Sermon Ideas for Everything Must Change
Brian D. McLaren
I worked for 24 years as a pastor, and I always appreciated it when a book helped frame a sermon series. You may simply wish to use these ideas as prompts for a sermon series – or you may want to encourage groups and classes in your church to read the book as you preach from it.
One suggestion: don’t run out and preach this book the week after you read it. Let the book begin to move you into action, and then you’ll preach it less as ideas from a book and more as something that flows from your heart and soul. Perhaps the best approach would be to read the book, then get a number of your leaders reading it, then get small groups and classes reading it, and then preach it – with help from all the people who have been engaging with the content for some period of time.
The book is organized into eight parts which would make a good eight-week sermon series. Or each part could become a series of a messages in its own right.
PART 1. TWO PREOCCUPYING QUESTIONS
The first chapter talks about the importance of hope – which could connect to a sermon that contrasts two different kinds of hope practiced by Christians: one is the hope of “leaving behind” the earth and its problems for heaven. The other is the hope of God’s transformation of this planet. Chapters 2-4 seek to show unintended negative consequences of the former kind of hope, which is, sadly I think, probably prevalent in many of our churches these days.
To critique the “gospel of evacuation” approach, you may wish to read or re-tell the stories from East and South Africa which I include in these chapters, perhaps using scenes from the movie Hotel Rwanda to dramatize the problem. To dramatize the “gospel of transformation” approach, scenes from the movie Amazing Grace and the story of Wilberforce could be equally dramatic.
For ideas about preaching the kingdom of God as a message of transformation (not evacuation), see my book “The Secret Message of Jesus” and the “Sermon Ideas for Secret Message of Jesus” at www.brianmclaren.net. Jesus’ metaphors of salt (that penetrates food) and light (that penetrates darkness) and seeds (that penetrates soil) and nets (that penetrate water) offer images of penetration rather than evacuation (Matthew 5:13 ff; 13:1-52). And Jesus’ “downward mobility” in the incarnation (John 1:1-18) is our model for the downward mobility of incarnational living (Philippians 2:1-16).
You might also focus on Matthew 24:36-46. This passage is often used by supporters of the “left-behind” or “evacuation” gospel, but it actually undermines their view. You could point out the following:
1. The passage is framed by the image of Noah and the flood. Being “taken away” (24:39) is not being taken away to heaven by the rapture, as the supporters of “evacuation” say – it is being taken away by the flood of judgment. So, the goal is not to be the one taken away – it is to be the one left behind!
2. Being ready for judgment does not mean withdrawal from this world into a religious subculture – waiting to be evacuated, as is commonly practiced: being ready means being involved “giving food” to God’s servants. The point is intensified in the following chapter, where wise people prepare for the long haul and plan to keep their lights shining bright in the darkness (25:1-13); they use their gifts to advance God’s interests in the world (15:14-30); they show concern for “the least of these” (25:31-46).
Another theme that could become a strong sermon would be to contrast three kinds of confidence. Excessive confidence (this is the style of the Pharisees and religious leaders in Jesus’ day) could be illustrated powerfully through John 7:25 ff, John 8:12-59, and John 9:1-41 (culminating in “you claim you can see” –9:41). Their excessive confidence leads them to be willing to kill (8:1-31, which interrupts this section). At the opposite extreme is insufficient confidence – this is the unstable person (James 1:6-7, Ephesians 4:14) who hears but doesn’t act (Matthew 7:24 ff, 1 John 2:3-6, James 2:14 ff) or who has the right words but not the right action (Matthew 7:21-27).
The goal is “a proper confidence” – a term from Lesslie Newbigin – that describes faith that leads to action, trust that leads to obedience (John 13:12-17, which contrasts powerfully with Matthew 7:24 ff) and love that leads to action (John 14:12-21).
The key idea for a sermon on Part 1 would be to suggest that there are two very different understandings of the gospel afoot in our churches today: one is a gospel of evacuation and the other a gospel of transformation. One gospel says that God has given up on creation and plans to destroy it, extracting souls for a disembodied existence in heaven. The other gospel says that God is faithful to creation and is at work to heal it and save it from human sin, and promises that any sacrifice we make to be co-laborers with God in God’s saving and healing work will be amply rewarded in this life and the next. One gospel offers little hope for the earth and its inhabitants in history, and focuses their hope beyond this life only. The other gospel is good news for all people (Luke 2:10) offers hope for both this life and the life beyond.
