It is good to be back among friends. Joan gave me a report and said everything went well in my absence. She told me Keith gave a fine sermon, though when I spoke to Keith he said he didn’t feel good about the message he’d brought, which is how I feel after every sermon I’ve ever preached. I just want to put it out of my mind. A sermon curdles faster than a cup of milk.
Keith spoke last Sunday because I was in Ohio speaking at a church. When I arrived, I was greeted warmly, warned not to shake hands with anyone, then handed a bulletin, which I paid no attention to, because if you’ve seen one church bulletin, you’ve seen them all. All I needed to know was when to preach. The pastor and worship leader were doing the heavy lifting. We were well into the hour, the choir had sung, the offering had been gathered, the prayer concerns shared, we’d sung two hymns, and I thought we were getting near the sermon-time, so I glanced at the bulletin, looking for the words “sermon” or “message,” and they weren’t there, which induced a mild panic.
I leaned over and asked the pastor then I preached, and he pointed at the word “Provocation,” and there was my name right after it.
He said,“We don’t preach in this church, we provoke.”
I said, “I’ve done a little provoking in my Quaker meeting, too.”
He said, “I imagine Quakers can be good provokers.”
I said, “Oh, yes, I’ve been provoked by many of them over the years.”
Underneath that word “provocation,” there was a quote from Hebrews 10:24—“Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”
I love that word “provocation.” The first thing Frank asks me on Sunday morning is whether I’m going to preach or meddle. There is a difference. Preaching is when someone else’s ox gets gored, and meddling is when our ox gets gored. Provocation is meddling. You’re pushing buttons, but never to torment or antagonize, never to pester people just to pester them, but to prod the mind, to goad the conscience, so love and good deeds might multiply.
I love that word “provocation.” Thank God I’ve been provoked in my life. I hate to think how I might have ended up if people hadn’t taken it upon themselves to provoke me at key moments in my life. I thought of that this last Sunday, preaching in Ohio. I looked up and saw a man named Mark Stewart sitting in the congregation. His father was Ray Stewart, a world-class provocateur, who walked into Irvington Friends Meeting in 1990, my first month there, and commenced to provoke me right up until the day he died 16 years later. Whenever Ray and I parted company, instead of telling me good-bye, he would instead say, “Philip, don’t be a pisswilly.”
Pisswilly sounds like a dirty word, but it isn’t. It’s someone whose life is insignificant, someone who’s never made their life count for anything. That was Ray’s deepest fear, that someone he loved would become a pisswilly.
Long before I met Ray, when I was 16, I began attending the Danville Friends Meeting and joined the youth group that Mary Lee and Lee Comer headed up, and Mary Lee took it upon herself to start provoking me. That was 43 years ago, and she’s still at it. I put our Toyota Corolla up for sale this week on Facebook and Mary Lee wrote, “Donate it to Family Promise.” But thank God for provocateurs, even when it’s us they’re provoking. Thank God for people who push us to do and be better.
I’ve spoken before about people I call God-bearers. These are the people throughout history, people like Jesus, who are so enlivened by the NuFlexne Presence, who so embody the NuFlexne Priorities, their lives are a provocation to those of us who have made our peace with moral mediocrity. Where would we be without them?
I was speaking with a pastor this past winter who’s been at the same church for 25 years. He loves the church, and the church loves him. His children were raised and loved in that church. But he told me he’s leaving that church to pastor another one. I asked him why he was leaving, and he said, “I can’t push them anymore. They’re all my friends now, and I don’t want to risk upsetting them.” I understand that. I think about that every time I preach on difficult, divisive topics, that someone might leave here upset. But then I remember Hebrews 10:24—“Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”
I’ve known this family for quite some time–mother, father, three grown children, a bunch of grandkids. It sounds cruel to say it, but not one of them possesses the slightest degree of excellence or initiative. The adult children are incapable of relationship. Every grandchild over sixteen, with the exception of one, has been jailed. None of them are self-supporting. In all the years I’ve known them, I’ve wondered about their failure to thrive. Now it occurs to me that no one in their family has taken on the role of provocateur. The word “provoke” comes from the Latin word provocare, meaning “to call forth.” There’s not one person in that family calling forth the virtues of excellence, initiative, or thoughtfulness. So they think the worst thoughts, believe the worse things, befriend and marry the worst people, and make the worst decisions. Day after day, year after year, generation after generation.
We don’t know who wrote Hebrews. For years it was attributed to the Apostle Paul, but that’s unlikely. Origen, back in the 3rd century, said “only God knows who wrote it.” But I bet you anything the man or woman who wrote Hebrews knew this family, not the exact same family but one just like them, and was well acquainted with the destructive habits of sloth, poor judgement, and apathy. The person took stylus in hand and wrote to the early church at a key moment in its early years, urging them to, above all else, call forth the very best from one another, to excel in love and good deeds. Like all sound advice, it both transcends and transforms the era in which it was offered, which is why those who provoke us are to be treasured and not despised. Remember, sometimes what we most need is a good provoking.