Avoiding the Unhappy Ending

window detail, the burning intensity of the divine presence, "The Covenant with Moses," FPCE

 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

–Luke 4:28-29

 The summer I turned nineteen, I led an adult study in my church that was well received. One thing led to another, and through a church member’s friend I was invited to make a presentation to another church across town. I was just beginning to suspect that I might be called to ministry, so I took this invitation as an opportunity to explore. When I arrived on a Wednesday evening, I discovered that I would not be presenting to a small group in a classroom, but from a pulpit to a gathered congregation of about 100 people. We sang a hymn, I made my presentation, and offered a prayer. Several people asked for my opinion during a question-and-answer period that followed. The pastor said a prayer, they took up an offering for me, and we sang a final hymn.  Several people offered sincere thanks at the door, after which time I was fed a meal, and presented with a check.  This was heady stuff for a young guy in blue jeans and a polo shirt, just nineteen years old.

 When I told people what happened, my parents were mildly pleased, but some of my fellow church members were surprised. One of my friends thought I made up the whole thing.

 In the clergy business, there are a lot of stories like that.

 There’s an old saying: “Familiarity breeds contempt.” A mindset like that partially explains what happened on the day that Jesus returned to Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30). At that time, his fledgling ministry was successful, and his fame had spread among the villages of Galilee. When he made his appearance, the leaders of his home congregation invited him to speak what turned out to be his inaugural sermon. At first, worshippers spoke well of him. But, as the worship service progressed, a different kind of reaction developed. The worshippers, many of whom were his family members and friends were upset. They muttered unflattering things to one another. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” We were reading the scroll of Isaiah when he was still in diapers. He’s nobody special, just a kid in blue jeans and a polo shirt.

 Familiarity may have been part of the problem, but the main reason things got nasty was that Jesus challenged his family and friends. He challenged assumptions about their rights and privileges. He challenged their belief that they were at the center of God’s universe, and that others who were different from them didn’t matter to God. He challenged them to examine their moral conduct, and consider whether those outside the community of faith were acting more righteously than those within it.

 One of the dangers of a casual reading of this story, a danger perhaps greatest for the preacher, is that we quickly identify ourselves with Jesus, and neglect to consider whether we are his congregation. 

 William Willimon describes the phenomenon with the disarming humor that’s made him popular among preachers, saying that he’d wager he’s heard more sermons from this text than any other. It’s always some young and fearless prophet Jesus in the pulpit, giving the establishment what it has coming, bludgeoning the status quo. He’s heard it used to attack apartheid, prisons, government budget policies, and more. It’s a wonderful text for all the young Jesuses, putting it to the Nazarene military-religious-industrial establishment. He says, “I remember well my own homecoming sermon in Greenville in which I set the home folk straight on the Vietnam War. Just like Jesus, I was! And pity those poor ignoramuses in Nazareth who didn’t know.”[1]

 As another saying goes: “Been there, done that.” And found out that it doesn’t always turn out so well. It’s not that there aren’t important issues to address, or that people don’t need to think about them.  We could list many issues worthy of our study and discussion: 

  • how we make life-and-death decisions related to abortion and euthanasia; 
  • how we determine moral boundaries related to sexual orientation or immigration;
  • how we use resources in order to serve the common good and protect the planet entrusted to our care;
  • how we will live to promote peace and decrease violence, and the proper place of guns and other weapons.

 Yes, there are plenty of important issues to address. But the reason things often go off track in our conversations and move toward an unhappy ending is because we assume that others who think differently than us are wrong, and we are right; that they’re all a bunch of Nazarenes, and we are Jesus.

  This week, a conversation like that took place in a very public way. A popular Evangelical pastor tweeted: “Praying for our president, who today will place his hand on a Bible he does not believe to take an oath to a God he likely does not know.” My objection to this sort of statement doesn’t stem from a partisan political position, but rather from facts that are part of the public record. Whether you are talking about our current President or our immediate past president, each one articulated a faith in Jesus Christ years before election to the presidency, and each continues to do so. Each reads scripture, prays, and surrounds himself with Christian advisors. We may question the wisdom or morality of particular decisions each has made, but it seems unhelpful at best to challenge their status as Christians. Each, in his own way, has attempted to follow Christ in the decisions and activities of daily life. To the extent that they have not measured up, they have demonstrated themselves to be like all of us, sinners in need of God’s grace. It’s so easy to assume that others who think differently than us are wrong, and we are right; that they’re all a bunch of Nazarenes, and we are Jesus. It’s an increasingly rare grace when a public policy conversation can avoid attacks on one another’s motives, intelligence, and integrity, and instead focus on ideas and suggestions to serve the common good.

 In new member appointments and officer training, I usually spend a big chunk of my energy on an idea that I think was expressed well by the theologian Paul Tillich. Tillich said there’s a difference between “faith” and “theology.”  Faith, he said, is a “primary phenomenon.” It’s the trust that develops in us as we respond to God’s revelation. Theology, he said, is “secondary reflection.” It’s how we try to make sense out of faith. That kind of distinction seems rare in our world of religious Fundamentalism and dogma. But it’s that distinction that makes real education possible. I can believe in God, and trust in God’s saving activity in my life, while my understanding grows about how that all works. And I can believe that even when your understanding – your theology – is different from mine, that the faith you say you have is real, and evidence of God’s gracious activity in your life. It was the freedom to study, and think, and dialogue without harsh judgment that drew me to the Presbyterian Church, and is, I believe, one of the most graceful features of our identity.

 In one of the churches I served, we ministers lived with the ghost of the congregation’s legendary 25-year pastor, a distinguished gentleman who was respected for having guided the religiously diverse congregation through the trying years of the Great Depression and the Second World War. He was known to end each conversation with a prospective new member by snapping closed his pocket watch, and offering a gentle challenge something like this: “There is a place for you in our church. We know that God has blessed you with unique gifts and experiences and perspectives. We will accept you in a way that expresses respect and love despite any differences we have. The real question is, ‘Can you accept us?’”

 Seems like a fitting question for our time.

[1] William Willimon, “His Own Knew Him Not,” Pulpit Resource, 25 January 1998.


~ by JohnH1962 on January 27, 2013.

4 Responses to “Avoiding the Unhappy Ending”

  1. It was the freedom to study, and think, and dialogue without harsh judgment that drew me to the Presbyterian Church, and is, I believe, one of the most graceful features of our identity.

    I agree but would temper this comment with it depending upon the division of Presbyterian church. Just returned from a Presbyterian wedding whereby I had to bite my tongue. Judgment without Grace. Must say that I was sickened by the wedding message.

    Back to the topic at hand.

    One possibility is that perhaps it was a matter of preaching to the choir. For instance, the message at the wedding sickened me. Had this same message been delivered at our church, I think -rather hope- I would have stood up and offered an opposing message. Conversely, I have little doubt that this very same message may have raised a resounding “Amen” in their church setting. In retrospect, perhaps I missed an opportunity by not speaking up during the wedding.

    In short, family and church family views are not necessarily the same. Perhaps they rarely are.

  2. Bob, I’m sorry about your experience at the wedding. I would like to hear more about it next time I see you in person. Thanks for taking time to read my blog and comment.

  3. Good one. No other comments necessary. William Hembruch

  4. Bill, thanks for making time to read, and for the feedback.

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