What We Need (Mark 6:1-13)
Rev. Penwell's Sermon for July 7, 2012
Fascinating, isn’t it? The one place you’d figure Jesus would shine. He goes to his high school reunion. He’s visiting all the old spots, getting reacquainted with old friends. Everything seems to be going along swimmingly—until Jesus shows up in church. That’s where things start getting a little sticky, don’t they?
Jesus begins teaching, and all of a sudden people are starting to murmur, “You know, that kid was always kind of a know-it-all.” Never one to be put off by a little griping, Jesus keeps talking and performing signs.
The text says finally, “And they took offense at him.” So much so, that he couldn’t do much with them. Just a few healings. What about the home field advantage, right?
Then, Mark makes an interesting shift in the narrative to Jesus’ disciples. After having alienated just about everyone from the old neighborhood, Jesus takes the twelve aside and commissions them to go out and follow his lead.
Mark intentionally links Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth to the sending out of the twelve, as if to say, “If you follow Jesus, this is what you’ve got to look forward to.”
From this text it’s possible to get a glimpse into Jesus’ modus operandi: He had an uncanny knack for making people mad. And if Jesus’ instructions to the twelve in the second part of our text is right, his followers can count on sometimes making people mad.
Whatever it was—his style, his tone of voice, his overbearing commitment to justice—it’s important to point out that, when you get right down to it, Jesus pushed more people away than he ever won over.
I preach for a living. Now, that’s a tough gig, because way down deep in the stack is the realization that much of what I’m trying to do is to move people to live differently, to be different people, to love different things—God-shaped things. And everybody knows that if you’re trying to persuade people, then part of what you want to do is avoid making them mad.
Alienation is not among the tips and tricks they teach you in seminary.
So, the temptation of preaching is: Take whatever it is that God is saying in the text and make it easy to chew. Soften it up. Pre- digest it if necessary.
And if you do this very long, you start to notice, “You know, some people are really good at this. They’re able to make the Bible—a tough and prickly book by any measure—velvety smooth going down.
Look at Joel Osteen—that man is a genius! He can take the otherwise difficult demands of the Gospel and make them sound like things anyone could do with just the odd tweak here or there. That takes talent: Making an executed criminal sound like a your great-uncle Frank whose biggest mark on the world (as far as you knew) was to take in stray dogs and walk around handing out peppermints to kids—who always had a kind word and a pat on the head.
Tough work, making the radically disruptive Jesus pleasant.
Preaching often feels like it should be like that—like we should give God a good scrubbing up, make God more presentable.
Of course, what that doesn’t take into consideration is the fact that even Jesus wasn’t able to do that. In fact, Jesus didn’t even try. It’s instructive to remember that Jesus was crucified precisely because he often didn’t much care about saying things in ways that people generally found acceptable.
I mean, look at stories like this one. Jesus, it appears, was willing to suffer rejection; he was quite content to be misunderstood. Jesus preached away more people than he won. But that picture of Jesus makes us a bit uneasy.
The popular modern picture of Jesus as an ancient Near-Eastern Mr. Rogers, however, doesn’t square with the sometimes abrupt character we find roaming around in the Gospels.
Think about the parables. Nice little stories, right? Little morality tales, Jewish approximations of Aesop’s Fables, right? This and this leads to this, so mind your manners, wash your hands after
you go to the bathroom, and never try to eat someone else’s grapes. Simple, right?
The problem is that when Jesus told parables, people (even the ones closest to him) usually walked away scratching their heads. “What did he just say? The wicked servant gets blessed, despite his wickedness? The people who show up late get paid the same amount as the ones who worked all day? What does that even mean?”
The only thing we’re left to conclude is that Jesus must have been using parables for some purpose other than to ensure that everyone got his point. He was willing to be misunderstood, rejected because the point he was making wasn’t dependent for its validity on the crowd’s acceptance.
Now, of course, the other temptation in preaching a sermon on a text like this is to point your finger, breathe fire—shake the dust from your feet if people don’t respond. This is a tough one, because there’s great comfort in feeling like you occupy the moral high ground. Preachers often prefer to stand up there; it’s easier to look down from up on high.
Moral certainty, however, can be just as dangerous as theological squeamishness, because as brother Paul (as morally certain and self-righteous as the best of them) is quick to remind us that, at least at present, we all “see through a glass darkly.”
No. Self-righteousness is as big a temptation as sanding off the rough edges.
