July 8, 2012

 

ON PUTTING ONE’S FOOT IN ONE’S MOUTH

                                                        Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith 
                                               at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 8 July 2012

 

    Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Ezekiel 2: 1-5
    Reading from the Psalter:                          Psalm 123
    Reading for Epistle:                II Corinthians 12: 2-10
    Reading from the Gospel:                      Mark 6: 1-13

 

When I was a choirboy seventy years ago, I always enjoyed the readings at Christmas and Easter.  They were so heartwarming and encouraging.  But then there were many other occasions during the year when the readings made me sad or, even, mad.  They told stories of how Jesus suffered at the hands of his contemporaries.  I was very small and I could not understand how those wicked adults could do those things to Jesus.  Hadn’t they been to Sunday School?  Hadn’t their mothers taught them all about Jesus?  It never occurred to me in those days that, for his contemporaries, Jesus was a virtually unknown quantity.  There was no New Testament.  There were no Gospel stories.  They had not yet been written and many of the events had not yet happened.  But to my child’s mind it was impossible to see how anyone could call Jesus a sinner and a blasphemer. 

But they did, and it seemed that he almost expected them to do so.  As I heard more of the Gospel stories and studied them for myself, I came to see how it was entirely possible for men and women, even devout men and women, to think about Jesus in those terms, to desert him, to deny him, to condemn him and even to crucify him.  And as I read more of the story I learnt how he had said that those who were chosen to follow him and to speak about him would be thrown out of the synagogue for what they claimed about him, and that they might well experience many of the same things as he had experienced.  And then he went on to say that his followers should not be surprised if they faced persecution and prosecution – the same thing had happened to the prophets of old, men and women who had felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to proclaim to others what the Lord God of Israel was directing them to proclaim.  And as I read the stories of the great prophets, Isaiah, say, or Jeremiah and Ezekiel, it dawned on me that there are times when a prophet or a preacher might not like to say what has to be said, but that he knows in his heart of hearts that it must be said, and that he will suffer great spiritual anguish if he does not say it. 

Later on I was to feel the call to the sacred ministry, and I knew that I had to become someone who was prepared to say what the Good Lord called on him to say.  At seminary I had to attend sermon preparation classes.  I received instruction; for two years I listened to my fellow students preach, and then I had to prepare sermons and preach them and have them critiqued, by my peers and by our tutor.  It was a tough apprenticeship, but it was intended to prepare us to go out into the world and preach the Gospel and to prophesy in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – and never in our own name, or even in our own power.  And woe betide the preacher who forgets that.

I was blessed to have been ordained by Donald Coggan, one of the greatest Biblical scholars and preachers that the Church of England produced in the twentieth century.  Like many other young clergy members I spent hours and days listening to him preach and teach the principles of preaching.  He used to make it very clear that when a preacher stood in the pulpit he was to say what the members of the congregation needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.  In the end, the preacher is not answerable to any one member of the congregation or any group within a congregation, including the Vestry.  The preacher is answerable only to God the Father.  And there are times that the preacher is going to give offence – and knows full well that he is going to give offence. 

There are going to be times when the preacher will be rebuked for things that are said in the sermon, often by people who regard themselves as being men and women of great virtue.  There are times when the preacher enters the pulpit in fear and trembling – and that is going to be more often than not!  We know full well that someone may be very upset by something in the sermon, although we may be surprised who that someone is and what it was that caused that someone to become upset.  Yet the preacher should never aim a sermon at a particular person.  It is up to God to convict, not the preacher, and if what is heard is convicting and convincing, then let the praise and the glory go to God, and to God alone. 

And then there are going to be times when one might be accused of putting one’s foot in one’s mouth!  When that happens it is good to go back to the Gospel narratives and the stories in Acts of the Apostles and see just how often Jesus and his early apostles said things that might well have been called putting one’s foot in one’s mouth – but those things had to be said, no matter how important the person was who might take offence.  What Jesus and Paul and Peter and James and the rest of the New Testament preachers never had to put up with was the frequently offered suggestion about not biting the hand that feeds you.  The parish preacher can parry that suggestion by commenting that surely it is all right to give the hand a playful nip from time to time!  But really, preachers are not puppies or lapdogs.  Preachers are sheepdogs and the shepherd is Jesus, and there are going to be times when members of the flock really do need more than just being barked at but given a very distinct nip to drag them back from the edge of a spiritual precipice.  Let me be quite clear, I know of no preacher who enjoys doing that, but woe betide the preacher who does not do so as the occasion demands. 

The prophet Ezekiel struggled long and hard over all this, and the Lord God had to tell him that, as a preacher, it was his job in God’s economy to preach what he was told to preach.  It was not his job to be concerned over how people reacted to the words of the sermon.  That was the concern of the listener.  If the listener chose not to take heed of what was said that was his or her look-out.  But if Ezekiel did not preach what the Lord God told him to preach, then that was Ezekiel’s look-out.  Ezekiel was reminded of this very late in his career, but as we see from this morning’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, even at the beginning of his career, the Lord God told him to proclaim the message that had to be delivered, and that “whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know there has been a prophet among them.”

The preacher is not called to preach sermons that people like to hear.  The preacher is not called to preach in a manner that is designed to satisfy the ideas of those who think they know how a sermon should be delivered.  The preacher is called to spend time with the Lord God to discern what the Lord God would have be said, and having discerned it to go out and proclaim it.  Of course, there are going to be some people who do not like what is being said, but in the providence of God they do need to hear it and should the preacher keep silent then they will not have the opportunity to hear it and to respond to the challenge. 

It is close on fifty years since I preached my first sermon.  I was scared then, and afterwards I had to listen to the critique of my peers and tutor.  But they were concerned to see to it that I was taught to say what the Lord God needs to have said.  Even fifty years later I still preach scared, praying that what the Lord God has determined should be said is said, and then letting the chips fall where they will.  For at the end of the day, the people should know, whether they liked what was said or not, there has been a prophet among them.

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