Is There a God?

justinRecently I preached a series of sermons on “The Seven Most-Googled Questions about God and Religion.”  This was Question #2–“Is There a God?”–and I preached it (as I did all these questions) with the help of a “conversation partner,” sitting at a table in the same place where the pulpit usually stands, having a conversation about one of the most important things of all.  I hope you will enjoy it and learn from it.

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Jim:           Welcome back to this series on “The Seven Most-Googled Questions about God and Religion,” and again I have asked a member of the Millennial Generation to join me as a conversation partner as I understand that it is these young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 who are doing most of the Googling.  Today I have with me Justin Williams, a brilliant musician who teaches orchestra at Clover Hill High School, and who played the violin for us here just a few weeks ago.  Justin is married to the former Roxanne O’Brien, who is also a gifted musician and a member of this church.  Welcome, Justin!

Justin:      Thank you.

Jim:           Justin the question we are asking today—“Is there a God?”—has been a real question for you, hasn’t it?  Tell us a little about that.

Justin:      Yes, I was a very devout Christian in college: maybe a bit too legalistic, but I considered myself a true believer, a lover of God, and a witness for Jesus.  But some of the questions I ran into like the problem of evil and the accuracy of the Bible were hard to answer.  I began to read books like Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel, and Evidence, by Josh McDowell, but realized that unless you assume the Bible to be true, many of their arguments are unconvincing.  So, I read on.  I read a book by William Craig called Is God Real?  I read Francis Collins’ book, A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.    I even read the Richard Swinburne trilogy, Is There a God? etc.  But in each case I found their answers relied on poor reasoning or creative but misleading analogies.   There were too many questions and I wasn’t finding good answers for even the best resources.  I ended up doubting and finally disbelieving most of what I had been taught.

Jim:           Wow, that’s quite a journey, Justin.  Thank you for being so honest with us.

Justin:      Well, that’s just where I am.  I am still open to discovering truth and changing my mind but I’m not still searching for an answer to the “God question.”  I don’t need the concept of “God” to explain the way things are in the world, and even if I were convinced that God was real and the Bible was true, I would have a hard time serving a God who does some of the things recorded in Scripture.  I mean, really, have you read some of the Old Testament? 

Jim:           I have!

Justin:      That said, I love First Baptist Church!  Roxanne and I tithe to the church each week and I love what you’re doing here.  I’d like to be a part of it when and where I can fit in. 

Jim:           Well, thank you.  I love this church, too, and one of the things I love about it is that it is a safe place to ask questions like this one: “Is there a God?”

Justin:      Wait, Dr. Somerville…

Jim:           Yes ?

Justin:      I don’t think you heard me.  I’m not asking that question any more.

Jim:           Right, but there may be some people here who are, and if you can believe it the journey you just described is a journey that many thoughtful Christians have taken.  It’s just that their journey didn’t end there.

Justin:      OK…tell me more.

Jim:           Do you see this beautiful visual aid I’ve brought?

Justin:      Yes, it’s gorgeous.

Jim:           Thank you!  I made it myself.  These are Tinkertoys, and when I was a kid we had a huge set of Tinkertoys.  I used to get up on Saturday mornings and make structures taller than I was (of course, I wasn’t very tall back then).  But for our purposes today I’d like to let this little structure represent our “framework of understanding.”  You see, I grew up in a Christian home, too.  Mine may not have been as conservative as yours but when I asked my mother, “Who made the world?” she would say, “God made the world.”  She may not have known it, but in those early days she and my dad were helping me build my framework of understanding, and, back in the 1960’s, most of the people I encountered shared the same understanding.  If I asked my neighbors or my Sunday school teachers who made the world they would say the same thing: “God made it.”  So, when I went off to school for the first time, I took my framework of understanding with me, and I was fine, until somebody said, “God didn’t make the world,” and that didn’t make sense.

Justin:      Right!

Jim:           I talk about it like this sometimes: if I go outside and a bird flies by I say, “Right.  Birds fly.”  I have a place to hang that experience on my framework of understanding.  But if I go outside and a cat flies by I either have to say, “I didn’t really see that,” or I have to re-build my framework of understanding to include the experience of flying cats.  And we really don’t like to re-build our frameworks.  We’re very protective of them.  It’s easier to justify our old understanding than to accept a new one.  So I might say, “That cat didn’t really fly; someone just threw it across my field of vision.”  Does that make sense?

