The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
Controversial Preaching

Mark 6:1-13

Never Invited Back

William Willimon visited his mother in California over a Fourth of July holiday.That Sunday they attended a worship service at a large nearby church.The architectural design of the building featured a rather impressive array of glass panels and the church broadcast its worship service throughout the world.During the service, the congregation sang several patriotic songs including America the Beautiful and My Country Tis of Thee.The children’s message was delivered by the Associate Pastor and followed the patriotic theme of the weekend.The preacher at the church was spreading the gospel in Hawaii so a guest speaker was invited to deliver the message—Chuck Colson.Some of you may not be old enough to remember Colson’s involvement in the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s reelection campaign.For his illegal transgressions, one of the most trusted Presidential advisors and ex-Marine officer was convicted of several counts of felony, stripped of his license to practice law, and serve time in a federal prison.
Willimon’s mother lean over to her son and whispered rather loudly, “I haven’t come here to church to listen to a some jailbird preach.”The Chaplain of Duke University responded, “ But he has had a conversion experience, he has given his life to Christ.”
“That’s what they all do when they come before the Parole Board,” she said.
Colson began his sermon by telling the congregation about how different it was for him to be preaching before such a magnificent congregation knowing that millions were also watching on TV.The congregation he typically preached to consisted of murderers, rapists, and thieves.Then he shocked them by asking, “Do you know which group Jesus was more at home?”He went on to attack the congregation for their materialism, greed, and insensitivity to the poor.
William Willimon’s mother turned to her son at the conclusion of the sermon and said, “I hope that he is having a good time preaching here because he will never be invited back.”[1]
I do not know if Colson was ever invited back to preach to that congregation.His message was rather controversial, so was the message Jesus delivered at his hometown synagogue.Jesus was so controversial that he also was probably never invited back to preach.

The Gospel Setting

The story is found in three gospel accounts, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.Matthew and Mark tell their story much differently than Luke causing scholars to suggest thatMatthew may have borrowed heavily from Mark.Mark and Matthew are more concerned about chronology than Luke and so place the story later in Jesus, ministry.They also appear interested the contrast the different reactions of two groups of people—the religious Jews and the disciples.The latter follow the traditions of their ancestors.They study the Scripture.They wait for the Messiah. They are good religious people but they reject Jesus because he is not a learned scholar, he is just a carpenter.They also reject him because they are not quite certain who was his father.The events surrounding Mary’s pregnancy raise too many questions with too few answers.
Matthew and Mark then follow this story with calling of the Twelve disciples. By the juxtaposition of the two stories, Matthew and Mark are telling us that the religious community rejects Jesus because he is too controversial, however, the disciples follow him faithfully and are even willing to go into the community and preach his message.They skillfully show us the difference between good religious behavior and faithful obedience.The first story also serves as a warning to the disciples.If the hometown crowd rejects their favorite son, do not expect perfect strangers to receive you.
Luke is more theological than the nephew of Peter.Luke puts the scene at the beginning of Jesus ministry just after his temptation in the wilderness.Jesus has not healed anyone or performed any miracles.He is giving his hometown the opportunity to hear his message.He announces to them that he is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies about the messiah.This theological proclamation startles and even offends the people of Nazareth.They are shocked, bewildered, offended.They grab Jesus and drag him to the edge of a cliff and threaten to throw him down and stone but miraculously he walks through the crowd.
Regardless of which account you read, Jesus learns quickly that controversial messages tend to get a preacher into trouble but Jesus was never shy of controversy. It seemed to follow him wherever he went.His teaching was constantly against the grain of the established cultural norms.His message was like fingernails on a blackboard.He constantly challenged the common sense and values of his day.He told the people that the way to the Kingdom of God is along a narrow path.I wonder if we understand just how controversial that path can become.

The Controversial Path

The typical churchgoer tends to shy away from controversy.The mega churches understand this.Most if not all have a policy that everyone who preaches is not allowed to bring up controversial topics.At one rather large Presbyterian Church, the Pastor instructed all the Associate Pastors to avoid the topic of abortion.Only he would address the controversial subject from the pulpit, ironically, it never came up in his sermons either.
This anti-controversial campaign tends to produce sermons that comfort the comfortable.They reinforce that values, beliefs, and mores of the congregation.The church becomes the cheerleader for the status quo.The church-shopping crowd searches for a church that reinforces their own perspective on life and faith.Such churches have truly created a theological climate that is nothing more than what Karl Marx called the opium of the people.The elegant, elocution of these preachers lures their parishioners into a spiritually induce state of tranquility.
I wonder how different things might have been throughout history if more preachers were willing to constantly bring the prophet message of the gospel to bear upon the cultural norms that were contrary to the biblical mandates.Often the story of the German church succumbing to Nazism is used to illustrate the danger that exists when a church neglects its prophetic calling.Unfortunately, such post-facto situations are easy to discern.The threat of persecution even death is now removed and the finger pointing, second-guessing and self-righteous condemnation flows easily during Sunday school discussion groups.But I wonder if there are not controversies within our own culture, that another generation may wonder why we allowed such issues to linger unchallenged and thereby undermine witness of the church.

