“From Here to There and Back Again” The Journey from Text to Sermon

On the other hand

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

   it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  (Isaiah 55:10-11)

The title for today’s gathering was announced as “Getting from There to Here.” As I reflected on it I wondered if perhaps “getting from here to there” might be more apt. “Here” being the text in front of you, to “there, ” the sermon. That works.

But as I thought more about it I saw the wisdom of  “from there to here.” From “there,” “the strange new world of the Bible,” to “here,” the world we live in. And I thought of some of the various locutions we have used over the years to capture this movement from text to sermon, such as “from text to context” or “from Word to world.”

Then I considered the many ways I have approached the writing and preaching of sermons, and I realized this movement from text to sermon was more dialectical and less linear than any of these ways of speaking about it.

As I thought about it, the more I liked the sub-title of The Hobbit, which as you may know is “There and back again.” So perhaps “here to there and back again” is more like it.

From here to there and back again describes a journey that is not just a straight line, but rather more like a journey without a  map or even a predetermined end. And I like this way of thinking, because it captures how I have experienced sermon preparation in my four decades as a preacher.

I start with a Biblical text, and then I live with that text throughout the week on my journey, revisiting it and wrestling with it and worrying it until I begin to hear something of the voice of God in it, and by then the contours of the journey begin to show themselves, as do even the purpose of the journey and it’s destination.

The process seems to take on a life of its own, which is another way of saying that the Word of God is alive. I like today’s Isaiah text where God uses the agricultural metaphor of rain and snow watering the earth and making it produce to describe the way his Word works, “It shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

And I want to say a bit about what I mean when I say “the Word of God,” which can mean one thing or another, even sometimes one thing and another, or even three things depending on the context.

One way of thinking about this that has helped me comes from Karl Barth. He wrote about the threefold understanding of the Word of God.  First, there are the written words of the Bible, then there are the spoken words of the preacher, and finally, and most importantly, there is the living Word, Jesus Christ.

This living Word is mediated through both the written words and the spoken words. The prayer I began my sermon with today is based on this idea: “Through the written word, and the spoken word, may we behold the living Word, even Jesus Christ our Lord.”

And that is not to say every text needs to be understood Christologically (although it can be), as in the text we have from Isaiah today. But to say there is a living Word is to say that whenever we hear the Word of God as direct address to us, it is the same Word of the same God, who came to us and for us and became the Word made flesh.

So when I talk about the Word of God in sermon preparation, it may be a reference to the text itself, the words, or to the proclamation in the form of a sermon, the Word preached, or to both, but the goal of the journey is, through the finite human words of the text, and the finite human words of the preacher, to transcend this finitude to hear the living Word of God. And I believe this is the primary task and challenge of preachers, and of the church, for that matter.

Let me say a little bit more about the words of the text and the words of the preacher as the Word of God. I think of them by analogy to the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. Jesus is truly human and truly divine, not half and half or some other percentage.

And in much the same way (although not identically) the words of our Scriptures, the Old Testament and the New Testament, are truly human and truly divine. Human in every way, written (and edited) by human beings, and truly divine through the agency of the Holy Spirit of God who inspired the writers to write them, the same Holy Spirit the church invokes when we read them.

And the same thing can be said about the words of the preacher. A sermon is not written in some special spiritual words, but in the same human words that we use in everyday speech. Since everyone in this room is a preacher I don’t have to belabor the point that we are all human, even all-too human. Yet the Holy Spirit that inspired the writers of Scripture is the same Holy Spirit that inspires the preacher, and the same Holy Spirit that the church invokes and invites as it prepares to hear the Living Word of God from the frail words of scripture and the frail words of the preacher.

This is admittedly a high view of preaching, and some might say it claims too much for the preacher. I would say quite the opposite. It is the views of preaching that put emphasis on the personality and performance of the preacher that claim too much for the preacher.

The claim that the preacher is to be a minister of the Word of God is much like the church’s understanding of the celebrant at the eucharist. The principal was established early in the church during the Donatist controversy. The Donatists were heretics, so the question arose whether the baptisms they performed were valid. And the church agreed that “the efficacy of the sacrament does not depend on the sanctity of the celebrant.” So the preacher may be more or less gifted with the homiletical arts, but it is not those gifts that are decisive. What is decisive for the preacher is that he or she has been set apart to deliver the church’s proclamation, so that the church may hear in it the living Word of God. It is not about the preacher. It is about the church hearing the Word of God.

This is a (nearly) sacramental view of preaching, that the preacher should say what the sacrament shows. And in both cases neither the preacher nor the celebrant has control over the Holy Spirit of God, as if we somehow could control God. No, Christ is not truly present in the sacrament nor truly alive in the preached Word because we invoke his name, but rather because he himself commanded us to do these things and promised to be present with us when we did.

So with this high view before us, and a text in front of us, how do we get from there to here or from here to there and back again?

