Preaching Scripture, Teaching Scripture, and the Episcopal Church

Today was one of those days when the Holy Spirit moved.

I’ve been struggling to rethink several things: First of all, how do we create community in a downtown parish when the primary point of contact is the worship service? We can’t hope to get most of those people to stay for coffee hour, let alone get involved more deeply in the life of our parish. Second, how do we do adult education or formation when we get a smattering of people to attend our adult forums, and handful of people to come out at night if we offer something substantive?

And then I read George Clifford’s essay about reading and interpreting the Bible at the Daily Episcopalian. The reality is that for most of those who attend our services their only contact with scripture is listening to the readings on Sunday morning. What we do with those scriptures on Sunday morning is the primary lens through which they will hear them.

I may have had Clifford’s essay in the back of my mind as I began thinking about today’s sermon. I certainly had in mind the fact that we were going to push name tags today. We’ve had too many visitors, too many newcomers in recent months, and we aren’t getting connected with them. But I wanted that connection to be with more than the preacher and celebrant. I wanted to make connections across the pews, across the aisles.

So here’s what I did. I got people talking to each other, and talking about the gospel. I told them to introduce themselves to one another, and to talk about what was puzzling, or problematic, or strange in today’s gospel reading. I walked up and down the aisle and I heard the buzz. It was amazing. I had to interrupt after a couple of minutes, and I invited them to continue their conversations at the peace, and at coffee hour. And then I invited them to share their questions.

And I was surprised. They asked the right questions: Why did Jesus tell the demons to keep silent? Why did Jesus have to go away for privacy? Why did he heal Simon’s mother-in-law so that she was able to get up and serve them? Now, granted, Grace Church is a highly educated congregation, but in my experience, a good education does not necessarily mean that someone is capable of asking intelligent questions about scripture.

But here’s the thing. I’ve been Rector of Grace for nearly three years, and for nearly three years, I have been asking just those sorts of questions about the text in my sermons. Over those three years, this congregation has grown accustomed to pay attention to the reading of the gospel, and, I suspect, to look for those interesting things in the gospel, things that might catch my eye, because chances are, I’m going to talk about them.

I remember the days when I was on the other side of the altar, when I was sitting in the pew, listening to the readings, and wondering what the preacher would do with the text. I remember listening to stories from the Hebrew Bible being read, and looking across at other people and seeing the questions in their eyes, and then waiting for the preacher to talk about those amazing stories, and being disappointed when instead we heard about their latest trip to the Grand Canyon.

Each Sunday, we hear three texts read plus a psalm. Each Sunday there are worlds that we encounter in those texts, the struggles, hopes, and faith of generations past. Too often, preachers recoil in fear from those texts, avoid talking about them, avoid their difficulties, avoid the obvious questions that any careful reader would have. We don’t take the texts seriously and we don’t respect the intelligence or faithfulness of our listeners.

I am more and more convinced that serious Christian formation, serious education begins in the pulpit and in the pews, that for us to once again become a people of the book, a people of scripture, a community interpreting scripture together, we have to do it on Sunday mornings, in the context of the liturgy. If for no other reason than, if we don’t do it there, we won’t have another chance.

And here’s the other thing. After the service, a parishioner pointed out that I could have done something quite different with the texts that would have made a perfect connection with our focus on name tags. Each of the lessons, he pointed out, had something to say about names, about the power of naming. And then he said, “Well, I’ve given you your sermon idea for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany in 2015.” Indeed, what a gift!

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