Chapter 2: Preaching as the Interface of Two Social Worlds: The Congregation as Corporate Agent in the Act of Preaching, Don M. Wardlaw
(Note: Don M. Wardlaw, professor of preaching and worship, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago.)
Consider a congregation called Faith Church with its pastor, David Landry, in an urban center called Metro City. A growing number of the members of Faith Church are becoming aware of a dimension of Landry's preaching that they do not find in most other churches. The people at Faith Church are beginning to see themselves as active, corporate partners in preaching with David Landry. They are discovering that preaching is essentially a complex interaction of several social realities.
The Social Realities of Preaching at Faith Church
For one thing, David Landry's sermons have become as much an act of the congregation as they are the expression of one individual. Each week five different small groups in the congregation meet to discuss the passage of Scripture for the sermon two Sundays hence and to explore how the Faith congregation walks the streets of that passage today. Most of the time the groups, whether a Tuesday noon business-person's lunch, or a Thursday morning prayer and Bible study group, or a Sunday evening discussion group, meet without David Landry. He is present, however, in the form of a page of exegetical notes or ten minutes' worth of exegetical insights on an audio cassette. Dozens of Faith Church members who do not participate in these groups also study the Scripture for the sermon ten days away. They read David's study notes in the weekly newsletter and then launch into their own exploration of the passage, leaving scribblings and suggestions in a special sermon box in the vestibule. David is never bound to use in his sermons any musings or insights of his members, but while his sermons definitely bear his own style and convictions, they nevertheless carry clear traces of a corporate voice of the congregation. These data from the life of the Faith congregation, rich in the people's symbols and values, assure Landry of sermon materials that consistently hit home with his hearers. In short, David Landry preaches as much for the congregation as to it.
Nor do the social dimensions of preaching at Faith Church belong only to the people's participation in sermon formation. While David Landry speaks for the congregation, he also preaches to his people as a corporate body. Worshipers cannot listen to Landry's preaching long and remain an aggregate of individuals. The words "we" and "us" pop up frequently in his sermons. Landry regularly raises questions about what difference the scriptural text makes to the hearers as a community and constantly envisions how the congregation can react corporately to the implications of the Word in Scripture. Worshipers get the impression from Landry's rhetoric that he sees himself primarily as a member of the Faith community and secondarily as one set apart to preach to that body. He has the knack of joining his people in the pew at the same time that he addresses them, and of sharing with his folk in a corporate response to the sermon.
Another corporate body impinges on most sermons preached at Faith Church-Metro City with its politics, economics, institutions, demographics, decision-making, and life-style; Faith Church sits next to the City Hall at Fourth and Central by Market Square. The Faith Church steeple and City Hall tower rise together above this intersection, symbolizing in their juxtaposition the gospel's address of the demonic principalities and redemptive possibilities inherent in corporate human power. Landry's sermons cultivate an image of Christ at work in corporate structures to make life on earth more truly human. A check of Faith Church's activities calendar reveals an outreach program that resonates with Landry’s preaching. A halfway house for emotionally disturbed teenagers, tutoring programs for educationally deprived youngsters, a community service program for senior citizens, and a hot-line link with a substance abuse clinic, become, in Landry's sermons, ready references to ways in which Christ intervenes in the corporate life of downtown Metro City, to help translate the powers of death into the vitalities of new life. Nor is the target of Faith Church's mission limited solely to the central sector of Metro City. A hunger task force regularly urges the members to be involved in famine relief for northern Africa. Also, the ruling board of Faith Church is presently studying a recommendation from a dozen members that the congregation serve as a sanctuary for political refugees from Central America. The outreach programs at Faith Church work well because they are owned by the people, generated by the same ongoing dialogue within the community of believers that engenders Landry's sermons.
The social realities that come through preaching at Faith Church do not all belong to the contemporary moment, however. Another kind of community regularly comes alive in David Landry's sermons; the body of believers that either foreshadows or gives rise to the sermon’s scriptural text. Landry sees to it that his people in the sermon formation process always ask first what the struggle in faith meant, for instance, to those primitive Christians in Corinth or to the faithful in Solomon's temple. In his sermons, Landry invites his people to walk in the robes and sandals of the ancient community in order to be clearer about how to walk in the dress of a relevant body of believers today. Landry serves as catalyst for an interface of his people with the people who sat by the waters of Babylon and wept, or with the band of faithful who were shipwrecked, stoned, and imprisoned on behalf of the gospel. It is as if the sermon were a transfusion of life blood from an ancient faith community to a modern body of Christians.
