If I had room to add a subtitle to this post, it would be “I Don’t Know, Pt. 4.” In three earlier posts, I talked about the importance of admitting when we don’t know something because 1) when we don’t admit our ignorance, we often share bad information and miss an opportunity to grow; 2) we need to recognize that intelligence isn’t simply about what we know, but also about what we know we don’t know and are therefore eager to learn; and 3) admitting our limitations can serve as an invitation to others to share their gifts.
This past week I saw – really, heard – another thing about saying “I don’t know” – it offers the possibility to create a powerful communal experience. All week long I’ve been listening to wonderful sermons while working with a new group of pastors who are participating in Luther Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry in Biblical Preaching program. In one of these sermons – preached originally this past Sunday on John 3:1-17 – the pastor admitted that he had preached on this passage (containing, of course, the world’s most famous Bible verse) twenty times over his sixteen-year career. Moreover, across those years he had drawn on the insights of more than two dozen scholarly works on this passage and John’s larger gospel. So, all in all, he knew this passage, some might say, inside and out.
This time around, though, he did something different. He decided to pay attention to what he didn’t know. And what he didn’t know was how this passage would strike everyday people, what they might think of it. So he printed up copies of the passage with a brief question at the bottom: “sum up in one sentence the heart and meaning of his story.” And then he hit the streets, literally. He spent a full day going about his usual business but asking all kinds of folks he came across if they would take the time to read this passage and share their insights or questions about it with them. He ended up collecting thirty responses. One was from someone working at the garage where he was picking up his car, others from folks that were standing in line with him at the Division for Motor Vehicles waiting to get new tags for their cars. Another came from the barista at a classic Seattle coffee house he frequented, others from some of the folks enjoying their coffee. One was from a homeless person who sold newspapers in the neighborhood, others from some of the folks in an AA group meeting at his church that evening.
It wasn’t an easy exercise for him, he admitted. When speaking with the barista – with whom he had talked numerous times before – he said that while she was covered with tattoos, in the moment he asked her to talk about the Bible he felt he was the one marked, even tattooed, as different, odd, out of place. Some didn’t want to participate, and he respected that. Some didn’t want to participate at first, but when friends took part their curiosity got the better of them, and he respected that as well. All in all he had so many incredible conversations and, guess what, learned as much about this passage – and what it means and might mean to people – as he had in the past sixteen years.
His sermon – both with his congregation last Sunday and with us yesterday – consisted of narrating some of that experience and then drawing us into guessing what some of the major insights were (in a Family Fued-esque experience). The insights and the stories all combined to provide us with a powerful experience of the passage, not just inviting us to think about it, but to actually feel it, to experience it, and to be drawn in to the potential and power to give life that it has.
Why did I enjoy this sermon so much? Because it was a fabulous example of deploying pastoral expertise in order to empower others to read and interpret the Bible in meaningful and powerful ways. It wasn’t that his years of experience didn’t matter. He knew a lot about this passage and that made it easier for him to facilitate conversation with others. But he also gave over a lot of authority, both in the conversations he had and in the sermon itself as he lifted up the thoughts and insights of all these other persons – many of whom don’t even go to church – as also worthy of attention. And in doing so he invited his hearers to also imagine that they have something worth saying about God’s Word.
This sermon was in the very best sense a “communal sermon” where the preacher was not the only proclaimer but took seriously his responsibility to be a “steward of the Word” and make sure the life and truth of this passage was proclaimed. It was just that this time the community – both inside and outside the congregation – was engaged in the proclamation.
My friend Nadia Bolz Weber does something similar from time to time. She’ll email her congregation and ask a question about the upcoming biblical passage, or invite their questions, and then wrap their responses together in a sermon. When she does this she always learns a lot…and so do her people: they learn that their questions, their insights, their faithful wrestling with the Word matters.
Can preachers do this? Can they – can we – imagine inviting people not only to hear the Word but also develop confidence that they can read, interpret, and share it as well? I think this is another example of participatory preaching – inviting people to participate in the act of proclamation – and of shifting our self-understanding from performer to coach. This is, I think, an example of the kind of faithful, playful, and confident experimentation I think the church desperately needs.
My thanks to Pastor Erik Wilson Weiberg of Ballard First Lutheran Church in Seattle for sharing this sermon and story.