A Lesson from Mark

"Bridge to somewhere..." Image by serenithyme via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

We preachers are intercalators. Maybe at some point in time, we learned to be so from Mark. This is Mark’s specialty, of course — inserting one story in the middle of another so that you are forced to interpret both, make sense of both of them together. You cannot isolate one from the other. They need each other. They depend on each other. One is not the same without the other. Another term used for Mark’s literary technique is “sandwiching.” Less appealing, perhaps, than “intercalations” but you get my drift.

I was struck this week with the reminder that as preachers, as persons of faith, we are also intercalators. We put our story in between the pages of Scripture. We place Scripture in between events in our lives. This is what we do as preachers. This is what we do in preaching. Or, this is what we should be doing.

I think we need this reminder these days. That we need to be more attentive to our vocation as intercalators and not compartmentalizers. That is, biblical preaching has to be modeling a relationship between Scripture and our lives, believing that our stories cannot be fully understood, reach their full meaning, without the act of placing God’s story in the middle.

Much of what we hear and see today when it comes to engagement with Scripture is a rather one-sided, one-directional association with the Bible. The Bible has been limited to a resource alone, a sourcebook on which to base some random thoughts or justify a string of stories, tangentially related to the text at hand. When our preaching is simply one story after another intended to “illustrate” or “apply” the biblical text, we implicitly communicate Scripture’s irrelevancy. That the Biblical story actually is not really germane to our day-to-day existence.

I have always been uncomfortable with the thought of “applying” the text to daily life. My students will attest to the fact that I liken that metaphor to slathering on sunscreen before an afternoon at the beach, as if Scripture provides some sort of protection from the damaging UV rays of today’s challenges to faith.

Yet, this interpretive approach to Scripture is exactly what leads to the kind of pain, damage, and oppression that Scripture has historically been, and still is, used to afflict. Case in point — Jeff Sessions and Romans 13. When we lack a reciprocity with Scripture, a kind of mutuality that anticipates and expects that Scripture might talk back, it is very easy to leave the biblical text behind in favor of suitable or worse justifiable examples of how Scripture might function in living out our faith.

There is grave danger in compartmentalizing Scripture. It communicates a kind of authority of Scripture that assumes its authority rather than demonstrates it. We don’t get to preach the Bible anymore just because the cover calls it “The Holy Bible.” Our preaching has to show that both life and interpreting God’s action in the world will make little sense without it.

When we compartmentalize Scripture, it assumes that God is no longer active. It conveniently forgets that Scripture did not start out as Scripture. The author of Hebrews did not pen her witness to the event of Jesus, the meaning of Jesus, how Jesus reveals God, with the hopes of getting into the canon. Hebrews became Scripture because the experience to which it testified was valued as a witness in which to intercalate our own.

The New Testament writers author new experiences of God, contributing to the vast and differing experiences of God they knew from their Scripture. Experiences of God did not end with the last word of the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament is a 27-book library of God now known in the Word made flesh. The writers insert the Jesus story within the pages of the Israelite story and find meaning, new meaning, to their Scriptures and to the story to which they testified.

Preaching is not fiction. It’s not hypothetical. It’s not theoretical. It should demand that the Bible butt up against life so that our lives cannot make sense without it and that we cannot make sense of Scripture without the witness of our lives.

Part of what we do as preachers is to encourage our parishioners to realize that this is their life as well, or it can be. That this one reason we read the Bible, preach on the Bible, is what will make the Bible, in the end, matter. Our lives are intercalated with the Biblical stories and vice versa. Something is missing if our story is not sandwiched between a biblical story, or the biblical story is not sandwiched between events in a story of our lives.

My column this week is less about perspectives on these two stories for preaching. But every once in a while, the Bible teaches us how to read it. And, every once in a while, we need to hear that lesson again, lest we forget that what we preach is the living Word.