Thinking Out Loud

March 11, 2019

The Sermon He Did Not Want to Preach

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:43 am

The hints to Pastor Mitchell Norris started out subtly enough.

“Why don’t we do a series on “The Seven Deadly Sins,” pastor?”

He looked at the list: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. After the last almost-complete shutout of volunteers for the last church work day, he felt that starting at the end of the list with sloth would be a good series opener.

But then, the requests got more specific.

“We should have a sermon on gluttony.”

Maybe they weren’t quite that bold. They’d begin with a reference to the latest health reports on how we’re not eating as healthy as we could; or how American life expectancy is dropping for the first time; or how we have so much food compared to the rest of the world and we could solve world hunger by sharing it. Some offered more detailed statistics.

But then they’d pitch the sermon on gluttony.

Pastor Mitchell especially liked this pitch: “Nowhere in the Bible does it say we’re supposed to close our eyes to pray, but there are over one hundred references to gluttony.”

He decided to spare himself the bother of fact-checking that stat.

Why would the church be so concerned about this particular topic?

It was all about Renn.

Renn Taylor had been involved in the church for several decades. When Mitchell Norris arrived, Renn weighed 165 pounds soaking wet. He was 3rd base on the church softball team, and on his turn at bat his home runs came from his speed running the bases, not the depth of the hit.

And now, many trips to Cracker Barrel and Chick-fil-A later, he was clocking in around 285 pounds. Word was it wasn’t genetic. Renn loved a good meal. If there was an underlying psychological reason for the gorging, Renn would have to want to talk to the pastor — or someone — about it. He wasn’t going say a word, nor did he feel he needed to. Renn was a smart man who knew that his former set of clothing was no longer fitting.

People joked about it with Renn, they invited him and his wife over for some ‘health food,’ they anonymously sent him diet books in the mail, they even offered to make him a doctor’s appointment.

They were obsessed.

They were obsessed with Renn’s weight gain.

And as for Pastor Mitchell Norris, he felt there were more important things in congregational life to deal with than a topic which might only apply directly to about a half dozen people, but would be perceived as applying to one individual in particular.

As long as Renn would be in the audience — and he rarely missed a Sunday — Pastor Norris was not about to give that sermon, or do the series on “The Seven Deadly Sins” for that matter. “I cannot;” he told his wife, “do a sermon on overeating, binge eating, weight problems, or anything else on that subject as long as Renn is sitting in the audience. He’ll see right through it.”

The more he refused to address the issue, the more people in the church dug in their heels.

“Gluttony is a sin;” they reminded the pastor.

“So is materialism;” he would reply.

Or on another day, “There’s sin in the camp;” they would affirm. “We can’t simply tolerate sin within the walls of our church family.”

To which Pastor Norris would reply, “And what exactly is sin?”

To that question, responses varied. Some attempted a sound theological answer, and a few got it right, but for most, sin was Renn Taylor, spotted last Friday having a cheeseburger at the Waffle House next to the freeway.

So Pastor Mitchell Norris preached a series, but not the one they were expecting. He pulled a sermon out of the files about worrying about the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye when all along you’ve got a plank in your own.

Then he spoke about the type of people who Jesus befriended, and how none of us really deserve to be part of his inner circle, but when he lets us in, it’s an act of grace.

The week after that one, he spoke about Peter’s preoccupation over what might happen to the Apostle John and how Jesus tells him it’s really ‘none of your business.’

When it was over, they told him it was some of his best preaching. That he seemed to have a fresh passion and urgency about his preaching.

He thanked them.

And then, in the week that followed, at different times and places, they asked him if he would consider doing a sermon on gluttony.

 

 

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January 1, 2015

LifeWay, the SBC, #the15, and God

#the15As I mentioned yesterday, the latest “tempest in a Tweet-pot” involves a group calling themselves #the15, who have expressed outrage on Twitter against the retail arm of LifeWay, a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) publishing empire, because they sell so many things in their store of which #the15 does not approve, while at the same time claiming to operate by the highest standards. One blogger noted the company even sells a book by a self-professed mystic and Universalist.

In one corner, we have #the15. [Update] In an earlier version of this article, I mis-characterized them as ones whose Calvinism compels them to the most rigorous study of scripture which translates in the real world to acting as judge and jury on every published work, be it written by a blogger or national author. Like the Pharisees of old, they set the bar so high that very few obtain their seal of approval. Jesus said of such people,

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)

Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.  (Luke 11:46)

[Update] After more careful study, I realized I had fallen under a misconception created by Ed Stetzer, and that the original #the15 were desiring to see the retail chain do a better job of being gatekeepers of what people see, than the usual Calvinist judge-and-jury situation which is more common. 

