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text and context – sarah harris

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In August-September 2017 I am taking a group of about 35 students and friends from Carey to Israel and Palestine to walk over ancient sites, to read text in context, and to meet afresh the historical Jesus. Last year I went there on sabbatical and I became convinced (that wasn’t hard!) that I wanted to go back with students so that they could see, touch, taste, think and pray in the land where Jesus lived.

I am a fan of getting students out of the lecture room where I think learning is especially profound. Learning is from “everywhere to everywhere” to piggy back on the famous definition of mission. Learning is not a passive activity; it is predicated on action. Walking. Talking. Moving. Questioning. Reflecting. Praying. When active learning takes place we dismantle old and inaccurate knowledge and we rebuild new, fresh, and more accurate ideas. So we are off to Israel and Palestine. I cannot wait! I cannot wait to see what students learn about the history in the biblical text, the geography of the land, but I also look forward to some renewed and strengthened belief in the reliability of the Jesus story. In NZ we are so far removed geographically from the ancient world, that some (even dare I say it, Jesus followers in our pews) are not certain of the truth of which they have been taught. C. S Lewis famously said that people must think one of three things about Jesus: he is Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. But our society today has added another category: he is Legend; he didn’t really exist; the Bible is a collection of myths from various cultures.

 

My question to the preachers who read this blog is:

How are you building knowledge (and so faith) in your congregation in the history in the text?

In the Jesus of History?

 

Perhaps I am back on my theme song – my “one sermon” – but:

Are we letting teachers into the pulpit?

Are we letting the teacher come out in our preaching?

the challenges of preaching narrative – sarah harris

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I became fascinated at the way narrative was constructed sitting in my fifth and sixth form English classes; I had teachers who were outstanding. I still remember the excitement of tracing the motifs of light and dark – day and night – in William Goldings, Lord of the Flies, for myself. I started to appreciate how words created atmosphere, and ultimately, meaning. This is no doubt why I focus a great deal on narrative in the biblical text in my writing now – for words convey meaning and we do well to slow down and notice the choices that authors have made. Why this word? Why now? Why is this delayed and that not? What is the author trying to tell us? Details in the text, the ordering and grouping of ideas, the repetitions and causal chains are breadcrumbs that lead the reader to possibilities of characterisation, plot, and themes. So first, reading narrative well means noticing EVERYTHING – well beyond three tidy points.

But ultimately any textual unit only makes complete sense in the drama it stands within, and so secondly, we need to notice links to the surrounding units, and then to the entire book. We cannot preach texts as isolated units, as if they are islands floating alone in the sea. Writers have a purpose when they sit down to communicate, and they chose where they will begin, the pace of the narrative, and as the plot gradually unfolds toward various climax points and its eventual end. The reader is drawn step–by–step into the writer’s ideas; each textual route marker, each event, was included deliberately – and the layering of each unit gives added force to what had already been heard.  Therefore, in our retelling of a particular story, piece of history, psalm, or section from a letter, we need to show its connectedness; we need to show the thematic growth; and we need to show its incompleteness aside from the writer’s larger narrative telos.

But that is not easy to do is it? Especially in twenty or thirty minutes. Perhaps for the “preaching gurus” this comes naturally – but I am not one of them – and my hunch is many of you reading this page are not either. We are bread–and–butter preachers aiming to be faithful to the text amidst busy jobs and demanding pastoral situations which never seem to lessen.

So, my question to seasoned preachers is:

How do you preach detailed narrative well in twenty minute chunks once a week? How do you take it beyond a three-point sermon?

Then how are you managing to stitch narrative units onto the writer’s wider canvas?

(h)anna the faithful prophetess – sarah harris

Anna

Lately I’ve been considering the story of (H)Anna (Luke 2:36-38). Hannah is one of the first eschatological prophetesses of which Joel prophesied and who prefigures the disciples who will witness to Jesus after the resurrection. She is an intriguing woman; lived seven years as a married woman (literally, after her virginity) and a staggering eighty-four years as a widow. (If you’re not sure she actually lived to one hundred and five, check out the subject of the sentence! – her widowhood!)