Justin:      Yes.

Jim:           So, when we go off to school with the framework of understanding our parents helped us build in our conservative Christian home (what some people would call our “Christian worldview”) it shouldn’t surprise us that not everybody will share our understanding.  It often happens for young people when they go off to college: they encounter different views, different understandings.  Their pastor always told them that the world was made in six days but their science professor tells them it evolved over billions and billions of years, and maybe for the first time in their lives they are presented with conflicting voices of authority.  They have to decide: “Which voice will I listen to?”  And if they choose to listen to the science professor it can be very empowering.  It can make them feel that they have finally grown up.  The only problem is that they have to decide what to do with their old framework of understanding.  Can they just rearrange their Tinkertoys to accommodate this new concept?  Or will they have to take the whole thing apart and start from scratch?

Justin:      Yep.  That’s where I was in college.

Jim            If it’s any comfort to you, some of the most brilliant people I know have been in that same place.  A scholar named Marcus Borg, whose writings I have appreciated, grew up in a comfortably conservative Christian home, but struggled with doubts in early adolescence.[i]  Those doubts turned to disbelief in college and by his mid-twenties he would have described himself as an atheist.  Only later did he realize that he didn’t have to replace his Christian worldview with a secular worldview, but he did have to replace it with a different kind of Christianity, and it started with his concept of God.  His old concept was something he calls “Supernatural Theism,” (which sounds amazing, doesn’t it?  “It’s super, it’s natural, it’s supernatural!”).  It’s the concept we find in much of the Bible: God is a supernatural being who made the world and everything in it and who is now “up there” somewhere, above us.  Borg says that if you had asked him in childhood what God looked like he would have pictured his old Lutheran pastor, Pastor Thorson, standing in the pulpit shaking his finger (and apparently he was a finger-shaker).  Or maybe someone like Santa Claus, who “sees you when you’re sleeping, who knows when you’re awake; who knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.”  The message Borg got, even in childhood, was that if you are good, then, when you die you get to go to heaven, but if you are bad, well, “you better watch out”!

In biblical times that concept of God worked pretty well.  People who lived back then didn’t know what we know now.  They believed the world was mostly flat, and that the sky was a hard dome over it, like some of the big sports arenas today.  The stars were like little lights fixed to the underside of the dome and the sun and moon moved on tracks from one side to the other.  All the human action was going on down here, on the floor, but God was up there somewhere, in the skybox, watching.  And that was mostly comforting.  God wasn’t very far away.  But during the Enlightenment we learned that the world wasn’t flat, it was round, and there wasn’t a hard dome over it, there was a universe!  If God was up there somewhere he wasn’t anywhere we could see with our telescopes.  He must be very, very far away.  Some theologians solved the problem by saying God was transcendent, he was “radically other,” you couldn’t get near him if you wanted to, while others suggested that God was immanent, that he was very near, but only through your experience of him, only “in your heart.”

Neither of those answers was very satisfying to Borg.  He kept looking, and found that before the Enlightenment some Christians were comfortable talking about a God who was transcendent as well as immanent; one who was not only “up there,” but also “right here.”  Borg uses the word panentheism to describe this view, and that’s going to take a little explaining.  If you look at the Greek roots pan means “everything,” en means, well, “in,” and theos is the word for God.  Panentheism means, literally, “everything is in God.”  It’s different from pantheism, which means everything is God, and which has been denounced as a heresy.  No, panentheism simply means that everything—including the universe—is in God.  And that’s a pretty big idea.  Are you still with me, Justin?

Justin:      Sure!  Nothing I love more than Greek words.

Jim:           Me too!  So, one of my favorite theologians has described panentheism by talking about the way a baby exists inside its mother’s womb.[ii]  In there it may be aware of its mother’s heartbeat, the distant murmur of her voice, the fact that it is surrounded by warmth and love and sustained by the nourishment she provides, but it may not be aware of much more than that.  The mother, on the other hand, is texting on her smartphone while picking out paint swatches for the nursery.  She’s out there in the world, and fully aware of everything.  Now, suppose that we are like that baby, reaching out with both hands to get a better understanding of who God is and what God is like, but not doing a very good job.  We are limited by our ability to apprehend and our capacity to understand.  God is bigger than we are.  And yet we cannot deny the reality of our experience.  There’s something there, something all the world religions attest to, something William James once identified as “The More.”[iii]

Justin:      OK, but now you’re raising one of my questions: what is the evidence for God?  How do we know we are “in” God and not just in the solar system or in the universe? 

