The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost – October 7, 2012
Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16
Preaching at its best involves sharing provocative possibilities for congregational and personal transformation. Good sermons always involve considering “impossible things,” and these provocative propositions – somewhat askew and counter with reality as we know it – are what drives humankind forward on its holy adventure. Facts won’t save us; but imagination holds the key to healing the earth and our personal woundedness. Our healing comes from challenging the status quo, exploring new routes for social change, and speaking of the Great Mystery, the God of 125 billion galaxies and counting! In the next four weeks, I will be writing a “wild and crazy” lectionary commentary for Patheos that will complement my October lectionary commentaries for Process and Faith. In these wild and crazy, adventurous commentaries, I will be exploring the “roads not taken” in sermon preparation and presentation. You can view my Process and Faith commentary for October 7 at http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2012-10-07/proper-22.
Every sermon can go in many directions and good preaching involves entertaining ideas you may never share with your congregation. Regularly, I ask preachers to look at the lectionary readings and then ponder the question: “What topics would I preach to this congregation – what truly wild and crazy, yet transformative, words would I share – if I knew that my job was secure regardless of what I said?” While we may not preach these wild and crazy – often unsettling and dislocating messages – considering them adds energy to your preaching and creativity to your sermon writing. These provocative commentaries are not intended to insult the community or push moral boundaries, but invite people to explore new ways of looking at scripture and God’s activity in their lives and the world. This can be unsettling, but also healing and transforming.
Job has many entry points for the imaginative and disorienting preacher. He or she can focus on the many-sides of Satan (ha-satan), the Accuser, in Job and elsewhere in scripture. Job’s Satan is not the demonic counterforce of Revelation, the source of temptation and backsliding in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, or God’s evil antagonist, as described in much popular Christian theology. Like the tempter in Jesus’ wilderness experience, Job’s Satan is here to try our mettle, to find out if our faith is authentic or based on hope for reward or fear of punishment. The inventive preacher could ask his or her congregation to confront honestly their images of the Demonic, Satan, or the Evil One. Do you believe in such a cosmic evil doer? Or, is such a being a projection of our own temptations and attempt to place the blame elsewhere – “the Devil made me do it!”
Progressive, liberal, and mainstream congregants typically steer clear of the Devil. Still, they might benefit from confronting an image dear to many of their more conservative brothers and sisters.
Evil is real; pain is real. Genocide, terrorism, abuse, addiction, and violence point to the presence of destructive energies in the universe that often overwhelm our quest for wholeness and beauty. Where do these come from? Is our failure to take evil seriously – whether on Wall Street, the halls of Congress, or in the decisions of corporations – a way of avoiding and denying the powers and principalities that create pain, havoc, and destruction in our world? If the Devil has any embodiments in our world, where would they be? Where is the Demonic present in our lives? Can persons or institutions be “possessed” by destructive powers greater than themselves?
The innovative preacher might project a variety of images or video clips of Satan (the Devil) and Demonic characters along with photographs of horrific events, with appropriate cautions of “parental guidance” while playing the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Just as unsettling might be a preacher coming to the pulpit in her or his dark judge’s role and then asking, “Who among you is an adulterer?” If we read the passage at all in worship, and pay any heed to it, a good many congregants, including the preacher, may fall into this category as a result of divorce and – in some biblical texts – marriage to a divorced person. What are we to do about this passage? Do we even dare preach it? As a man who married a divorced woman 34 years ago, am I an adulterer and what is the penalty for this infraction? Even fundamentalists seldom call one another “adulterers” and have relaxed the professional penalties for divorce.
This passage challenges us to reflect on how we are to read the Bible. Should we cut out certain texts, in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson’s Bible, or give certain texts different colors, in the spirit of the Jesus Seminar, to differentiate how important they are to our faith? Biblical authority is typically in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps, the preacher can state, “Be honest! No one really reads the Bible objectively; we all have our interpretations.” This scripture is an opportunity to explore how we – and others – read scripture. This doesn’t invalidate scriptural authority but reminds us that subjectivity is present in every reading of the text and even in its compilation as holy book. Can we live with a “good enough” but not perfect Bible, Quran, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, or Sutras? Does there need to be a “perfect autograph” of scripture for the text to be authoritative or shall we take guidance where we can get it, and not rely on any absolute vantage point even in the life of faith?
Mark’s Gospel also describes Jesus blessing the children and notes that we must become like children to enter God’s Realm. What might this mean? Shall we all come to church in pajamas? Shall we skip down the aisles, play with trucks and dolls, draw pictures, and shoot hoops? Shall we adults get out color crayons and paper and draw our images of God? At the very least, we might explore the most childlike thing we can do in church without burning the building down and then play act a bit. We might let the little children lead us in a game of “follow the leader” as we crawl under pews, draw on attendance pads, and grab big hunks of communion bread and smack our lips as we double-dipped our bread into really good wine or juice!
Maybe the preacher could ask a few young children to help him or her preach the sermon, sharing what makes them happy and what they think of God, and then inviting us to embrace the spirit of Eric Liddel from “Chariots of Fire” – “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel God’s pleasure” – by discovering “God made me ______ and when I______, I feel God’s pleasure” and then act it out in church. Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly and so can you!
What would it mean for a responsible adult also be a playful kid? What would it mean for pastors to smile and rejoice in the day, skipping and laughing and bringing beauty even when are confronting injustice against the Earth and its peoples? Can we jump on Jesus’ lap, give him a big hug, and then await our blessing? If not, why not?
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.