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.

Preaching and a Changing Future

For the past three years I have had the good fortune to attend the Festival of Homiletics. There is great value in listening to excellent preachers handle the texts of scripture. Since this conference is geared toward mainline churches, some of the discussion is directed toward the mainline church. The mainline churches admit to significant decline in recent years, but the fact that so many respond to this trend in the church by focusing on the preached word leaves me with great hope for the church universal.

An interesting discussion that emerges at the festival is the attempt to address the changing culture. Culture is on the move. For a while, we have been talking about a shift from something we have come to know as modernity to something new that we have come to know as postmodernity. Lecturers attempt to address these changes and discuss what this means for the church in the future. Especially on what it means for preaching in the future.

There have been moments that it seemed the focus shifted outside the suggested emphasis. For example, there have been times that the conference sounded more like a platform for an assembly other than the church. More often, I have been challenged by the emphasis that God speaks through the preached word. Again, while I may not agree with all the discussion, I find great hope for the church. It is important for us to communicate Good News in whatever culture we find ourselves in.

Mostly, the Festival is a strong reminder that we must take the act of preaching seriously. That interpreting scripture is serious business. That the ways we choose to put words together should not be taken lightly. As Craig Barnes said this year, “do not waste words.” In the act of preaching, we offer a prophetic retelling of words given to us by God. Preachers like Walter Brueggemann and William Willimon demonstrated this effectively. Barbara Brown Taylor was described as a theological poet (and I can’t argue).

I love the emphasis on preaching and the attempt to place preaching into bigger categories. Yet, I am left with a lot of questions. While we cannot predict what changes the future will bring, what will preaching look like when we get there? Another presenter, Phyllis Tickle, talking about cultural trends, suggests that every five hundred years or so the church is forced into a rummage sale and decides what it will discard and what it will take into the future. This makes me wonder, what parts of preaching will remain with us?

This discussion will be ongoing. For the present, it appears that our task remains clear. We are the ones called to keep opening the book and retelling the story. And each time the book opens, it must be taken very seriously.

A Reliable Text

I recently watched a movie called The Grey. It is based on a short story by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers titled “Ghost Walker.” If you have seen this movie, then you know that this is a story of adventure. About survival and testing one’s wit in the wilderness. But mostly, it is a story about living by a text. In The Grey the text is clear as the main character (John Ottway) cites it twice “Once more into the fray/Into the last good fight I’ll ever know/Live and die on this day/ Live and die on this day.” Ottway then demonstrates what it means to live by this text.

I mention The Grey as an illustration of what it looks like to live by a text. It asks us to look inside and explore issues of identity. It strips us down to our bare bones in order to find out what lies underneath the surface. It asks who we are when there are no props of modern convenience. It asks us how serious we are about our text.

The text that people live by may not always be so obvious, but the fact remains, we are always living by a text. Walter Brueggemann would suggest that “sometimes in the church we think that if we did not have the biblical text, we would not have a text at all.” But he corrects that notion with “there are no textless people. Everyone has a text, known or unknown.”

It is the task of preaching to repeatedly and faithfully proclaim our text. To explore issues of identity and ask who we are when stripped of the props of modern convenience. If our preaching is not faithful to our text, our text will be replaced with other texts. With the shallow, short-sighted, less adventurous, unreliable, idolatrous texts of culture at large.

There are a number of such rival texts. At moments of desperation we may have borrowed from them or even partially committed to them. Still, such texts are not ours. Instead, they are in tension with or even total contradiction to our text. Brueggemann suggests that “people are haunted by the question of whether there is a text (and an interpreter) that can say something that will make sense out of our pervasive nonsense.” People today are asking if there is a reliable text by which to live our lives. Our preaching should respond with an adamant yes.

Preaching Genesis

Genesis is an invitation to a story about God and insists that we are part of this story. Genesis extends an invitation to reality itself. Not only the reality of God, but the relationship between creator and creation, especially His people. Genesis isn’t concerned about whether you and I agree that this is our story. Isn’t concerned with our debates whether it be myth or historical account. It is a theological affirmation, “in the beginning, God.” Genesis may be displeased if preaching becomes anything other than affirming the greatness of God.

Genesis gives a big picture but also becomes familiar and personal. Here we enter an arena where evil lurks and temptation is real, where flood and uncertainty are reality. But these are places where God is at work. His greatness is evidenced in His words, promise and blessing. Our preaching should follow the lead of Genesis and witness the greatness of God in situations that appear hopeless. Genesis wants us to know from the start that “And God said” is the driving force of all creation. And that people are central to his creation. Anything, everything we do is in response to “And God said.” Our preaching is but a response to “And God said…”

We are reminded that things have not changed much from the beginning. People can be disappointing. From the beginning people have struggled with desire. The urge to have a great name is not a modern notion. Genesis knows that we struggle with obedience so we are introduced to allies in the adventure of living as part of this story. People who are witnesses to the greatness of God. Our preaching should follow in their steps.

Walter Brueggemann structures Genesis in this way, a) 1-11 and b) 12-50, “God calls the world into being to be his faithful world” and “God calls a special people to be faithfully his people.” That makes Genesis a witness of these two calls. Brueggemann suggests that these calls must be taken together. The same God calls the world and the special community. Both creations, the world and the community of faith, have been evoked by the speech of God.

Therefore, we could say that preaching Genesis always has in mind the relationship between God, world, and community of faith. The implications are numerous. What is our relationship to God? His perspective of us? How does God view creation? How does creation respond to God? How are we to respond to creation in light of God’s view of it? How do we live among others who do not participate in the community of faith?  Genesis becomes important in our conversations about worship, stewardship, evangelism and a host of other topics.