The above scenario presupposes preaching as a thorough-going societal event, merging the faith experience of an ancient biblical community with the life of a body of believers today. Whatever is said in this chapter about that boundary assumes a dynamic, multi-dimensional view of preaching that sees in the preaching moment a confluence of peoples, times, and contexts. Such a view of preaching, however, presumes too much when compared with the average parishioner's understanding of a sermon's meaning and function. It is important to step aside to clarify the nature of a preaching moment before exploring how preaching can be the interface of two social worlds. Until the decks are cleared with regard to what a sermon is and does, all that is said about the social reality of preaching will make little sense.
The Questionable Linear Model
Until recently most members of Faith Church, as well as David Landry, brought a rather flat, single-dimensional orientation to preaching. They expected the sermon to function as a static, linear transaction, with the sermon as a message, the preacher as sender, and the congregation as passive recipients. This model presumes that the sermon is an objectifiable message, critical information that, when projected from pulpit to pew, promises to change perspectives, and then presumably, to rekindle wills to change the world.
The model carries with it three basic, but questionable presuppositions that now find little sanction in the pulpit at Faith Church. First, the model presumes that the sermon is fundamentally data about Scripture to be shared, truth as treasure buried in biblical soil waiting to be unearthed, delved into, and offered to the hearers. Such a view of the function of Scripture in preaching makes no room for the dynamic of God's Word in Scripture. The Word of God, far from being solely the object of a preacher's analysis, is primarily the subject of revelation. The Word of God is fundamentally God's revealing activity, primarily act and event. The Word happens, does things, makes things
Sermon ------ Preacher ----------- Congregation
happen. For all their significant differences in interpreting the nature of proclamation, theologians Barth, Brunner, Gogarten, Bultmann, and Tillich agree on one fact that has left a permanent mark on the contemporary Christian consciousness, namely, that in the preaching event God actively engages the world. These theological giants in the early and middle twentieth century rescued preaching from what E. M. Forster once called "poor chatty little Christianity," and, along with their more recent successors such as Ebeling and Fuchs, took Word primarily to be explosive, confrontative power. In David Tracy's summation, this eventful Word was first released in the prophetic and eschatological strains of both Testaments, paradigmatically expressed in the parables of Jesus and the Pauline theology of the cross, retrieved in the word event which was the Reformation and recalled for and in our word-impoverished, wordy culture by those early twentieth-century classic exponents of the power of the Christian proclaimed word as that proclamation disclosed anew the event of Jesus Christ.(1)
While this Word as proclamation event takes on a secondary confessional character as manageable content, it does so only when it is understood primarily as event.
The second presumption about the two-dimensional model is that the preacher most often stands apart from and above the people in things of the Spirit. This frequently translates into a hierarchical, authoritarian stance in which the preacher, in the language of no less a gathering than Vatican II, "molds and rules" the people. The church for centuries has sanctioned preaching as the expression of a separated, commanding individual. Pulpit and pew alike have been too prone over the centuries to accept as normative for the pulpit a Lone Ranger mentality that elicits visions of an heroic prophet crying from the wilderness of an isolation necessary to maintain prophetic integrity. Admittedly, from such privacy in prayer and study has come profound preaching that at times has sparked visions and started reformations. But how realistic has the church been to assume that the Word in Scripture must depend principally on isolated individuals in pulpits for the communication of its inspiration and wisdom? One of T. S. Eliot's characters, Edward, could as easily be addressing this presumptuous individualism as his wife, Lavinia, when he says:
One of the most infuriating things about you
Has always been your perfect assuranceThat you understood me better than I understood myself.
Sometimes this monarchical air and distance is not so much assumed by the preacher as projected on him or her by the people. Pastors in sermon feedback gatherings almost invariably struggle at first to get parishioners to utter any words of evaluation that could be heard as negative. .Many people in the pews are so dependent in their faith journey on the preacher's spirituality that they cannot afford to allow their preacher to be reproachable.(2)
Whether this distance between pulpit and pew is assumed or assigned, it violates the identification pastors must have with their people if the Word of God is to come alive in preaching. All preparation for preaching that sensitively tunes into Scripture begins with what Leander Keck calls priestly listening, where "the text confronts the exegete, in solidarity with the congregation, with a word that intersects prevailing understandings and loyalties.(3) When the ministerial identity is anchored essentially in the pew, the preacher stands a better chance to offer an incisive Word from the pulpit. Such an awareness makes a difference in how pastors bear authority in the pulpit and in how pastorally sensitive they are in prophecy, for they are at one and the same time preaching to themselves as well as from themselves. As Fred Craddock says so well, "If a minister takes seriously the role of listeners in preaching, there will be sermons expressing for the whole church, and with God as the primary audience, the faith, the doubt, the fear, the anger, the love, the joy, the gratitude that is in all of us."(4)
The third presupposition about the linear model sees the congregation as passive recipients of the message. Sometimes this passivity takes the form of a corporate body unquestioningly accepting a denominational party-line from the pulpit. Communions that demand close adherence to detailed doctrinal standards promote this kind of quiescence at sermon time. The congregant's role in preaching is to ingest the weekly dose of doctrine prescribed from the pulpit. This view assumes that the will is harnessed to reason and that a closely honed system of theology is capable of engendering a redemptive life-style.
