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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
Will it sell in Peoria?


(This passage about the narrow gate from Luke 13 is not part of the current lectionary and perhaps can be included at about Pentecost 12C.  The Gospel for Pentecost 12C is from Luke 13. This sermon needs to be preached.)

“Will it sell?  Will it sell in Peoria?”  That question is often asked by professional marketers, especially if you belong to the Coca-Cola Corporation and you want to start a new Coca-Cola product.  Where are you going to start your new product?  One of the places where they always field test products is in Peoria, Illinois.  Because if a product can sell in Peoria, chances are it can sell in Topeka, Omaha, Los Angeles and Seattle. 

During the Nixon Administration, they often asked the question:  will it sell in Peoria.  President Nixon would take a small group of advisors and they would go into a small room to make an important decision, whether or not to visit China, whether or not to bomb Hanoi, and as they approached that big decision, President Nixon would always ask that small group of advisors:  will this decision sell in Peoria?  Do you think the people in Peoria will support this kind of idea?  Will it sell in Peoria? 

It’s election year, 1992, and we are being bombarded by politicians who are telling us all kinds of things that they will or won’t do; and we don’t know what to believe or not believe.  But one thing we do know is that they are not asking us to do very much.  We know that our nation faces an absolutely enormous debt; we know that somewhere along the line we are going to have to pay some sacrifices to get this nation out of debt.  No politician will tell you that; no politician will sell you that; because “higher taxes” or “sacrifice” doesn’t sell in Peoria.  Tell the people what they want to hear.  Tell them that everything is going to go well.  Tell them that not much is required of anyone; and that is the kind of idea that sells in Peoria. 

Now, the logic behind this kind of question is very obvious.  You may or may not realize it, but Peoria, Illinois is the geographic center of the United States.  If you were going to pick one city that is the center of the country, you would pick Peoria, Illinois.  ....  Peoria, Illinois, is not merely the geographic center of the United States, it is also the political center; it is the weathervane; it is the cross section of good, old USA.  If an idea or person or a product will sell in Peoria, Illinois, chances are that it will sell in Los Angeles, Topeka, Omaha, Kansas City, and perhaps even in Seattle.  The big question is:  will it sell in Peoria? 

There is nothing sinister about asking this kind of question if you are a politician.  There is nothing sinister or evil about this at all.  Not telling the whole truth about the cost and exaggerating the benefits of my administration is the name of the game of politics.  If you are a national politician, you are going to have to have policies that are going to sell in Peoria.  It is not sinister nor is it anything new.  Politicians have always been doing that.  Since I have been voting, all the presidents have said that:  Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush; they all do the same thing.  All politicians and all presidents talk out of both sides of their mouth; that is the only way you get elected in Peoria.  Will it sell in Peoria? 

Jesus of Nazareth was not a politician.  Jesus was oblivious to these kinds of mechanisms.  Jesus never asked, “Will this sell in Jerusalem?”  “Disciples, do you think that the people in Jericho will buy into this kind of idea?”  Jesus was not a politician, at all.  And today’s Scripture lesson is another one of the many examples of the offensiveness of Jesus of Nazareth, of the radical offensiveness, of the bluntness.  Jesus is willing to tell it like it is.  He is going to tell you up front about the cost of discipleship.  The politicians won’t tell you; they won’t tell you about that tax increase; they are not going to tell you about those reduced benefits; they aren’t going to tell you the true costs of their administration; but Jesus....he is not a politician.  Jesus tells you up front what the cost of discipleship is really going to be. 

Jesus is blunt.  He is so blunt he is not afraid of offending anyone.  For example, it would be like someone going before the Right to Life movement and telling the Right to Life movement at their annual convention that that person was for abortion on demand.  They would hoot him out of the hall.  Or it would be like going before the American Legion and telling those ex-military people that you are for unilateral disarmament.  They would hoot you out of the hall.  But Jesus was not afraid to offend, to offend the good people who were listening to him teach.  He would tell you the truth about discipleship. 

Well, it is with this mood that we approach the Scripture for today which is part of Luke, chapter 10 through chapter 18.  This section of eight chapters, ten through eighteen, is about radical discipleship, and those ideas wouldn’t sell in Jerusalem; they don’t sell in Jericho; and they don’t sell in Peoria.  And today Jesus speaks bluntly about the cost of being a disciple. 