The first thing I want to say about approaching a text is the expectation that God will speak through it. Which is to say that the high view I propose operates out of trust. I think it was Richard Hayes who wrote about a “hermeneutic of trust.” For decades we have been talking and hearing about “a hermeneutic of suspicion,” and that has had its place as an corrective to the Scriptures being misused as instruments of oppression and injustice, “texts of terror,” as my teacher Phyllis Trible so eloquently called them. But there has been a heavy price to pay for the widespread “hermeneutic of suspicion” that has so pervaded the academy for decades, in that many preachers now reflexively distrust the texts.

And I think it is sometimes necessary and appropriate to distrust a text, but it shouldn’t be where we start. Sometimes distrusting a text along the way will lead you to the Word of God.

So the text is in front of us. Perhaps it is an assigned text from the lectionary. I like that, because I can be a lazy sinner who is inclined to make my favorite texts do tricks for me, but that is just me.

Perhaps the Bible is open on our desk, perhaps it is on our computer screen or smartphone, but there it is. First things first: read the text.

Read it in expectation that God’s Word can be heard in it, but don’t rush to decide what it means or even what it has to say. Texts need time. They need to be listened to. I have always described my sermon preparation as inhabiting a text. Living in it.

Another good way to think about it is to “stand under” the text so as to understand it. And the preacher stands under the text along with the rest of the church.

I am really talking about hermeneutics now more than the homiletical side of things. So you all know the various ways to worry a text into view. Read it in the original languages if you have them. Read it in several translations. Look up any key words or phrases in a Bible Dictionary. Take a stroll through some commentaries. Find out its genre and its original context. In other words do your homework. I once preached a sermon that involved Herod, and added “you remember him from the Christmas story.” My dear friend Luther Pierce, a retired UCC minister, shook my hand at the door and said, “Good sermon, Rick, but you conflated Herod the Great with Herod Antipas. Different Herod.” Oops!

So once you’ve done your due diligence and you have the text in your grasp, reflect on the context. Those of you who were preaching in the weeks after 9/11 may recall that the Common Lectionary texts were from Jeremiah and Lamentations, texts we had all avoided in the past because they are horrible cries of despair for the destruction of Jerusalem. All of a sudden after 9/11 texts about the city of devastation and the burning tower became eerily contemporary.

Which is to say contexts change. The immediate context of any preacher is the life of the congregation, and when I talk of inhabiting a text, I am referring to going about one’s pastoral duties with the text in mind. From here to there and back again.

Then there are the larger contexts of the communities in which we live and the country and world we are a part of. Sometimes contexts demand our attention.

We rarely get the kind of compelling clarity about the relationship between text and context that we got after 9/11, but keeping the text in mind as we think about the multiple contexts will often show us the way to go, the particular context that needs to be addressed by the Word of God.

The dialectic of the journey of text to context and context to text means straddling two worlds with the hope we can find in them the same story.

I had the privilege of preaching my daughter’s ordination sermon back in June, and afterwards Mary Luti said, “I like the way you went back and forth from the story in the scriptures to your story now.” And her comment made me realize that I preach that way because to me it is the same story.

I immediately thought of Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, a wonderful and important book. Frei’s thesis is that prior to the Enlightenment Christians inhabited the Biblical Story. They understood it as their story. They were part of it. The Enlightenment changed that as we held the story at arm’s length like any other observable phenomenon.

The task of the preacher is to repair the breach; to make the Christian Story our story again. I am reminded of Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment, where he argues for the re-enchantment of the world for children through fairy tales.

Letting the words of scripture and the words of the preacher be the Word of God for God’s people requires a similar kind of re-enchantment. It means the church realizing that the Story isn’t just back there, but is still going on and we are characters in it.

Let’s look quickly at our Isaiah text for today to see how this might be done. The text is from Isaiah of the Exile and the context is a people who have no reason to be hopeful, since they have lost the three pillars of their identity, their temple, their land and their nation.

The promises made to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob seem null and void. Their prospects seem dim, their possibilities few.

Into this context God speaks through the prophet. “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts.” “You know that rain and snow we sometimes get in the desert? That is what my word is like. It will not come up empty. It will make happen that which I promised.”

And that is what the Word of God sounds like.

And when we hear this story, can it speak to us, where our prospects seem dim and our possibilities few? Can it speak to a declining church too often eager to call it a day? Can it speak to a nation full of grave injustices and inequalities? Can it speak to a world of death and terror?

When Isaiah speaks the Word of God to the exiles he lets them see what can’t be seen, and makes them believe what they can only know by trust in the one who speaks to them. The Word makes them part of the story again, the story that began at the beginning when God said “light” and there was light, the story that saw their ancestors freed from bondage, the story that seemed to come to an end, but now God says to them, “No, it’s not ending. Not at all. I will lead you through the desert of your journey into my own future.” And what will it be like? It will be like this:

“You shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

And let the people say: Amen.

I preached this sermon at the New England Pastor’s Meeting of Confessing Christ, West Boylston, Massachusetts, on September 26, 2013.

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