sermon preached at Church of the Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20B, September 23, 2018
I was hanging out with a friend recently, and she commented, “Sermons are when the preacher tells the people what to do.”
I was taken aback. “What?”
“Sermons are when the preacher tells the people what to do. And the people who come to church are those who are willing to be told what to do.”
I was intrigued. “And then they do it?”
“Oh, no, of course not,” she replied. “But they’re willing to sit there and be told. It’s a time-honored social convention lived out in all our churches every Sunday.”
“Do I do that?” I wondered aloud, reaching for my smartphone and its store of all my sermons in the cloud.
My friend laughed. “Probably! Wait … are you checking right now?”
|A Word Cloud of 268 sermons ...|
I scanned a couple old sermons, looking specifically for imperative verbs. “Choose … live … practice … listen … come … bring … immerse!” They were all over the place. Some of the verbs were very gracious and open, while others specifically ordered the congregation in a certain direction. It turns out that, in ways subtle and not-so-subtle, I’ve been telling congregations of people what to do for fifteen years!
I noticed something else, too. I noticed that my best sermons—the ones I’m personally proudest of, at least—were the ones with fewer imperative verbs—the ones in which I shared a personal story or made an observation—and then just let it be.
It took me 286 sermons to learn this. (Ah, the things computers can tell us!)
Well, if we have any humility at all, we learn to revel in the fact that we never stop learning. So naturally, the next place I looked for imperative verbs was in today’s readings.
Jeremiah has only one; he is telling his own story, a lament that there are people seeking to murder him. Then he implores God, “Let”—oh, what a nice, gracious verb! Oh, wait: “Let me see your retribution on them.” Well, I guess if there are people trying to kill you, you might want to see them hurt a little. It may not be especially honorable or enlightened, but it’s at least honest to include that part in your prayer.
The Psalmist is in a similar situation, and at least for storytelling purposes, we can understand today’s Psalm as being sung by David, before he is King of Israel, when he also is running from potential murderers. So David’s imperatives are also aimed at God: “Save,” “defend,” “hear,” “give ear,” “render,” “destroy.” It’s the same story: Rescue me from my enemies, God, and while you’re at it, get rid of them for me, will you? Understandable.
In the Letter of James, we find something very different, but there is a line in it that makes me chuckle: “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.” I can see you all nodding your heads—yes, that’s right. I can relate to that. I’ve been there before. Maybe James has been reading in his Bible about Jeremiah and David.
James, throughout his letter, is full of specific advice in the form of imperative commands. Today we hear these: Show your gentleness. Do not be boastful and false. Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil. Draw near to God. James’s letter really does sound like a sermon, doesn’t it? And I’ll leave you to decide whether it’s good, solid advice. I just note that he is specifically telling the people what to do.
And then we get to the Gospel. Jesus says several things in this passage. How many imperative verbs do you see?
That’s right: None. Even in the face of being misunderstood, even in the face of an argument among his disciples, Jesus doesn’t command anything.
Instead, first he tells them what is going to happen: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” We mused last week about how problematic it would be to accept such a fate for God’s Messiah.
Next Jesus asks them a question: “What were you arguing about on the way?”
Then, after the disciples’ shamefaced confession that they were trying to one-up each other, Jesus tells them the way things work in God’s domain: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” He doesn’t tell them what to do. He tells them how to get what they want, if that’s truly what they want, and to suspect that what they thought they wanted might not be the best thing to want. Then he leaves it up to them to work it out.
And once more, Jesus speaks: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Again, he’s telling nobody what to do. He’s just telling them the way things are in God’s world. If you choose, you can stop arguing and be a servant, and you will be blessed. If you choose, you can welcome all the vulnerable who are of no use to you.
This is, after all, how children were generally viewed in the ancient world. They were a necessary nuisance. Young children were takers, hoarding valuable resources in a hand-to-mouth economy, all on the off chance that they would not get sick and die, but instead grow into valuable, strapping young farm workers and mothers of the next generation of children. You had to have children to take care of you in your old age. But until they hit puberty, at least, you just had to put up with them. Sorry, kids—that’s the way it was then. Aren’t you glad it’s usually different now? It might make you feel differently about washing the dishes, at least.
So Jesus doesn’t instruct his disciples to welcome children, at least not in Mark’s telling. He simply tells the disciples what will happen if they welcome the child, or the one the metaphorical child represents.
Now, this is not to say that Jesus never used imperative verbs. Off the top of my head I can think of many: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” “Work for the food that endures.” “Rejoice and be glad.” “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Today’s readings are not a scientific sample. But they do make me wonder, more broadly, which gospel writers are more in the habit of placing imperative verbs in Jesus’ mouth. How often, really, did Jesus command people to do things? How often did the gospel writers use their platform to tell people what to do, in Jesus’ name?
We can only develop theories. But this I have learned: every imperative verb is a “should.” When I, from the pulpit, say, “Let us do such-and-such,” I am using the authority the church has invested in me as an opportunity to plant a “should” in your head. Some preachers really use this authority strongly: “I’m the preacher, and I say you should only use your sex life in these specific ways. I’m the preacher and I say we as a congregation should become a refuge for persecuted immigrants. I’m the preacher and I say you should vote for candidate so-and-so.” (That last one, by the way, will put a congregation’s tax-exempt status at risk, per the Johnson Amendment of 1965!)
I may want you to do all sorts of things. I may want us to embark on all sorts of things together. And sometimes I’ll say exactly what I think our “shoulds” should be. But I’m not going to do that today, because I’m paying attention to Jesus and the way he preached. I’m also paying attention to Jeremiah and the Psalmist, who leveled their commands at God, a task that I think is fair game, and which we do all the time when we pray.
But to you? Today, I’m not going to implore you to do anything. And this is because I have heard the Gospel. I have heard the voice of the Messiah who knew they were going to kill him … the one who saw his own followers begin to attack each other and didn’t let that raise his anxiety level … the one who let his eye be caught by a young child instead. It’s almost like he was thinking, “They just don’t want to hear me talk about my own death, so they’re stressed out, and they’re taking it out on one another, and they’ll hash it out eventually, but while I’m waiting I’ll just go over here and play with this kid.” And lo and behold, the kid turned out to be a helpful metaphor. Want to welcome Jesus into your life? Want to welcome the one who sent Jesus? Hmmm, then you …
Nope. No imperative verbs today. Not going to go there. Wouldn’t be prudent.
Years ago I had a spiritual director who noticed that I was using the word “should” a lot. I was anxiously complaining about things I “should” be doing and ways I “should” be behaving, and finally he smiled gently and said to me, “The further I have gone on my journey into spiritual maturity, the more I have found that my ‘shoulds’ just fall away, to be replaced with what I may decide to do next.”
Hey! God loves you. Did you know that? Well, I’m telling you now. Theologian Marcus Borg put it this way: “God is besotted with you.” Now, there’s some news! So … once you hear this Good News, what next?
Well, how would a child react? If Jesus’ ultimate example is to welcome small children, then perhaps God welcomes us as if we were small children—even infants at the breast. Drinking milk. Receiving sustenance, like the Psalmist says: “It is the Lord who sustains my life.” We are being sustained. God is sustaining us this very moment. And all we need to do is whatever comes naturally in order to receive that sustenance.
Thomas Keating puts it this way: “The only thing God wants from you is your consent to be loved.” Wow.
So … I wonder what we’ll all do about that?