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Conference urges preachers to preach the word, be broken open by the word

[Episcopal News Service] Participants in the last sessions of the Preaching Jesus conference here were called to, in the words of 25th Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, "preach the word but also let the word accost you and break you open."

Preaching Jesus, believed to be the first-ever national Episcopal Church preaching conference, is sponsored by the Episcopal Preaching Foundation and the Kanuga Conference Center outside Hendersonville, North Carolina. About 115 clergy and seminarians, including some from other denominations, participated. Griswold was the conference's chaplain. Previous ENS coverage is here.

The April 19-22 gathering featured a mix of lectures, small preaching groups, worship and fellowship. The preaching groups, led by faculty of the foundation's annual Preaching Excellence Program, are meant to allow participants to offer their sermons for feedback and critique.

On April 20 the Rev. Dr. William Brosend, homiletics professor at the University of the South's School of Theology and an EPF director, told participants that "something in the life of our hearers, in the life of their churches, in the lives of their communities ought to be different because they heard you preach."

"But how would we know?" he asked, encouraging preachers to think about "how we might more effectively proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ so that the difference is tangible and everybody knows it."

Brosend described four characteristics of Jesus' preaching that modern-day preachers ought to emulate: Jesus' preaching was dialogical, "proclamatory," occasionally self-referential and "persistently figurative."

It was dialogical in that Jesus was always responding to the spoken and unspoken questions put to him -- addressing what his listeners' lives were like, what worried them and what questions they didn't want to deal with, he said. Jesus simply and clearly proclaimed the presence of the kingdom of God, rarely talked about himself, but instead, pointed people to God, Brosend said

Finally, Jesus filled his preaching with images, stories, analogies, metaphors and anything else that he thought would help his listeners connect to what he was teaching. And, Brosend said, "Jesus made stuff up," not reporting to his listeners about the time he saw a Samaritan help a Jew, for instance, but fabricating his parables from the details of common life to illustrate his message.

Brosend warned the preachers that on any given Sunday, half of the people in their congregations almost didn't come to church, only half-heard the lessons as they were read and have spent nowhere near the time considering the texts that the preacher has. Preachers have 10 to 12 minutes to close that gap, he said, adding that the definition of preaching is "having something to say that's worth hearing and saying it well enough to be truly heard."

Discerning what is worth saying, he said, begins with considering "what does the Holy Spirit want the people of God to hear from these texts on this occasion."

On the morning of April 21, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, led the conference on an extended study of Jesus' parables in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. He called them "the hotspot in Jesus' own teaching and message."

"When we are dealing with the parables of Jesus, we're not simply dealing with ideas and content. We are dealing with the essential structure of the faith of Jesus," Long said, recalling a comment made elsewhere by biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan.

Long expanded that idea by noting that modern-day Christians read parables in the Bible "as they have been appropriated by preachers in the early church." The parables that Jesus told "floated around the oral tradition, and were remembered and retold" in particular contexts.

"And, as preachers, you know that when you tell somebody else's story in your context, you accent this rather than that; you nuance this part of the story rather than that part of the story," he said. "So we find not only Jesus' parables in the Bible, we find Jesus' parables as told to the communities of Mathew, Mark and Luke. I think we even have some parables composed by Matthew, Mark or Luke that are in the spirit of Jesus, because, in touch with the original parables, they became, in the power of the spirit, able in a sense to speak out of the mind of Jesus' faith in their own setting."

So, Long said, when preachers deal with the parables "we are preaching Jesus as remembered in the early church, which means that these parables are sort of like stones thrown into a pond and they make a splash, they make an acoustical impact in the life of the community that heard them proclaimed."

Acknowledging that modern-day preachers are standing in a different place in the pond than did the early church, Long said that the ripples of impact from the parables still reach preachers and their communities.

"Our task as preachers is to reproduce the second generation of the acoustical impact that we find in the biblical text itself," he said. 

That evening, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told the preachers at the conference that "incarnate preaching" must reach beyond the head and the ear.

"Preaching has to engage more than the ear; it has to engage the inner vision in the same way that Jesus did by telling stories, and using figures and riddles and parable and metaphors and all of those things that evoke mental images for us," she said.

