"Disbelief." Image by Brian Evans via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.
Responses to sermons are always, well, interesting. Isn’t that true, dear Working Preachers?
People will say to you, “great sermon, Pastor!” and you thought it was mediocre at best. You will get virtually no comments at all on a sermon that you thought knocked it out of the park. Parishioners will tell you what they heard, when you are quite sure you said no such thing. Or, two weeks, two months, even two years later someone will share with you something about your sermon they remembered. And, for the life of you, you cannot recall a thing about said sermon. But it’s not often that the response to your preaching is a desire to throw you off the nearest cliff. But maybe, more of our sermons should indeed elicit such a reaction.
In Luke, rejection to the “Good News” brackets Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ hometown sermon in Nazareth, his first public act in Luke’s Gospel, has the crowd ready to cast him off a precipice. And Jesus’ empty tomb will be met with “well, that’s just a bunch of crap” (Luke 24:11).
As Anna Carter Florence says in Preaching Moment 10, if the people in our pews aren’t regularly yelling “nonsense” (the censored translation) we may not be preaching the fullness of the text in front of us, the fullness of the Gospel.
What’s the offense? That Jesus is for those we’d rather forget? That Jesus is for others that just may be in line before us? That Jesus actually imagines the meaning of and purpose for his ministry as coming to fullness and fruition without our input and control? All of the above?
There is a homiletical clue in all of this: the good news is just too good to be true.
What do we do with this rejection that seems to lie at the heart of the Gospel? Well, I know what we don’t do. We don’t attempt some sort of hermeneutical gymnastics to twist the text into a manageable message. We don’t sit back and convince ourselves that a softer, more acceptable Gospel will get more people in church. We don’t default to innocuous sermons that tote the denominational line, certain not to ruffle any feathers.
No one is saved by our concerns to play it safe. No one is saved by our decisions to protect parishioners from the challenges of believing. And no one is saved when we ameliorate that which is inherently meant to disturb and disrupt. We are talking about the Gospel, after all, which led to Jesus being executed. When we make the Gospel easier to swallow, we make the cross just death alone. When we make the Gospel a more pleasing option for life, we have then said that the empty tomb isn’t really true. When we make the Gospel simply an option for living, we have forgotten that it’s also a choice about dying.
We can never take the Gospel for granted. Because too many do. Too many make the Gospel utilitarian. Use it for their own gain and profit. For their own self-gratification and self-adulation. For their own sense of accomplishment and advantage. Which is, of course, the exact opposite of Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth.
Because when in these times and in these days the Gospel is a mere plug for a vote, a mere platform for a party, a mere summary for belief systems, we need the sermon at Nazareth more than ever. A sermon willing to name the truth. A sermon that calls out when and where hypocrisy trumps authenticity. And a sermon that is willing to stand on and be preached from a kind of truth known from one’s very soul. That’s the kind of preaching we need. Preaching, as Anna Carter Florence says, that knows it has to take the rejection of the Good News -- and not take it personally.
And so, dear Working Preachers, this week we lean into the palpable discomfort of the Gospel, we acknowledge that what Jesus preaches is hard as hell, and admit that we ourselves sometimes wish to yell, excuse me, “bullshit.”
We admit that it is hard to carry the weight of believing for all. It is hard to hold the burden of faith for others. And it is hard to preach what you yourself have questioned in your darkest moments.
This is not sermon to say we would have responded differently to Jesus’ message. This is not the sermon to suggest that in our hindsight, we could have made better sense of Jesus’ sermon or welcomed it without question. This is not the sermon to propose that were we there, we would have had a different reaction.
Instead, perhaps, it’s the sermon, a rare sermon indeed, to acknowledge just how challenging the “Good News” really is. Just how difficult the Gospel is to hear. And that even with our deepest urge to yell, “that’s nonsense,” it’s the greatest news we will ever hear.