Preaching: a Corporate Act

Eugene Peterson shares an interesting journey about his preaching ministry and I suspect he is not the only one who has traveled this path. In As Kingfishers Catch Fire, he tells how he began his preaching ministry by viewing the people who gathered on Sundays as part of his plan to succeed. He confesses he was thinking competitively about other churches. Calculating how he could beat them at the numbers game. It sounds like he viewed people more like commodities than congregants.

One day he began to realize that “What I was doing from the pulpit each Sunday was not preaching… I was whipping up enthusiasm. I was explaining the nature of what we had to do… I was using the place of worship as a bully pulpit… I had a job to do – get a congregation up and running – and I was ready to use any means at hand to do it; appeal to the consumer instincts of people, use abstract principles to unify enthusiasm, shape goals by using catchy slogans, create publicity images that provided ego enhancement.”

If you have read Peterson before you are probably noticing this does not sound like him at all. Yet, from this point he begins to sound a little more familiar. He begins talking about a biblical imagination and an emerging narrative that viewed lives together as something more than we are individually. He talks about weeding out stereotypes that identified souls as problems to be fixed or resources to be exploited.

Peterson claims that something like a novel began to emerge where the people who worshipped together were involved with one another. The people were part of this whether they knew it or not, whether they wanted to be or not. The congregation was no longer a collection of individuals but a body with distinctive parts. Peterson tells how he began to embrace the congregation as they were rather than how he wanted them to be. The gathered people became integral to the sermon. Preaching became a corporate act. 

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A Chorus of Witnesses

According to Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga Jr., students of preaching should “study great sermons, learn their moves, and master some of their aims and forms.” This is not unlike the reason “aspiring composers study Haydn symphonies and Bartok string quartets” and “serious chess players learn the great games of Tanasch and Capablanca” and “army generals master the battle plans of strategic and tactical experts from Alexander the Great to Douglas MacArthur.”

This is good reason for A Chorus of Witnesses, a collection of sermons that the reader may “ponder, inspect, disassemble, praise, criticize, and generally, learn from…” It is true that all sermons are not equal and not everyone will agree on what a good sermon is.  Yet with sermons from the likes of Buechner, Brown Taylor, Craddock, Achtemeier, Barth, Lewis, Willimon, Peterson, and Buttrick to name a few, a volume like this one is an excellent starter for us to “tune our ears” and “untether our imaginations.”

“A written sermon is not a preached sermon. Reading a sermon is an importantly different experience from hearing one, and both differ from actually seeing a preacher aim and fire.” Reading a sermon is more like “reading the score of some musical masterpiece. Whether reading a piece is better or worse than hearing it depends in part on the quality of the performance.”

Reading excellent sermons can be helpful on a variety of levels. Even when we reject the theology in a sermon we may admire the form. Even when we think the sermon strayed too far from the text we may still feel that we have been strangely warmed. I will not guarantee that you will enjoy this particular collection of sermons but am in agreement that reading the sermons of others is a good practice. “Perhaps homiletic discernment, like general spiritual discernment, is a gift of the Spirit. In any case, serious study of widely varying sermons is likely to sharpen it.”

Preaching the Song

What do we make of a book that starts with “kiss me” and introduces meaning with the words “Eat, friends; Drink and imbibe deeply, O lovers.”  It is an obvious and passionate appeal for intimacy.  The Song of Songs connects us to a part of ourselves that is not ritual or tradition.  It protects us from getting caught in monotony.  It tunes us in to another reality and explores relationship and intimacy.  The speaker desperately desires to be connected to another.  The Song of Songs recognizes that we (and all of creation) are relational.

The Song says what it says through speakers.  Nearly everything comes from either a country maiden from Shulem or a rustic shepherd or occasional background voices.  It is erotic and provocative.  It is a collection of romantic love lyrics.  It is a liturgy of wedding songs and love poems.  Perhaps it even includes fragments from a fertility cult.  Sexuality is all over it and it gets explicit.  Yet, it is part of scripture.  Ecstasy and struggle are part of relationship whether between man and woman or human and God.  The Song, for whatever reason, weaves sex and religion together.

The Song covers a variety of dimensions of human love.  The joy of presence and the pain of absence and even erotic desire all can be understood as reflective of God’s love.  The Song is a celebration of the power of love.