To help make her case, Jefferts Schori played a recording of the song "Church," in which Lyle Lovett tells the story of a preacher who preached to his congregation all day and night until one listener stood up and shouted "To the Lord, let praises be. It's time for dinner, now let's go eat."

"Please no more sermons that are primarily expositional or propositional," she said. "People need more than a head trip. We're called to love God with our heart and soul as well as our mind … we are whole creatures with emotions and bodies as well as intellects and sermons ought to generate multivalent responses."

She also reminded her listeners about theologian Karl Barth's image of standing in the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

"Our job is to open the scriptures in a way that acknowledges and understands that original context and focus and informs and challenges the current situation," she said, adding later that "Jesus talked about taxes and party politics, so should we."

Using the example of singer Bobby McFerrin's version of the 23rd Psalm, which he wrote for his grandmother and in which he describes God and Jesus as women, the presiding bishop said that preachers need to pay attention to the way they describe God and to the implications and intents of the scripture translations they use.

"Language and image are tied up in whether or not the news is good, and knowing the context is essential," she said.

Jefferts Schori noted the pastoral implications of precise language and preaching.

"Right now in our church -- and I am sure there are people in this room for whom this is true -- adults who were abused as children in the Roman church, and their families and friends, are coming into our churches and asking for pastoral care," she said. "We all know of people who have been abused by clergy in our church or in other churches. The images that are used about God and our language that's used for God are often connected to whether or not people in a situation like that can find a home with us, can find a welcome at God's table … be sensitive to your language, lest it further wound."

To prepare to preach, she said, preachers ought to be "marinating, steeping, soaking" in the assigned biblical texts so that they can begin to pay attention "to the Velcro in the texts that won't let go" of the imagination. She urged preachers to play with the texts and their meanings in order to tease out deeper meanings and creative ways to convey those meanings.

"Formulaic and wooden preaching only shows us the deadwood of the cross," Jefferts Schori said. "We are supposed to preach Jesus, yes, crucified but also risen."
 
Wrapping up the conference on April 22, the Rev. Dr. William Willimon, bishop of North Alabama for the United Methodist Church urged preachers to give Jesus "room to roam, to give people room to be alone with him to have him speak to them."

"In our culture particularly we're really in need of hearing about a God that does something, a God that doesn't only love but that moves in love, that reaches out in love, that tells the truth in love," he said, adding that for people to encounter that God, preachers need to know what they can and can't do.

"You are to love your people, but you love them -- and here's where the challenge comes in as a pastor -- in the name of Jesus Christ and Jesus has got some weird definitions of love," Willimon said. "I'm loving my people deeply when I try to summon up the courage to say things to them that they can't hear anywhere else."

Part of that loving truth, he said, is knowing that Jesus does not want to "communicate."

"He wants to transform the modern world, he wants to rock the modern world, he wants to dismantle that world and rob it of its authority over us," Willimon said. 

He assured the preachers that there are still enough people of faith that value preaching as "free space" and want to hear the word preached that preachers can do what he suggests. "Many of us are dependent upon our congregations to keep ordaining us as preachers and to keep pushing us forward," he said.

Yet, he cautioned that preachers who know they are preaching with Jesus cannot be consumed with pleasing their congregations with their sermons. Jesus "is not jerked around by congregational response," Willimon said. "That's good to know, because if you're ordained, you're not there by the people's authority either …we're there under external authorization."

He added that preachers who exercise that authority and call people to consider the implications of biblical text can also give the congregation "the joy of being under external authorization, too."

The conference's lectures are due to be compiled and published in the fall by Church Publishing Inc., according to Brosend, who also announced at the close of the gathering that the foundation had decided to return to Kanuga March 21-24, 2011, for a conference titled "Preaching the Passion and Resurrection of Christ."

The Episcopal Preaching Foundation's aim is to encourage and enhance preaching in the Episcopal Church. Since it began in 1981, the foundation has sponsored the Preaching Excellence Program each year for seminarians, and provided resources and encouragement to preachers at all levels throughout the church.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is a national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service and Episcopal News Monthly editor.

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