Rev. Dr. Rodney Kennedy
Sometimes I am troubled that there doesn’t seem to be anything that happens at church that causes people to talk about it. There are times when something so remarkable happens that everybody is talking about it. If an elderly couple here in Peoria won a $500 million lottery, everybody would be talking about it. “It couldn’t happen to a nicer couple!” “What are they going to do with it?” “You know a lot of lottery winners go bankrupt.” Out of the woodwork and out of the woods come all the people claiming to be kin. “My mother was your sister by a previous marriage twice removed.” You even have third cousins show up from Louisiana saying, “We’re close, yes sir, we’re really close. Five hundred million, did you say? Yeah, we’re a real close family” (Fred Craddock, The Cherry Log Sermons).
If a fifty-three-year-old woman in Metamora has triplets, everybody is talking. “Can you believe it? My goodness, she already has grandchildren.” Everybody’s talking.
It can be an upsetting announcement. Caterpillar announces they are moving corporate headquarters to Chicago. That was a year ago and we’re still talking about it.
Well, that’s the way it is in our text today. A man named Paul has everybody talking and not just in one town, but in every town in the Roman Empire. Everybody’s talking about Paul and not all of the conversations are flattering. What is it about this preacher that has everybody talking?
Well, Paul is sometimes in trouble, sometimes causes trouble, and is sometimes troubled. Sometimes Paul troubled the minds of his congregations. I looked at Paul’s resume and found out that he was thrown in jail a lot. Do you think folks would be talking in Peoria if I got arrested for protesting at the courthouse for some social justice cause? I bet you’d be talking. “This has gone far enough. Somebody has to do something about Dr. Kennedy.” “This is embarrassing. We can’t have our pastor in jail.”
Sometimes Paul is in trouble yet somehow he never lets it get the best of him. When Norman Vincent Peale was being severely criticized for his book The Power of Positive Thinking, he was depressed by the criticism. His father sent him a message, “Norm I think I have read every word you have ever published and what you say is rooted in the gospel of Jesus. Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
Paul, at times reflects on the trouble he has experienced: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
What if there is supposed to be this back and forth between the preacher and the people? I mean serious ongoing back and forth dialogue, conversation, debate, heated discussion, and at times disagreement. It’s naïve to think that we are all supposed to just get along and love one another without disagreement or conflict. This is a church not Woodstock. We are not riding in a yellow submarine. We are not laid back, smoking pot and using crazy words like “groovy” and “cool.” We are a people who worship a crucified God. How can we ever think there won’t be trouble?
What if this is how we learn the hard lessons that we would not learn if left to do only what we want to do. I don’t need a church that tells me that whatever I’m doing is just fine and that I’m ok. I need a church that will tell me what God needs me to do that I don’t want to do and then makes me do it whether I like it or not.
Paul has an abundance of back and forth with his congregation and that is never as clear as it is in I and II Corinthians. In I Corinthians 1 right after saying, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,” Paul says, “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you.” Right off the bat, I confess that I have a problem with Chloe’s people because I know them, have met them in various disguises over the decades, and I don’t much care for people who seem to be tattle tales and gossips and whisperers. They are the descendants of Chloe’s people. Now, I admit that this is my own personal prejudice and that Chloe’s people actually are telling Paul the truth. The members of the church have gotten the idea that they belong to the person who baptized them. This practice had led to ideological divisions.
And the really nasty group at Corinth, the real snakes in the grass: the crew that insists that they belong to Jesus. These are the high and mighty, the superior, the spiritual, the-always-right ones. So Paul wrote them and said, “All this stuff you are doing is impressive and it has a show of religion and I am sure you are amazing a lot of people, but I want you to know, it does not amount to a hill of beans. It is self-serving, self-promoting, and spiritually egotistical, and it has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. You are simply doing your own thing and calling it really good Christianity.” There’s always a lot of craziness going on in the name of Jesus, but don’t blame Jesus when religious people act like they live in the cuckoo’s nest.
The church has never gotten it right so when someone tells you that we need to get our morals back and want to sell you on this idea that we are sliding into the pits of hell at an accelerating speed, take comfort in the fact that we have never been that moral in the first place and that such emotional appeals are just mere political posturing.
You are not required to hear us, believe us, or accept our word. Like the people who heard Amos, you can dismiss us and tell us that we can’t preach to you anymore. Like the people who heard Jesus, you can drive us from your midst when the hard truth clashes with your deep tribal loyalties. Like the people who heard Paul, you can stone us when you don’t like the message. Like the people who heard Dr. King, you can put us in jail. But you can’t stop the truth.
During WWII the Gestapo arrested the bishop of Norway because he wouldn’t stop preaching. When they threw him in jail, he kept preaching. They told him if he didn’t stop preaching they would put him in solitary confinement. He wouldn’t stop preaching. Then they threw him in a hole in the ground and he would crawl up the side of the wall and preach through the small opening in his below ground cell. Then they told him if he didn’t stop preaching they would kill him. He said, “Then what will you do to me?” I like the bishop’s spunk.
Congregations have a hard time understanding what in the world a pastor is supposed to do. I assume that we are supposed to do what the seminary trained us to do. What we learned to do in seminary is read. By learning to read we have learned to speak Christian. We go to seminary and we learn what the professors teach us. We become pastors of Baptist churches who then have members who are not at all happy with what we believe.
I think that Paul kept his wits about him because he loved the gospel so much. He was a troubled preacher who couldn’t be stopped by trouble or trouble-makers. What most troubled Paul’s heart was the need to persuade others to accept the claims of the gospel. “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” Paul, like a good baseball hitter, always kept his eye on the ball.
In this case, a troubled heart is a passionate, yearning, loving heart. It’s not a negative but a positive. Paul was never stopped in his tracks by trouble of any kind because he always had his heart full for those who he might win for the gospel. His eye was always on others.
This is the biblical art of persuasion. Aristotle says that rhetoric is the discovery of all the available means of persuasion. Well, Paul may not have read Aristotle, but maybe he did because he does say “so that I might by any means save some.” It is the troubled heart that we preachers need so that we have a passion for those who are hurt, lonely, confused, depressed, left out, poor, homeless, and feel deserted. This is the kind of trouble the church needs. The Holy Spirit needs to trouble our hearts the way the angel troubled the waters of the pool at Siloam and awaken in us a passion for spreading and sharing the gospel.
Let us not be troubled by the reality that in the church that will always be this tension of back and forth. There will always be expectations of the pastor and these should be talked about out loud and hammered out in agreement with one another. Most importantly, let us ask “Is our heart troubled for the masses that are like sheep without a shepherd? Is our heart troubled?
I’m not sure that I can answer that question for you. I need you to think about it and pray about it. I need you to let me know when you are ready that you will use any means that we might somehow win some to the gospel. I await your responses.