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help! I have to preach an entire book of the bible . . . in one sermon! – miriam bier

books-of-the-bible-2

 

In a recent post, Robyn Mellar-Smith wrote about preaching through a whole book of the Bible over a number of weeks (http://kiwimadepreaching.com/2013/10/when-its-never-enough-robyn-mellar-smith/). But what about preaching a whole book in one sermon?

This is the challenge taken up by one of my local congregations. Over the coming weeks and months, they’re going to be preaching through the entire Bible, one book-per-sermon at a time. When they get to the book of Lamentations, it will be my task to take and teach and preach the book. The entire book. In one sermon (I must say I’m glad I didn’t get given, say, the book of Jeremiah!)

The idea comes from Evangelical Alliance speaker, Krish Kandiah, who makes a case for preaching whole books of the Bible and provides some guidance for doing so here: http://www.krishk.com/2012/04/preaching-bible-book-sermon/

And he makes some good points. People don’t know the whole sweep of Scripture, and there are books of the Bible many preachers barely even mention, let alone preach. Small, atomised chunks of Scripture can be much more easily manipulated and attached to a message you want to preach if you don’t step back to take in the whole picture and read in context. From my experience of teaching first year theological college students, even long time church goers can be missing some of the pieces: where, for example, the book of Judges or Chronicles or yes, Lamentations, fits into the grand narrative of creation and redemption.

So help me out: how do you take a book of the Bible and preach it, start to finish, in twenty-odd minutes?

Do I try and distil the essence of the book into one overall message? Pick out one or two salient points I think might meet the congregation’s need? Provide a simple synopsis or summarise, one chapter at a time? None of these options strikes me as entirely satisfactory. Forcing a book to say just one thing seems too simplistic, failing to take into account the inherent multivalence of the biblical text. But only focusing on one or two salient points may not allow for the big picture to be taken sufficiently into account. And chapter-wise summarising runs the risk of turning the sermon space into, as Kandiah puts it, a “regurgitated commentary.”

I have a little time before the congregation gets to Lamentations, and I suspect that when it comes to preparing in earnest my approach to the whole-book problem will probably be a combination or adaptation of the above options. But if you have any bright ideas I’d be happy to hear them. What do you think?

changing context, changing clothes – miriam bier

Is it just me, or does anyone else worry about what they wear when they get up to preach?

Perhaps it comes of being only a sporadic preacher – and so not having a reliable “uniform” for preaching days. Perhaps worrying unduly about what to wear is simply a nervous divergence of energy that would otherwise go into worrying about the content of a sermon. Or perhaps it is (and I know I’m potentially just participating in my own stereo-typification here) because I’m a woman. But somehow, no matter how thoroughly and carefully and prayerfully I have put together a sermon, I tend to worry disproportionately about putting together an outfit.

When I took Paul Windsor’s preaching course a few years back he introduced an approach to preaching presentation with the acronym “Lucis” – laid back, understated, conversational, informal, and self-deprecating. This chilled-out model seems to work particularly well in the Kiwi context, and as I recall, much of our class discussion on the model centred around whether it was appropriate to preach in shorts/t-shirts/jandals/sandals. The conclusion was, well, probably, particularly during a long hot summer!

I was reminded of this discussion when, as a new faculty member at London School of Theology, I was scheduled to preach at our regular Tuesday chapel service quite early on in the academic year. In fact, I was the only female speaker scheduled at all in the entire first semester. And so I had a sudden dilemma when it dawned on me that all my male colleagues seemed to preach in shirt and tie; even besuited, most of the time – and I’d have no opportunity to see other women upon which to model myself before it was my turn. T-shirts and jandals somehow didn’t quite seem the thing anymore – ok for a beach-side Kiwi summer Sunday, yes, but not so much on a grey winter’s day in the UK!

So I consulted my trusty on-campus cross-cultural advisor (I confess, an Australian) and sure enough, “it’s best if you wear a suit” was her response.

Seriously? A suit? How many of you, male or female, if I may ask, have ever preached, in New Zealand, in a SUIT?

But here’s the thing: it became apparent that a simple matter of clothing was actually quite an important question of cross-cultural contextualisation. How was I to communicate best in this context, without putting up barriers or switching people off before I even open my mouth, simply by the way I dress? How could I present myself in a way that says to this audience “preacher with a message,” someone to be taken seriously?

Of course this contextualisation can only go to a certain extent. Preaching must still be truth through personality. I can’t stop being a Kiwi, or, for that matter, a woman. I can’t not preach out of the passion that’s in me – to do otherwise would be to lose all sense of authenticity.

But I can cautiously and generously test the waters of what is deemed appropriate here, to try and avoid obvious faux pas that could distract an audience from listening to the content of what I have to say. And so the grey suit – worn only once, for a job interview – came out of the wardrobe. I’ll save the jandals for another day.

miriam bier – texts in conversation

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about going along to an Anglican church this year is knowing that in every service, every week, we’ll hear from the breadth of Scripture before anyone even gets up to preach. There’s always a Psalm, an Old Testament reading, an epistle, and then the capstone, a Gospel reading. Every single week, witness to Christ from the full reach of Scripture is read out in church.

