Preaching as an invitation to engage God-stories
In a gathered community which seeks together to cultivate closeness to God “the preacher” contributes a significant element. The ancient writings collected in the Scriptures serve that connection with God and keep alive the sense of continuity with gathered communities of the past, and foremost with the Jesus of history and faith, celebrated across the ages. There is no Jesus able to be distilled through historical inquiry, but only the imaginations of historical memory and the sense of his ongoing presence and involvement with the community that acknowledges him. Preaching from the scriptures (not the only form of preaching or communication) stimulates the process of engagement of the community both with its spiritual heritage and with its sense of the presence of God, who is involved with our story.
In most biblical texts there is a story, a creative tension, which, if laid out before people, invites them to let that story meet their story. If the patterns are sufficiently similar, the possibility is heightened that my story and the biblical story touch, generating movement. That movement has usually less to do with cognitive insight than with personal decision or emotional and attitudinal change. At its simplest my lostness may meet the lostness of the lost sheep, my potential for compassion may be stirred into action by the compassion of the Good Samaritan, or ancient Israel’s cry for liberation may enable me to hear cries for justice in my own world.
My role is to retell, interpret, present the text in a way that allows the points of tension to surface, so that people find in the text and its exposition a happening, a scene into which they can enter and where they can experience themselves. These are usually God-scenes. So instead of giving an intellectual explanation of Paul’s view of the Law, I will lay out the scene (which will include some intellectual explanations) in a way that helps them appreciate both the energy of those Christians who felt betrayed when their Bible was being tinkered with or set aside by decisions about circumcision and the energy of Paul in resisting this. That is a main story behind the text, the meta-story..
All biblical passages belong to such a story. Story is one removed from direct experience and half way on the road to abstraction. It is a form of vicarious experience. Parables are a very direct way of using narrative. Mostly we need to do more work to uncover the story of a text. That will include asking questions like: Why is the author saying this? What is at stake for the author? Who is listening? Against whom or what is this being directed? How does this relate to what the movement is on about? How does the author relate God to all of this? Who are the main players and what is their passion? What is the story behind all of this? What has happened and what does the author hope will happen? What is the text meant to be doing? This is not about using story illustrations or telling the story in the text more dramatically, but bringing people to the text with the searching question: “What’s the story here? What’s really going on?” Not: what is the story within the text (many don’t have one), but what is the big picture story to which the text belongs?
On the other side of the meeting we often have to work at enabling people to open their own story, so that the two story patterns can interact. In preaching that can only be done suggestively and generally, because we cannot really know the stories of others. We create a setting where people can connect to their own stories and to that of the text. If we imagine we have to establish the connection, the result can be wooden. Let the spark jump of its own accord. Don’t try to wire it. It is better when the “penny drops” and I find the story has changed my story or the way I see it: I experience being found; I become in touch with the cries of people today; I realize that I am as anxious about protecting the Bible as Paul’s opponents were. Preaching is a way of inviting people to engage the story in the text as a God story and find ourselves, others and God in it and in our own stories.