PART 2: SUICIDAL SYSTEM
This section explains my understanding of the four global crises, pictured through three gears and a central drive shaft in the societal machine.
A sermon based on this section could work from the Old Testament as follows:
The three gears:
Prosperity System: Life in God’s creation as a garden (Gen 1-2) where we have work to do, gathering fruit – within limits – and later tilling the soil, which suggests bringing out unrealized capacities of God’s world. The fields of science and education are evoked by the naming of creatures (Gen 2), and soon the arts and crafts are also explored (Gen 4:21).
Security System: But people can abuse God’s creation – and abuse one another through murder, theft, slavery, and other forms of oppression – exemplified by Cain and Abel and the story of the Flood (Gen 4-6). So, in a world scarred by sin, people need to protect themselves from one another (Gen 14:1-16 captures this beautifully).
Equity System: The laws deal with practical matters to help God’s people live equitable lives. Deuteronomy 14-15 or Exodus 21-23 would provide an excellent sampling of the kinds of laws needed to preserve equity. “National health care” could also be seen as an equity issue in Leviticus 13-15.
The central drive shaft:
This is the importance of a good framing story – such as you find providing background for the Sabbath (Gen 2:2) and the ten commandments (Exodus 20:2) and all the calls in the Old Testament to remember what God has done. Leviticus 19:33-34 provide an important example of a proper use of a framing story: the fact that the Jewish people had been oppressed in Egypt was never used to legitimize revenge, but instead to increase compassion for people (the alien and stranger) who could be oppressed by the Jewish people.
The key point of a sermon on the societal system would be to explain the Good News of the Kingdom of God as the framing story God calls us to live by. This story tells us that God is king of everyone – a theme which could be powerfully traced through the Gospel of Luke: women and men (Luke 1:39-81), the rich and the poor (Luke 16), our friends and our enemies (Luke 6:27-36), the righteous and the sinners (Luke 15), the Jews and the Gentiles (Luke 7:1-10), humans and other living things (Luke 12:22 ff). So, God calls us to be reconciled with God and with everyone, and this reconciliation requires repentance (Luke 13:1-9) and happens through God’s forgiveness of us, which we extend to others (Luke 17:1-10). It calls us to discipleship – which is learning to live in the way of the kingdom.
PART 3: REFRAMING JESUS
This is in many ways the theological core of the book. In many settings, it would be wise to contrast two views of Jesus (from Chapter 10), but in other settings, it would be wiser simply to focus on the emerging view, leaving any critique of the conventional view implied only. Any critique of the conventional view should be done gently and respectfully, avoiding needless offense.
Resituating Jesus within his historical setting can be done with almost every passage of the gospel, because the details of the stories – the identity of the Pharisees or Sadducees or a Roman centurion or a Sidonian woman, for example – require us to give the social, historical, political, religious, and economic context. You might find this analogy helpful: imagine trying to explain Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without any reference to the Civil War. That would be what we often do with Jesus’ words – we try to understand and apply them without understanding the overriding historical context of the Roman empire.
As for Scriptures to work from, Chapter 12 is overflowing with them, and Chapters 13 and 14 give several more passages a close reading. There would be a lot of sermon material to work with in these important chapters.
PART 4: REINTRODUCING JESUS:
This section does in a kind of high-altitude fly-over what the following sections will do in more detail: show how Jesus’ teachings relate to the framing stories and societal systems of his day and ours. There would be a lot of sermon material in the critique of our contemporary societal systems – much of which could be easily illustrated through films and popular music. (If you send in some suggestions via the blog section at deepshift.org, others can benefit from your discoveries.)
The key Biblical focus from this section would be the discussion of eschatology in Chapter 18, where I say, “Eschatology always wins.” My language of a “fake-me out first coming” may be too strong for some congregations to handle, but the issue needs to be made clear: if our understanding of the so-called Second Coming undermines or overturns the revelation of God in Christ through his actual coming, we have a serious theological problem. Central to this sermon would be drawing attention to the sword of Revelation 19:15 – which comes out of Jesus’ mouth. This is really one of the most important points of the book.
