Shaken, Not Stirred (7/20/03)
Rev. Gary Cox Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Those of you who have watched James Bond movies know that 007 always orders his martinis the same way: on the rocks, and shaken, not stirred. I never gave that much thought until I saw an episode of West Wing on television, and President Bartlett claimed that James Bond was a big wimp. The president, played by Martin Sheen, ordered a martini, and when the waiter asked him if he wanted it “shaken, not stirred,” President Bartlett proceeded to explain his theory about the wimpiness of James Bond. It seems that when you order a martini on the rocks, shaking it makes the ice melt more than simply stirring it—shaking it waters down the gin. Therefore, concluded the Commander in Chief, 007 couldn’t handle a good stiff drink, and needed the martini shaken before he was able to drink it.
When I was in Chicago, I didn’t drink any martinis, but I did hear a lot of sermons. That happens when you are pursuing a Doctor of Ministry in preaching. Some sermons were great, some were good, and some were positively wretched. Some moved me at a deep level, and opened my heart to new ways of thinking about certain Bible passages. I was…stirred. But I must confess that I walked away from some of those sermons in the same condition as a James Bond martini—shaken, not stirred.
This made me think back over my own sermons. How many times have I, in my fervent desire to express some idea that I thought was of great importance, left people more shaken than stirred? I’m sure it has happened, although I hope not with too great a frequency. At the same time, I wonder how many times I have watered down the gospel so people would not be too shaken? It’s hard to take a straight shot of the gospel, with all that turn the other cheek and give to everybody who asks and give away all your possessions and follow me. That’s a lot easier to take if diluted with a good measure of common sense and several ounces of excuses about how Jesus would never say such things today.
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Okay, it is probably a bad idea to deliver a sermon about preaching. But that is the subject that has occupied a great deal of my thinking over the past several months, as I read all the required books for my residency in Chicago. And even though a sermon on the subject of preaching probably won’t leave anybody especially stirred, I have equal confidence it won’t leave anybody too shaken. So here goes.
Preaching is really an outrageous thing to do. For one thing, a sermon should last about twenty minutes, and at the rate I speak, that means a sermon is somewhere around 3,000 words long. That’s about 12 or 13 pages, doubles spaced. It’s amazing more people don’t get mad at me. Seriously! Try writing out your thoughts over a dozen pages, and you’ll see that it is hard to say anything of significance without saying something that is going to upset somebody. And if you do that week after week, year after year, well, it’s amazing that I haven’t thoroughly upset each and every person here on multiple occasions. And maybe I have!
Another thing that makes preaching so outrageous is that I am supposed to proclaim the gospel. And the gospel is an offensive thing. It really is. It runs contrary to everything we normally think about how to live in the world. It says that the first are last and the last are first; that the winners are losers and the losers are winners; that to be admired for your accomplishments in this world means you are a part of the principalities and powers we are commanded to stand against; and to be hated by your neighbors probably means your are especially loved by God.
Thank heaven, that is not the entire gospel message. The word gospel means “good news.” It never ceases to amaze me what some people consider good news. I love the way so many legalistic Christians view the gospel message. For them, the good news is that they are going to heaven and everybody else is going to hell for not thinking like they do. That is not especially terrific news for those of us it leaves on the outside looking in.
But as a minister of a church, called to preach the Word of God, I am charged with proclaiming the good news. It would probably be a good idea to figure out exactly what the good news is before a person decides to preach it. My view of the good news hasn’t changed that much since I began my ministry. I have always believed the good news is all about God’s love. The good news is that God loves us in spite of our shortcomings. And that really is good news.
Some of my friends in the ministry are appalled when I tell them I do not preach for the purpose of saving souls. That’s way too big a job for a simple guy like me. My purpose in preaching is to point people toward a relationship with God. My assumption is that people’s souls are going to be just fine if they seek an honest relationship with God. And that’s a big part of what the good news is all about. When people honestly seek God, God doesn’t angrily send them to hell. Instead God lovingly drags them out of hell and into the kingdom of heaven.
The Bible tells us that Jesus’ whole mission involved telling people about the good news of the kingdom. Jesus never actually called it the gospel. That word was used by the later church to combine the good news of Jesus’ teachings with the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
The gospel that the church teaches and that I attempt preach—that God loves us in spite of ourselves, and that through Jesus Christ that love has been perfectly expressed—is much less offensive than the original message of Jesus. Jesus is actually the one who turned everything upside down. For Jesus, the good news was paradoxical. People in Jesus’ day thought pretty much the way we do today. A person who is blessed will have money, will be happy, will have a certain amount of power and prestige, will have plenty to eat and drink, and will be respected. But Jesus tells us that those people are not at all blessed as far as God is concerned. In fact, he tells them to give it all away.
Remember the story of the rich young man found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The young man asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life, and Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. This young man evidently knows his Hebrew Bible, because he doesn’t figure Jesus expects him to keep each and every one of the 613 laws from Jewish scripture. So he asks, Jesus, “Which ones? Which commandments must I keep?” And Jesus gets pretty specific. Jesus clearly believed certain commandments were more important than others. Commandments about what foods to eat and what types of clothing to wear were not as important as others. So Jesus tells the rich young man which commandments really matter: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
There are two ways to look at what happens next. The rich young man tells Jesus that he has kept all of those commandments! Some people think that such a claim would be ridiculous, and Jesus, in order to bring him down a peg or two, really puts the theological whammy on him. Others say we should read the story exactly as it is written, and accept the fact that this young man wasn’t simply a person with an overblown concept of his own goodness—he really was a righteous person.
Regardless of how you interpret the story up to this point, there isn’t much wiggle room in what Jesus says next. He tells the man, quote: Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.