But maybe what Mark intends for his readers to understand is that, no matter how you slice it, this following Jesus is difficult. If you’re true to the gospel, then not everybody’s going to like what you have to say. Perhaps the point is in trying to negotiate the troubled middle . . . between making Jesus so inoffensive that he starts looking like a character on Nickelodeon and identifying with him so closely that you start being insufferable in the way that ordinarily makes you cringe when you see it in others.
But here’s the thing: Following Jesus doesn’t come with a nice neat set of instructions that take all the guesswork out of it. It’s hard. It’s terrifying and confusing—like German. It’s certainly not user-friendly. It doesn’t concern itself overmuch with meeting people’s “felt needs.”
Following Jesus is about heading down dark alleys . . . because that’s where you thought you saw him go.
I was reading not long ago about a church in Eustis, Florida that offers a sort of worship “lite.” They changed the sign in front of the church to read: Express Worship, 45 Minutes, Guaranteed!
It seems that people were skipping out on church because they thought the service was too long. Consequently, the minister, seeking to meet as many needs as possible, started hacking away at the order of worship until he got it down to a manageable time frame.
Members of the Family Bible Church apparently love it. “You don’t feel like you’re spending all day in church,” says Joy Easton, a regular worshiper.
Another regular, Ernie Quinton, concurs: “Some people don’t want to spend an hour, an hour and a half in church.”
The minister, Allen Speegle, says, “So many people are in a time crunch, but they don’t want to leave the Lord out.”
That makes sense, doesn’t it? You love Jesus, you just hate for him to goof up your weekend. And so the church responds by adapting itself to meet people’s felt needs.
But what if the church were to serve people, not as a market transaction, but because the church comprises the people of God?
What if the choir works hard on their anthem, not just because they hope you’ll like it and be inspired by it, but because they know that they’re doing work God has called them to do, and in the process they stand as a sign, a signal, a foretaste, a beachhead of God’s reign in the world?
What if I’m preaching this sermon, not because I think it’s uppermost on your list of weekly wants, or because I need to have a captive audience for 20 minutes every week to meet my capacious ego needs, but instead because I believe this is what God wants? What we get out of what’s done here shouldn’t be as big a concern to us as fidelity to the peculiar nature of the new world God’s busy creating through our commitment to gathering together.
What’s the greatest service the church can render the world?
Perhaps the greatest service we render isn’t meeting people’s felt needs, but helping them to understand what their truest needs are in light of Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps the real mission of the church is to help me redefine my needs, identifying needs I’d never have known, if I’d just stayed home and watched Dancing with the Stars.
Of course, the church seeks to meet people’s needs. But one of the most pressing needs people have is to see a vision of the world the way God envisions the world—a world in which sick people, and poor people, and hungry people, and disabled people,
and immigrants, and LGBTQ people, not only have a seat around God’s table . . . but have been made the guests of honor.
We ought to spend more energy worrying about how the church ought to form its community and its members as “concrete embodiments of the gospel, such that it . . . continues to offer a profound, perhaps even radical, alternative to the dominant structures and institutions of the day.”
We shouldn’t be overconfident in our ability to determine for ourselves what we really need. People, prone as we are to self- deception, can often talk ourselves into just about anything. We thought, for example, that it was ultimately better for us that our needs would finally be met if Jesus weren’t around. So we nailed him to a cross.
We come to church for such a variety of reasons—needs we have that we seek to have met. Some of them are truly urgent; some are self-serving. We come in search of a friendly face; we come seeking confirmation of our preconceptions; we come wanting to find help with our problems; we come yearning for fellowship. Sometimes we even come casting about for a glimpse of the face of God.
It’s a mixed bag, really.
But many of you can testify that, thank God, church often turns out to be more interesting than we could have expected.
In worship, in the life of the church, in participating in ministry God tends to take our reasons and form them, to redirect our desires, to give us more than we would have known how to ask for.
In the reading and preaching of the story of the people of God, our preconceptions get challenged and changed. What we thought were our problems often turned out to be trivial and we’re given problems we could have avoided if we hadn’t met Jesus. We come seeking fellowship and we’re astounded to receive friendship with God.
I don’t think there’s any question that somebody left church that day dissatisfied, unnerved, annoyed. They heard Jesus and said on the ride home, “I’m sorry, but that new preacher just didn’t do a thing for me.”
Some—a few, definitely not everyone—realized that Jesus was about more than meeting what we thought were our needs; his primary purpose was to give us what we really need.
And in retrospect, looking back through the prism of the cross, all that’s left to say is, “Thanks be to God. Thanks be to God.”