PART 5: SECURITY
Matthew’s story of the Canaanite woman and its context (Matthew 14-15) would be a powerful way to convey some of the key issues of this section. The Scriptures presented in Chapter 22 would all be ripe for exploration in a sermon on the security strategy of Jesus. Also very significant regarding Jesus’ way of peace would be to exposit John 18, as was done back in Chapter 14.
The contrast between Dr. King’s approach and the approach of the other quoted leaders at the end of Chapter 22 could help congregations see two very different ways of applying the Scriptures to our contemporary situation. As that chapter suggests, I recommend avoiding getting paralyzed and polarized around old debates between pacifism and just war theory if possible, and try to lift the dialogue “above the line” (a phrase that will make sense to readers of A New Kind of Christian).
In times of war, it takes a lot of courage to deal with these passages. Only courageous, humble, and “prayed-up” preachers and teachers will be able to do so effectively, and even then, there will probably be bitter opposition because of the widespread and addictive “high” (or “warrior trance”) that war produces, as described in these chapters. One must be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.
PART 6: PROSPERITY
It will be important, in preaching from this section, to carefully define theocapitalism so people know you are not attacking a more modest, non-absolutized capitalism. The structure of this section invites contrasting Law One of theocapitalism with Law One of Jesus’ teaching – and so could be either a four-part sermon, or four sermons – or more. The quotes and stories from Jesus – which fill Chapters 25 and 26 – would provide a lot of sermon material. Jesus had so much to say about wealth and its proper use – and this is absolutely essential teaching for wealthy Westerners in the 21st century!
This material could be developed into a retreat or class for business people in your congregation – again, if you develop it, please share it at the deepshift.org blog.
PART 7: EQUITY
Chapter 27 would obviously fit well in a Christmas season sermon (or just before or after Advent), with a performance of Jackson Browne’s “Rebel Jesus.” The information on the growing gap between rich and poor could also be useful when inviting people to give to special projects that will help the poor. (Please don’t use these for a building fund though!)
A well-known preacher and author recently criticized me by asserting that Jesus had no social agenda. I would hope that the Scriptures that fill Chapter 28 would set the record straight on that matter. Of special interest would be the explanation of stewards given in this chapter, and in Chapter 12. Also important in this chapter is the discussion of social or collective sin – a subject relatively few Christian seem to understand in our highly individualized age.
Much could be done by using Micah 6:8 as a framework for three sermons drawn from Jesus’ teaching – about walking humbly with God (which everybody agrees is good), about showing compassion (which more people are waking up to), and about doing justice (which relatively few seem to endorse).
The Bible has so much to say about poverty – and Jesus exemplifies this powerfully – that the seven categories for addressing poverty in Chapter 30 could be helpful in a sermon, when we say, “Yes, we want to help the poor, but how?” This kind of sermon could be especially good around the Christmas season, if we invite people to give to the poor either directly or indirectly, as explained in this chapter. With so much complaint (legitimate in too many cases) about “organized religion,” the idea of “religion organizing for the common good” could be useful for leadership groups, including denominational leaders.
PART 8: A REVOLUTION OF HOPE
In a sense, this section is a simple call to faith – to disbelieve one framing story and believe another. Jesus’ teaching about “faith that can move mountains” and his many post-healing affirmations of “your faith has saved you” would take on new meaning in this light (Matthew 17:20).
The “covert curriculum” discussion could help pastors talk about abortion as a symptom of a deeper issue, and show how that deeper issue is equally related to global climate change. This kind of category-crossing is especially important for pastors to do in an election year, when Christians can get sucked into partisan ideologies that divide and fill people with aggression and pride; in contrast, the message of the kingdom of God calls people to repent in humility and come together in reconciliation.
My decision to conclude the book with a call to faith rather than a call to action suggests, I hope, three things:
1. Without faith, our action won’t be sufficient or sustainable.
2. Required actions will vary based on context, but the faith issue is universal.
3. True faith will be expressed in action … and that action flows naturally when the faith issue is dealt with.
If you preach sermons flowing from this book, I hope you will invite people to faith – and then action. At brianmclaren.net and deepshift.org, we’ll be creating lots of venues for dialogue about hopeful action that flows from faith and love. I hope that we, inspired by faith, will all be inspired to encourage one another “to love and good works.”