David A. Davis
March 31, 2019
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A few weeks ago I sat in Miller Chapel over at Princeton Seminary and listened to James Forbes give a lecture. James Forbes was the pastor at the Riverside Church in New York City. He taught preaching at Union Seminary, New York. He has written several books, including a few on preaching. He has been an important preacher, speaker, leader for a generation both in the church and the academy. During that time he has been one of the most revered and respected and listened to African American preachers. The other day he was giving a lecture but he was preaching it. He was bringing it. He is in his mid 80’s and he can still bring it. I could listen to Jim Forbes preach for hours. His content that afternoon was quite autobiographical. He told of two specific occasions in his life, two times of discernment when he heard God speaking to him, with clarity, specificity, and certainty. One was in hotel room somewhere in the Midwest when he was there for a preaching gig. The other was on Delta airlines flight to Atlanta. He acknowledged to us he had some Pentecostal roots though he is ordained a Baptist and in the United Church of Christ and has a very progressive theological perspective. But he made no apologies for his spirituality and his experience and his sure confidence that God spoke so clearly to him. Nor should he, of course.
God’s voice waking him from a nap on a plane. God speaking to him on his knees by his bedside in a hotel room, first with the cadence of clap and then telling him the words that went with that clap. Now, I don’t know what to do with that. I can’t wrap my head around that. His experience of God doesn’t really compute in my brain, in my spirituality, in my theological world view, in my relationship with God. Oh, I believe God has led me, moved me, walked with me, comforted me, guided me, but never like that. I don’t know what to do with that. But can I tell you, I could listen to and learn from and be fed by James Forbes preaching….for hours. The best preaching is more than just something to wrap your head around.
This sermon from Jesus in the 13th chapter of Luke? This teaching of Jesus as he went from one town and village after another on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem? This answer to the question, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”, yet another question asked of Jesus as he set his face to go to Jerusalem, to go to Golgotha, to go to the cross? This preaching of Jesus I just read to you, I can’t wrap my head around it. I can’t just figure it out. All these snippets he drops there in a village along the way, these bits and pieces of hyperbolic, apocalyptic phrases that he quotes and utters in other places all through the gospels, here in this town Luke records that Jesus mashes more than few all together. Jesus and his apocalyptic mash up.
The narrow door. “For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” What? The door of the house is shut. The owner of the house responds to the knock, “I do not know where you come from.” Jesus? Weeping and gnashing of teeth “when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.” Wait! Stop! “Then, people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God!” Well, I didn’t expect that communion table promise to be tucked in here! “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
And my head explodes, and Jesus drops the mic and walks away with a smile either on his face or in his soul. Because you and I don’t know what to do with all that, can’t figure it out, can’t wrap our heads around it. For sure the crowds in the village town along the way, the crowds, and the Pharisees and certainly the disciples, they didn’t know what to do with it either. And spoiler alert? The takeaway from this sermon, my sermon, the point of the sermon when it comes to this question in Luke? Nobody can wrap their head around this teaching from Jesus, and that’s the whole point!
This isn’t the only time Jesus the preacher goes off, walks up to the line and steps over, brings the heat. Its not the only time and its not the first time. Think “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if you eye cause you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown in hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.” Jesus offers that riff several times in Mark and Matthew. In fact, it’s in the Sermon on the Mount!
The question “will only a few be saved” should be heard in the context of constant, unchanging anthropological craving to be right. Within the Jewish communities of the first century, the banter, the disagreement, the insistence on this way or that, the rabbinical arguments about ritual practice, the certainty of some and the anxiety of others….all of it about being right, and being in, and being saved, it would all sound very familiar to us 21st century Christians trying to live a life of discipleship. It would have all had the same feel as the nastiest of intramural, Christian theological debate, and accusation, and yes, hate. Way before one gets to the question of other faith groups, know that this question is much closer, way closer, to home. “Lord, will only a few be saved?” Perhaps more accurately, existentially, “Jesus, what about me?
