Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 8, 2012
In the movie Last Holiday, Queen Latifah plays the role of Georgia Byrd, a sales clerk at a New Orleans department store who leads a very quiet, lonely life. She cooks gourmet meals to give to friends, but she eats Lean Cuisine; likes a co-worker but bears it in silence; has savings she could enjoy, but hasn’t left Louisiana. All that changes when an MRI discloses she has three weeks to live.
She cashes in her IRA and bonds and heads to Europe’s Grandhotel Pupp where she checks into the Presidential Suite, buys a stylish new wardrobe, orders everything on the menu, snowboards and, in all of this, gets the attention of the world-famous chef and the hotel’s powerful American guests: a Congressman, a Senator, a retail magnate, and his mistress. They insist on intruding on her privacy to satisfy their curiosity about her identity. Knowing that she has nothing to lose, Georgia dines with them and tells them exactly what she thinks about them, albeit with grace, revealing how shallow and dishonest and arrogant they are.
She offends them all and they don’t say a word in rebuttal—because they assume she has power and money. In the end, they discover her real identity, but by then they have been transformed by her honesty and willingness to speak difficult truths.
In Mark’s Gospel today, Jesus has come to preach in his home town after which the congregation, all of whom know him as their hometown boy, snub him. We can imagine that they probably smiled and nudged each other in proud anticipation as he walked to the bema in the synagogue to begin speaking. Then he opened his mouth and everything changed. Mark doesn’t tell us what he said, but it was a message powerful enough or them to be astounded and then offended.
In truth, much of what Jesus said offended the religious leaders of his own faith tradition—the rabbis and the Pharisees. And, more to the point, he did not intend for his message to be stuck in a time warp in the first century. The Gospel is a living entity because Jesus is a living entity. The truth of the message Jesus preached is also for us and for our time and culture.
The rub for us, then, is that there will be times when those called to preach the Word to us will offend us because what they are saying is true and we know it; and, there will be times when, because of our baptismal covenant to persist in resisting evil, strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being, we will offend others just as Jesus did. There are times when, just like Georgia Byrd, in love and with the hope of transformation, we must confront forces that would oppress rather than liberate and diminish rather than enlarge the lives of our sisters and brothers in God’s family.
Methodist bishop William Willimon tells the story of the visit he and his family made to one of those glitzy, TV broadcast churches in California. The guest preacher was Charles Colson of Watergate fame. You may recall that he got into a heap of trouble and served time in prison. Sitting next to Willimon was his mother, who said in a voice loud enough to be heard by anyone near them, “I haven’t come here to church to hear some jailbird preach.” Willimon responded quietly, “But he has had a conversion experience; he has given his life to Christ.” “That’s what they all say when they come before the Parole Board,” she quipped.
Charles Colson began to preach. “This is quite a congregation that is arrayed before me,” he said. “I wish you could see yourselves and how magnificent you look on this beautiful southern California day. I wish all of those watching on TV could see what a grand and glorious place this church is. Quite a contrast from where I preached yesterday.
“I preached not in this grand church, but in a little cinderblock building at the Los Angeles Prison Farm. I preached not to this fine assembly, but to murders and thieves. And you do know with which group Jesus was more at home?”
“Then,” Willimon says, “he preached about our materialism, our greed, our insensitivity to the plight of the poor. My dear mother leaned over to me and said, ‘I hope Mr. Colson is having a good time preaching here because he will never be invited back.” And nor was Jesus after that day in the synagogue in Nazareth.
Sometimes religion in its worst manifestations gets in the way of our being faithful to the truth of the Gospel. The people whom Jesus offended most were religious people. The biggest lesson we can learn from this story is that the community of believers is really the toughest audience to whom Jesus has to preach—especially when what he has to say offends us. Too often religious folk think they know what is right and what is wrong and do not want to be challenged in that arena.
And yet that is exactly what God is busy about doing—shaking us up, yanking our chains, getting our attention—because, if God does not do precisely that, we could remain stuck where we are without ever a chance of any life transformation.
The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, our principal legislative body, is meeting right now in Indianapolis. In her final address as president of the House of Deputies, which consists of clergy and lay elected by each diocese, Bonnie Anderson likened the Episcopal Church to the slaves led out of Egypt. “We in the Episcopal Church,” she said, “have been forced to get on the road toward the Promised Land. Some of us are happy about that, because being the institutional church of power and privilege, which we used to be, seemed a lot like being slaves in Egypt. Others of us are doing just fine in Egypt, and we’d be happier going back there. We’re wandering in a wilderness of declining membership and budget reductions and we’re pretty sure that we’re going to die out here. But there’s no going back to Egypt. We’re on the Promised Land highway…”
I suspect that some folks were offended by Bonnie’s words. The truth is, however, that the church needs to offended if it is not being faithful to its mission as a healing, reconciling, and restorative life force in the world and if it is not willing—either on the very local or national level—to find our way in the wilderness and how to be the kind of church that God is calling into being. I think we try to be faithful to that call in this community and I think we also need to be open to hear the truth when and if we are falling down on that and I hope the our General Convention will listen to those who speak the truth during this time of their deliberation and move us along on our way to the Promised Land, where God calls us to sing a new church into being.
Sometimes we may offend people like we did in our church ad last fall that said “You don’t have to check your brain at the door” in our church or when we proclaim and clearly explain what we mean by “Radical Welcome.” Perhaps we even offend some Episcopalians by offering an Open Communion Table, not requiring people to be baptized in order to receive the Eucharist here. Sometimes we need to take a risk like Georgia Byrd, that sales clerk at a New Orleans department store in the movie Last Holiday, live as if we have nothing to lose, and tell them what we think. Tell them what Jesus would because we believe it is the truth of the Gospel and the essence of the Good News.. That’s exactly what he did that morning back home in Nazareth.