So here’s a little something to think about as we get into the message this morning: it was the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard who once said that the test of a good sermon is not that you heard it, enjoyed it and went home to Sunday dinner afterwards, but that you heard it and were too sick at heart to eat anything afterwards!
Well… let me just assure here you that if you were planning to go to Sunday brunch after church this morning, you’re still good to go!
But that said, I do have to say that Kierkegaard’s words speak an enduring truth of which I have become increasingly aware over the years I’ve spent in this and other pulpits: and that’s that preaching is risky business, both for the preacher and the congregation! And that’s because the gospel that I have been called to preach, while always good news, is not always what one thinks of as easy to hear, can often veer far from “warm and fuzzy” in tone and substance, and sometimes ends up as personally intrusive and downright offensive to our ears! The fact is, I’m very much aware that what I do here every Sunday morning is oftentimes as was described by an old colleague of mine: that as preachers we’re here both to comfort the afflicted… and to afflict the comfortable!
This is not to say that every sermon is like that – or at least I hope not (!) – and let me just say here that even after all these years of preaching week in and week out (almost 39 years now!), I still get “jazzed” by the level of great spiritual insight and true joy we discover together here in the pages of scripture and inspired by the Holy Spirit! Nonetheless, I am aware that for each and all of us there are scriptural teachings that hit a little bit too close to home, and not in a good way (!); and moreover, I’m cognitive of the fact that there are times and situations that we preachers tend to make hamburger out of the sacred cows of this world and our very lives; and yes, that can be an unsettling and often humbling experience, as much for me as it probably is for you (because one thing you should always know is that I never preach a sermon from this pulpit that does not apply to me as much as it might to anyone else!).
So it can be tough, no doubt… but that’s the nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ (and the nature of truth, friends), and believe me when I say to you this morning that if we’re doing this right – that is, if you and I are here in this temple of God approaching his Word with the kind of attention, honesty and utter humility that we should – then all of us, preacher and congregation alike, are bound at times to leave here a bit shaken up!
Actually, this is not exclusive to the worship experience, is it?
So often, it seems, that we find ourselves running headlong up against the difficulties of the gospel that we espouse; and not only for how it affects our lives but also in how it’s heard and received by those around us! It might happen at home with our families, or at work, amongst friends – even at church, friends – but there are going to be moments when as Christians we find ourselves in the very real quandary of whether we stay true to our convictions of faith, or else we back off from that for the sake of an easier path or maintaining the status quo, or for that matter, not rocking the boat amongst the people around us.
I remember once some years ago at a prior church Lisa and I were working with another family on some project in the church sanctuary when one of the kids in this family came out with this incredibly racist slur; and not in the way that kids will sometimes do when they don’t understand what they’ve said, but knowingly, in a clearly inappropriate joke that the kid’s parents – people who were parishioners, mind you, and friends as well – inexplicably thought was incredibly funny! And suddenly, I’m forced into an awkward situation of how to respond to this: do I ignore what was said, pretend like I didn’t hear it? Do I, as people often do in these situations, just chuckle quietly so not to make it “a thing?” Or do I speak up and – calmly, gently, pastorally, but also assertively – let the kid (and by extension, his parents) know that this kind of hate speech is never appropriate, most especially in God’s house. Well, of course, as difficult as it might have been the answer was clear and as the pastor I said what needed to be said, and I believe now as I did then that it was very important that I did… and truthfully, I’m not sure if our relationship with that family was ever the same after that; but in terms of our living in accordance with the gospel of Jesus Christ, there was no other choice.
And, by the way? I tell you this story not because of the time your pastor did the right thing, but rather because of all the other times he didn’t.
For you see, the question we inevitably end up facing is not whether the gospel is awkward or difficult or challenging; because, friends, where the world and this culture is concerned, ours is an offensive gospel and as a gospel people we are going to run up against our own sensibilities, to say nothing of the ways and means of culture and the people who populate that culture. So the real question is what do we do with that gospel when we hear it? How will we respond? Will we choose to truly live unto the truth of our faith in God in Jesus Christ, or will we choose to take offense at it and thus avoid it altogether?
