Brueggemann, Solomon, and Jesus

Walter Brueggemann enjoys pairing an Old Testament text with a New Testament text during a sermon. And I enjoy when he does it. That is what he did this week at the Festival of Homiletics. Brueggemann paired I Kings 4.20-28; 9.15-19 and Luke 12.13-31 and talked about “Meat, Anxiety and Injustice.”

After reading the I Kings 4 text he emphasizes the large amount of goods Solomon has access to. It is a fact that Solomon has plenty. When we read the text we see that is an understatement. Solomon has an overabundance. Brueggemann calls Solomon the great carnivore.

“Solomon’s daily provisions were thirty cors of the finest flour and sixty cors of meal,  ten head of stall-fed cattle, twenty of pasture-fed cattle and a hundred sheep and goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roebucks and choice fowl… Solomon had four thousand stalls for chariot horses, and twelve thousand horses… The district governors, each in his month, supplied provisions for King Solomon and all who came to the king’s table. They saw to it that nothing was lacking. They also brought to the proper place their quotas of barley and straw for the chariot horses and the other horses.”

Yet, he did not have enough to satisfy. When we arrive at I Kings 9 King Solomon continues to accumulate more. After reading the gospel text, he highlights Jesus’s words about greed. Jesus gives an imperative (Luke 12.15), this is followed by a story (Luke 12.16ff.). Brueggemann adds this is a story that might be reminiscent of Solomon. It is foolish to think more is better. It is foolish to think more will keep one safe. It is foolish to tear down barns and build bigger barns in order to accumulate more.

Brueggemann goes on to say that more is an illusion. The “more system” intends to keep us busy wanting more. Not even the great King Solomon could accumulate enough. Desiring more only enslaves us to a regime of anxiety.

In a statement of contrast, the gospel tells us the creatures know better. They know hibernation and migration. They do not sow or reap, “they have no storeroom or barn, and yet God feeds them.” People are the only ones who do not seem to know. People are the only ones who think more is better. All this creates is anxiety and all this anxiety does not add even a nanosecond to our lives.

Brueggemann, who loves to discuss justice, then adds “when anxious and greedy, we are unable to do justice.”

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Walter Brueggemann

The influence of Walter Brueggemann on preaching has continually increased since Finally Comes the Poet was released in 1989. There are many reasons I enjoy his preaching. Among them, I like the way he challenges the powers that be with the word of the Lord. It puts me to mind of John the Baptizer calling out Herod Antipas. When he steps into the pulpit, it just feels like he is there to challenge Pharaoh’s Egypt and its lingering effects. I like that he proposes use of the Old Testament in ways that perhaps are overdue.

Yet, while challenging the powers on some level, he sometimes seems to snuggle up with other political powers. There are times Brueggemann comes across as some imaginative hybrid of Karl Barth and Karl Marx. I enjoy him most when he comes across as a descendant of the prophet Jeremiah.

I think he would agree that he draws from the social sciences, political theories, and the arts to feed his theological imagination. These, at the very least, provide him with some language for his theological proclamation. You do not have to listen to him too many times to realize he wants to prompt thought about economic and political concerns. While none of us would dispute the bible’s interest in such things in its quest for justice, one wonders if Brueggemann tends to overplay their significance as the bible’s primary mission. I can’t help but think he sometimes starts with an ecclesial analysis but winds up with a social-cultural analysis and am left thinking whether he thinks the two are the same.

Brueggemann makes a point to move beyond the historical critical methods of study. Though he may not cast it aside altogether, he does see it as a method born in modernity. Nevertheless, in our wiser moments we will recognize that it should not be the only tool in our hermeneutical toolbox.

Instead, Brueggemann proposes methods that utilize sociological criticism and rhetorical criticism. He claims to prefer these because they make hermeneutics more democratic, “In contrast to older methods that encouraged a kind of expert consciousness.” By encouraging newer approaches “everyone can look at the text and see something.” Indeed, Ben Witherington fears this turns exegesis into something like a Rorschach test where one can simply ask what can be found in the ink blots. We can all admit a danger if we get to tell biblical authors what their text means.

His attempt at hermeneutical correction may go too far. It is dangerous to separate the text from its historical context. Without such a context, the bible becomes a floating document full of phrases suitable for wall hangings and pleasant platitudes but no longer a record grounded in the historical intervention of God.

Due to tendencies to silence the Old Testament, Brueggemann claims to take an ecclesial agenda to the text rather than a Christological agenda. While we might want to applaud his efforts to make sure the Old Testament is heard, he has been accused of avoiding any Christian readings of the Old Testament. If this is true, we may wish to ask him what he thinks of a biblical metanarrative.

