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‘That Can’t Be True’

Do our sermons name what is true even if we don’t wish it were true?
‘That Can’t Be True’
Image: jayk7 / Getty Images

“That can’t possibly be true,” was the best comment I ever heard after a sermon. What was the sermon text? The parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Perhaps no teaching of Jesus has resulted in more theological gymnastics than Jesus’ simple story about a landowner who hires workers in three stages throughout the day. At the end of the workday, the landowner pays all three groups—regardless of how long they labored—the same wage.

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard is simply a tale that a culture like ours, drunk on the illusion that how hard or how long they work should be directly proportional to what they should earn, cannot fathom. Adding insult to injury, at the end of the teaching, Jesus says, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16).

Maybe it’s me, but I know of no one signing up to be last. We want to be first. Even though we want to be first in a way that doesn’t look like we are trying to be first. It is not unlike the way we really want to be lording, dominating, authoritarian leaders, but think if we hyphenate “servant” in front of it we can wrap status-quo leadership styles with the trappings of the Cross.

That’s why “that can’t possibly be true,” is my favorite post-sermon comment. It’s my favorite because no one wants to believe Jesus’ parable is true. And I appreciate it when church members are honest about that. This particular church member had just been passed over for a promotion by a younger, more educated co-worker, who had served their company for just a few years after she’d been there decades. She was hired early in the morning and had nothing to show for it.

All of her life, she had been in the pews, loved her neighbors, raised her children and now, boom, she was confronted with a gospel that she could not theorize or spiritualize away. There was no circle of friends, no small group leaders, no other practice to ease her experience. She was face-to-face with the proclaimed Word of God. And it is what she—and the rest of us need—the stark-naked truth of God which we dislike and discomfort us.

Disorienting Nature of the Gospel

Good preaching must create space for congregations to experience the disorienting nature of the gospel. Often, what the scriptures teach contrast with what we want to be true, what our national or personal stories wish were true, or what we’ve been taught by music, movies, and politics are true. Preachers owe our congregations the honesty of letting the scriptures disorient us. In many churches, the gospel has been de-scandalized. It’s become milquetoast or a knife sawed down to the nub.

Yet the gospel has not lost its sting. In the scriptures we still find a place where the lowly behold the King, the mighty are brought low, misfits and rejects walk arm-in-arm with glory, where greatness is seen by caring for the least, the last, and the lowest, the poor inherit the kingdom, the wise are shown foolish, the hungry are fed, the banquet is for the outcast, and where those who are left awaiting healing at the pool, finally encounter Someone who no longer sees past them, but sees them. These are not just stories to make us feel good about Jesus. The gospel dramatizes, in radical means and measures, that our understanding of good and evil, right and wrong, fair and unfair, and blessed and cursed are often wrong.

Yet, the preacher’s temptation is to smooth all the edges, to shoehorn the scriptures into the way we think life ought to be or, worse, the American way. We want to make the gospel good news for us, rather than what it is, good news for the world.

Comfort Is the Idol of Our Age

Why is the temptation to soften the edges so powerful? Because comfort has become the idol of our age. More and more, we expect ease and we fracture at minimal distress. We have become prone to collapse under failure and experience higher levels of anxiety when faced with minimal difficulties. As Michael Easter writes in The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self, “We are living progressively sheltered, sterile, temperature-controlled, overfed, underchallenged, safety-netted lives.”

In this context, it’s easy to understand why so many preachers are slow to turn up the heat up our seemingly overwrought congregations. We want people’s lives—including our own—to feel better. But feeling better is not always actually better. Easter goes on to say, “a radical new body of evidence shows that people are at their best—physically harder, mentally tougher, and spiritually sounder—after experiencing the same discomforts our early ancestors were exposed to everyday. Scientists are finding that certain discomforts protect us from physical and psychological problems like obesity, heart disease, cancers, diabetes, depression, and anxiety, and even more fundamental issues like feeling a lack of meaning and purpose.”

What does this mean? It means that life comes as it comes. The scriptures give us real resources to handle the dynamics of living. There is a way to see and respond to what might feel like unfair treatment or reversal or setbacks. There is a template for what God is doing in the world when events might make us feel as though we have been left behind. There is a way to be God’s people that cannot be confined by the narratives of a national history or myth. There is a call to be Christian when we have been taught to live otherwise. And that way of being must be articulated from the pulpit even when that articulation results in dissatisfaction in the disciples.

Central to the preaching vocation is naming what is true even if we don’t wish it were true. We all know that greed is bad. It’s time to say so. We all know that racism is evil. It’s time to say so. We all know that sexual abuse, sexism, hatred of foreigners and immigrants, violence, and hosts of other maladies which have invaded the church over the last few years have evaded denunciation in the pulpit, because too many of us, think the first will be first, and, well, that’s not true.

Sean Palmer is the Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston, speaker and speaking coach, and author of several books including--Speaking by the Numbers: Ennegram Wisdom for Teachers, Pastors, and Communicators.

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