Every Wednesday morning, I lead a Sermon Talkback at our church. The purpose for the participants is to delve deeper into the previous Sunday’s sermon and ask questions that were raised or share insights gained. The purpose for me is to find out what worked, what didn’t, and what people heard that I didn’t even know I said. Yes, it can be as scary as it sounds.
A few weeks ago, I opened up the floor for feedback on the most recent sermon. “So, what were your thoughts?” Dead quiet. Never a good sign. Finally, one sweet elderly lady said to me in a pastoral voice, “Kory, I always love your sermons that keep me thinking about them later in the day.” Then she looked me right in the eye and said, “I didn’t think about this one.” Ouch.
That opened the floodgates. Another lady I admire and respect chimed in and said, “I was actually offended by this sermon.” I frantically raced back over the sermon in my mind to figure out what I had said that would have caused such a reaction. Did I make a statement about a hot-button social issue? Nope. Did I take a stance for or against a political viewpoint? Nope. Did I suggest we do away with caffeinated coffee before church? God forbid! So what was it?
“It was your joke about Jesus fitting through the tomb door.” Aha! The sermon was about a parable Jesus told before dinner at a prominent Pharisee’s house. I set up the scripture reading by saying that it seemed like in Luke’s gospel, Jesus was always going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal. I then said what I considered to be an innocuous attempt at humor: “It’s a good thing he walked everywhere or he may not have fit through the tomb door on Easter morning.” Rimshot!
Or maybe cricket chirps would be more appropriate. Apparently, the image of a fat Jesus didn’t sit well with folks, because when the offended lady shared her reasoning, several others in the group agreed with her. I pressed them for details so I could understand exactly which sensibility I had offended. Does the strength of our faith rest on a svelte Savior? Is Jesus so untouchable that we can’t poke a little fun at his hypothetical spare tire? I found this response especially ironic since no one in the group spoke up after I talked about Jesus in a tutu just a few weeks ago.
“For me,” said one lady, “Easter is sacred, and I don’t like the idea of anything keeping Jesus from coming out of there.” I had literally made Jesus into a sacred cow, and that became an obstacle for her. Every listener has her limits for what is and isn’t acceptable to hear from the pulpit, and the congregation’s criteria for appropriate may differ from the pastor’s. So as someone who preaches just about every Sunday, how am I supposed to know? Granted, this was a trivial example, but we preachers are more often faced with the challenge of how to present Jesus to the congregation, and it’s something we better take seriously. Last year I preached a sermon series called “Jesus Is Not a Nice Guy,” and criticism of that approached show up on my job evaluation. Mistreat my Messiah and you might be looking for work.
Isn’t this the challenge anytime we preach Jesus, fat or otherwise? How do we preach a well-rounded (in the theological, not physical, sense) Jesus, making sure we present him honestly to the congregation? Jesus doesn’t need me to make him more sacrilegious, thank you very much. A guy who calls contemporary religious leaders “whitewashed tombs” and went all Hulk Hogan in the temple isn’t making a lot of friends. People want to be comforted by stories of the Jesus who welcomed little children to his knee and prayed for his disciples and faced death with (mostly) quiet confidence. That’s a relatable Jesus. But when the guy starts meddling, dividing families and telling me how to spend my money and hanging with the wrong crowd…well, we don’t know if we like that Jesus.
So which Jesus do we preach? Nice or mean Jesus? Conciliatory or confrontational Jesus? Healing or heretic Jesus? Preaching the Precious Moments Jesus is safe but toothless. Preaching the In-Your-Face Jesus is more fun but could be a threat to our job security. So maybe we should just let Jesus do the talking, not adding weight to his words by uncovering hidden political agendas or stifling him in the Bubble Wrap of palatibility. What I heard the lady say to me during our gathering was, “Let Jesus be Jesus.” Who am I to say who Jesus should be for you? If I let him speak for himself (and let him be silent on issues about which he was silent), then the pressure is off the preacher, and it’s up to each believer to figure out what he means to them. As a pastor, my job is not to decide which Jesus my congregation gets to see. My job is simply to open the door and make the introduction. I trust that Jesus (fat or otherwise) can take it from there.
Kory Wilcoxson is the senior minister of Crestwood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Lexington, Ky. He enjoys baseball, spending time with his family, walking his Goldendoodle Jack, and a good pun. You can read his blog at www.revkory.wordpress.com.