The problem of course, is what gets in and what’s excluded?

The debate has been going on for days now, with members of #the15 and those who align with them taking Route 15 highway signs as their Twitter profile picture.

Some of the books that LifeWay sells are easy targets, such as Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. None of us who work in and around this industry saw the controversy going in, but it’s now quite clear the title is theologically problematic. In the little independent store I oversee, the title will be taken off display tomorrow, though remaining copies will be sold as requested. I’ve emailed our staff over the holiday, and the consensus is that we’ve got to act responsibly in light of what is now so plain.

But there are others I feel are being unfairly criticized like Mark Batterson’s The Circle Maker. In the book, Batterson borrows a story from Jewish antiquity about Honi The Circle Maker and propelling that story into a challenge to all of us “draw circles around” the thing or group of things that constitute our greatest needs or righteous desires. Admittedly, it’s not the analogy I would have chosen. But rather than meet with Mark and get to know him and what drives him, the analogy was just a little too outside the scope of conservatives, even though Jesus’ own story of Lazarus and the Rich Man contains elements of the afterlife which may or not be the case. (Commentators always point this out, that Jesus wasn’t indicating that people in Heaven and Hell can communicate with each other.)

Furthermore, now that he is branded, these same conservatives would be unlikely to touch Batterson’s new work, The Grave Robber, which is an excellent study of the miracles in John’s gospel.  (Actually, of all the stuff in the market, I’m amazed the DC pastor would be lumped in with Sarah Young and that he’s become such a target. I would dare these critics to check out the newer book, published by David C. Cook.)

In another corner, are those who are quick to jump on #the15 bandwagon and side with them in this, but this is more a vote against LifeWay than a vote for condemning books.

Still another group consists of people wanting to be identified as Calvinists who do not support #the15.

And finally, in the last corner, we have LifeWay itself. I have written about them before, and don’t wish to burden regular readers here with repetition, so you can simply check out these posts:

For them, it’s all about money. And more money. Regular commenter here and fellow blogger Clark Bunch replied yesterday:

LifeWay exists for one purpose only and that’s to sell you stuff. Any volunteer VBS director that has ever ordered materials knows that as well as anybody. A box of 15 paper whatevers are easily divided into “selling units” that cost 3X what you could get them for at Dollar Tree.

Heaven is for Real is a book they sell at LifeWay Christian *gasp* Bookstore. LifeWay is not a group of seminary professors or a board of trustees. It’s Southern Baptist Walmart. Our church uses LifeWay Sunday School literature for all age groups. Thom Rainer writes good stuff. But LifeWay should NOT be and I don’t believe claims to be in a position to say “this is what you should believe and teach others.” If you are a Calvinist, non-Calvinist or don’t know the difference, you can walk into their store and buy what you want.

If that’s all it is, a Baptist WalMart, then so be it. Let them stock whatever people are curious to read and throw in The Catechism of the Catholic Church and The Book of Mormon while you’re at it.

In our store in 2012, for several months we had a section captioned, “Heretics Corner – Because every bookstore should have one.” It was my place to include people whose orthopraxy makes others uncomfortable, though we do not stock popular liberal theologians like Marcus Borg or Shelby Spong because they undermine the rest of what we carry. And that’s an important distinction. I wanted to allow other voices to be heard even if I disagree with some aspects: Matthew Paul Turner, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Webber and even Peter Rollins, despite the lack of a third name.

That’s the part of this story that’s so confusing. I find myself agreeing the book censors because I view LifeWay’s hypocrisy as the greater sin. But I don’t support a very narrow judgmental attitude where only a few books get in. I am always reminded of the Life cereal commercial where the kids say, “We’ll get Mikey to try it; he hates everything.”   I wish all the energy that goes into condemnation was being used to celebrate the good things that God is doing through a whole new generation of leaders and writers instead of mistrusting them. (Life Cereal, LifeWay…I’m sure there’s a punchline there just waiting…) And I’m sure God can use the little boy’s story in Heaven is for Real despite my misgivings, just as he used Left Behind to propel people into a study of the end times, even though it’s not my personal eschatological cup of tea.

So today’s discussion, for me at least, blurs the normal battle lines.

Either way, it’s the online story that ended 2014 and as of the morning of 2015 was still going strong on Twitter.

I’d write more, but I have to prepare my Rob Bell text for this afternoon’s Christianity 201 devotional. That’s right, Rob Bell. He wrote about The Good Samaritan and despite others’ misgivings about the direction he’s been heading, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Yes, in 2015 the lines are quite blurred.


Read more about one of #the15 protagonists here.

[Update] It gets worse: read more about him at this story.  This guy is a menace.

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