Roland Murphy is reluctant to classify the Song as wisdom literature, yet acknowledges that its echoes reach beyond human sexual love to remind the reader of the love of Lady Wisdom – A “flame of Yah.”  Eugene Peterson suggests that sexuality is heightened in the Song because of the desire for intimacy that is shared by all of us.  Both Murphy and Peterson comment on the fact that the Song was historically read as part of the Passover celebration.  Peterson suggests that this helps us to connect the saving activity of God with our personal everyday lives.

Everyone who preaches or is preached to is involved in both the desire for and the struggle of intimacy.  We do not wish to ignore this, but to acknowledge it.  We do not want to rid ourselves of this desire, but honor it.  We want to grant significance to the desire in this Song.  We are not professionals trying to discover what is going on here, we are participants.

Perhaps the Song is meant to slow us down and prompt us to reflect.  This is contrary to preaching that tells listeners what to do and how to do it.  Reflection is contrary to the way that we receive most of our present day information.  We prefer the immediate and pragmatic.  The Song challenges that method and demands that we slow down and appreciate beauty.

This becomes a challenge for the preacher.  The Song expects to be retold creatively and not just as information.  How can we preach the Song in a way that brings listeners closer to the Singer?  We may wish for a phrase or statement that helps people connect with one another.  Instead, God sends us a Song that takes us into king’s chambers and out into vineyards.  We find ourselves in the tents of shepherds, riding in Pharaoh’s chariots, among the trees of the forest, leaping across mountains, gazing into windows, browsing among lilies, and walking the streets and squares.  In these places we find perfume, wine, jewels, raisins, apples, singing, cooing, blossoming, incense, and spices.  Oh for a quicker way to connect with one another.  But, we have no choice but to sit with the Song and contemplate meaning.

There are many who have attempted to preach the Song of Songs.  Probably more who have avoided it.  We tend to preach sermons to tell people how to live.  We tend to preach for practical purpose.  Instead of reading in hopes to preach “what is it for?”  Perhaps we should read it and ask “what does it do?”  After all, this is song.  This is poetry.  We do not read other poets or listen to other songs in order to find out how to do anything, but we do know what they do to us.

I am not suggesting that we all begin working on a series on the Song.  I am suggesting that preachers ought to be reading it as we prepare for whatever we are preaching.  The Song will inform our view of God and spirituality and relationship.  Perhaps we should ask that the Song revolutionize our thinking before we are able to preach what it teaches.

Preaching a Grand Story

Preaching through the biblical narrative may be a daunting task.  But perhaps it becomes less daunting if we frame it as a grand story.  At the very least it would help lend a potential structure.  Eugene Peterson tells us that all stories have basic elements.  I like what he says and the questions he prompts enough that from this point on, I follow his lead.  In order to assist with the recognition of the narrative shape of Scripture, he punctuates the following elements.

First, there is a beginning and an ending.  “All stories take place in time and are bounded by a past and a future.”  Peterson proposes that the bible (as well as other good stories) has both an original and a final goodness.  Eden.  Heaven.

Second, Peterson says that there is a catastrophe.  The good beginning hits a bump.  There is a barrier.  Something stands in the way.  A disaster occurs.  And then, “we are, in other words, in the middle of a mess.”

Third, salvation enters the plot.  Peterson says that “some faint memory reminds us that we were made for something better than this .”  This creates a tension.  We find ourselves in between the original good and the present evil.  And a plan develops to get us out of our trouble – salvation.  I rather like the way that Peterson frames our situation.  He suggests that we are facing opposing forces while we fight “our way through difficult and unfamiliar territory to our true home.”

Fourth, characters develop.  The actions of people are important.  Personalities develop in the course of conflict and journey.  Character and circumstance are in dynamic interplay with each other.  Some people become better, some become worse.  Nobody stays the same.

And finally, “everything has significance.”  Peterson places emphasis on the fact that story implies an author.  Nothing happens by chance.  “Every word connects with every other word in the author’s mind, and so every detail, regardless of how it strikes us at first, belongs.”

He goes on to say that “all the world’s stories have these characteristics.”  Whether implied or explicit these elements are there.  And “they develop into tragedies, comedies, epics, confessions, murder mysteries, and gothic romances.  Poets, dramatists, novelists, children, and parents have developed millions of variations on these elements.”

Peterson calls the bible a “huge, sprawling account that contains subject matter from several cultures, languages, and centuries.”  He points out that Northrup Fry distinguishes the bible from other sacred books on account of its emphasis on narrative.  He highlights how the narrative even shows itself in the arrangement of the Hebrew canon.

The Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) gives us the basic story.  The Prophets (Joshua through Malachi) take the basic story and introduce it into new situations across centuries “insisting that it be believed and obeyed in the present, not merely recited out of the past.”  The Writings reflect on the story, assimilating them into wisdom (Job and Proverbs) and worship (Psalms).

