Writings by Cole Huffman

The Jewels of the Egyptians in Service to Christ

The last time I really leaned on a film to illustrate a sermon was three years ago.  Why would that be memorable?  I was teaching Hosea in the Spring of 2008, and used a scene from the film adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel The Painted Veil to convey what it might have been like for Hosea confronting Gomer's infidelity.  I was trying to get my congregation into the emotion of the text and would use that scene again if teaching Hosea over.

Some preachers make too much of movies; I likely make too little of them.  Movies are, after all, our common cultural language.  But a few weeks after the Sunday on which I used The Painted Veil clip, a gentleman in our church took me aside and questioned my judgment in showing it.  He took me to be tacitly endorsing the picture and rented it to watch with his wife.  They were offended by a sex scene (the movie, PG-13, tells the story of a broken marriage in repair).  We argued about how I could be at fault for his deciding to rent the movie.  But, according to him, as his pastor I led him down a wrong path.

That dissatisfying exchange in 2008 is not why I rarely reference movies in my sermons.  I expect someone will not like what I'm saying or doing from behind a pulpit most every week.  Preachers cannot and will not (and should not!) please all.  But I rarely reference movies in my sermons because I just don't see that many movies on average.  I've always had a tender conscience concerning movies, still probably subconsciously heeding the warnings of my Baptist youth leaders of the past: "You wouldn't want Jesus to return and find you watching a movie you shouldn't be watching, would you!?"  Alas. 

But if a film's storyline is redemptive I'm usually interested in seeing it, even if I may have to risk some bothersome material.  A friend was recently recounting to me over dinner his conversation with a California friend of his who is an actor-friend of Denzel Washington's.  Washington is a Christian and his standard for taking roles in films is that his character has to end up on the side of good.  Whatever else is included in the film (language, adult situations, violence, etc.) good must unambiguously win or Washington wants no part in the production.

This Sunday I will draw upon the storyline of the film Little Miss Sunshine to punctuate my opening message in 1 John.  I confess to being a little nervous about it.  I'm nervous first of all because I'm always afraid a powerful illustration can sweep away the text.  People go away remembering what I said about Steve Carell more than what the apostle John said.  And I'm nervous secondly because Little Miss Sunshine, R-rated, has a lot of vulgar language.  But I was put onto the film by a Reformed scholar who found a redemptive storyline within it that I think parallels what John is getting at in his epistle. (Interesting: I was able to briefly recount that storyline with the server at the restaurant where the aforementioned conversation with my friend-of-Denzel-Washington's-friend happened.  Our server overheard me mention Little Miss Sunshine, volunteered enthusiastically that it was "a great movie!" and then I shared with him a Christian interpretation which he certainly had not considered.) 

Utilizing cinema is a calculated risk in a church like mine due to differing sensibilities and standards of what constitutes worldliness.  I have in my church those who will be impressed, even glad, that I've seen Little Miss Sunshine.  And while I know this means they're grateful I'm not a Pharisee (in their view), celebrating one's pastor being conversant with an R-rated movie doesn't seem to me indicative of a mature spirituality (or a 1 John-informed spirituality).  And then there are those in my church who will conclude I am not very mature spiritually for choosing to view "such a film as that," and even less to broadcast it in a sermon.  Some of them will find it tragically ironic that I'm doing so in service to a passage within an epistle that warns so stringently about love of and friendship with the world.

But I take as my standard-bearer for this Robert Murray M'Cheyne, a Scottish pastor in the nineteenth century of whom Andrew Bonar wrote, "that he found himself able to use the jewels of the Egyptians in service to Christ."  Bonar was euphemizing the experience of Israel leaving Egypt (Ex. 12:33-36) to compliment both the breadth of M'Cheyne's learning and his depth of love for Jesus.  (I once used that Exodus passage to correct a brother who nonsensically believed missionaries shouldn't bring artifacts home from idolatrous cultures as the artifacts were thereby tainted and dangerous for a Christian home.)

Using the jewels of the Egyptians in service to Christ is what I'm trying to do with any cultural reference in my sermons.  Granted, some of the jewels adorn pig's snouts and I don't need to bother with retrieving those lest it require wallowing with the pig.  It is a discernment call.  Not everything in culture is redeemable or serviceable to a gospel sermon.  But I think what I'll use Sunday is.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 9:45 PM
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