preached by Rev. Dr. William Brosend
The sermons that will not be preached today
I thought to begin today by noting that preacher often find themselves whittling their way toward the sermon, shaving away to reveal the precious image within, but who whittles anymore? So I thought then of the old movie image of the writer banging away at the keyboard, then noisily yanking the rejected page out of the machine and crumpling it before angrily tossing it into the overflowing trash can, until I realized no one under the age of forty has ever used a typewriter. So I am left with the abstract truth that preachers regularly arrive at the sermon by a process of elimination – not that, not that, not that. Okay, I guess it’s supposed to be about this.
Today’s sermon will most decidedly not be about 2 Samuel 24, even the eviscerated shards provided by the lectionary, the editors doing everything they can to make the best of a bad situation, skipping the opening verse that tells us it is God’s wrath that incites David to decide a census was a good idea in the first place. No wonder Chronicles substitutes “Satan” as the instigator (1 Chronicles 12:1) and tires to redeem the whole mess by turning it into an etiology explaining the site of the altar in Solomon’s Temple. Really, 70,000 die but when the plague approaches Jerusalem. . . . No, I am not going to preach about that.
I would skip the epistle too, if we had one, since that is what we do 95% of the time. Anything, even a psalm, is better than preaching on Paul, pseudo-Paul, or James. At least that is what most preachers apparently think based on the available evidence. Not that it is not a lovely psalm, Psalm 32, until you get to verse 10, which the lectionary has conveniently spared us from reciting – “Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; who must be fitted with bit and bridle, or else they will not stay near you.” Imagine that, believers who wander away like stubborn mules. No, can’t preach that. I guess it’s the gospel.
The rejection of Jesus at Nazareth – a prophet in not without honor except in his or her own diocese. Good Lord, this is about Jesus’ ordination process! How did Dr. Fred Craddock put it at the duBose Lectures a few years ago? The Holy Spirit rarely calls someone to ministry in a voice loud enough to be heard by the whole family.
Jesus goes home. In Mark 3 his family was trying to get him to do exactly that but it did not turn out so well. I know this is more about me than Jesus, but I cannot resist the idea that Jesus was a little like someone not ready for their high school reunion. He finally shows up disciples following, which is what disciples do; for perhaps the only time in the Gospel of Mark the disciples of Jesus are getting it right.
“On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.” The vocabulary is important here, as always in Mark. The phrasing is a synonym or two away from exactly the way Mark describes the response to Jesus in Capernaum in chapter one. We are not told in either chapter what Jesus says, just that the listeners are “amazed” or “astounded.” IN mark 6 however, it quickly starts to go bas, and in the space of a few rhetorical questions the good people of Jesus’ hometown – we assume it to be Nazareth, though the text does not say – move from being “astounded” to being “offended.” Before we can say “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” we are quickly into, “Who does he think he is?” territory.
Who indeed? We know where he comes from, and we readers know where he is going. We have heard, okay, read about what he has done, but what has Jesus done here, now? SCandalous. We walk away, shaking our heads and gossiping to each other. “it’s not like he comes from much of a family. Heh, and remember the time Mary and the kids went to Capernaum and tried to bring Jesus home before he completely ruined what little reputation they had left. SCandalous.
This being a seminary chapel we all know that the word the NRSV translates as “offended” will in Mark 9 be translated as “stumbling block” and “causing to stumble” – millstone around the next and hell of fire time. Those who heard Jesus speak in Mark 6 were “scandalized” – tripped up – by what they heard. They were scandalized not by what they thought they knew about Jesus; that would be in the Gospel of John. They were scandalized because of what they did know about him.
I have tripped over Jesus a time or two myself. Not about parentage, occupation or comparative lack of deeds of power in my neighborhood. I trip over doing what the disciples did without a moment’s hesitation. Following. Because Jesus goes to the damnedest places. He goes home, and you don’t have to be Freud to know what a trip that can be. He goes where he is not expected, and to places he is not welcome, talking to anyone who will listen, and to many who will not. he says things we really do not want to hear, about neighbors, and judgment, and money. God does he talk about money. And forgiveness, all the time with forgiveness and compassion and love. Is that any way to run a religion?
So I trip. I am as scandalized as the people of Nazareth. I know who Jesus is. I know where he comes from, where he’s going, and what it all means. I know. And I am scandalized. Nor am I alone. The Church is scandalized, tripping and falling throughout its history pretending that Jesus did not mean what he said. If you have not recently read the “Grand Inquisitor” pages in The Brother Karamzov, have at it.
For the world
I suppose we could make a list of what about Jesus trips us up, but I also suppose we would, each of us, make more or less the same list. Jesus says go and do and we say “soon.” Or “just as soon as. . .” We husband our resources, authorize studies and appoint commissions, doing just about everything we can to downplay the meaning of what Jesus mean. But not always, and not everywhere, and we need to learn from the places that have decided to give Jesus everything they have.
Many of you have heard me talking about San Pio X in El Paso, Texas, and the ministry of the most inspiring priest I have every known, Msgr. Arturo Banuelas. But the parish does not have 10,000 baptized souls and seven services on Sunday, not to mention 72 ministries all run by volunteers, to be inspiring. The parish just has to decide not to trip all over Jesus.
St. John’s Episcopal Church in Murray, KY, home of Murray State University – Go Racers! – is a small parish living decidedly larges based on a recent visit. Announcements are made after the blessing and before the dismissal, because these folks want to talk about before they go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Parishioners line the wall to take their turns inviting each other to mission and service, from preparing a meal for the Canterbury Club students to signing up to stay at the “warming center,” a.k.a. the homeless shelter, to participating in a class on money and stewardship to, and this one blew me away, rallying at the city council meeting to find more money for the shelter. Not that the parish is counting on the city leaders to do much, because they are starting a capital campaign to build a new parish hall complete with showers and laundry facilities, to expand their ministry to the homeless. 72 Episcopalians entirely un-scandalized by Jesus, just following.
Dr. Craddock once responded to someone’s laments about change and decline in the Church by remarking, “The question is not whether the Church is dying, but whether it is giving its life for the world.”
“And he could do not deed of power there. . . but he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.” I imagine it felt pretty powerful to the ones he healed.