Jim:           Good question.  A lot of people point to the universe itself as evidence.  They say that it couldn’t exist as it does if there were not some intelligent mind behind it.  That may be true, but I don’t think it has to be.  The universe is big enough, and complex enough, that we could actually be the product of random chance.  It’s possible.  And then there’s the Bible.  Our call to worship from Psalm 19 insisted that “the heavens are telling the glory of God!”  But if you don’t believe the Bible, if you don’t think it’s true, then that’s not very compelling evidence, is it?  Some people might say, “Well, you can’t know these things, you just have to accept them on faith,” but that often seems to be only another way of saying, “In order to be a good Christian you have to believe unbelievable things.”  So, we end up with experience, and experience is admittedly subjective, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Look at love for example.  I’m assuming that at some point in your life you’ve had an experience of something you would call love.  You might even say that you love your wife (and if you’re smart, you will, because she’s sitting right there).  It’s hard to come up with evidence of your love.  You might have said at one point, “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t think of anything but Roxanne,” but that hardly qualifies as evidence.  Someone who had never been in love might think you had insomnia, or an upset stomach, or a weird obsession with people who play the French horn.  But someone who had been in love would read your experience in a different way.  She would say, “Oh, that’s easy.  You’re in love.”  And there are thousands, probably millions, maybe even billions of people who would agree with her diagnosis.

So, if there are billions of people in the world who say, “There is a God,” you would want to take them as seriously as you would want them to take you.  Their experiences may be different, they may not talk about them in the same way, or in the same language, or in the same religious tradition, but if billions of people are saying, “Yes, there is something More than we can see and hear and touch; there is a spiritual reality just as surely as there is a physical reality,” that would at least serve as a good starting point.

So, Justin: I know I haven’t answered all your questions.  You had a great question about communication, for instance.  You said, “If God is God why doesn’t he do a better job communicating?  I mean, I’ve got my cell phone right here!”  I loved that, and I’m going to get to it in a later sermon, but for today I’d like to leave you with this thought: maybe your old way of thinking about God needed to be dismantled.  Maybe you were exactly right to pull those Tinkertoys apart.  But maybe, someday—when you’re ready—you can add to your framework of understanding a new understanding of God: not so much as a supernatural being who is “up there” somewhere, but as the loving Presence who is both “up there” and “right here,” the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being.[iv]

—Jim Somerville and Justin Williams, ©2016

 

[i] All of this is from The God We Never Knew (HarperCollins, 1997).
[ii] Jurgen Moltmann, according to Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, pp. 156-7.
[iii] In the last chapter of his classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
[iv] Quoting from Paul’s speech in Acts 17.

KOH2RVA: Day 267

PastorShaunKing-133It’s Monday morning, friends, and after a big, exciting, celebratory day in worship yesterday it’s time to get on with the joyful work of bringing heaven to earth, right?

Well, maybe not.

Steve Blanchard forwarded an article recently about a pastor who resigned from his mega-church in Atlanta two years ago because people loved the dynamic Sunday worship experience he had created but didn’t love “caring for people and meeting the needs of the city” on the other days of the week.  Let me warn you: this example is extreme, but I do think there are some lessons here that every church–and every pastor–could learn from.

Take a look at this post from John White’s “Stories of the Revolution” blog.

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Mega church pastor: “We are completely off base with what discipleship means”

Shaun King stepped down on September 1st [2011].

Shaun resigned from the church in Atlanta that he started three years ago. Called “Courageous Church”, it was, in Shaun’s words, a “super cool Sunday worship-service-centered church with 700 people”. A mixed race congregation, it was seen as one of the cutting edge churches in the city. Highly “successful”!

Leonard Sweet, scholar and author, called Shaun, “One of the most dynamic, entrepreneurial, creative and passionate leaders on the American scene today.” How could this guy possibly fail? What would cause him to throw up his hands and give up?

Shaun stepped down not because of any scandal but because he was disillusioned and burned out. He had followed the advice of church planting experts on how to develop an exciting, growing church by focusing on a dynamic Sunday morning “experience”. He writes, “I sold my soul for church attendance in our first week and I could never quite get it back.”