Not surprisingly our rich young man sort of “exits stage left” and leaves Jesus to explain his harsh words to his disciples. This is where that saying about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven makes its appearance. Of course, we should always remember that after those words, as his dismayed and shocked disciples look on in horror and say, Who then can be saved?, Jesus assures them that while many things are impossible for mortals, all things are possible for God.
And who gets in to this strange upside down kingdom of the gospel? Who are the chosen ones, the blessed ones, according to Jesus? Just the opposite of who we would have thought! Remember the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. The blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the hated and persecuted.
I’ll be honest—I would get in trouble if I preached the gospel that Jesus preached. Honestly, I don’t know anybody who does that. It is much easier to preach about who Jesus was and what he stood for than it is to preach about what he taught. And the religion we’ve created in his name has a lot of merit.
Religion is the way we human beings try to understand God. Religion is the way we try to please God. I was really moved—dare I say both shaken and stirred—by a book I read several months ago. It was written by Robert Farrar Capon, and is entitled Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. I’m not recommending this book. It is not as big a snooze as its title might indicate, but I would not suggest it move to the top of anybody’s reading list. Still, there is one idea in that book that really got to me. Capon says that Christianity is not a religion. Christianity, properly understood, is the end of religion.
The more I wrestled with that notion—that Christianity is not a religion but rather the end of religion—the more I found myself agreeing with the author, and the more I came to believe that this end of religion is very much a part of the good news.
Consider some of the ways we human beings have tried to please God through our religions. The most common mode for our ancient ancestors involved some form of sacrifice. In our Judeo-Christian tradition, sacrifices of grain and animals were brought before the priests in order to appease the anger of God. This sacrifice was a form of atonement. It atoned for the bad things we have done—it sort of balanced the scales. I’ve never fully understood how that was supposed to work. You walk up to the Temple, bow before Almighty God, and say, “I’ve cheated on my wife, beat my children, and stolen from my business partner. Here God—I’m sure you and I will be square once the priest mutilates this sheep.”
Christianity developed all sorts of ways to please God. First, one is supposed to try to follow the teachings of Jesus. And good luck with that one. Second, several rituals emerged that are meant to put us in good standing with God. For example, baptism. There are many who believe baptism is a vital element of becoming acceptable in God’s eyes. Communion. Consider how divided the modern church is over the way Christians partake in Communion. Orthodox won’t take communion with Catholics and Catholics won’t take communion with Protestants and Presbyterians won’t take communion with Disciples of Christ—it goes on and on. And all because these people fervently believe God would be displeased with them if they shared the bread and wine of communion with a person who practiced Christianity the wrong way.
Even that book by Robert Farrar Capon—the one that got me thinking about Christianity as the end of religion—even that book places much more emphasis and importance on baptism and communion than I think is appropriate. But the fact is, the religions we human beings have created are based largely on figuring out how to please God. And that is why I believe, ultimately and in its purest form, Christianity is the end of religion.
Look at the cross. To me, the cross is God’s way of saying, “Friends, you just can’t do it. You cannot please me with your practice of religion. It doesn’t matter whether you sacrifice your finest bulls on a stone altar, or pour water over your head, or make a specific confession of faith, or meditate 22 hours a day, or take communion three times a day, or spend every waking moment of your life helping the poor, or live on a mountaintop chanting hymns with every breath you take. There is nothing you can do, nothing you can say, nothing you can be, that would make you truly worthy of the love I give to you. Because it is my love that creates you, and it is my love that gives you every heartbeat, and it is my love that forgives every wrong deed you’ve ever done, every selfish thought you’ve ever had, every unkind word you’ve ever spoken.”
That is what I see—what I hear—when I look at the cross. I do not see a human sacrifice. That notion has never been a part of my theology—that God required the blood sacrifice of his only son in order to satisfy his righteous anger at humanity. What I see is a love that is so perfect, it says, “You can turn away from me, torture me, mock me, and kill me in the most humiliating and painful way, and I will still love you. Because I am love.”
For me—for this man, who unlike the rich young man in today’s story, is quite aware that he does not live up to all those commandments—that is a love I cannot imitate, a love I cannot earn, a love that so transcends any religious ritual I can develop to show my appreciation, that all I can do is fall silent before it and say, “Praise God.” That cross—it’s not the beginning of a new religion. It’s the end of religion, and the revelation of truth.
And you are asking yourselves, “What has this got to do with a sermon about preaching?” Well, nothing…and everything! Call me crazy, call me simple-minded, call me a Congregationalist, but I honestly believe that God is not especially concerned with the details of how we practice religion. That is not to say that we should not worship together. That is not to say that God would have us do away with baptism, and communion, and meditation. But the minute we move past God’s love, and start talking about all those other little things involved with the practice of our faith, we are just adding tiny grace notes to an already finished symphony.
If you’ve ever studied music, you know what grace notes are. They are those little notes that add a bit of pizzazz to a melody. They are sometimes called ornaments, and they don’t change the basic composition of a song. The problem, it seems to me, is that the modern church is so filled with grace notes, it can’t hear the melody. Our whole religion is comprised of grace note after grace note. Get baptized this way, confess your faith this way, take communion this way…it goes on and on, and there are three of four hundred denominations arguing about whose grace notes form the proper melody. And the answer is, none of them! The melody is God’s love, and it’s about time we stopped covering it up with religion.
And I guess this is as good a time as any to make a more concrete return to the subject of preaching. I said it was an outrageous thing to do—this preaching the gospel. And the most outrageous thing about is that everything that really needs to be said can be said in a sentence or two. “God loves you, and always will. Therefore, love others.”
The problem is, it takes considerably less than 3000 words to say that. But I hope that in every sermon I deliver, that message is in there somewhere. I hope my messages leave you often stirred and seldom shaken. And I hope the grace notes I hang all over God’s love never get in the way of the melody.