Listening and Telling as Preachers

William Loader

Being listened to is one of the things we most value in human relations. Some people are good listeners. Some hear only what they want to hear. And some hear us saying things we never intended. You can hear only the good things or only the bad things. To be on either end of that kind of listening is not good news.

Listening to the biblical witnesses raises most of the same issues. Of course, the biblical writers are not going to jump out of the page and complain or crumple in embarrassment or annoyance. Listening to the biblical witnesses is important not for the witnesses, themselves – though they deserve respect – but for the people to whom we are going to report what we have heard. Preaching is in part about reporting what we have heard, so it certainly begins with good listening.

All the same dangers appear – from all different kinds of listeners. Some people hear lessons in ecology whenever they read, even though sometimes they are not there or what is there is not good news for ecology. Others hear affirmation of gender equality everywhere, whereas the witness is quite uneven, with some very affirming texts and others anything but good news. Some people refuse to recognise any bad news, setting biblical witnesses on a pedastal as though absolutely everything they say is good, if not infallible. Usually such people twist and turn to try to explain the obviously bad.

It is no great honour to have people put you on a pedastal, and certainly not a way to honour scripture. Why can’t we accept that they believed the world was flat, populated by demons, and, most of them, that history would soon come to an end through divine intervention? Or that slavery was an appropriate aspect of a good household, that wives should obey husbands, that gay people are perverting God’s order? Truth and integrity demand that we are honest about what we find. It is OK to disagree. Pretending that the writers wrote miracle stories only as parables, that talk of future divine intervention was just metaphor, or that they did not really believe that God would condemn people to eternal punishment, is to deceive oneself and to deceive others.

To engage the scriptures is to engage in cross-cultural encounter. At best we should learn the language, immerse ourselves in the otherness of first century Judaism in its Greco-Roman setting, and try to hear what was said in that setting. At least we should use resources produced by people who have spent their lives doing so and provide us with informed commentaries. Sensing the distance and difference can come as a shock, but it is essential for genuine encounter. It is usually when we stop pretending that we know everything about another and acknowledge their otherness, that we have genuine encounter. Treating another person as holy, respecting their otherness, has to be the starting point. That includes allowing ourselves to feel alien.

Stand back a bit and you will see more clearly. When we allow ourselves to experience distance, we also open the door to experience proximity. Standing back has a way of enabling us to focus. Often that is not so much about seeing something we admire or like, as seeing a pattern that matches our own patterns. There is a story, something going on, in biblical texts, whether it is Jesus defending and asserting God’s generosity over against those who subvert it or Paul’s many struggles with believers who want him to tighten up the control by having people adhere to biblical commands. A killing of dissent plays itself out in the story of the cross, running parallel with a persistence and vulnerability of goodness. Every text has a story, reflects a tension, and nearly every tension repeats itself in some form in our own experience. We know what it means to kill dissent, to persist in love, to call for controls, to assert love, to makes rules matter most, to open ourselves to generosity in God.

The more realistically the story is told and the tension is exposed, the more likely a spark will jump across to similar nodes of tension in our lives. That can happen without the preacher lines up any wires of connection. Talk about real vulnerability and you talk about my vulnerability. Talk about real suffering and you talk about mine – and so on. Sometimes a wire or two help make the connection, as long as it is not reduced to laboured moralism. Preaching is not about telling people what to do, but at best facilitating connections which open the possibility of change.

Story is second best to experience. We learn best through experience if we reflect on it. But story, though second best, is a helpful supplement to experience. We all know what it is like to be moved in a film or by a novel or a drama. It happens when what goes on there touches us, when its nodes match our nodes in some way and a spark jumps across to involve us. It doesn’t have to be emotional, but it is more than just rational deduction.

One of the tasks of the preacher is to enable people to enter the tension or story of the text in a way that will make connection and then to reflect on it. This is not about storytelling as entertainment or how graphically one can describe biblical scenes. That can be more of a distraction. It is not about graphic depictions of the paralysed man let down through the roof, but about the tension between daring to declare God’s forgiveness and fearing God’s disapproval for doing so. Many of us may, in any case, not be good storytellers so our attempts to do so are likely to bore our listeners.

There is life in the text. The text should not be reduced simply to thoughts and ideas, let alone dogmas. There is a role for such analysis, but it is not best done in preaching. Preaching that engages needs to have listened to the texts. It is not about retelling what is there as though it is timeless truth. It is about informed, critical encounter, which then enables one to invite people into the text’s story and invite them to take the text into theirs.

We may not feel sufficiently informed or resourced to preach in this way. It may be safer and is just as acceptable to preach on themes and develop them with our own stories and arguments. There is surely a place for both kinds of preaching.

Communities of faith make the Bible a central focus which inspires what they say, sing, and do. As such the Bible is not simply a ground for ideas but a playground of story and image. Like most playgrounds there are dangers as well as delights. Careful preaching often gets outflanked by careless use of biblical images in song and liturgy, which also have their way of telling the story and leading the dance. Preparing liturgies is just as important as preparing sermons and to be engaged with the same sensitivity to life and death which the traditioin bears. Ultimately there is more life than death, more hope than hurt – that makes the ministry of preaching promising and compelling.

first published in Word and Worship. The Quarterly Publiucation of the New Zealand Lay Preachers' Association, Spring 2012, 2-5.