A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 26, 2018 (Proper 16B)
Over the years I’ve only had a few people storm out during one of my sermons. I remember distinctly the first time it happened, though. The United States was careening towards war in Iraq, about to invade that country, and the Old Testament reading appointed for the day was the binding of Isaac. That’s a tough reading at any time, but it felt as if as a country we were, like Abraham, standing precisely at the moment when the knife was raised. In a split second we could relent or we could murder. I spoke as someone who served in the military but primarily as a Christian, making the argument that Jesus would not lower that knife.
Well, obviously this was controversial and a parishioner walked out in the middle of my sermon. And he didn’t just sneak out, it was loud and theatrical with lots of harrumphing. Later that day, I reached out to him and offered to have a conversation; starting with “I couldn’t help but notice…” I also sent him the full text of my sermon because he missed some key pieces of what I meant to convey, since he wasn’t there to hear it.
But he never came back. And that was hard for a young preacher desperately trying to unite and inspire people rather than divide and anger them. In my uncertainty about how to move forward, I sought out the counsel of a wise, older priest. And he put his arm around me and said, “Tim, if they aren’t occasionally walking out, you’re probably not preaching the gospel.” I’ve held on to that over the years as, every once in a while, someone expresses displeasure with what I’ve proclaimed from the pulpit. Though it’s been a number of years since someone’s actually stormed out. So I’m probably due.
But I bring this up, not to encourage you to leave, but as a reminder that the gospel is full of hard truths. Words and lessons we’d rather avoid than confront. Like loving your enemies and turning the other cheek and sharing your possessions with others, and all the other sayings that run counter to our cultural norms.
Jesus hits this point in this morning’s gospel reading when he asks the disciples, after a difficult teaching, “Does this offend you?”
Now, some people argue that what’s wrong with America today is that people are too easily offended. There’s a tremendous amount of offense and outrage that gets generated on all sides of every issue. All you need to do is turn on cable news or log onto Twitter. Being offended and expressing outrage has become a cottage industry, with pundits earning a nice living getting people riled up about all sorts of issues. Even preachers sometimes feed into this.
But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He’s not talking about small things being blown out of proportion; he’s talking about the most important and profound truths of this mortal life being difficult to hear. The gospel, the “good news” of Jesus Christ, can be offensive. At least to our human sensibilities. Because it draws us into uncomfortable places, it challenges our notions of fairness, it speaks truths we’d rather not hear, and it demands action and response. And sometimes it’s easier to just walk out; to plug our ears; to stop coming to church; to toss out the proverbial baby with the baptismal water.
“Does this offend you?” Sometimes it absolutely will. But when it does, when Jesus’ words make you want to leave the building or shut the Bible, that’s precisely when you need to listen closely. And ask yourself, why does this offend me so much? What does it say about me and my worldview? What is it that makes me feel so uncomfortable? Often the things that make us the angriest or the most defensive, are the exact things we most need to hear, whether it comes to our personal relationship with money or serving the poor or dealing with people we can’t stand.
And Jesus certainly doesn’t sugar coat his message. There’s no false advertising when it comes to following Jesus. He’s not looking to draw people in with smooth words and sleight of hand. He’s very upfront that it won’t always be easy for those who choose to follow him. At times they will be mocked and derided and even killed for their beliefs. And he certainly didn’t expect everyone to be drawn to what he was preaching. We hear that, “Because of this” — these hard lessons — “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”
There is indeed a cost to discipleship. Not just for Jesus’ initial followers but for us as well. It is hard work; it is counter-cultural; it is uncomfortable. Churches don’t mention this in their over-produced welcome packets, but maybe we should, as a way to set expectations about what it means to be a Christian and what’s involved in following Jesus with heart, mind, and soul.
Maybe instead of the usual “Look how great we are! Choose us!” the welcome packet should say something like: “Welcome to St. John’s. We are delighted you’re here and we welcome you into our community of faith. There are lots of great programs for all ages, but there are also some things Jesus demands of you. That you set your mind on heavenly things rather than earthly things; that you strive for justice in the world, not just with your lips but in your life; that you confess of your complicity in systems that imprison and impoverish others; that you love your enemies; that you share your God-given financial resources generously with both the church and the world; that you seek to deepen your spiritual life through regular prayer, worship, and the reading of Scripture; that you joyfully share your faith with others.”
Or, if that’s too wordy, maybe we should just put a warning label on the outside of the packet, letting people know that they may be offended by what they encounter here. I think we’re sometimes so concerned with not offending people that we don’t do Jesus justice.
That’s the problem with preachers who never offend their congregations. They aren’t getting at the crux of the gospel, at that place where the spiritual rubber meets the road. When you remain in the realm of platitude without ever truly addressing the difficult concepts of sin, death, and salvation, you stay safely on the surface of things. Never offending, but never leading anyone to the transformation that comes through profound encounter with the risen Christ. The message from the pulpit shouldn’t be pleasant and nice and inoffensive — at least not all the time. At least not if it seeks to lead people to follow Jesus in authentic and life-giving ways.
In the letter to the Ephesians, we hear that marvelous passage about putting on the whole armor of God. And while it sometimes feels necessary to put on armor to endure the fullness of the gospel of Christ, to seek protection from the parts that offend, that’s not the point. The armor itself is the message — the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit. When we put on the armor of God by immersing ourselves in Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness and salvation, we are then ready to hear and embody even the hard truths of the Christian faith.
So don this gospel armor and be surrounded by the words of our Lord. And then please, as the writer of Ephesians says, “Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.” It may be offensive at times. You may want to walk out. You may even actually walk out — though hopefully not. But therein lies both the gospel’s power and its glory.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018