Why not study the Bible with Brian Blount…in your kitchen?

news_faith_house_churchLast Sunday we tried a “secret” vesper service at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, depending on word-of-mouth and social media to draw a crowd. Some forty people showed up in the chapel at 5:00 for a half-hour service that included music by George Winston and Joshua Bell, and a video sermon by Amy Butler, Senior Minister of the Riverside Church in New York City. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive: “Perfect!” “Wonderful!” “Amazing!” and “When can we do this again?” Well, not this week, because the chapel is already reserved for the Prayers for Healing service.

But here’s another idea: What about using this week’s “Sermon for Every Sunday” in a small group Bible study?

You could do it like this: invite two or three friends to join you at the time and place of your choosing. For example, you could do it in your home or apartment at 8:00 on a Thursday night. You could sit at the kitchen table and offer some simple snacks. You could start by looking at the Gospel lesson for this Sunday from Mark 1:4-11 and talking about it among yourselves. And then, after twenty minutes or so, you could watch Brian Blount’s sermon for this Sunday on your laptop, set up at one end of the table.

blount-brian_200x240Brian is president and professor of New Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary here in Richmond.  His sermon for this Sunday is powerful, and brings together all his skills as a teacher, preacher, and scholar. I’m imagining how much better you and your friends would be prepared for worship on the following Sunday, when your own preacher announces his text for the day from Mark 1:4-11 and begins to preach on that passage. Worship would be far richer because of it, and your own faith and understanding deeper.

You can “rent” Brian’s sermon for $4.99 at http://www.asermonforeverysunday.com. You can pick up some simple, healthy snacks for about the same price. That’s less than $10 for an evening of soul-strengthening Bible study and you don’t have to teach! Ask everybody to chip in a dollar or two and you’re done!

I don’t know if this suggestion will change your life, but it’s a new year, and a good time to think about what kind of changes your life needs. Spending more time studying the Bible with friends sounds like a resolution worth making.

KOH2RVA: Day 356

UncommonI had coffee with Steve Quesenberry yesterday (pronounced KWESS-en-berry).

Steve and his wife Suzan have been visiting First Baptist for the last few months and he thinks he’s ready to join. He wanted to talk to me about that yesterday, but even more he wanted to talk to me about the holy nudge he’s feeling to start a men’s Bible study group, especially for young men like himself. He talked about a book called Uncommon by Tony Dungy, former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, and wondered if he could start an Uncommon Bible study for men at First Baptist Church. I hadn’t heard of the book, but after hearing Steve talk about it I was curious. This is what I found online:

When Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy took home the trophy in Super Bowl XLI, fans around the world looked to him as the epitome of success. Athletic victory, professional excellence, fame and celebrity, awards and honors—he had it all. But even in that moment, he knew those achievements had little to do with his ultimate significance as a man.

Coach Dungy still passionately believes that there is a different path to significance—a path characterized by attitudes, ambitions, and allegiances that are all too rare but uncommonly rewarding. In the New York Times best seller Uncommon, Dungy reveals secrets to achieving significance that he has learned from his remarkable parents, his athletic and coaching career, his mentors, and his walk with God.

As I told Steve yesterday, I’d want to know a little more about the book before I give it my endorsement, but I already love the title. In fact I wrote down the first draft of a bulletin blurb while we were having coffee: “You’ve heard of the common man. But what about the uncommon man? Want to be one? Join Steve Quesenberry on Sunday mornings at 9:45 in Room…”

What I love even more is the way Steve understands that if you’re going to join First Baptist Church, you need to find your way of bringing heaven to earth.  We seem to be creating a “culture of expectation” here that is focused on fulfilling the mission, and not only meeting members’ needs.  It aligns with a missional vision that insists, “The church is not the goal of God’s mission; the church is the tool of God’s mission.”  For Steve that means helping young men follow “a path to significance that is characterized by attitudes, ambitions, and allegiances that are all too rare but uncommonly rewarding.”

I hadn’t heard of Tony Dungy before yesterday. I wasn’t sure how to pronounce Quesenberry. I’m a little more aware today, and a little more hopeful that with young men like Steve in the world the Kingdom of heaven must be near.

Uncommonly near.

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.

Where Did Cain Get His Wife?

wedding cakeI’ve been doing a storytelling series on Wednesday nights called, “In the Beginning: Seminal Stories from the Book of Genesis.”  I’m always surprised by the number of people who show up for these Bible stories at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  Maybe they just  love the Bible that much, or maybe everybody loves a good story.  These are good ones: the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah and the Ark. 

When I finished the story of Cain and Abel last week I asked if there were any questions.  Bernard Peatross raised his hand and asked where all these descendants of Adam got their wives from, especially Cain.  You can understand why he might ask.  If Adam and Eve were the only people on earth, and they had these two sons named Cain and Abel, and Cain killed Abel out of jealousy and was banished by God, then how do you explain the next part of the story, which says, “Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch” (Genesis 4:17). 

Wife!?  What wife?  Where did he get a wife?

That’s what Bernard wanted to know, and he may have had an ulterior motive.  Bernard is a sweet, elderly man who has learned how to roll napkins into beautiful paper roses that he douses with perfume and gives away to women.  “Where did Cain get his wife?” he asked, as if he had more than an academic interest in the question.  I joked that maybe Cain had gotten her from a mail-order catalogue, but Bernard was too quick for me.  He shot back with, “Or from e-Harmony.com!” 

Good one.

But after the session I talked with Danny Taylor, who wanted a real answer.  He said someone had told him that Cain had married his sister, thereby committing incest.  He was concerned about this.  How could it be in the Bible?  I hadn’t remembered that Cain had a sister, actually, but there it was in chapter 5, verse 4: “He [Adam] had other sons and daughters.”  “Did Cain marry one of those daughters?” Danny asked.  “Was that incest?”  I pointed out that the Bible doesn’t tell us that Cain married his sister; it just says that he knew his wife and she conceived and bore Enoch.  I told Danny we have to pay close attention to the what the Bible says, but sometimes we have to pay even closer attention to what it doesn’t say.

I followed up on this in my opening comments last night.  I said, “We want to know where Cain got his wife.  We’re curious about that.  We’d like an answer.  But the Bible seems to have no interest in that question.  It just says, ‘Cain knew his wife.’  So, what do we do?  We start looking around in the Bible for answers.  We discover that Adam had other sons and daughters.  We put two and two together.  Cain must have married his sister!  And before we know it we have assumed that Cain committed not only murder but incest.” 


I think we need to realize that if we have a problem with where Cain got his wife it only means that we have a problem.  The Bible doesn’t.  We bring to it our modern, Western questions and this ancient text just shrugs its shoulders.  We insist on answers and it remains silent.  But it’s not the Bible’s problem: it’s ours.  And maybe we should say it just that way—that we have a problem with the question of where Cain got his wife but the Bible does not.  That’s not a question it has any interest in answering. 

“So,” I said, in conclusion, “you can do what I do.  When you have questions like this you can jot them down on your ‘List of things to ask God when I get to heaven.’  You can write: ‘Where did Cain get his wife?’  And then you can stick that list in your pocket and hope that when you get to heaven…

…you’re wearing those pants.”