Of interest during this conversation, in an examination of postmodern hermeneutics, Brevard Childs uses Brueggemann as exhibit A. He shares a concern that Brueggemann sometimes confuses the human imagination with the Holy Spirit.

I suspect some are unable to see any value Brueggemann brings to the pulpit because of his potentially dangerous hermeneutics. I suspect others will consider me too critical and remind me that Brueggemann has forgotten more than I will ever know. Nevertheless, I consider him one of the most influential preachers of our lifetime. And I look forward to hearing him again later this month at the Festival of Homiletics in Washington, D. C. The theme for the conference is “Preaching and Politics” and quite frankly, I am rather excited about what Brueggemann will bring to the pulpit there.

A Soundtrack for the Seasons of a Human Life

When preaching the psalms, we are reminded that old Israel sang about things that matter. These songs travel through seasons of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, of blessing and suffering, of joy and grief, of forgiveness and resentment. These songs travel through the intense feelings that humans have experienced. The psalms are like a soundtrack for the seasons of human life.

But this is no Gaither sing-a-long.  These songs and prayers have a lot of rough edges.  Many are likely written by David. A guy who worked fields of livestock. A guy who kept lookout for lions and bears and was willing to battle them to protect the flock. A guy who carried a slingshot into a creekbed one day and met a giant on the other side. A guy who entered the battlefield without armor. A guy who hid in wilderness caves while there was a bounty on his life. A guy with experiences to match his imagination. These are songs with rough edges, prayers that are blatantly honest. And they always bring us into the company of God.

We might be tempted to preach around the rough edges and make the psalms sound more religious. Walter Brueggemann helps us to allow the psalms speak in all of their messiness. In The Message of the Psalms he suggests the themes of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. He suggests the flow of human life is located either in the actual experience of one of these categories or in the movement from one to another.

Brueggemann proposes that psalms of orientation address satisfied seasons of life that prompt thankfulness for experienced blessings. He proposes psalms of disorientation are laments during seasons of doubt, hurt, alienation, and suffering. These express rage and resentment and self-pity and hatred. He proposes psalms of new orientation as songs that are sung when surprised by new gifts of God, when joy breaks through despair, when light breaks into darkness.

Preach the psalms because we need lyrics that push us beyond rational thinking. We need melodies that dismantle things that seem so certain. We need tunes and tones that call us back to our homeland. Preach the psalms because we do not want to neglect such a gathering of composers and instrumentalists, of artists and lyricists, of poets and praying people that bring us back to the reality that God is interested in the seasons of human life.

Preaching and Possibility

I have been reading Walter Brueggemann again. This time from Finally Comes the Poet. The following thoughts that are worthwhile are his.

Preaching is no time for scolding or urging. It is not about doctrinal clarification or a problem solving answer. It is not moral instruction or good advice. Preaching acknowledges that we have spent the week practicing that God is not real. Preaching suggests that we spend most of our time listening to news that dulls us to the real news. Preaching opens up a text that we could not have come up with on our own – a world that is shaped by the news of the gospel. Preaching is the surprising proposal that the real world is not the one made available by the rulers of this age. Such a proposal brings with it new possibility.

Even as the congregation departs and quarreling begins in the car, followed by tension at dinner, followed by a tired beginning on Monday morning – the fact does not change that a new word has been uttered that brings hope and possibility.

The bible is our guarantee that the ideas of another world are possible. The preacher is a voice that shatters settled realty and evokes new possibility for listeners. From the narratives of Israel to prophetic poems to the testimony of early Christians, the singers and storytellers spoke about dangerous matters and new possibilities.

The Prince of Darkness has powerful allies in this age and together they try to prevent these new possibilities from being heard. Against the Prince and his allies we speak these texts and retell these stories. The Author of the text laughs with delight when the text is spoken boldly and new possibility comes into play.

Bringing the Past into the Present

The first books of the bible, even when they provide instruction, are carried by a narrative.  Deuteronomy, on the other hand, is primarily speech.  More specifically, it is sermon.  At the very least, it is a series of sermons.  Deuteronomy repeats earlier material from the Pentateuch and applies it to the present.  This is exactly what a sermon is supposed to do – apply earlier events to the present.

Deuteronomy chapter six is largely a sermon to encourage faith in the next generation.  It is a sermon that encourages a remembering of God’s great activity.  The context is a conversation between parent and child.  Specifically, the activity of God led to an ordinance of faith that led to a child’s question that led to a parent’s response.  “When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the Lord our God commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand.”