Well that’s not entirely true. As Andrea MacDougall pointed out in an earlier post, the lectionary is censored, with all the “bad” bits of the Bible painted out. But the idea is there, all the same. The scope and the spectrum of Scripture are canvassed widely, every single Sunday.

For the preacher, then, it seems like there is plenty of biblical fodder from which to choose. Now, in the church I currently go to, the sermons seem to focus primarily on the Gospel readings – and rightly so, I suspect. Sometimes the collection of texts drawn upon seem to have no obvious connection, and not even a less-than obvious connection, in cases. It’s much more straightforward, and wiser perhaps to go with the Gospel presentation!

But it gets me to thinking: what might it look like to preach, not just one text, but a number of texts in conversation? To see how the Old Testament reading feeds in to the New, or how the Gospel might address the sentiments of a Psalm, or some other such conversation?

Too hard, you might say; it’s difficult enough squeezing a message out of single biblical passage! But I reckon there are conversations to be had, lying latent in the biblical text, that might be well worth exploring with our congregations.

Sometimes the connections might seem obvious. Coming up to Christmas, at least, there are all sorts of prophetic sources that are drawn upon to make sense of this coming of Jesus. Sources, it’s fair to say, that did not have Jesus in mind to start with. Just think of Isaiah 9:6-7. And when Paul draws on the Scriptures of his tradition, our Old Testament, there’s an evident conversation going on within his recontextualisation.

But what other biblical conversations might be worth having? This Bible we preach speaks with more than one tone and timbre. What might it look like to purposefully draw on more than one of those voices and observe the way they interrelate?

What do you think?

miriam bier – handle with care

I believe in biblical preaching. I believe, I think, in biblical preaching from the entire Bible. I believe that God can, and does, in some mysterious manner, Speak through Scripture and its faithful exposition.

And yet, there is all sorts of muck in there that – perhaps appropriately? – seldom rates a mention in weekly sermons. War, rape, genocide, discrimination, vengeance – the whole gamut of destructive human and divine behaviour cuts a swathe through our Bible. This is particularly so in the Testament we evangelicals call “Old” but still – in theory, at least – affirm as an essential part of our sacred book. And so we politely put these texts aside, figuring that they are simply too hard to handle.

Andrea McDougall has recently picked up on this in her observations of the “censoring” of lectionary readings. The rejected passages she mentions are Psalm 58 and parts of Psalm 137. These and other challenging passages – those that call for vengeance, those that advocate bloody genocide in God’s name, those that degrade women or others – are all examples of passages I have dubbed the “handle with care” texts.

They are texts that are uncomfortable (perhaps even dangerous?) because they are so foreign to our understandings of Jesus and his message from the Gospels and from Christian theology. They threaten to challenge what we thought about God and what we thought about humanity. But they, too, appear in our Book. How, then, might such “handle with care” texts be carefully handled in faithful preaching and exposition?

A friend of mine once preached on Ezekiel 16, a chapter that is full of explicit sexual imagery and perversion. He warned his congregation the week before, that it would be “Adults Only,” and contain content that “some listeners might find disturbing.” Is this an appropriate approach?

When I preach on Lamentations, a book that often portrays God in a less-than-flattering light, I leave space for response and discussion. I am careful not to decree, but to ask questions of the text and of the congregation. Is this an appropriate approach?

Conversely, might it sometimes be more appropriate to take a stand against the text? To state unequivocally that actually, this kind of conduct – vengeance, genocide, discrimination – though seemingly sanctioned in sacred text, is NOT, in this day and age, okay?

Or perhaps, as the lectionary has done, it would be more appropriate to set these difficult texts aside. Given so little time on a Sunday morning in which to encourage and equip congregations for their working weeks, why dwell on a “handle with care” text anyway? Why look at things that are disturbed and disturbing? Why preach something that requires so much extra sensitivity when there are plenty of positive, uplifting, and purposeful passages from which to choose?

But what are the perils of neglecting a Judges 19, a Psalm 137, a Lamentations 2?

Perhaps the Bible doesn’t just/always describe/prescribe life as it should be; but also as it actually is. Often broken; sometimes hoping.

Perhaps it presents us with problematic, “handle with care” texts because life is, for most us at least some of the time, problematic.

Perhaps the raw emotion and inner darkness of a “handle with care” text might connect with people in their own times of darkness, indicating that this darkness, too, is under the care and concern of the God of the text.

Might “handle with care” texts, perhaps, speak something of the reality of God-Who-Is, into the reality of situations that Are?

I believe in biblical preaching. I believe, I think,
in biblical preaching from the entire Bible. I believe that “handle with care” texts, along with the more obviously “useful” bits of the Bible, might also be sites from which God may Speak.

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Miriam is a beginning scholar, a sometimes preacher, and a constant writer; for the moment mostly on Lamentations (her PhD thesis). She’s also an excellent babysitter and a passionate puddingologist.