Keeping the Word Central

Emilie Bouvier, "Fertile Soil." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Two Harbors, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

A friend of mine often jokes that he likes to read the biblical text because it sheds such interesting light on the commentaries.

The joke raises a real issue. How do we keep the Word itself at the center of our preparation and proclamation? A powerful method for doing this is biblical storytelling. Instead of reading through a text once or twice and then setting it aside in the quest for what will preach, the pastor takes the Word to heart during the whole week.

On Sunday, she proclaims the story itself which she has learned in small but steady steps each day. The sermon arises out of a living encounter with the Word and it comes about as close to writing itself as one could imagine. Having lived with the text during a seven day creative process, the week’s activities−both hopes and sorrows−so fill the story that it overflows into a sermon. Here is a week of preparation for a sermon on the Syrophoenician woman text that comes up at the beginning of September.

On Sunday night, type out the story on a page so that its rhythms and breaks stand out:

“From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre.
He entered a house
and did not want anyone to know he was there.
Yet he could not escape notice.”

On Monday, enjoy your Sabbath rest. Shift this instruction to another day if you must, but listen to God’s command and do rest!

On Tuesday, write the whole pericope out by hand three times speaking out loud as you write. You will be amazed at how much the story begins to sink into your memory simply by doing this. You may notice connections to the text and your life already. You are making your children sandwiches and you think of the “children’s bread.”

On Wednesday, set a copy of the story on your car seat and tape one up in your bathroom mirror. When you see it, take a moment to read it out loud. Begin to try out different possible tones as you do this. Is Jesus tired because his day off was interrupted? Can you relate? Tuck that experience and emotion into your sermon. Go to your local text study and let that conversation impact the story. By the time you go to bed, hopefully you have gone through the story out loud several times.

On Thursday, see how much you can remember without having the text in front of you. Always do it aloud, by now incorporating gestures. Ask how close do Jesus and the woman get to each other? As you head to the hospital for a visit, you run through the text checking your cheat sheet at the red light. When you walk into the hospital room to visit the young girl awaiting surgery, her mother’s panicked look slips its way into the text. To have such a great need and know of your own helplessness! Tell yourself the text as you go to sleep, enjoying the rest that Jesus had been seeking.

On Friday, start refining your telling. Drag a friend into the sanctuary with you and fill up the worship space with the story asking your partner to prompt you only when you are stuck. Stop to answer the knock at the door. Someone needs $20 for bus fare. Do what seems right to you and then tuck the experience into the story. If you can find the time, close your eyes and image the sights, smells, and sounds of the story as it happened. Bring in the senses perceptions from your own life. Let these aromas waft through the story.

By Friday afternoon you will be filled with the story and the story will be filled with life. Sit down in the afternoon and write your sermon. Often the movements of the biblical text give form to your own sermon; your preaching itself becomes narrative. The bible story is not abstract and distant from you. The Word has entered into your heart and has become the heart of your preparation.

On Saturday, do that wedding and then relax.

Finally on Sunday proclaim the Word that has become a part of your life. If it is the first time introducing storytelling in a congregation, invite them to watch the story and take their eyes off any bulletin insert or Bible. The first time you might want to proclaim the text in the children’s sermon when people’s expectation for text-like accuracy is much lower and when people tend to pay attention.

In fact, the proclamation could be your children’s sermon. Proclaim the story as accurately as possible without obsessing about one hundred percent accuracy. I guarantee you that more of the text will be heard than was heard in last week’s reading. So if you drop a phrase the Word will live and still do its work.

I hope you will give this method a try. For me, it has been an amazing practice that has fed me spiritually, shaped me as an interpreter, and led me into faithful proclamation.