That’s what’s at the heart of this morning’s text from Mark’s gospel, in which Jesus, early in his public ministry, is back among his own people, in his hometown of Nazareth. This is actually a very interesting little story that has something to say about small towns and local churches (!) – we’re told that when Jesus “began to teach in the synagogue,” at first all the locals were amazed at him! I mean, this was Jesus – the hometown boy, the local carpenter – and they’re saying, “Where did this man get these things?” Where is all this wisdom coming from? “We didn’t know that he was this good!” (The Message) At first, they’re all truly impressed…
…but then something happens. In Mark’s version of this story, we’re not given any indication of what Jesus was preaching and teaching about (Luke’s account connects it with Jesus essentially announcing that he was the fulfillment of prophecy as revealed by Isaiah, but Mark isn’t that specific); we’re only told that in one breath the townspeople are amazed at Jesus, “but in the next… they were cutting him down.” Something… something that Jesus said or did seemed to provoke controversy and fierce resistance, and suddenly the golden boy is just a local carpenter.Isn’t this “Mary’s boy,” “the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon,” and don’t we know his sisters? As The Message translates this passage, “We’ve known [Jesus] since he was a kid! Who does he think he is?” Bottom line, people didn’t like what Jesus had to say; they “took offense at him,” and the result of all of this is that Jesus ends up rejected by his own people, his friends and neighbors… his church. And he couldn’t do much of anything there anymore; “he could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.”
We’re also told by Mark that Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith,” which for me is an amazing little verse because it really speaks to the humanity of Jesus; it gets “up close and personal” with what he was feeling, because it hurts to be rejected, and it especially hurts when it’s the people you thought understood, or at least liked you. “He couldn’t get over their stubbornness,” The Message puts it. But Jesus also understood that “only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” And we understand that, too: it’s the same dynamic that often exists between adult children who try so hard to establish their own identity in the shadow of parents and family members who live in the same town; why newly graduated teachers, police officers, doctors and even ministers tread very dangerous ground going “back home” to pursue their chosen professions; and that’s why Jesus ultimately met with so much resistance from the folks of Nazareth. They knew him, you see, or thought they did; and maybe because of that, these people could never know him for who he really was!
And so they rejected him… but that’s not the end of the story.
For Jesus, you see, ultimately this was not about whether his message was “offensive” or whether it upset his former Nazarene neighbors; it wasn’t even about the pain of rejection. This was about Jesus continuing along the path that God had set before him; it was about embracing God’s truth and moving on with it. It is no coincidence that as Mark tells the story immediately Jesus takes this experience as an opportunity to direct his disciples along the pathway of ministry, and to teach us in the process what is involved in embracing and truly living unto a life of faith in God.
Travel light, he says to them. Live modestly, and keep it simple; you’re not in this for the glory, but to preach the good news, sow the seeds of goodness and freedom and redemption, and while you’re at it, do what you can to drive out the demons, anoint sick people with oil and heal them. And above all, don’t worry about it “if you’re not welcomed, not listened to,” but “quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. [Just] shrug your shoulders,” “shake the dust off your feet when you leave” and be on your way.
You see, to live the life of faith is to let ourselves be led by God in Jesus Christ and to let his truth and our convictions of that offensive truth be sufficient for the way. And what Jesus gives to you and me along that way is, to quote Gary Sims, is courage, patience and perseverance, along with the assurance that “if we are intentional in our efforts to follow Christ wherever He leads… then two things will happen. First, we will go out into the world to spread the word of Christ without fear of ramification or failure. And second, we will learn to listen to every voice of God that comes our way; for without careful listening, we’ll never hear where to go.”
One of the things we often tend to gloss over every when we come together for worship – and I’m afraid this was particularly true through the long months of quarantine we experienced – is that ultimately, you and I come here to be sent. As wonderful and as inspirational as these times we have together can be and truly are, we’re not here today primarily for our edification and especially not our entertainment. It’s not about us. We’re in this place today and every time we gather for worship first to give thanks and praise to God for our many blessings, to listen to His life affirming, redemptive Word, and then to respond to that word in faith: you and I are being sent today to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ by word and action in the places and amongst all the people of our lives.
And that will not always be easy for us.
Yes, we’ll struggle with the reality of the radical change that’s required in our lives and living; and make no mistake, we will come up against those people and the cultural institutions that take offense; those who will reject not only what we have to say but also who we are and what we represent; we can count on this. But to quote Joshua 1:9, we can be “strong and courageous,” and not be terrified, because what we have is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and in that gospel we find the authority of Jesus, the community of the church, and fruit of God’s Holy Spirit to keep us doing what is good and right.
My prayer for us today and every day is we keep on keeping on preaching the gospel; because we’re all preachers, you know. Some of us just don’t stand in the pulpit, and some of us don’t necessarily use words. But make no mistake, we preach. So preach the gospel, dear friends: preach it at all times and in all ways; and as that same old colleague also said to me from time to time, keep the faith and don’t let the turkeys get you down.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.