Preachers would do well to be attentive to not only the content of Deuteronomy at this point, but also the process and movement.  I propose that we find here a homiletical move that may be helpful.  Listeners gather with any number of questions at any given time.  “Who is this God you talk about?”  “Why do you worship Him?”  “What does this have to do with me?”  “What is so special about this and why do you celebrate it?”

Walter Brueggemann suggests that the pronouns may have implications.  Everyone may not claim the faith that is celebrated in the sermon, yet the preacher follows the homiletical move and extends the claim to include the listener “We were slaves… the Lord brought us.”  Instead of insisting or coercing, the preacher affirms that the miracle includes the listener until the listener begins to recognize the miracle as their own.  Preaching, like Deuteronomy, takes the listener into the past and brings the past fresh into the present.

Isaiah and a Counter Narrative

Walter Brueggemann grabs the context of exile as a “metaphor for the characteristic ‘human predicament.’” He briefly describes exile as “a situation of hopelessness and homelessness, a sense of impotence about being able to change circumstance.” The dominant voices are loud and at times, attractive. This results in a seemingly convincing narrative. But, he argues, it is convincing because people do not know of an alternative voice. He goes on to say that “if we make exile our characteristic context then we may take gospel as characteristic utterance in exile.”

I find this to be extremely interesting use of metaphor. The people of God are in exile. A word from God is seemingly overdue. The church is displaced from the support it had grown accustomed to over time. Instead, we find ourselves in the midst of Babylonian seduction, Babylonian economics, and Babylonian gods. We are strongly influenced by the dominant values of culture. On the surface, things appear to be operating just fine.

By appearances, Babylon had “well nigh driven Jewishness from the horizon; and with the elimination of Jewishness it had vetoed YHWH from the theological conversation.” Memory and hope of God had been eliminated by the dominant voices. The voices of the dominant narrative continue to try and silence the utterance of gospel.

Is there a text to make sense of this Babylonian arrangement? Enter Isaiah and his gospel. The prophet utters a message that is not self-evident or available by any other means. Chapter forty lets us know “that YHWH is back in play.” Verse nine announces – “Here is your God!”

In chapter forty six, the prophet mocks the gods of the empire. His intent seems to be to reveal the true colors of the dominant power. It turns out that the gods of the empire are a fraud. They are much noise and no substance. “Bel has bowed down; Nebo stoops over.” They “have themselves gone into captivity.” This is then matched by verse nine that tells us “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me.” A counter-narrative that claims YHWH is “the most reliable player in the struggle for the future.”

Commenting on chapter fifty two, Brueggemann suggests “in the contest for domination, the gods of the empire have been defeated and the God of Israel is now the dominant force in creation.” It is a counter-narrative that rings out in verse seven “How lovely on the mountains, Are the feet of him who brings gospel, Who announces peace, And brings gospel of happiness, Who announces salvation, And says to Zion, Your God reigns!”

Brueggemann believes that honestly facing exile as our situation generates urgency for preachers to communicate gospel. We are saturated by definitions of reality that are counter to the gospel. Enter the preacher. If the preacher is faithful, the listener is invited to make a decision. Will it be the old noisy narrative of the empire? Or the new gospel narrative announced by the prophet?

Ministry in the Asylum

Walter Brueggemann is convinced that culture drives people to insanity. He is equally convinced that preachers are those who get to tell this culture that there is another way, another place. That is how the Festival of Homiletics began this year with Brueggemann preaching a sermon titled “Ministry in the Asylum.” He suggested that this is our assignment.

He read an Old Testament lesson from Daniel 4 where we find King Nebuchadnezzar reigning in world power Babylon. He was “at ease” in his house and “flourishing” in the palace. It was then that the king had a dream. The dream has him troubled. He sought out a Jewish therapist who told him that he was not sovereign.

Brueggemann suggests that by day, Nebuchadnezzar was convinced that he ruled the world. At night come words of sanity, when it is obvious that he is not in control. Yet, the king disregards those words and the text says that “he began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.”

He goes on to read a New Testament lesson from Luke 15 and highlights that one there “came to his senses.” But only after “he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating.” This one comes back home to where he belongs. Sanity is one’s true home.

Nebuchadnezzar also returned to reason and sang a doxology. Brueggemann wants to make sure that we know that he does this only after he hears the essence of Torah. After he is reminded that Heaven rules. After being reminded to do righteousness and to show mercy to the poor. Both Daniel 4 and Luke 15 provide acts of sanity. One sings doxology, the other dances at his homecoming. Preachers are to call people from the asylum to become a missional people rejoicing.

Brueggemann cautions against being pulled into the insanity of culture ourselves. We must check regularly to determine whether we need our haircut or our nails trimmed. And all the while calling people to another way, another place.