Over time Shaun came to understand that “the overwhelming percentage of our time, energy, skills, budget and creativity were spent preparing for Sunday morning services, getting people to our Sunday services and getting them to volunteer for our Sunday morning services.” Then, Shaun made a big “mistake”. He tried to change all of this. He tried to create a discipleship oriented church where the “time, energy, skills, budget and creativity” went primarily into caring for people and meeting needs in the city. And, since he was the senior leader, he could make this work. Right?

Shaun planned to move the whole congregation into small missional groups with one large meeting each month. He worked with his leaders to develop the new structure. He preached a whole sermon series on the new vision (Preaching changes people. Right?). He reports that, as long as he was preaching about it, the people loved it.

But, once the “shift” took place, in his words, “all hell broke loose”. Three months later, 85% of the congregation wanted to go back to the “super cool worship-service-centered church”. Four months later, Shaun stepped down as the lead pastor. Here’s his evaluation…

“What I am saying is that church attendance, Sunday morning services, sermon-listening (or even sermon preaching), song-singing, hand-clapping, amen-saying and all the other things that “Christ-ians” have lifted up so high look so little like Christ himself that I am utterly convinced that we are completely off base with what discipleship means. Considering all of this, I think I have given up on church as I knew it. Big buildings. Hugh crowds. Few disciples. I’m not with it. It’s inefficient and just doesn’t feel right with my soul. This is not a rejection of big buildings or huge crowds, but an indictment on how few disciples are being made in the process of it all. A better way has to exist.”

Well, Shaun, welcome to the growing number of traditional church leaders (perhaps 1500 a month by some estimates) who are coming to the same conclusion. That is, that the building-centered, Sunday big worship-service-centered “experience” (one mega church here in Denver calls this “the big magic”) is a great way to entertain people but an inefficient way to make disciples. Not only that, but it takes a terrible toll on the pastors and on their families. (In my next post, I’ll tell you what Shaun’s wife wrote about this whole experience. I’m telling you… this lady shoots straight!)

And, yes, Shaun a better way does exist.

–John White, September 19, 2011

 

Write-In Candidate

Yesterday was Christ the King Sunday, and I closed out the sermon with this story:

Back in 1984 I went to the polling place to cast my vote for president.  That was the year Walter Mondale was running against the incumbent, Ronald Reagan.  I was 25 years old, I had just started seminary, I was out to change the world.  To tell you the truth I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the presidential campaign and as I made my way to the polling place I found that I didn’t have strong feelings about either candidate.  I’ve never had a lot of interest in politics, never pinned all my hopes on any elected official.  I stood in that voting booth for a long time, looking at those two names, and finally I chose the third option: I wrote in a name, and the name I wrote in was my dad’s.  When I told people about it later I told them that, honestly, I couldn’t think of anyone who would make a better president.  No offense to those two candidates who were running but I knew my dad, I knew he was good and kind and wise.  And I also knew this, that if it ever came right down to it my dad would lay down his life for me, and that’s the kind of president you would want, isn’t it?

“If you are a king,” the religious authorities said to Jesus, “then save yourself.”  “If you are a king,” the soldiers said, “then save yourself.”  “If you are a king,” the other thief said, “then save yourself.”  But Jesus turned out to be the kind of king who cared more about saving others than saving himself, and so he hung there on that cross, beneath that sign (“This is the King of the Jews”), until his work was done.  I don’t know what kind of king you want, but if I could choose, I would choose a king like that. 

For the full text of the sermon click HERE.  And if you want to write in my dad’s name next election, it’s James Somerville, no middle name.

Fear Itself

In recognition of the anniversary of September 11, 2001, I wanted to post an excerpt from the sermon I preached on the Sunday just after.  Reading through it again reminded me what it was like to look out the window of my office at First Baptist, DC, on that day and see smoke rising from the Pentagon on the other side of the river.  It was terrifying.  By the time I wrote the sermon a few days later I was grappling with the deeper issues of what fear does to us as a people and called the sermon “Fear Itself.”

