Sunday, October 14, 2012

We Need Some Clever Preachers

Usually we Christians are suspicious of clever preachers, but today we need some clever preachers, because a plain reading of this gospel should scare the hell out of us.

Many times, the representative, faithful Church goer - we’ll call him Joe Pew - will approach the sermon moment with some suspicion, a determination to not be had: “Play it straight, preacher. Put the cards face up, and keep things on the level.” This is why Greek words, say the seminaries, are to be avoided or used sparingly. Avoid the appearance of excessive cleverness. In south Texas, where I served for five years, pastors who preached with an open Bible in their hands were held in the highest regard. The message is clear: “Preach the plain word.”

This suspicion of overly ornamental preaching has much to commend it: there is a beauty and simplicity inherent to the Good News of the Gospel and the hard wood of the cross that the preacher tempted with excessive cleverness does well to remember, indeed, to cling to. There is also a truthfulness within the contemplative tradition that asserts the power of the Spirit to speak intimately, plainly, clearly to God’s people, even apart from the benefits of a twenty-first century seminary education. And of course there is the gravest danger in wishing a twenty-first century seminary education on the authors of Holy Scripture or worse, on Jesus himself: as in, “yeah, but said that, but just imagine what Jesus would have said with the benefit of a course or two in pastoral care and/or exegesis...” A little caution, indeed, even suspicion, thrown back on the preacher, is not all bad.

Just as surely, this suspicion has its limitations. In its extreme form, too much suspicion within the Sunday Assembly can betray fear of the truth, a fear of any word spoken which would challenge or amend what the hearer already practices and believes. Yet because we worship the One who said, “I am the way and the truth,” we know that we need not be afraid of truth. We rightfully invite the learnings of commentaries, the readings of previous generations, the questions of other traditions, and we properly insist on reading and hearing Holy Scripture together, as Church. This means that we will always have preachers to mistrust; just as we will always have congregations to keep them honest.

Today’s Gospel in which Jesus encounters a man unwilling to part with his wealth is the exception that proves this dynamic tension. Today, congregations across our Communion are forgoing their usual suspicion of preachers and instead imploring them to dig down into their interpretive bag of tricks for something (anything) clever that will tame these words of Jesus. Most preachers will be happy to oblige.

The first collective move will be to point out the relativity of richness and so discount our own wealth: maybe Jesus isn’t talking to us. We have money, but not that much, and besides, we don’t love it like that. I read recently that political campaigns make such frequent appeal to the middle class because everybody thinks they are in it. Everybody knows somebody richer and everybody has a few friends who are poorer, leaving each one, in her own mind, in the middle. But consider one study which concluded that for every person on the planet to attain the material wealth of even the average middle class American would require six physical earths. And lest we presume exemption from Jesus' words on the basis of our immediate context on campus (not a place of great financial wealth), consider also that if the world population of seven billion was representatively shrunk down to one-hundred people, seven would enjoy a college education while ninety-three would not.

So the assertion of our relative poverty will do us no good toward taming Jesus’ words. Still, there will be other tools employed today across the larger Church to assist in lessening the blow. Let’s briefly consider three other spins of this Sunday’s gospel. Here I am borrowing from my friend and mentor in college, Matt Gunter, an Episcopal priest outside of Chicago, who presents a kind of ‘mythbusters’ for this text.

Proposal number one: one popular interpretation posits that the eye of the needle refers to a narrow gate in the city wall of Jerusalem. “A camel, the story goes, could just squeeze through the gate after being relieved of its cargo.” The verdict: Myth. “There is no evidence of such a gate and the interpretation does not show up until the late middle ages when an imaginative monk put it in a commentary on the gospel.”

Proposal number two: “The Greek word for camel is spelled like the Greek word for rope. A rope still won't fit through the eye of a needle, but it is less preposterous than a camel.” The verdict? Myth. "There is no evidence that the writer of the Gospel of Mark had a spelling problem or that Jesus did not pronounce his words clearly.”

Proposal number three: “Jesus is only referring to those who trust in their money." Myth. "That’s not what it says. Look again. Jesus says, ‘It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.’’ Someone who is rich. Period. John Wesley was probably right when he explained that, “[I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for those who have riches not to trust in them.”

If the preacher cannot be trusted to be clever today, where does that finally  leave us? I suppose it leaves us somewhere in the vicinity of the disciples who said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” The despair of the disciples’ question occasions Jesus answer and our hope: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

There is no clever evasion of this text tonight. The two-fold deception must be ended: 1) wealth is a problem for the Christian faithful, and 2) we are the wealthy. Yet Jesus does not leave the disciples or us merely with an honest emptiness. Instead he steers us toward the very reliance on God that wealth so often impedes when he says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

This leads me to the ending:

Pray for the rich. Even ourselves. If there is no hope for the rich apart from God’s action, may we pray for this action in earnest. Publicly. Openly. Even, to the world’s eyes, foolishly.

When I was a rector at a small parish, I once included the rich in the prayers of the people. Not in isolation, but there, next to the poor and among other prayers. “Lord, we pray for the poor. We pray for the rich as well.” And a man came up to me after the service. “Father Jonathan, why did we pray for the rich today?” he asked. “They’re rich. What do they need? What could we ask God to give them? With what can God possibly help them?”

And these were rhetorical questions without real answers for the man in my parish. But taken at face value they also become for us true questions of abundant life and the Kingdom of God. We who find ourselves wealthy to such an extent that we do not even see it and do not know what it would look like to begin to divest ourselves of our wealth, and far less what it would mean to rely on God in such a way that would leave us vulnerable and so also open to the salvation of God: what do we need? What could we ask God to give us? With what can God possibly help us?

To the God for whom all things are possible, pray for the rich. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, pray for us.


SFH. 10.14.12

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