Second-guessing sermons: Giving mystery its due

I do believe such second-guessing is a worthy pursuit, especially for former preachers who can be seen sometimes squirming in the pew. (He made his bed and lies in it, procrustean though it be.)

That said, I wonder if this 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle B, should be a time for considering ours as something of a mystery religion. I’d start with the reference in First Kings, 19 to the “broom tree” under which Elijah sat, pooped, after a day in the desert.

What kind of broom tree? Whisk? Push? Floor? Venetian blind?

I jest, of course. But the Sunday reading is often hard enough to grasp without having to deal with so odd, if helpful to Elijah, a protuberance.

As a preacher, I would pounce on this broom-tree business as one of many mysteries we are presented with in this thousands-of-years-old literature. I would make something of that, voicing my puzzlement and I think striking a chord with pew-sitters.

I would make that  a quick entry into discussion of the much bigger mysteries we are faced with. In this day’s readings alone, we find these:

  • The angel who set the table for Elijah — a hearth cake and a jug of water. Oh?
  • Paul’s message in Ephesians 4 that Christ (not Jesus, as we say, lest we offend Jews, who do not accept him as the Christ) loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God
  • Jesus in John 6 calling himself the bread that came down from heaven (middle-eastern metaphor?)
  • Jesus saying no one can come to him unless the Father who sent him draw him,
    “and I will raise him on the last day.”
  • Jesus calling himself “the bread of life.”
  • Jesus: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert [Elijah ate a hearth cake], but they died.”
  • Consider the lowly hearth cake, by the way, “how people managed . . . without an oven. . . . They made hearth cakes which are a cross between a cake and a biscuit. . . . also known as Singing Hinnies because they used to sing when they were placed on the hot hearth stone. The hearth stone is a large flat stone in front of the fire. Alternatively, they can be made in a frying pan instead if you don’t have a hearth stone [which most of us don’t].
  • Jesus: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

It’s all mystery. Some of us are used to it, but to many it’s still a head-scratcher of the first order. No wonder the Jews murmured.

I’d say it should be treated as mysterious — the only way to do justice to its meaning. We should treat it, I think, as something so much out of the ordinary that it is hard to believe.

Simple repetition is not the mother of devotion.

“I believe, Lord. Help thou my unbelief” is the appropriate stance. Was good enough once, should be so now.

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