Nine years later I’m distressed by how our lives, policies, and public discourse continue to be shaped by fear, and how a terrorist attack orchestrated by a few Muslim extremists has resulted in something called “Islamophobia,” where we regard the entire Muslim world with suspicion.  Maybe in reading through this excerpt you will be led to reconsider your own relationship to fear, your relationship to God, and the way one can cancel out the other.

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It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  But Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn’t speaking on Tuesday morning of last week, when hijacked airliners were bearing down on New York and Washington at full throttle.  He wasn’t one of the 266 passengers or crew aboard those doomed planes, or any of the thousands in the World Trade Center who would soon be praying for their lives.  When he said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” he didn’t know what we know.  In the past few days we have come to believe that there is plenty to fear, and if the truth be told many of us are still afraid.

You know the facts: 

At about 8:45 a.m. on September 11 an airplane slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  We thought it was an accident:  a malfunction in a navigational computer that had resulted in the unthinkable.  But then, twenty minutes later and while many of us were watching it live on television, a second airplane slammed into the South Tower, erupting in a ball of flame.  At that moment we realized it couldn’t be an accident.  We realized that this was a deliberate act of aggression, an attack on the United States.  Thirty-five minutes later we heard that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon, just across the river, and then the rumors began to fly.  The telephone in my office rang with a report that smoke was pouring out of the Old Executive Office Building.  In the hallway someone said that a car bomb had exploded outside the State Department.  One of the teachers in our Child Development Center asked, “Is it true that the Washington Monument is . . . gone?”  It seemed that the whole city, the whole nation, was under violent attack. 

When things got a little quieter we opened the church to those who might want to pray and watched as streams of people headed up 16th Street from downtown.  Traffic was snarled, the Metro was jammed, and so they walked.  Some stopped in to say a brief prayer but most of them hurried by with their heads down, determined to get home to their families and to get away from the threat of danger.  By 3:00 Washington looked like a ghost town.  We closed the doors and started home on empty streets, in eerie silence.

In the days since then we have been trying to assess the damage, both physical and emotional.  We know that the Pentagon has a gaping hole in its side and the World Trade Center is gone forever.  We know that thousands of people have died in this attack, most of them horribly.  And we know that we feel shaky and scared, straining our ears for the sounds of airplanes, jumping at every strange or sudden noise. 

It is an evil thing that has happened, and it is a particular kind of evil.

Theologians speak of the suffering that human beings experience as a result of earthquake, famine, fire, and flood as natural evil.  The other kind, which Daniel Migliore describes as “the suffering and evil that sinful human beings inflict on each other and on the world they inhabit,” is called moral evil.[i]  The evil we have experienced in this attack on America is of that latter, darker kind.  It has been inflicted upon us.  As much as we might suffer from natural evil this other kind of evil is worse, because it comes not from the violent yet innocent forces of nature, but from the evil intentions of the human heart.

Some people have asked me how God could allow such a thing to happen.  Why did he not divert those planes at the last moment?  It is the same sort of question people ask when a hurricane pounds the coast but the answer is different.  In cases such as those we say that we live in a world where hurricanes happen, and that sometimes populated coastlines get in the way.  It doesn’t mean that the hurricane itself is evil but only that the meeting between high winds and fragile buildings can produce tragic results.  Houses can be flattened.  Lives can be lost.  When people ask why God didn’t divert the hurricane God might well ask why they built their houses in its path. 

But in cases like this one from last Tuesday we have to say that we live in a world where God has given people freedom.  The same freedom that allows us to choose God and serve God allows others to hijack planes and bring down buildings.  The freedom itself is good.  The use some make of that freedom is evil.  So, why didn’t God intervene?  Why didn’t God divert those airplanes and save those lives?  Because freedom itself was at stake, and God cannot take away our freedom to choose evil without also taking away our freedom to choose good.  He would end up with a world of grinning puppets, dancing dumbly at the end of their strings, capable of neither love nor hate.  God doesn’t want children like that any more than you do.  And so—like a mother who sobs as her son is convicted of murder—he watches buildings collapse while his own heart breaks, and wraps his arms around a broken nation.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, but he wasn’t talking about what happened last Tuesday.  He wasn’t talking about what happens when people use their God-given freedom to rain down horror on others.  And yet there is a sense in which he was right.  Fear isn’t the only thing we have to fear but it is the most formidable of the weapons that have been turned against us in recent days.  While a terrorist might use an airplane or a bomb to accomplish his purpose, his purpose, ultimately, is to terrify, to bring a nation to its knees by means of fear itself.   And to the extent that we are terrified, he has succeeded.

