Proclaiming the Word
The Attentive Preacher 2.0
The Attentive Preacher
This month we continue our quest to see how we preachers might better attend to the narrative portions of Scripture. Last installment, we encouraged you to pay attention to setting. This month we invite you to consider the movement of your narrative text through time.
Pay attention to plot. We all love stories. In fact, we are so shaped by stories that even our earliest memories coincide with our capacity to narrate our world. We are narrative creatures. The best stories grab our attention quickly, draw us into the narrative world of their characters, and take us on a journey. This journey, which typically moves us through some kind of struggle, conflict, or “agon” toward a grand denouement or resolution, is what we mean by “plot.” Stories are the representation of events through time, and thus they have movement. Stories are heading someplace and intend to take us on that journey with them.
My good friend and fellow homiletics instructor, Dan Boone, likes to say, “You don’t have a story until someone is in trouble.” From our earliest children’s stories (Lil Red Riding Hood) to our favorite epic adventure (Lord of the Rings), stories grab our attention by leading us into a world of trouble, conflict, ambiguity, disorientation, discord, inconsistency, and tension. One of the reasons that we are fascinated by these stories is because we know trouble firsthand. We live in a world filled with deep disappointments, threats from enemies, puzzling ambiguities, harsh betrayals, and gross injustices. When our text introduces trouble, it connects to us in a very powerful way. We all know trouble – and we are interested in how trouble gets resolved, not only in the text, but also in life.
So a first step in attending to plot is to identify the real trouble. Often we get an early hint of trouble in a story. A good example is in the Jacob, saga, where we read in Genesis 25 that the twins are warring with each other inside the womb. And when they are born, Esau comes out first, but Jacob is grabbing on to his heels. We know about sibling rivalry – there is nothing unusual about that. But dig a little deeper. Immerse yourself in the ancient world of the patriarchs, the privileges of the firstborn, and the power of the father’s spoken blessing. Suddenly, this trouble between brothers is cavernous and multi-faceted. This is what Eugene Lowry means by analyzing the discrepancy – get to the real root of the trouble. That is where you begin to connect with the life of your congregation. The biblical story will expose our deepest fears, doubts, and anxieties.
A second step is to simply ask the question, “Who (or what) is the originator of this trouble?” Quite often, our trouble comes from outside of us. In the Jacob saga, we meet uncle Laban, an antagonist (trouble-maker) for Jacob later in the story. Other people can be the source of our trouble. And trouble does not always come from enemies. In fact, some of the harshest pain in life is that inflicted by friends or loved ones who abuse or betray. Trouble is often introduced by others.
We are also the instigators of much of our own trouble. Our sinfulness, our selfish decisions, and our poor choices are often the reason for trouble in our world. As we read the Jacob saga, how can we not point an accusing finger at this rascal named Jacob? He grabs Esau’s heel at birth, robs him of his birthright, and steals the blessing of the firstborn? At times Jacob is his own worst enemy (antagonist). He is ever scheming and grasping to secure his own future.
However, we also must acknowledge that sometimes, it is God who introduces trouble into our lives. We often overlook this, but there are numerous examples in Scripture where God stirs up the nest, disrupts the status quo, introduces what a friend of mine likes to call “gospel complication,” in order to move God’s people to a new place of maturity and understanding. We see this in the Jacob saga as God speaks to Rebekah during her pregnancy and proclaims these words over her twins: “The elder will serve the younger.” This is a radical reordering of the world as it is given. God’s “choice” of Jacob as the carrier of the divine promise shatters the expected ordering of the world and propels Jacob into a life of “heel-grabbing.” What is God doing here, and why? See how we are caught up in an interesting dilemma? This is the power of paying attention to narrative plot.
Finally, plot moves us through conflict to some sort of resolution. Sometimes help comes to us from beyond, and we are delivered from our trouble. Sometimes, we are given new insight and discover fresh resources to walk through the trouble and experience God’s transforming power at work within us. This is the good news that we all want to hear: Trouble does not have the final word, God does. In the Jacob saga, there are two moments of divine intervention (Bethel and Peniel) where God shows up for Jacob in the midst of life’s conflicts. God makes promises to Jacob, God gets into the fray with Jacob, God blesses Jacob, and at the end of the wrestling match at Peniel, Jacob’s name is changed – from “Heels” to Israel (one who contends with God and prevails). Real transformation occurs for Jacob – a denouement that only comes by engaging in the “agon.”
As we walk through the plot of our biblical texts, let us imagine our own lives following a similar trajectory. There is trouble in this world. Sometimes it comes from others, sometimes we invite it, and sometimes God instigates it for our good. The news is that God meets us in the middle of our troubles and is faithful to bring us through. Sisters and brothers, that plot will preach!
- Dr. Mike Jackson serves as Professor of Preaching at Trevecca Nazarene University