In July I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.
Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one of the emphases we will talk about that day.
I am becoming convinced the Gospel wants us to be bi-lingual. Matthew, most of all, seems intent on teaching us a new language. Matthew speaks kingdom language. And his method is to saturate us in this language.
The Gospel does not want us to learn a new language just for the sake of learning. The Gospel wants us to be different. So Matthew gives us stories that are intended to change us. Not just stories for story sake, these are kingdom stories. Jesus tells these stories as if he is giving away the kingdom secrets.
The secrets of the kingdom of heaven are not to stay in heaven. Matthew preaches to us “on earth as it is in heaven.” One of these secrets is about forgiveness. It is not enough to forgive as everyone else forgives. So Jesus tells a story about forgiveness. This is not only a story but an invitation. Jesus invites us to participate in a ministry of forgiveness. Forgiveness is kingdom language.
There is value in exploring an old text. I remember Greek class in college when we first began translating. It felt like we were making a great discovery. It was as if we were uncovering ancient secrets that revealed a great treasure. We uncovered things that were there that we did not know about. We discovered that some things we thought were there were not. We felt like we were the first in the world to discover the meanings of words in scripture.
Translation is good exercise. It slows us down and helps us to hear what the text is saying. Translation helps us to remember that these are not our own ideas and they are not always speaking in ways that we tend to think. Learning to pay attention to a text in another language may be similar to learning to pay attention to other things. For instance, David Hansen has said that “if we can learn to listen to a text in Hebrew, we can learn to listen to a confused parishioner pour out his soul. The process is similar; both demand laying our syntax aside and listening for the image of God.”
I cannot help but notice my own story present in the text. Exploring this text we will discover who we really are. No matter how strange, unique, unusual we may feel our story is – the text insists that it fits into a larger, more reliable story. We are part of something big. Barbara Brown Taylor says that “the Bible is my birth certificate and my family tree, but it is more: it is the living vein that connects me to my maker, pumping me the stories I need to know about who we have been to one another from the beginning of time, and who we are now, and who we shall be when time is no more.”
We may want to approach this text wondering how we might gain from it. But the text does not exist that we might be able to utilize it to our advantage or for our purposes. We may struggle with this text, but we cannot excuse ourselves from it. We might be challenged by it, but we cannot control it. We should not assume that we know this text, yet it seems to know us well. We do not explore this text too long before we realize that its movement takes us into familiar places and allows us to see them from a different angle.
To read this text is a daring venture. It will call you into its story. It will not settle for spectators, it desires that readers become participants. It will call you into God’s story and insist that God is the author of your story. Every day we are told to narrate our lives without God as a significant character. The text disrupts that worldview and insists that God is the significant character in our story. Anything less and we are being robbed.
The text attributes the story to God, even the parts of the story that are unpleasant. It does not change just because we do not enjoy our role. It doesn’t go away if we try to avoid it. Instead of reinforcing our lives as they are, the text challenges us and demands that we change. We do not choose our stories, we are just in them. This is the story and we are part of it. No one enters the story on their own terms. There is value in exploring an old text. To do this will shape and change the ways we think about God, one another, and about our role in the church.