The New Testament then takes on a parallel shape.  The Gospels tell the basic story in a new Torah.  The Epistles serve similarly to the Prophets as the story is told in an expanding world, preached over multiple journeys and conflicts across multiple geographical and cultural settings.  Peterson even adds that Luke expands the four Gospels into a five-volume Torah (Acts) at the same time that he introduces the prophetical lives of Peter and Paul.  James and Revelation are equivalent to the Writings, summing up in wisdom and worship the response of a people whose lives are shaped by story.

While I think that Peterson might allow some difference of opinion in the details, I think he would insist that scripture be read in this narrative framework where all the parts (proverbs, commandments, letters, visions, law, songs, prayer, genealogies) are included into a unified story.  In fact, he goes so far as to say that “it is fatal to exegesis when this narrative sense is lost.”

Peterson becomes helpful for us as we attempt to preach through the bible.  He helps us to see that every word fits into the larger context.  This becomes especially important when we recognize that a great deal of context gets lost when words are written down.  We lose “the tone of voice, the smell in the air, the wind on the cheek.”  But the thing we do not lose is the basic narrative – language shaped into story.

Since this is the one part of context that we do have, it becomes important to be attentive to it.  The Genesis to Revelation context.  The basic story laid down in Torah and Gospel.  The intrusion of story into history by Prophets and Epistles.  The gathering response of Psalms and Revelation.

No matter when we preach, what text, or where, we want to remember  that “God’s decision to use words as a means for revealing himself and shaping us means that we must pay attention both to what he says and to how he says it.”

Gaza Road Hermeneutics

Eugene Peterson, in Working the Angles, emphasizes scripture as an essential angle in pastoral ministry.  Although this is not a work on preaching per say, Peterson becomes pastor of preachers and says some significant things about reading scripture and interpretation.  He chooses a text from Acts chapter eight and introduces us to Gaza hermeneutics while demonstrating what he calls contemplative exegesis.

Acts chapter eight takes us to the Gaza road where we meet an Ethiopian eunuch who meets a deacon named Philip.  Here, we can find a focus for hermeneutical work.  The Ethiopian reading scripture and not understanding.  Philip guiding him into comprehension.  Two men with nothing in common coming together to understand an obscure passage from a book that is over five hundred years old.

Peterson uses the four questions that are asked in that episode to discuss how hermeneutics work.  Hermeneutics begins with a question; “do you understand what you are reading?”  Peterson admits that we know much.  But what we know is just “a lid over the bottomless pit of our ignorance.”  He goes on “we ride along in uncomprehending familiarity with the biblical text for years, in devout travel to and from Jerusalem, and then a well-timed question stops the chariot.”

The question is answered with a question, “how could I, unless someone guides me?  The African invites Philip to accompany him as a guide.  Philip has a choice to make.  Will he stand alongside the chariot, answering questions and providing information?  Or will he involve himself in a spiritual quest with a stranger?  Peterson likens it to a “shopkeeper who sells maps of the wilderness and the person who goes with you into it, risking the dangers, helping to cook the meals, and sharing the weather.”  Philip climbs into the chariot and joins the journey.

The third question “of whom pray does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?”  Acts says that Philip responds by preaching about Jesus.  Peterson suggests that Philip was simply awake to the obvious.  If scripture is God’s word and if Jesus is God’s word, then the two “are congruent with each other.”  This became the hermeneutical principle for not only Philip, but the apostles and at least one other deacon.

The final question “What prevents me from being baptized?” reminds us that hermeneutics is not a tidy, administrative process.  It meanders and detours.  It is patient.  There may be climbing in and out of the chariot and you may have to get wet.  It is not a search for information but for new life.  Gaza hermeneutics aims to change us.

Peterson claims to spend much of his own life along the Gaza road.  “Sometimes I am running alongside the chariot, asking one question: sometimes, riding in the chariot, I am asking another – interpreting and interpreted by the Isaiah scroll.”  He would not have us forget that we are sometimes asking, sometimes listening, always part of the quest.  We are guiding and being guided, following the detours, risking the dangers, sharing the weather, willing to be changed.

Reading scripture is not an individual activity.  At least if Acts has anything to say about it.  The solitary reader in the chariot on the Gaza road is interrupted by the Spirit-led Philip.  The Spirit brings people together over scripture.  And we might be reminded of something that Jesus once said “I am there in their midst.”