Thursday, August 31, 2006

Preaching Challenge

A few weeks ago, the liturgy committee at church divvied up preaching dates for the fall, and I asked to preach on October 1, when we'll be celebrating the Feast of St. Francis. This is when we do the Blessing of the Animals; people bring their pets, and the priests bless them between the two services. During the later service, some of the kids babysit the critters in the playground instead of going to Sunday School.

There are always lots of dogs, of course. We've also had snakes, turtles, mice, hamsters, birds, goldfish, and cats. I'd never bring my own cats, because being in their carrying cases around all those barking dogs would terrify them; they'd think they were being cursed, not blessed. But I often bring pictures of them, so they can be blessed in absentia. My own theological position is that pets bless us, rather than the other way around, but it's only fitting that we return the favor sometimes.

It's all wonderful fun, very joyous and affirming. I love watching people with their companion animals, because the relationship brings out the best in everybody. The prayers we say include special mention of children, but I think adults are even more transformed in the presence of their beloved critters than kids are. Their eyes shine. They walk around grinning. Very dignified grown-ups cradle their toy terriers in their arms and indulge in baby-talk. Children act that unselfconscious all the time, but it doesn't come easily to most adults (especially since we're Episcopalians, "God's frozen people").

I've always wanted to preach on the Feast of St. Francis, so I was delighted to be given the slot. I have a book called Animal Rites by Andrew Linzey, the English Anglican priest who wrote the first Blessing of the Animals, and we'll probably use one of his "Eucharistic prayers for all creatures."

And then last night I looked at the readings for October 1. The Gospel is Mark 9:38-50, one of the notoriously Hard Sayings of Jesus:
John said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

"For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."
Oh, ick.

The first paragraph is just fine, but that second one is pretty hideous. Yes, yes, I know, he's using exaggeration for rhetorical emphasis: I get it. But first of all, who in the world has neither stumbled nor caused anyone else to do so? Where's the forgiveness here?

And do we really need images of vivisection on the Feast of St. Francis? How does one connect this to cute furry critters? By talking about guide dogs for those who've torn out their eyes so they won't make anyone stumble?

Yea, verily, once again I say unto you: Oh, ick.

Some preachers, when confronted with a passage like this, simply ignore it and talk about one of the other readings, but my preaching class emphasized that this is usually a bad idea, especially when the hard stuff is in the Gospel. We use an assigned lectionary; we haven't been given the luxury of ignoring the hard stuff. And the people in the pews are going to be wrestling with the reading, so the person at the pulpit should really join them.

But in this case, I'm wondering if I have any wiggle room. I've e-mailed one of our priests to see if I can use the readings for the Feast of St. Francis instead. I don't think I'll be able to, since it's not a major feast day -- there are only a few where you can substitute those readings for the Sunday ones -- but it can't hurt to ask.

And if I get stuck with the vivisection Gospel, I'll make it work somehow. I enjoy challenges, and I've preached on Hard Sayings before. But this one really is a humdinger.

Update: Our priest got back to me and said we can use the Francis readings. Thank you, Sherry! (If only all difficulties resolved so easily!)


  1. When we say "cut it out," we mean "stop it," not "grab a knife." Aramaic-speakers say these are folk metaphors, not literal advice.

  2. Thanks, Will! It's still pretty violent imagery, though (remember our previous discussion about metaphors?) and I'm just as happy not to have to deal with it, particularly in the context of the Blessing of the Animals.

  3. Yeah, it's extreme. I think it was Jesus's way of saying, "Just say no." I think Jesus's basic position is that you should be infinitely forgiving with others, but you should stop making excuses for yourself.

    But I completely agree that you should ignore the bits that are tangential to what you want to address. Jesus was lumping a lot of things together in that bit.

  4. Well, if my congregation were going to be hearing that Gospel, I'd *have* to address it, so they wouldn't be sitting there thinking, "WTF?" Since we're substituting the readings for the Feast of St Francis -- with a much milder Gospel! -- I don't need to talk about it at all.


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