Preaching the Questions and Exclamations of Life
Sometimes things fall together better than you could have ever hoped. One of those things at this year’s Celebration of Biblical Preaching was the juxtaposition of Tony Jones and Michael Curry.
Tony is theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch, an emerging church in the Twin Cities. He described the preaching at Solomon’s Porch as “rolling communal midrash,” and with the help of Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, gave us a sense of the power and possibility of resisting the preacher’s typical urge to explain the text or provide an answer to the questions it raises. Rather, Tony and Joe invited us to live with the questions, engaging the congregation in the interpretive process of discovering how an ancient text might speak to us today. Living with the questions, being willing to suspend resolution as the community wrestles with a variety of possibilities, is akin to the Jewish practice of midrash. Along these lines, the preacher at Solomon’s Porch is in many ways more similar to a group discussion facilitator than the typical preacher. The advantage of this way of preaching is that it shares interpretive authority and empowers the congregation to think for themselves about the meaning of the text.
One of the questions from a participant at the conference to Tony echoed my own: what happens to proclamation when the sermon looks more like a group Bible study than a, well, sermon. Tony’s answer was very helpful: might we, he wondered, overstate the distinction between proclamation and teaching? Might we also more effectively reach a generation that is used to participating in every aspect of their lives – from social media to interacting with their favorite television programs – by inviting them to participate also in interpreting the biblical witness? Great questions.
The following day Michael Curry lectured, inviting us to think about the stunning faith behind many of the African-American spirituals that move from the deep and dark questions of life to the exclamation point of faith. Michael is the bishop of the North Carolina Diocese of the Episcopal Church, USA, and he did a superb job of reminding us that the essential character of the Christian faith is promise and celebration. But he also dealt with questions. In fact, he started with Jeremiah’s question “Is there no balm in Gilead?” and invited us to hear the spiritual, “There is a balm in Gilead” as an answer to Jeremiah’s question that reverberates through time back to Jeremiah’s day and forward into our own.
So what do you think? Is preaching about asking questions or celebrating exclamations? But maybe that’s too simplistic. Perhaps there are moments when the most fitting response we can make to the declarations of Scripture is a question – is this true, how is this true, how can it be true, how might it be true in our lives today? And maybe there are times when the best response to the questions of life is the exclamation of faith — Christ is Risen! Your sins are forgiven! This is his body, given for you!
There’s more to think about in all of this, of course, but I’d like at the very least to imagine the possibility of more variety in our preaching that we might respond to the varieties of situations in both Scripture and life. Thank you for this, Tony and Michael!