During the early service today, just as I was about to walk into the pulpit, right after the reading of the Gospel, Pastor Petersen, Lynn, my friend said to me:  “I am ever glad that I don’t have to preach on that Gospel for today, being Rally Sunday and all.  Rally Sunday is an upbeat Sunday; people are happy and things are going well; I wouldn’t want to preach on that Gospel for today.” But it is precisely this day which is somewhat like Easter and somewhat like Christmas and somewhat like Thanksgiving, when people are all enthused about Jesus Christ, on this day perhaps more than on any other day,  we need to hear the bluntness,  the directness of Jesus,  about what he says is the cost of being a disciple. 

Two weeks ago, from this radical section on radical discipleship, Luke 10-18, two weeks ago, Jesus said:  “If you would be my disciple, sell what you have and give it to the needy.”  If you look around you, and you see some poor, hungry or needy people, your heart is so moved with compassion, that you are willing to sell all or some of what you have in order to help those people.  Jesus didn’t say:  “Well, why don’t you give one percent?  Maybe 2%?  Or maybe you could be like the average Lutheran in the country and give 2%?  Or why don’t you be like the average members of Grace Lutheran and give 5%?”  No, not Jesus.  Jesus said; if you see somebody in need, and your heart is moved by that, I ask you to sell what you have and help that person in need.  ... Let me tell you, that kind of talk didn’t sell very well in Jerusalem.  It wasn’t a real hot idea in Jericho either.  And the people in Peoria didn’t like it at all.  But the church does, then and now.  We water down; we water down the radical teachings of Jesus, so that Jesus will be more acceptable in Peoria. 

Last week’s text; again from Luke, Jesus said:  “When I come into your family, I am not going to bring peace into your family, but I am going to bring division.  And whoever loves his father or mother or brother or sister or husband or wife or son or daughter more than me; whoever loves a family member more than me, that person is not worthy to be my disciple.”  And once again, he was being very blunt; and he told them that the cost of discipleship was very high. ...  If you were a Jew living in those days, it wasn’t popular to be a Christian.  If you were a Jew living in those days and you became a Christian, you were ostracized. ...  If you were a Jew living in those days, it wasn’t popular to be a Christian.  If you were a Jew living in those days and you became a Christian, you were ostracized.  You were an outcast.  You were thrown away.  You were considered dead if you became a Christian.  Just like today in India, if you become a Christian, you become an outcast from your family.  Today, in lands where the Moslem religion dominates, if you become a Christian, you become an outcast from your family.  Jesus says:  “Whoever loves mother and father and brother and sister and son and daughter; whoever would love any of these more than me, is not worthy of being my disciple.”  He speaks so bluntly. 

Yesterday was the men’s breakfast at church, and in the men’s breakfast, George Eims is usually there and he usually stirs up trouble with his comments, and yesterday was no different.  He said:  “Hey, you know that Gospel passage last week about Jesus bringing division into families, I don’t understand what that is all about.  It certainly doesn’t make any sense to me; it offends me.”  The men got talking about it, and they finally came to the conclusion that Jesus was supposed to be more important than any family member, and then Fred Matthew raised his hand and he said:  “When I was newly married to Delores, I said to my wife in our young marriage, “Delores, I love you more than anything in the whole wide world.”  And Delores quickly said to Fred:  “Fred, don’t you ever say that to me again.”  And Fred said that the years have gone by and I have learned that I need to love Jesus more than my wife, more than my children, more than my parents.  I am to love Jesus above all things.”  And that doesn’t sell well in Peoria. And that doesn’t sell well in Jerusalem.  And that doesn’t sell well in Jericho.  But Jesus was never trying to sell well.

And it is with this mood that we approach today’s Gospel that is another one of these blunt sayings of Jesus.  Jesus is once again telling you upfront the cost of being a disciple.  He isn’t like those politicians who won’t tell you the true cost.

