglyin the USA – it’s something that Donald Trump is noticeably playing into.
But it is a myth. In reality, those pioneers were drawing on all sorts of support in order to survive; the lessons they’d learned growing up, the accumulated store of wisdom developed in their old countries which they’d brought with them, the political and financial backing of vested interests who wanted them to colonise this vast country. There is no such thing as a “self-made” person.
And when we read the Bible, we discover that that’s how God intended it to be. Christians believe that each of us, and all the world, is made by God, that God “intricately wove us in the depths of the earth” as Psalm 139 puts it, that God shaped us before we were born, and sustains us through life and death. But you don’t have to have a religious belief to see that none of us is entirely our own creation. At the most basic level, we are all made physically from the DNA of our parents. We arrive in the world with many of the building blocks of our temperament and personality already formed, as well as our physical characteristics. Our bodies are made from the food we eat, and the communities we grow up in shape us socially, psychologically and spiritually. The things that happen to us, for good or ill, profoundly affect our lives too. I saw a moving interview with young Rohingya people growing up in refugee camps in Bangladesh this week. One 15 year old girl had married a man in his 60’s and was carrying his child, another had become a sex worker. It wasn’t what they’d planned for their lives, but they’d lost their families and their schools. They’d found themselves on their own, unsupported, so they’d had to make choices from which there could be no going back. How might our lives have turned out if we had been put in the situation they were? None of us can know.
The idea that our lives are entirely down to us, that we can do whatever we want to, if we only have enough grit and determination is wishful thinking. Of course we have choices, but we are never totally in control of our lives. And let’s not be blinded by that military imagery in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and in some of our hymns this morning. They may sound like anthems to the self-reliant hero, but the point Paul, and the hymn writers are making is that soldiers need strength and armour beyond themselves to survive the battle Paul calls it the armour of God to emphasize that. It’s not their own! All they can do is choose whether to put it on or not.
In our Old Testament reading, Joshua calls the Israelites to make a choice too. They’d struggled across the wilderness for forty long years, led by Moses. But now they’d finally reached the Promised Land, a land “flowing with milk and honey”, a fertile land, where they were starting to grow crops that had been unimaginable in the desert. Everyone is heaving sighs of relief. At last that terrifying time in the desert has ended! They can put it behind them. But the danger is that they will also put behind them the memory of how they survived, that it was God who rescued them from Pharaoh and sustained them on their wandering. And if they forget that, there’s a danger too that they’d forget the lessons he taught them. Through their hardships, God had formed this bunch of slaves into a people, given them patterns of life to follow, patterns of justice and compassion, of care for each other and for the world. God had given them a sense of dignity and agency. They had learned that they were beloved by God. He’d gone to all this trouble for them – for them! These were lessons they would need to hang onto if they were going to build a society that reflected God’s priorities. But remembering God would mean remembering their need and vulnerability too – that’s something we all sometimes struggle with when we’ve come through hard times. We just want to move on, to say “I’m ok now. I’m fine. I don’t need help anymore.”
Joshua fears that they’d prefer to worship the local gods of Canaan, gods associated with lush green pastures, fruit trees, grain fields, grape vines, comfort, ease than the God who reminds them of a time when they were powerless and hungry. His fears are realistic, as it turns out. Although they promise to “choose God” at this point, the reality is rather different, and they soon fall away from that promise.
It’s no accident that the book of Joshua, along with much of the Old Testament, was written during the time the Israelites were far from home and in deep trouble all over again, in exile in Babylon. Once again they were desperate, and asking what had happened, why this disaster had fallen on them. The Old Testament writers drew on ancient oral tales, but they shaped them into a bigger story, a story of God who had been faithful to them, even when they hadn’t been faithful to him. It was as if Joshua was standing before them now, in Babylon, and offering them the choice all over again. Who’s really had your back all these years? Who’s really cared about you and been there for you when you’ve needed it? Is it the gods of Canaan? Is it the god you have made of your own strength and capability?
In the Gospel reading, people are struggling with the same dilemma. Jesus has fed 5000 people on five loaves and two fishes out in the middle of nowhere – and, yes, that is meant to remind us, and them, of the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness. People have been very grateful. But then Jesus tells them that they need far more than loaves and fishes to be really alive. They need to feed on him. It’s all too much. For a start it sounds suspiciously like cannibalism, which is rather yucky, but even if they can get past that, Jesus is unmistakeably talking about a commitment to him, a choice they need to make, and that’s far more than they’d bargained on.
Many of his followers quietly slope away. In the end, there’s just Peter and a handful of others. “Are you leaving too?” asks Jesus. But Peter has made his choice, and he speaks for all of them. “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.” Like Joshua, they’ve seen what God has done for them in Christ, and they can’t unsee it. They’ve known what it means to stick close to Jesus; not just a belly full of bread and fish, but a new-found sense of dignity and worth and purpose, and to give it up, however hard the path, would feel like death to them now. They need him. They need the life that he’s given them.
Living well, living fully, living the lives God wants for us isn’t necessarily complicated, but it’s often difficult. It’s about loving your enemies as well as your friends, praying for those who have it in for you, working for justice and love when everything around you seems unjust and hateful, holding onto hope for others as well as yourself. We can’t do it on our own, however self-reliant we may think we are. We can only do it if we are prepared to admit our need of God’s help. That may come to us through prayer, through reading the Bible, through the love of others, through the worship which draws us close to each other and opens our eyes to what is beyond us too. We’re offered a choice. Will we give up the myth that we can be “self-made”, that it’s good to be “self-made”, the myth which leads us to worship ourselves and our own strength? Or will we learn instead to rejoice in our need of God, and let ourselves be the “God-made” people he wants us to be?