I don’t know who is behind last Tuesday’s attacks, but I picture him rubbing his hands together, cackling with glee, hoping you and I will become too afraid to function.  He wants us to tremble with fear every time an airplane passes overhead.  He wants us to jump at every strange or sudden noise we hear.  He wants to bring us to that place where we will not go to work in the morning or send our children to school.  That is why I doubt that the attack on America is over.  The nature of terrorism is to keep us off balance, to make us think that death could be waiting for us around the next corner or behind the next tree.  The goal of terrorism is to overthrow a nation by paralyzing its people with fear.  When we reach that point the terrorist has won and I, for one, don’t intend to give him that satisfaction. 

I refuse to be afraid.

The writer of Psalm 23 claims that even as he is walking through the valley of the shadow of death, he will fear no evil.  Not natural evil.  Not moral evil.  Why?  Because God is with him.  In these familiar, well-worn words we have the antidote to fear.  God’s presence is what will make it possible for us to walk through this shadowy valley without being afraid.  That doesn’t mean we won’t listen for the sound of airplanes passing overhead.  It doesn’t mean we won’t jump when we hear a strange of sudden noise.  It only means that we will hold tight to God’s hand and go on with our lives—that we will refuse to be afraid.
 
 
 
 
 
 

 


[i] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: an Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 101.

How I Make a Sermon

This week I will be attending an annual sermon planning event near Asheville, NC, where five of my closest colleagues and I will try to map out our preaching for an entire year.  Three years ago we decided to call this event “Homipalooza,” from Homiletics (the art of preaching) and Palooza (which is apparently some kind of crazy party).  Imagine six Baptist preachers sitting around in shorts and T-shirts planning their preaching for a year and any notion of crazy partying will quickly fade.  There are lots of books involved, manilla folders, laptop computers, endless discussions, theological debates, and abundant snacks (OK, maybe it is a party).  If we do it well, at the end of the week we will each come away with a three-ring binder full of handouts and a few good ideas for every Sunday of the year.  Even if we don’t do it well, we will have had some time to talk about our work with people who understand it, who know what it’s like to try to meet a long list of expectations each week (usually our own) and still find time to write a sermon.  I’m hoping that in this week of sermon planning I will still be able to find some of that kind of time, and that I will come back to Richmond inspired and ready to preach.

Before I go, let me leave you with this answer to the question someone asked me last week: “How do you make a sermon?”

Ingredients:

1  juicy passage of Scripture, ancient but somehow still fresh
2  hours of writing down every thought that comes into my head
3  thoughtful friends or colleagues to talk it over with
4  good commentaries to answer most of my questions

Mix ingredients together and let them simmer on the back burner for three days, stirring occasionally.  Add some of the illustrations and anecdotes that have come to mind in those three days (but be careful not to use all of them).   Lift the lid from time to time and inhale to see if there’s anything in there that smells like a sermon.  Season to taste. 

In an ideal world you would simply serve the sermon up like stew at that point, and everyone would eat and be satisfied.  In the real world it is only after the sermon has simmered on the back burner for a few days that I’m ready to put my thoughts into some kind of order, and only after I’ve put them in order that I’m ready to put them into words.  For me, that’s the most time-consuming part of the process.  I spend most of the day Saturday writing and re-writing in an effort to get it just right.  But when Sunday comes I serve up what I’ve made in the hope that it will nourish and sustain the people who have come to hear it, and when it does I’m as grateful as your mother used to be when you looked up from your empty plate after Sunday dinner and said,

“Thanks, Mom!”

And One More Thing Before I Close…

Because I knew I was going to be out of town all week, I finished the sermon well before last Tuesday’s earthquake in Haiti.  But at 5:00 on Sunday morning I was up having coffee, adding these paragraphs at the end:

