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The Attentive Preacher

8/30/2013

The Attentive Preacher

Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned from my homiletics mentors (Fred Craddock, Walter Brueggemann, Tom Long, Barbara Brown Taylor, David Lose, and Anna Carter Florence) is the need to pay attention. All of these giants in the field of homiletics agree that we preachers have nothing to say about the text unless there is something we have seen in the text. That has much to do with the nature of preaching as witness – for a witness is one who tells the truth about what she herself has seen and experienced. When we preach, we are testifying to (confessing) what we believe to be true, based on what we have seen. So attending (paying attention to) the text is the preacher’s first order of concern.

During my next few installments of this preaching resource, I would like to offer a few basic suggestions on how we preachers might better attend to the narrative portions of Scripture – as a first step in moving from text to sermon. What are some of the things worth noticing, when we open our Bibles to a narrative text in preparation to preach a sermon from that text?

Pay attention to setting. This seems so obvious, but is often an overlooked aspect of the preacher’s attention. Let me give you an example from my own journey as a preacher. Several years ago, I had gathered an eclectic, intergenerational group from my congregation and asked them to help me prepare to preach from Luke 8:26-39 (Jesus Heals the Gerasene Demoniac). Now this, in and of itself, is a very helpful practice for the preacher. When you invite others into the early part of the preaching conversation, you have lots of eyes and ears paying attention to the text, not simply your own.

I asked my “Sermon Prep Group” to read the text and compile their questions, thoughts, and insights and bring them to our meeting (which was scheduled several weeks ahead of the sermon). One of the members of the group opened up with a simple question about the setting: “Where is this land of the Gerasenes?” And, as the resident-expert, Seminary-trained, Biblical scholar that I am, I replied, “I have no idea… But I will find out!”

This simple attention to setting sent me on a quest. And I discovered right away that, in Luke’s Gospel, this is the only time that Jesus steps out of Jewish territory into Gentile country. That one insight became theologically significant. I then observed that this was not only Gentile territory, but also a land of death (tombs) and swine. Everything about this land screams, “UNCLEAN!” This is no place for a nice Jewish Messiah! And yet, Jesus deliberately moves into unclean territory, transforms the demoniac, and sends him back to his own people to “tell them all God has done for you.” A flat story of healing becomes a surprising, robust mission narrative – simply by paying attention to setting.

Now, I am not saying that every narrative text could yield such fresh insights, simply by paying attention to setting. But setting does matter. It matters, in Matthew, that Jesus delivers his sermon on the mountain (chapters 5-7). For Matthew this is a theological location that positions Jesus as the new Moses, dispensing God’s Torah for God’s people – the setting matters. However, it is theologically interesting that, in Luke, the Gospel for the Gentiles, we are told that Jesus steps down and stood on a level place to deliver this sermon (Luke 6:17ff.), as one who stands among us and with us. Different audiences, different agendas, different nuances… different settings.

Think of the significance of setting in some of your favorite Bible stories – mountains are important (Moses, Elijah, Jesus); cities are important (Jerusalem, Nineveh, Rome); the wilderness is important (Israel, John the Baptist, Jesus and the tempter). Place names are important in the Bible: Bethel and Peniel are the names of actual places where God encounters Jacob. Goshen is the name of a part of Egypt where God made a distinction between the Israelites and the Egyptians. En-Gedi is the name of a real wilderness area where David spared the life of Saul. Patmos is the name of a real island where the exiled John was given a glorious vision. Place anchors us and centers us in a real world – filled with murmuring people, warring armies, deadly enemies, holy temples, divine dreams and apocalyptic visions.

Think about this: would Harper Lee’s great American novel To Kill a Mockingbird have the ring of authenticity that has endured the decades had she located the Finch family in Boston, MA instead of Maycomb, AL? Setting, though often silent, speaks volumes to us about the people, culture, attitudes, ethos, and character of the story that is unfolding before us!

So drink it in, preacher, as you read that Scripture narrative. Let the scene come alive in your mind. Hear the sounds of that place. See the colors and contours of the land. Breathe in the aromas. Feel the temperature and texture of your surroundings. For God is at work in places just like this. You see, setting always matters.

Next installment, we will pay attention to plot!

Mike Jackson, D.Min.