WOUNDED BY TRUTH - HEALED BY LOVE: Reflections on the Paradoxical Teachings of Jesus. By David R. Cartwright. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2014. Ix + 110 pages.
The teachings of Jesus are not always easy to understand. It’s not just the chronological distance between our age and the first century. Even the disciples of Jesus struggled to comprehend what he had to say. It’s not so much what he had to say as to the implications of what he taught. He often challenged cherished understandings of reality and even what many would call “common sense” reasoning.
Preachers, like me, often struggle with the question of how to engage the texts in ways that are true to its message while communicating that message in a new and different context. Because Jesus’ teachings are in the words from the title often paradoxical, they can be and often are manipulated by preachers who seek to support their agenda by claiming Jesus’ support. I probably am guilty of this myself, though I try to restrain that tendency within me.
One preacher who has found a way of engaging the text of the Gospels in a way that honors the text, recognizes the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ teaching, and can effectively communicate a message for today is David Cartwright. David is a retired Disciples of Christ preacher, though most of the sermons were preached at the church he served prior to his retirement. Much of the preparatory work for these sermons emerged out of a sabbatical taken in 2004, a portion of which was spent in Cambridge, England. Having spent a portion of my own sabbatical in the rival university city of Oxford, I appreciate the images and stories that emerge out of the time spent in England.
When reading sermons it is always useful to remember that how they read on paper is different from how they are heard when delivered from the pulpit. That said, the fifteen sermons collected in this book are thoughtful, faithful to the text, and they engage the spirit. The title of the book is intriguing because it truly highlights the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ teaching. His words can wound, because truth often cuts to the bone. But his words can also heal, because restore the soul. The words of Jesus hurt because they challenge the status quo, and we are by nature (it would seem to me) most comfortable with the status quo. They heal because they carry a message of compassion and grace.
The fifteen chapters bring to us sermons that take up a variety of texts and issues – though all the texts are drawn from the Gospels. They invite us to wrestle with texts, not all of which we resonate with (the status quo thing). They both challenge and comfort us. They take up issues that range from power dynamics within the church (a must read sermon) to the limits of forgiveness. What are the limits? Well, forgiveness has to be received if it is to transform relationships. Fittingly the final two sermons address death and resurrection. There is in each of the sermons a gentle spirit emanating from them. Even when they challenge, David doesn’t poke you in the eye. It is more an invitation to join in a journey with Jesus that transforms.
The issue of paradox, which hovers over the sermons in the book, is addressed in the opening sermon. A paradox, as David notes, “occurs when two truths that seem contradictory on the surface are viewed from a larger perspective and actually turn out to be parts of a greater truth” (p. 1). In other words, to understand how this works, we’ll need a bigger picture or dig deeper.
The chapters in this book, as one might expect from a collection of sermons (at least sermons from Mainline Protestant preachers), are brief. As a result, the chapters should prove useful in devotional reading. One sermon a day, along with the texts that upon which the sermon is based, will make for spiritually uplifting and challenging experiences. In addition, the book would be an excellent foundation for a bible study group (the bible study group I lead have chosen to use it in this way – it doesn’t hurt that the author’s son is a member of the congregation). I believe that both the chosen biblical texts and David’s reflections should spur dynamic and transformative conversation.
Yes, this is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book, full of wise engagement with the Gospel stories. Jesus' message isn't always easy to understand or accept. After all, turning the other cheek doesn't seem to fit well with our human tendencies, and yet that is the calling. But as David suggests in the closing words of a sermon engaging the question of turning the other cheek:
These simple teachings of Jesus have a way of becoming very complex when we try to put them into practice. They take the best thinking and praying we can muster. But with that said, Jesus’ way is still the best way I know to live in a hostile world and not lash out (p. 96).In the end, this is a book about the healing power of love, and we all need to hear that message!