Preaching in Context(s)

The images flooded over me the other day as we sang the hymn: “As the grains of wheat once scattered on the hill were gathered into one to become our bread…”1

There is the lone sower walking across the fertile field spreading the new seed. There are the first green shoots–and then the ripened golden grain falling under his sharpened scythe, the grasshoppers jumping crazily to escape his advance. There is the wheat in shocks, the threshing in the wind, then the grinding under the hand-powered stone or in the water-turned mill. Mixing the flour and water; adding the sour leaven and salt; enjoying the sensuous feel of the smooth, firm dough; watching its magical rise; sliding it into the stone oven on a wooden peel; then pulling it out and listening to the crust “sing” or crackle as it cools. At last, the first bite through the crisp and chewy heel. Ah, bread!

Except of course, that is not the way bread comes for most of us and our hearers. Endless plowed acres, herbicides and pesticides, fertilizers, air-conditioned combines, trucks and trains, elevator storage, huge mills, all sterile and white, every step monitored by cameras and gauges, the flour sifted and strained, bleached, de-germinated, and artificially fortified. Loaves baked by the thousands in urban bakeries run by tired shift-workers and purchased in plastic bags. Nothing crisp, nothing chewy. And for most, the entire process is unseen. American white bread.

My point is not good bread/bad bread. Maybe there is no bad bread. It is simply to remind us how contexts change. To be sure, some of us and some of our hearers still try to make bread the old-fashioned way. My own sourdough cultures are decades old; I grind my own flour; and, yes, I have begun to look longingly at the seed catalogs, thinking about beginning the process from scratch. I pushed to get a group of bakers lined up for baking communion bread at my home congregation. All good! Or, all living in the past?

I remind my seminary students that the whole Old Testament, at least through the time of the monarchy, is dominated by the question of whether tribal Yahwism can survive the transition from a nomadic economy to an agricultural economy–an outcome never taken for granted, and forever in doubt. Now, we may still be trying to figure out whether a rural Christianity can survive the transition to industrialized cities, mass media, and cyberspace. That may be even harder. Agricultural Palestine came with its fertility gods and goddesses, and the modern world has its own even fiercer and less tolerant deities, including the staggering power of “none.”

Context! To whom do we preach? Only the local preacher can figure that out of course, which is why those of us who study texts for a living cannot just send out finished sermons for preachers to employ as needed. As Claus Westermann frequently reminded us, the commission to the prophets was not just “tell,” but “go and tell”2–and the going includes everything about place, time, context, language, audience, and how all of these shape the insight and the imagination of the preacher.

None of this is new, of course. Trouble is–back to my bread metaphor–we preach to people now who are everywhere: Wonderbread eaters, home bread bakers, those who enjoy German schwarzbrot, Mexican tortillas, Ethiopian injera, French baguettes, Indian naan, Zimbabwean sadsa, expensive artisan breads from upscale bakeries, and outdated loaves from the food shelf. How to speak to them all?

One at a time, I think. That is, the diverse audience should not make us give up on particularity and preach the “word of the Lord” in general. The word is always particular, always contextual, always addressed, and I would much rather listen to a conversation that mattered to some real participants, even if it puzzled others, than one that did not matter, equally, to anybody. I might need translation help, but it would be worth it.

Twentieth-century Old Testament theologian Gerhard von Rad rarely allowed his sermons to be published during his lifetime, arguing that sermons were always timely, always contextual, and never finished; they were not, therefore, suitable for publication. Indeed, they might not survive it. After his death, his daughter Ursula, herself a theologian, did publish a volume of his sermons, observing that sermons that worked somewhere once, in splendid particularity, had a better chance of doing so again than sermons addressed to a nonexistent people in general.3

People need a particular word, which only an observant and listening pastor in residence–in context–can provide. And people are hungry, so, no matter what shape or flavor or texture or ethnicity is needed or desired, do pass the bread!

1Marty Haugen (from the Didache), “As the Grains of Wheat,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship #465.
2For example, Claus Westermann, Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech, trans. Hugh Clayton White (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991) 103.
3Gerhard von Rad, Predigten, ed. Ursula von Rad (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1972) 7.