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Festival of Homiletics Reflections: Brian McLaren

Thursday at the Festival we heard Brian McLaren. I was very excited to hear McLaren, having read some of his books and particularly having led a (pretty successful) book study in my church on The Secret Message of Jesus. I’ve read elsewhere in the blogosphere from at least one who didn’t find McLaren’s worship and lecture very – inspiring? – but I would have to disagree. McLaren isn’t a dynamic preacher in the same way of Barbara Brown Taylor or Fred Craddock – he just doesn’t have the same style, and the same way of presenting himself. But personally, I found the content to be excellent and on target and dynamic in its own right.

Worship was first. I missed the opening part of the worship because I was standing in a ridiculously long line in the parking lot waiting to put my money in the “Pay Here” machine. But I did indeed get to see Jonathan, Jay, and Gavin (dressed very like Neo in the Matrix) leading worship for a few minutes before the message.

Brian McLaren took Colossians 1:13-20 as his focus. He talked about Kings, and that places with kings have constant display of images, like Iraq and images of Saddam Hussein - and compared this with the image of Jesus Christ - the head of the body, in contrast to Caesar, known as the head of the body in Jesus' day and time.

McLaren talked about making peace. Those who challenged the empire would be crucified in Jesus' day, but Paul says that through the cross is authority. McLaren said, "Empires today have unprecedented ability to convey their images to us, mold us into citizens. We are formed by this system. It is a matter of life and death to convey other images."

In his lecture after worship, McLaren asked, "Can preaching transform the world?" Right now, too many pastors preach "safe, nice, harmless, insignificant, intramural, trivial-pursuit sermons . . . sermons that increase greed, fear, alienation, resentment, scapegoating, escapist thinking, fatalism, and abandonment." But, McLaren reminded, "the gospel is actually about saving the world, not just my personal soul."

In a hilarious and eye-opening experiment, McLaren showed us a video clip, and asked us to focus on one part of the video, counting. After, he asked us for a number. People answered different conflicting numbers. And then he said, "How many of you saw the gorilla?" Only about 5 in the room of 1000+ raised their hands. The rest of us were so focused on counting that we didn't notice a man in a gorilla suit clearly, slowly, walk across the center of the screen, pause, and walk off. McLaren said, "What you focus on determines what you miss. Being part of a religious traditions teaches you to focus on certain things, which makes you miss some big gorillas." What are "Gorilla bible passages" that we miss?

The rest of my notes, which are most lengthy at McLaren's lecture, I'm pasting here unedited - sorry! I don't have the energy to put them into narrative form. Hope they make at least some sense to you!

What are the top global problems? What does the message of Jesus say to those problems?

Sustainable development, clean water, population growth, WMD, status of women, rich/poor gap, etc., Millennial Development Goals, Copenhagen Consensus.

Societal Machine: Prosperity System, Security System, Equity System. All exists within the Ecosystem. Solar energy in. Heat out. Resources into societal system, waste out into the ecosystem. Our societal system used to be small, but now is very large, like a goldfish getting too big for the bowl. Our bowl is finite. Did we reach this point in the 70s, taking more resources than available, and expending more waste than manageable?

McLaren’s four global crises:

  • Planetary Crisis: Our prosperity system can’t stop growing. Has no brakes. Goes too fast and too hard to respect limits to growth, creating environmental crisis.
  • Poverty Crisis: Our equity system is depressed, and can’t keep pace with gap between rich and poor, the rate of growth of the gap is growing. Results: Crime. Immigration. War. Terrorism. The rich become afraid, and spend more and more money on bigger and stronger weapons, borders, police and prisons, diverting funds from helping the poor to defending themselves from the poor.
  • Peace-making Crisis: Our security system (see above)
  • Framing story – the story that tells the civilization what is and how we seek prosperity, security, and equity, usually supplied by religion. The failure of the world religions to provide a framing story capable of change. Sometimes are contributing to the problem. “God’s will.” Scapegoating. Distractions. How: Denominations/Empire (Sadducees/Herodians), Revolution/Warrior (Zealots), Revenge/Scapegoating (Pharisees), Isolation/Withdrawal (await our evacuation) (Essenes). Remarkable similar to the situation in Jesus’ day.

Jesus has a radically different framing story – the Kingdom of God. Not a new religion – a new kingdom. More dangerous. This gets him killed. Kingdom of God message is revolutionary and transforming. World changing. Kingdom of God does not mean going to heaven after you die.

Should we edit the Lord’s prayer? “May we come to your kingdom when we die. May we all got o heaven where, unlike earth, your will is done.” Emperor is the one who has ultimate authority on earth. Caesar’s framing system vs. Jesus’ framing system. Good News framing story is at center of the intersecting circles of systems.

How can we do it? “I don’t know.”

  • Don’t assume it will be easy. Many of our ‘Christians’ have been converted into consumers of religious goods and services. Not interested in being disciples, agents of the Kingdom of God. Breaking our unwritten contract – we pay you money and you make us feel good, or bad then good which feels good. There’s a lot working against you. Radio/TV-orthodoxy – Partisan, colonial, consumerist. Preaches what gets donations to fund it. Institutional maintenance – parochial, intramural, self-absorbed. Institutional maintenance is idolatry.
  • Stop teaching Bible verse or passages, and teach episodes or stories within the context of the Biblical narrative. Stop quoting as if it was a section of the constitution, but instead is a narrative. Primacy of bible is God being involved in messed up human world. Themes like land/water, fertility/children, freedom/dominion of empire, obedience/justice, warnings/promises.
  • Emphasize integral reconciliation – with God, self, creation, others, enemies. Can’t be separated out. Fused together.
  • Contextualize the language of ‘kingdom’. Personal kingdom. Cultural/national/economic kingdom/kingdom of this world. Dream of God, Global Love Economy of God, Sacred Ecosystem of God, God’s revolution of Hope
  • Realize that preaching isn’t everything – liturgy, prayers, testimonies, songs of transformation.
  • Work personal-global and global-personal (bias toward later, where Bible starts), bottom-up and top-down, or small-big and big-small
  • Realizing Who is working with and for you – Spirit.
  • [Insert your idea here]
What if we got rid of all the signs in front of our churches? Instead, “School of Transformation.”


Andy B. said…
Good stuff! I trust that you will bring this message to the floor of the General Conference next year ;) "Jesus came to bring the reign of God, not to meet every quadrennium!" or something like that?
Anonymous said…
school of transformation ... like that :)

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