Hannah’s story is a mere three verses; hardly worth preaching some might say – a mere ripple in the biblical narrative after the more lengthy story of Simeon – but the text is rich with information and potentiality and should not be skipped over.

But do we skip over the smaller “buffer” stories?

Do we give voice to the minor characters?

Do they really matter?

 I would like to suggest that they do matter and these smaller units are sometimes the tiny mustard seed which produces a great harvest. If we examine the story carefully we find Hannah’s age is one hundred and five; the age of Judith the fasting, praying widow from Bethulia (ancient Shechem) – the capital city of the northern kingdom: Hannah’s region. As women who are focused on prayer and fasting, they are ideally placed to be model characters who have much to teach us about faith, perseverance and devotion. The most surprising feature of Hannah may be that she spends her days speaking (preaching really) publically to the people in the temple; the use of the imperfect tense tells us this is her habitual practice and her voice is a constant presence in the Jerusalem temple where the people clearly look to her as a prophet. The verb laleō (2:38) is used 18 times in Acts in the context of preaching… Hannah was a highly experienced first century preacher.

I wonder what she said?

I wonder if she prophesied against the stones from Herod’s temple rebuild?

I wonder who was uncomfortable with her female voice?

God wasn’t.

Do you wonder about the life of this woman?

I find the longer I journey as a Christian, the more I am willing to stop and observe the minor characters; I wonder if they are sometimes as important as the more prominent characters; maybe in the economy of God, of even greater worth. Maybe – just maybe.

 

What smaller units have inspired you in your study or preaching?

can every preacher preach every passage? – sarah harris

woman-issue-of-blood

I am currently writing an article on the bleeding women story from Luke’s Gospel and it has got me thinking about whether a man can really preach this passage and do the story justice.

In the last two years I have lived the story of the bleeding woman – woman can probably imagine what that would be like – and I now have an immense empathy and intrigue in the women who dared to reach out to Jesus and seek help. For me, her story embodies a woman who reached across societal taboos and sought out help; but oh, how hard it must have been to have taken those steps toward Jesus.

The longer I have sat with that passage the more I have come to believe a man preaching the story cannot do the text justice. The story is more than a Christological point; it is about a woman who dared to believe the world could be different; it is about the journey of sickness where hope can be a distant friend; and, it is a very personal story which many women can identify with.

Can a man really get inside this story?

Can a man really preach this intensely personal story?

 A few things come to mind. First, women have fewer stories in the biblical text which are deeply connected to womanhood, not because the women were absent in society, but their lives were not often documented. So, I wonder why a man would even try to preach this passage. I know Jairus (a male) is involved in the surrounding story, but the raising of his daughter really serves as a narrative foil which points to the woman’s desperate condition; her twelve years of bleeding has left her as one who has little life left like the young girl. Remember, in ancient chiasm, it is what lies at the centre which is the most important!

Second, the woman is an extraordinary role model and the church need to hear of more women who we can be inspired by. In Luke’s account Jesus is largely a passive observer in the story; God is the prime mover and the divine is “everywhere present and no where mentioned;” the women in the active agent and Jesus simply (and eventually) calls her out of her hiddenness. What a remarkable women to cross societal taboos around menstrual blood – something the Jewish law valued but society shunned – and dare to hope once more that she might be healed. What a profoundly strong women; what a role model for other wo(men).

Finally, I wonder if the Scriptures invite us to be generous in our peaching schedules and invite other voices in to our public conversations. Maybe we should ask, am I the best person to speak to this passage? Is there someone else who needs to grow and find a voice, and who may not be a career preacher, but is already embodying the essence of the passage? I know we need solid and stable preaching in our churches, but we also need times when someone simply preaches the “big idea” from an authentically lived experience. Maybe, just maybe, they can connect with the congregation out of their vulnerability more effectively than our diligently worked sermon. I think some stories need to be told from the inside out; for me anyway, this is one of them.

 What do you think?

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