This morning I’m thinking about the people of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  For so long now it seems that the only abundance they have known is an abundance of trouble.  After Tuesday’s earthquake a journalist said, “I was here during the 2008 hurricanes that left thousands dead and thousands and thousands homeless, and that felt like the Apocalypse.  But that pales in comparison to this.”  In the aftermath of this horrific tragedy the Rev. Pat Robertson has suggested that the Haitians are cursed because of a pact their ancestors supposedly made with the Devil two centuries ago.  “Ever since,” he said, “they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”  Although he didn’t go so far as to say that this earthquake was God’s wrath poured out on the people of Haiti what else could they infer?  Robertson subscribes to a kind of Old Testament theology that makes every act an act of God, good or bad.  If San Francisco fell into the ocean this afternoon, he would be on television tomorrow, telling us why.  But I hope the people of Haiti will won’t look at things the way he does.  I hope they can understand as we do that bad things happen to good people, sometimes to the best people we know, and for no apparent reason.  When Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus said, “It wasn’t this man or his parents.  It was so the works of God could be seen” (John 9:3).

I hope that’s what happens in Haiti.  I hope those people can understand that earthquakes happen not because God is angry, but because the living earth is still shifting and moving.  I hope they will see this one for the natural disaster that it is, but see in our response to this disaster the “works of God.”  As rescue workers come from this country and others, as relief flows into the ruined city of Port-au-Prince, as it comes with an abundance unlike anything the Haitians have ever witnessed may they see it as a sign—not a sign of God’s judgment, but of God’s grace.  May they sense that the door between heaven and earth has been opened just a crack, and may they see light seeping in around the edges.

Sloppy Scholarship

Maybe it’s because I’m a lectionary preacher, but when I start to work on a sermon I start not with an idea or a theme, but with the Bible.  That’s what I did when I was getting ready to preach at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia recently.  The theme was “A time for extravagance” but the text was Luke 7:36-38, so instead of pulling from the files my sermon on John 12:1-8 (which was all about extravagance) I started fresh with the text from Luke 7.

I’m glad I did.  I learned things I would have never learned if I had simply preached that other sermon.  But one of the things I learned is that this story from Luke 7 is different from all the other stories in the Gospels about women anointing Jesus.  That story from John 12:1-8 for example is a story about Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing Jesus’ feet with a pound of pure nard—a very precious perfume.  There’s a similar story in Mark 14:3-9 about a woman who comes to the home of Simon the leper, breaks open an alabaster jar of nard, and pours it on Jesus’ head (not his feet).  Matthew uses this same story in 26:6-13 with very little elaboration on Mark’s version.  Again it is an unnamed woman who pours “costly ointment” on Jesus’ head.

The stories in John, Mark, and Matthew are all stories about women anointing Jesus with costly perfume or ointment as a way of preparing his body for burial.  The story in Luke 7, however, is about a sinful woman who comes to Jesus while he is eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee (not the leper).  She bathes his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, covers them with kisses, and massages them with ointment.  It is a scene of shocking intimacy.  There is no mention of expensive perfume, no reference to preparing Jesus’ body for burial.  This woman does what she does to express her gratitude for the forgiveness she has received from Jesus.  It is a completely different story, about a completely different woman.

But you wouldn’t have known that if you had been at the BGAV meeting.  Almost everyone who stepped to the pulpit to preach or offer an interpretation on the theme talked about this woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.  They tossed the details of these four stories together as if they were one, talking about how this woman named Mary, who was a sinner (probably a prostitute), poured out ointment or perfume or something expensive on Jesus’ feet (or maybe it was his head) and the fragrance filled the room. 

Did it?  And does it matter?

I think it does.  While the stories from Matthew, Mark, and John might be lumped together under a single heading—“A woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume in preparation for his burial”—the story from Luke needs a different heading altogether, something like—“A sinful woman pours out her gratitude for the gift of forgiveness.”  The point of this story is different from the others.  The characters in the story are different.  The details don’t match up.  To treat it as if it were the same story as those others is to twist its meaning into a shape Luke would not recognize—it is to do violence to the text.

You can tell I feel strongly about this.  Maybe it’s because I’ve heard too much “biblical preaching” that isn’t biblical at all.  It doesn’t begin or end with the Bible.  It is simply some preacher cloaking his thoughts and opinions in bibical language or using one verse of the Bible as a springboard into a sermon that never touches on that verse again.  Maybe the next time you listen to a sermon you could ask yourself some questions: “Is it faithful to the text?” “Does it communicate what the biblical writer was trying to say?” “How much of it is simply the preacher’s own opinion?”  And if you’re writing a sermon, of course, take the responsibility seriously.  Take the Bible seriously.

Do your homework.