The Gospel and the American Flag

The conference had included many seminars on a wide range of issues facing the church.The pastors attentively listened to various speakers outline the problems in ministry and offer possible solutions.After the lectures were over a young pastor from South Africa stood before the gathered clergy to prepare them for worship.He handed out bulletins and walked them through the order of worship.At the end of his instructions, he quietly said, 
One more thing, as we begin our service. Could I just say, as a visitor to your country from another place, that I wish you would consider removing the American flag from your sanctuary?I was shocked when I entered this church today and found your country’s flag so prominently positioned near the altar.That would not happen in my church.My church law forbids us to have flags and other secular political paraphernalia in our services.I wish you would think about this and how this flag clashes with the symbols of our faith.Of course, I am from South Africa. And we’ve learned the hard way, about the difference between the ways of God and the ways of the world.[2]
The pastor’s sat in stunned silence.They had difficulty processing the humble but challenging word.Some considered his words and the meaning of the symbols of their faith.
Symbols are objects shrouded in meaning.We take symbols seriously.They represent are beliefs and values.The pastors asked themselves what messages do our symbols of faith and patriotism convey not only to us but to others.

They Symbols of Faith and State

The symbols of faith and the symbols of the secular state are not always consistent with one another.The flag declares our independence but independence is not a biblical word, it is a secular promise offered only by the government.Jesus called his disciples to dependence on the will of God and unswerving obedience.We gather each Sunday not to learn how to celebrate our independence but to enjoy our dependency on a gracious God.Our government offers us the freedom to worship but we gather to learn the meaning of sacrificial obedience.We should be grateful for the opportunity to worship without the fear of persecution and so pledge our loyalty and service to our country but the flag and the cross should never stand side by side.
We have forgotten that throughout Scripture, the greatest competitor for our allegiance to God is our allegiance to the nation.The Hebrew prophets condemned the idolatry of the Jewish people because they put their trust in kings, armies, and political treaties.The book of Revelation warns of a coming Anti-Christ that persecutes the Church in behalf of the state.Caesar and Christ will always be at odds even if a president prays.

The Goodness of America

Some may want to dismiss the South African speaker by saying“Well he is from South Africa. We’re different. We’re Americans. We live in a democracy.Our country is good.Our country defends liberty and justice for all.”
We must be cautious about expressing those sentiments because they are a distortion of both the history of our country and the current climate.Our nation has many sterling moments but its history is also scared by vile atrocities, unwarranted violence, and unmitigated greed.We also have a warped view of ourselves.
Phillip Yancy writes, 
We think of ourselves as generous, compassionate, good-natured, slow to anger, and committed to justice. Some overseas see us as arrogant, selfish, decadent, and uncaring.…They know that the U.S. military possesses more weapons of mass destruction than all other armies combined. And they note that the world's wealthiest nation contributes only half as much foreign aid as Europe.[3]
The people of the world have a much different perspective of America than our own.Where is reality? I am not sure but we should be cautious about trumpeting our own virtues lest we find ourselves playing solo.

Will God Bless America

Some of you know that I have been reluctant to include such songs as God Bless America in our worship services.It is not because I do not want God to bless America, I just do not expect him to at the moment.We as a nation have strayed many miles from the ideals of our founders and even those ideals had only a quasi Christian heritage.
The humility of past generations has succumbed to chest pounding superiority.The philanthropic generosity that gave life to so many great museums, libraries, hospitals, institutions of learning, funded medical research and sent missionaries throughout the world is dying up under the scorching sun materialistic indulgence.I simply do not see how or why God would want to bless a nation that is so driven by values, beliefs and morals that contradict his revealed word.From my reading of Scripture, until the people of God are willing to humble themselves and turn from their wicked ways, we should not expect God to heal our land.
That does minimize the service that many of you have given to our country.Some of you fought on the battlefield risking your very lives to defend our nation.Countless generations will be in your debt.Faithful citizens should always be willing to fight against tyranny and oppression. But we should remember during our patriotic celebrations that the greatest service the Church has to offer is not unquestionable allegiance but prophetic warning.We are to be visible reminders that God and God alone rules all nations and that this God calls us to have one loyalty that qualifies every other loyalty.For one day all the people of the world will bend a knee in allegiance to Lord and Savior of all.

[1] William H. Willimon, “Prophets, Santa Claus and Flags,” Pulpit Resource, July 6, 2003, 7,8.
[2]Ibid., 7.
[3] Phillip Yancy, “Going It Alone,” Online:, July 5, 2003.

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