I would like to retell the Gospel story for today, first from the Gospel of Matthew and then from the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus said:  “If anyone would come after me and be my disciple, the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to the good life and many people find it; but the gate is narrow and road is difficult and hard which goes to eternal life; and only a few find it.  Strive, agonize, struggle to enter by means of the narrow gate so that you may find eternal life.”  Now, if Jesus would have stopped right there, he would have had some smarts and people would have been drawn to his high challenge; but Jesus is so outspoken; this is what bothers me; and he pauses; up to here people said, Oh, that’s nice; and then he takes this stinger out and he says, YOU, and soon as he pulls that pronoun YOU out with emphasis, a person gets nervous; YOU are the people who come and stand on the outside of the door and say, ‘hey, we knew you Jesus; we went to church; we took Holy Communion;  we talked with you occasionally;  you’re friends of ours, remember?’;  and Jesus said, I do not know your voice,  for the only person who will come into my kingdom is the person who will come in by the narrow gate.  And YOU are going to be cast out forever.”  Whoosh!  Those people were offended.  I mean, “we are good people; we’re good Jews; who do you think you are, Jesus?”  You see, Jesus was not afraid of telling the truth; he was not afraid of reading people’s hearts and telling those people what he saw or didn’t see in their hearts; he was not afraid of telling them that it is only through the narrow gate that you are going to find eternal life. 

The story for today is about the offensiveness of Jesus Christ, about the radically of Jesus Christ, and Jesus is inviting you and me to be a radical counterrevolutionary.  Jesus was the most radical person who ever lived; and he was not a moderate Jew.  Jesus was a revolutionary person and not a middle of the road.  And I would like to talk with you today about this offensiveness of Jesus; and equally, how we the church, like the establishment religion in the Gospel for today, how we water down the offensiveness of Jesus.  We want to compromise Jesus; we want to explain and interpret Jesus; we want to compromise this Jesus of Nazareth, so that Jesus will sell in Peoria.  We want Jesus to be mayor of Peoria where Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep.  And what the African church often says about the American church is that we are a mile wide and an inch deep because we have removed the offensiveness of Jesus Christ. 

Did I tell you that I visited in Peoria the other day?  In fact, I live in Peoria, and Peoria lives in me.  I went to Peoria the other day, and I asked them all kinds of questions.  I wanted to find out what Peoria was like.  I wanted to find out how Christianity is doing in Peoria and let me tell you that Christianity is doing very well in Peoria.  Jesus is selling like hotcakes.  Every other car has a little bumper sticker that says:  “honk if you love Jesus,” and they honk at all the intersections.  In Peoria, I found Christianity without the cross, I found Christianity without Christ, and I found Christianity without the radical.  Christianity was doing very well in Peoria.  I would like to tell you about some of the people in Peoria and what they believe.  I discovered that 98% of the people in Peoria believe in God; they took a poll in Peoria and 98% of them believe in a creative energy called God.  I went to several of the scientists who had recently graduated from the University of Illinois in Urbana; and would you believe that the majority of scientists who graduated from Urbana and are now living in Peoria; would you believe that most of them believe in the First Principle, a God who created all the matter out of nothing.  Isn’t that what it means to believe in God?  Just to believe in the creative powers in the world?  And he shook his head in despair.  And I discovered that in Peoria, most of them believe in what used to be called the “brotherhood of man” and is now called the “family of the human race.”  Many people told me that you were to be good to your neighbor; you are to love your neighbor; and what does that mean?   Don’t hit your spouse; be nice to your friends on your cul-de-sac; wave at the people as you drive out of the cul-de-sac in the morning; and say hello to your neighbor in the swimming pool at the apartment.  That’s what it means to love your neighbor, doesn’t it?  And he started to cry.  ... I discovered that people in Peoria were very concerned.  I had no idea how concerned everybody was in Peoria.  They had an Indians concern Sunday, an AIDS concerned Sunday, a Women’s Concern Sunday, and a Starvation Concerned Sunday.  For four Sundays every September, they were very concerned.  They were the most concerned people that I had ever met.  I mean, they never did anything, but were they ever concerned.  And they said that to be committed to Jesus Christ was to be concerned.  He shook his head in despair.  ...Now, most of the people in Peoria told me that you just had to be a good person and you would go to heaven.  Work hard.  Be a good person.  Be a good Joe or good Josephine.  Do your job. Raise your kids.  Pay your taxes.  Be a good citizen.  Be a good All American Joe or Josephine and we will all go to heaven.  And that’s where we aaaalllllll go.  Isn’t that true?  ... I discovered that most people in Peoria belong to church.  I had to idea.  I found that 66% of the people in Peoria went to church, and 40%, now this is incredible, went to church on Rally Sunday.  The churches were full; their parking lots were full; 40% were there.  And I asked the people in Peoria what the church was all about, and they told me that the church was a very solid, social group of people, of outstanding people, my mother always called them the ‘hi-type.’  The church was needed for the children, for their emotional and character development.  That’s what the purpose of the church is, isn’t it? To train the moral backbone of society.  It really doesn’t matter what church you belong to because the purpose of all churches is the same, to train the children in morality and character formation.  He wept in despair.  ...  The morality in Peoria highly varied.  Basically, I found out that people believe that being moral was doing what you want to do and making sure that nobody else gets hurt.  Actualize your abilities and become the best kind of person you can be.  Live your life for yourself and your family.  Don’t hurt anybody else.  That’s what it is to be moral.  To be honest, I did find most couple living together before marriage to kind of try it out to see if it, marriage, really worked for the two of them.  And to be honest, I discovered that abortion was much more common than delivery; that is, abortion had become the primary means of birth control in Peoria; but nobody really talked about it that much.  ... But that is what I found in Peoria:  a spineless, gutless, crossless, Christless kind of Christianity, very moderate, not radical, not revolutionary, a mile wide and an inch deep, middle-class pabulum that went down smoothly.  The offensiveness was gone.  Would you believe it?  Christ was elected mayor of Peoria, and everybody cheered as he was inaugurated and became the mayor of the city.  You see, the people had not yet understood; they had not yet understood the offensiveness of Jesus.  They did not understand Jesus when he said:  the world hates me and is offended by me because what the world is doing is wicked and I tell them so.  They did not understand Jesus when he said:  “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to God except through me.”  They did not understand when Jesus said:  “The gate is wide and the path is easy that leads to the good life, and many are those who find it; but the gate is narrow and the path is difficult for those who go to eternal life and very few are those who find it.” ...But Jesus was not understood and so they elected him mayor and they were so pleased.  But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is offensive; it is radical; and Jesus is the most revolutionary force in this world; and today, Jesus is inviting you and me to become part of this counterrevolutionary movement where you dedicate and surrender your life to Jesus Christ and his mission. 

