6th Sunday after Epiphany: Finding the Right Tension
By: The Rev. David Clifford
I vaguely recall reading somewhere that one key to public speaking is to look for the audience members that are most engaged. It is easier, the article (or maybe person telling me this) suggested, for our minds to find those people less engaged and thus influence the self-doubt that can arise with the act of speaking in public. I find this to be true for myself. I am a very personal, introverted, and shy individual. Yet, I am also a pastor that speaks to over one hundred people every week.
Given that I am a millennial (as are each of the authors for Modern Metanoia), I have not been preaching all that long really. However, I have had the occasion of being in the middle of a sermon and starting to notice the glazed over eyes of a few parishioners (even some that seem asleep). I am encouraged by the length of Jesus’ sermon in Matthew’s Gospel. This Sermon on the Mount extends for three chapters (5-7) at the beginning of his ministry.
I am also aware of the tension that can arise in proclaiming the good news of the Lord. This tension not only occurs based on the length or style of the preacher, but can sometimes arise from the content of what is said. In fact, just recently Andy Stanley, evangelical senior pastor of North Point Community Church in Atlanta, received some backlash from people attacking his view of Scripture based solely on one part of one sermon in a series. While I may disagree with Stanley on his view of the inerrancy of Scripture, I can empathize with him about the tensions that can arise from the words we discern God luring us to say to the body of Christ.
I find myself wondering if Jesus experienced such tension from his own sermons. We have countless examples of the tension Jesus faced because of his actions of healing, sharing meals, and living life with those whom society wanted to ignore. However, we are only told at the end of his Sermon on the Mount that “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority” (Matthew 7:28-29 NRSV).
One fear that can come with preaching and proclaiming the good news is the fear that each little word will be dissected and judged; the fear that one wrong sentence can be the end of a career, or worse, the end of a ministry. This is part of the tension in proclaiming God’s Word. While I sometimes worry about and experience such a tension as part of my own life in ministry, if I am completely honest I must also admit that when I read today’s gospel lesson I find myself doing such a thing to Jesus.
I find myself in tension not just with Jesus’ words but with Jesus as he stands on that mountainside delivering what is probably the most read sermon in history. Who among us hasn’t gotten angry and uttered words of contempt to someone or about someone? Who among us hasn’t looked lustfully at someone? With the divorce rate at approximately 50%, many of us and many of those we preach to on Sunday mornings have been divorced or are married to someone who is divorced. Jesus points us to fires of hell.
As a preacher, I am not a big fan of hell, fire, and brimstone. It doesn’t sit well with my own theological understanding and experience of God. However, it would appear that Jesus (at least in today’s lectionary) is using this very technique. There is tension here for me. This is not the Jesus I was taught about growing up in the church. This is not the Jesus I sing about loving me. This is not the Jesus I experience in the midst of God’s Kingdom and Family. In fact, many biblical scholars speak of this language as hyperbole and that Jesus is merely attempting to make a point. However, the fact remains that tension continues to exist. Just as tension continues to exist in our world despite Jesus’ teachings of peace and reconciliation.
I am an amateur guitar player and recently received a new guitar for Christmas. I was reminded of the importance of tension. When you receive a new guitar, the first thing you must do is tune it. This requires you to tighten the strings to the proper tension. Each time I tune my guitar, I have this fear that the string cannot withstand the tension. I had an experience once in tightening a string that had outlived its life only to have the string snap in two and leave a nasty cut on my hand. I am reminded of this experience each time I tighten a string while tuning my guitar. And yet, I continue to tune my guitar and create tension in the strings because it is through this tension that the music (sometimes beautiful, sometimes not) rings out.
The same is true for our scripture lesson: the beauty of God’s grace and Kingdom is that through the tensions, we are saved and enter into the Realm. Jesus tells us in his sermon that we must “First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:24 ESV). This is true of our relationship with Jesus as well. We must tune our hearts to Christ; finding the perfect tension that will create the note that God would have us play in the Kingdom and body of Christ.
The reality of Jesus’ life and ministry is that he cared for and supported those he would preach this sermon to. While the crowds were astounded at his teaching at the end of the sermon, the very next thing Jesus did was to heal the man with leprosy. There is good news in the tension for those that we preach this scripture to. We must only find the proper tension. There is also good news for each of us that are called to preach and proclaim God’s Word to God’s people.
The words we say are not nearly as important as the lives we live. Words are important, don’t get me wrong. And we should strive to make every attempt to say the words God would have for God’s people: words of grace, mercy, and love. However, Jesus’s live and ministry show us that the ways in which we interact with those around us is much more important. After all, this is what Jesus’ sermon is all about: creating right relationships with those around so that we may bring about the Kingdom of God.
Proclaim God’s Word and vision for the world, despite the tension and (most importantly) be an example of how to live in a such a world. This is the message of Jesus. As Christians we can hear about it, experience it, and be an example of it in both word and deed; if we merely spend time to struggle with our own tensions and find the proper note.
The Rev. David Clifford is a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN, where he graduated in 2014 with degrees of both Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling. David currently serves as Senior Minister of Westmont Christian Church in Lubbock, TX, where he enjoys bicycle riding and reading and lives with his wife and three children.