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Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Sermon illustration needing sermon.

I had lunch today with some mainline clergy friends including the homiletics professor of a local American Baptist seminary. During the conversation someone mentioned Portland, Oregon. I mentioned that I had lived there when I was an undergraduate at Reed College. The homiletics prof then mentioned that he had heard a story about my alma mater used as a sermon illustration:

Every Spring a liberal arts college known for its godlessness threw a wild campus-wide party, known to all for its hedonism and excess. This party was a weekend of debauchery, indecency, chemical experimentation, and free love. A group of local missionaries had heard about the party, and one day during a conversation they joked about evangelizing to the students at the party. The suggestion was offered in jest, but soon one of the missionaries was taking the joke seriously.

When the party weekend came, these missionaries dressed up as priests and set up a modest booth draped in black cloth on the campus. The sign out front read, "Confessional Booth." Soon enough, along came a student who had already tried many things for the first time over the weekend. Inhibitions lowered, the student saw the booth and thought, "Why not?" The student entered and sat down and said, "I suppose I should tell you what I've been doing this weekend."

"No," the missionary replied, "We are here to confess to you. The Christian Church has been guilty of many sins. We started the Crusades and many wars in the name of God. We burned witches and heretics at the stake. We conquered lands and forced our religion and values on others. We endorsed discrimination. We were the enemy of science. We taught people to be fearful of God and hateful towards one another."

The lunch conversation soon went off in another direction. I left without having the chance to ask the homiletics professor what the point of the sermon had been in which this illustration was used. So here's my question: What was the sermon that used this illustration about?

ps. It is frustrating to have gone to a school whose reputation is one of "out-of-control hedonism" when it is really an excellent, demanding academic institution with amazing teachers and classes.

Copyright © 2005 by Thom Belote | Posted 2 August 2005 at 4:12 PM

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August 2, 2005 06:23 PM | Permalink for this comment

I am not sure if it was a sermon illustration. Donald Miller told this story in his book, Blue Like Jazz. He was one of the "missionaries".


August 4, 2005 08:24 AM | Permalink for this comment

Sounds like it would slip seamlessly into a sermon on Matthew 5:21-26. Especially one on how not to carry out the Great Commission self-righteously.


August 4, 2005 11:13 AM | Permalink for this comment

More particularly:

Given that the story was offered by a Baptist homiletics professor, it's presumably intended to be used as an illustration of a Biblical teaching. Given that it involves missionaries trying to reach hard cases, it might well be a sermon about the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 (not a favorite theme of UU preachers, but hey, the prof wasn't UU):

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen."

One of the problems in carrying out the Great Commission is that so many people reject Christianity for its historical failures, and its present reluctance to acknowledge them. To them, Christianity as practiced today more closely resembles the self-righteous Pharisaism that Jesus condemned than the compassionate Kingdom of God that he proclaimed. It's not necessarily Jesus' teaching that they reject, however, but the seemingly hypocritical and overly legalistic way in which much of present-day Christianity remembers him.

The "leave your offering before the altar and first go reconcile with your brother" commandment of Matthew 5:21-26 falls right into the theme. You can't expect to succeed in the Great Commission of teaching what Jesus taught if your brother has aught against you, but many of the most zealous Christian proselytes don't seem to understand this. The missionaries in the story above do understand it, though, and as a result they gain credibility even in a seemingly unpromising mission field.


August 4, 2005 12:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'll add this to my list of sermon illustrations now....


August 4, 2005 12:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

Interesting suggestion. Actually, the prof was a Disciples minister teaching at an American Baptist seminary.

Other possible thoughts:
It could be a "judge not lest ye be judged" / "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" sermon illustration.

Or, it could be a sermon about the doctrine of original sin.


August 4, 2005 02:44 PM | Permalink for this comment

Or it could tie in with beholding the mote in someone else's eye but not the beam in our own.

Or God's habit of using broken vessels.


August 4, 2005 06:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

Amazing what Google can do.

Here's one sermon.

Here's another.


August 11, 2005 02:26 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hey Thom, isn't Reed a Universalist-founded college? Thomas Lamb Eliot or someone?


August 11, 2005 02:26 AM | Permalink for this comment

Hey Thom, isn't Reed a Unitarian-founded college? Thomas Lamb Eliot or someone?


August 11, 2005 08:55 AM | Permalink for this comment

P.b. Reed was founded by Thomas Lamb Eliot, a Unitarian, using a bequest from his wealthy parishioners the Reed family. T. L. Eliot also founded First Unitarian in Portland and a number of civic organizations. Thomas Lamb Eliot was the dutiful eldest son of William Greenleaf Eliot, who had founded First Unitarian in St. Louis and Washington University. Like father, like son.

While at Reed I spent many an afternoon in the archives looking at Thomas Lamb Eliot's papers. He really struck me as someone trying to live in his father's image and live up to his name. A lot of mental energy connecting him to his Boston roots. T. L. Eliot's daughter married Earl Morse Wilbur and Wilbur wrote a very complimentary biography - practically a hagiography - of Eliot.

Isn't it tough to keep track of all those Eliots?

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