And Jesus goes off on the narrow door. The shut door. The ‘I don’t know you’ door. The glass door where others are getting in and you are not. And then the open door/table: “People will come from east and west, from north and south…”. That poor questioner of Jesus. The questioner must have pushed a button or something. The same button the disciples couldn’t stop themselves from pushing, especially when Jesus would talk about his betrayal, his suffering, his death: arguing about which one them was the greatest (Luke 9), disputing right up until the end about which one was the greatest (Luke 22), James and John asking for the favor of having the best seats of honor in glory (Mark), and even worse, their mother asking for James and John to have the best seats of honor in the kingdom (Matthew). “Jesus, what about me?”
The best preaching is more than just something to wrap your head around. Sometimes it unsettles the heart, and disturbs the soul, and shakes up your life. Communicating the challenge of the gospel of Jesus Christ: it can be, it ought to be unsettling, disturbing, and life-shaking. Nobody can wrap their head around what Jesus is saying because he isn’t just giving them something to think about. He is calling them to a life of servant-hood. He is calling them to a life of discipleship where “Jesus, what about me?” isn’t even in the vocabulary. He is calling them to a life inspired by the sense that their salvation is more than just something to wait for. He is calling them join in God’s effort to change the world now; to live like the kingdom of God is at hand now. He is confronting them with the notion that God is up to something that is so much bigger than them, so beyond them, so in spite of them, so because of them, that they will never be able to simply wrap their head around it. God help us all, if the teaching and preaching of Jesus is just something to think about, just something we think about. The gospel of Jesus Christ ought to be unsettling, disturbing, and life-shaking enough that you start to live like it.
Unsettled, disturbed, and a bit shaken is how to feel when you read almost every one of Flannery O’Conner’s short stories. The other day in staff devotions, our staff small group, when we were talking about Luke 13, O’Conner’s short stories came up. We were talking about a few them including an unsettling and disturbing one called “Revelation”. “Revelation” is the story of of Ruby Turpin and a visit along with husband to a doctor’s waiting room. Mrs. Turpin is a self-described devout church going woman married to a farmer. She is a woman so full of hatred, disrespect, and mean thoughts that she almost can’t help herself in despising just about everyone for the sake of feeling better about herself. Her descriptions of the other individuals and families in the waiting room are hard to read and what is said and thought about African Americans, let us say it is very real and yes, harder to read.
She becomes obsessed with a young woman reading a book sitting with her mother. She describes her as “the ugly girl” and assumes all sorts of hideous things about her. Turns out the young woman is a student from Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She likes to read and gives her mother quite the attitude with a little bit of back talk. Mrs. Turpin and the college student’s mother start talking about her in the third person like she isn’t even in the room- the attitude, the lack of discipline, the sense of entitlement. Mrs. Turpin kept going about how it’s not too much to expect someone to smile once in a while and be grateful. “If it’s one thing I am,” Mrs. Turpin said…. “It’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ It could have been different!” Flannery O’Conner writes.
At which point the Wellesley student throws her book and hits Mrs. Turpin smack in the head and lunges for her with her hands around her neck. After she is restrained and then sedated, the young woman looks Mrs. Turpin right in the face and says “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” As the short story ends, Mrs. Turpin is haunted and taunted by the insult or maybe truth telling of “the ugly girl”. She begins to think it was a message from God directed straight at her; and maybe it was? As she is watering her own hogs back at the farm, telling herself and telling God over and over that she is not an old wart hog, she has a vision of heaven.
Flannery O’Conner describes it like this, “At last [Ruby] lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black [people] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was. At length she got down and turned off the faucet and in her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”
You and I are called to a life in Christ where the question is not “Jesus, what about me?”. The question is “how can I love my neighbor?” A life in Christ that worries less about wrapping the mind around texts and teaching and concepts and worries more about how to do better at putting others first. A life in Christ where the arms are not so cramped from patting oneself on the back that embracing the stranger, and taking up a child, and welcoming a prodigal home just can’t happen. A life in Christ that doesn’t make an idol out of being right while forgetting about being kind. A life in Christ that is so confident of a seat in the kingdom while never giving up a seat on the bus. A life in Christ with more care for eternity than any concern for the poor. A life in Christ that doesn’t perfect thinking about Jesus and neglect living for Jesus.
Sometimes this all, all of it, it ought to be unsettling, disturbing, and life-shaking enough that you start to live your life like the gospel of Jesus Christ depends on it.