Let me give you two illustrations of the radical offensiveness of Jesus Christ.   I’ll say it real simply, so no one misunderstands.  Jesus is God; Jesus Christ is God; the only Son of God, the only human being who in the history of the world was and is and shall be God.  Jesus is not merely a good man; he was not merely a prophet; he was not merely a religious genius like Gandhi or Buddha; Jesus of Nazareth is the very personification of God; the incarnation of God; and of all the religions of the world, the only one who is truly God is Jesus Christ.  Look into the face of Jesus and you will see the face of God.  ... Don’t give me any of that cheap impersonal stuff about a creator God of the universe, the divine god who created all the Mount Rainiers of the world.  Don’t give me any of that cheap talk about a god who lies behind all the faces of the world religions and offends no one. Don’t give me any talk of a god who is behind all the religious ecstasies.  Rather, Jesus is God.  Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one; no one knows God except through me Jesus.”  That is narrow-minded.  That is really narrow-minded.  As narrow-minded as Jesus.  And that offends. 

But there is more. The same outrageous God comes to you this morning and says; give me your whole heart.  Give me your heart and mind and soul.  Give me your whole life.  l00% of it.  For a person who finds his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  Give me your whole life.  Give me your family.  Give me your children.  Give me your job.  Give me your wealth.  Give me your health.  Give me your intelligence.  Give me all of you.  Surrender it all.  Jesus said:  Go to the poor.  Help the hungry.  Help all those who are needy.  Help all those around you.  Enter by means of the narrow gate.  Only 1%.  Only 1% of the people of Peoria said; Jesus, I want to be your disciple.  That is what Jesus is asking of you this morning, and it is not watered down. 

Jesus of Nazareth was the most radical person this world has ever seen.  His was the most revolutionary force of dedicated, selfless, giving, loving people who ever lived.  Anytime your gather together a group of people who live under the cross, it is narrow.  Anytime you gather together a group of people who understand that the way of discipleship is as wide as the cross. Anytime you gather together a group of people who are committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and are committed to the suffering of the world, you have assembled the most powerful revolutionary force in history.  ....  Of course, that will never sell in Peoria. 


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