Sixth Sunday after Pentecost 5 July 2015
(Ezekiel 2:1-5 Psalm 123 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 Mark 6:1-13)
“The Dangers of Going to Church!”
On January 19, 1999, the Rev. William Willamon, preached a sermon at Duke Chapel, on the campus of Duke University.1 Although I may use a few lines from his sermon this morning, what I really want to lay claim to is the title of his sermon, which was “The Dangers of Going to Church.”
Less than three weeks ago, on Wednesday, June 17, nine people went to church, to a prayer meeting Bible study at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. There was a tenth person who arrived for that prayer meeting, and before the Bible Study was over the heartrending danger was that on that evening not a single one of those nine church members left the church alive.
So today my sermon will be on the dangers of going to church; but maybe not in the way you are anticipating. I will speak primarily from Mark’s Gospel.
Let’s talk first about the danger of the Word of God. In one of her books, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that, “the Word of God may not be chained, but you would be hard pressed to believe this on most Sunday mornings. We read scripture out loud as though we are reading income tax instructions to each other. Children draw on the pews during the sermon; adults balance their checkbooks on their iPhones or respond to text messages from last night. And if, by chance, someone gets excited by the Word of God, there are plenty of other people—including the preacher—who can be counted on to calm that person down.”2
We have become such bosom buddies with the Word of God by now that there’s nothing to get excited or even disturbed about anymore. You can buy dishtowels with the Beatitudes printed on them. You can see John 3:16 in most end zone shots when watching any pro-football game, and the 23rd Psalm is inscribed on music boxes that play a beautiful lullaby making the 23rd Psalm sound so much sweeter.
What have we done with/to the Word of God?
Barbara Brown Taylor answers this question with two stories.3 She writes: In the small north Georgia town where I live, local evangelists gather Saturday mornings on the town square. Dressed in their plaid shirts and overalls, they wave their pocket-sized New Testaments in the air as they berate passing motorists, guessing at their sins and promising damnation.
Just down the road at the supermarket in Gainesville, it is possible to push your cart down the pasta//beans/rice aisle and look up to see a Klu Klux Klansman in full regalia with a cart just like your own—just out for a stroll, just reminding the citizenry that the purists are on patrol in this part of the world. Follow him out to his car (if you dare) and you will find last Sunday’s church bulletin on the front seat, alongside a Bible.
But these are not the only people who have tried to capture the Word of God. The way I see it, there are lassos flying all over the place, each of us hoping to harness a little Bible power for our own cause, whatever it may be, insisting that the Word of God is a literal word, or a liberal word, or a masculine word, or a feminine word—or a word only for the poor, or only for the rich, or only for those who speak our own language.
But God’s language is not limited to any one of these. God’s Word is dangerous, so dangerous that it got Jesus thrown out of his home town. It makes me wonder what he was teaching! We do know that when Jesus then sent out his twelve apostles, their main preaching was to repent.
First and foremost, prophetic preaching uses the language of repentance, calling us to return to a way of living that reflects God faithfulness to justice and kindness.
Obviously we do not know everything that was going on in the Gospel text from Mark. What we do know is that the townspeople were astounded when they heard Jesus teaching in the synagogue. And then they were offended by what he said to them. And then they became closed and unaccepting to his power!
………which brings me back to that horrific evening in Charleston.
Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the ELCA, in her letter of June 18 writes: “I urge you to spend a day in repentance and mourning. Each of us needs to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us.”
When it comes to what happened in Charleston and other cities these past months, what I very often hear are things like, “I’m not racist,” “I wasn’t there in that church,” “just because I’m white doesn’t make me one of those.” And each one of those statements may be true in a single instant, but I think that misses the point completely. These are no longer isolated incidences, if they ever were!
I believe it is painfully true that the sin of racism is very much alive in our country. I believe it was there at Mother Emmanuel that horrible night. I also believe it lingers and lives in so many systemic ways throughout American life, and finally, I believe if nothing is done, even after this latest atrocity, then there is grave reason for everyone of us to repent.
Bishop Eaton said one more thing in her letter. She wrote: We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. We need to get to work.”
A day of repentance rings hollow until the soul of America is awakened so that a genuine commitment against the lingering sins of systemic racism can begin.
Be forewarned: These can be dangerous words in our society today.
But we know what God is capable of saying:
Ezekiel, I am sending you to a nation of rebels…..I am sending you to those who are stubborn……Disciples, if they do not welcome you, shake the dust from your feet and go on…..And also, Paul, my grace is sufficient for you…..
Everything is in control here? Nothing to get excited about? The Word of God status quo? I think NOT! I HOPE NOT! God’s Word is alive, calls us to courage, to repentance, to forgiveness, to faithfulness with God. Sounds dangerous to me! Amen!
1. “The Dangers of Going to Church,” a sermon preached by William H. Willamon on January 19, 1999, at Duke Chapel, Duke University in Durham, NC.
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost 5 July 2015