At other times with this passivity in the pews the listeners function mainly as private consumers, more as an aggregate of individuals than as a corporate body. This privatistic, consumer mentality reflects a predominant ethos of American individualism that takes radical private validation as the only criterion for behavior. Robert Bellah and colleagues, in their book, Habits of the Heart, describe this reigning value of American life: "Separated from family, religion, and calling as sources of authority, duty, and moral example, the self first seeks to work out its own form of action by autonomously pursuing happiness and satisfying its wants."(5) This American individualist sits in the pew distrustful of most corporate alignments, listening selectively to the preacher for information and inspiration useful for self-validation. Hence, the silent pew, made up of people who either over-invest corporately or under-invest individually in what comes from the pulpit.
As this chapter continually insists, the congregation, far from assuming a passive stance at the preaching moment, engages God's Word and is engaged by that Word as actively as the preacher. Listen to Craddock again: "Historically and theologically the community and the book belong together in a relationship of reciprocity. This means the church does not sit passively before the Scriptures but rigorously and honestly engages its texts."(6) This also means that the active participation by the members begins with the sermon's conception rather than after its delivery. The preacher is much more interested in inviting the hearers along in a search for the Word's meaning than in declaring in prepackaged fashion the meaning they should have already found. Sermon design and rhetoric will reflect this indicative stance, envisioning the hearers as co-creators of the response to Scripture, as partners in the Word-event. This elevated view of congregational responsibility and participation in the preaching moment presupposes that the people in the pews can serve as active sources of theological insight. Preachers who understand that the Word seeks dialogue with the body of the faithful, even in the preparation and delivery of the sermon, will so restructure their sermon preparation regimen and alter their rhetorical strategies that they make room for the whole people of God in the pulpit.
A Dynamic, Multi-Dimensional Model
What, then, constitutes a viable model for preaching that features the kind of dynamic, multi-dimensional approach of a David Landry at Faith Church? The following model encompasses the two sets of social worlds inherent in the preaching moment. Investigation of this model will begin by focusing first on the social realities of the world of today's preacher and congregation. Once the social constructs of the contemporary side of the model are established, then the discussion will turn to the dynamics of corporate life inherent in the scriptural text. The investigation will then conclude with an examination of how the model shows the corporate dynamics in today’s preaching situation bringing to fruition the social vitalities of the text.
The preaching model that is faithful to the social worlds inherent in the sermon moment, rather than establishing itself on a line that carries message, preacher, and people in sequence, actually presents itself in a loop of three interlocking circles within an encompassing circle. The diagram on page 64 presents the basic holism of preaching with its integration of scriptural text, preacher, and community of believers, all set in the surrounding social context. The point of confluence at the heart of the model, the dynamic swirl of interaction of Scripture, preacher, and people, is the Word-event. A fundamental point this model makes by its very gestalt is that the preaching event consists of a cluster of dynamic interactions. Brandon Scott gets at the interactional character of meaning when he writes, "Even for an author, meaning is not in the mind but is a relation between imagination and text. A writer works out meaning in the act of communication."(7) The meaning that becomes the Word at the preaching moment consists of three key interlocks: the interface of the scriptural text with preacher; the interrelation of preacher with people; and the interconnection of the people with Scripture. This loop of threefold interplay, all set in and sensitive to the contemporary social context, constitutes the Word-event. We now look more closely at these three interactions of the preaching moment as a way of unfolding the meaning of the social dynamics of preaching.
Scriptural Text and Preacher
Sermon formation begins when the preacher, in solidarity with his or her congregation, cocks an ear toward the text in
Cultural Context ---
| | -------- The Word
Biblical text — People — Preacher ---
Scripture. In an enterprise characterized by wave upon wave of words, sermons that become Word-events gestate, ironically, in eerie silence. David Landry sits in his upstairs study doing preliminary work on his sermon. He has just finished a second reading aloud of the Scripture pericope scheduled for the first Sunday in November. He leans back and stares out of the study window. A creative silence comes to his soul that belongs to the stillness that preceded the creation of heaven and earth. Landry listens prayerfully and intently to a quiet that almost rings in his ears, a hush of eternity from which will emerge pictures of possibilities from the pericope. Such listening belongs to the nature of revelation itself. As Craddock says:
A preacher can recover and reclaim the silence that he or she carries within, and out of that silence, speak the Word. It demands the realization that a minister's life does not consist in the abundance of words spoken. But most of all it requires embracing both silence and revelation in one's understanding of God, and developing a mode of preaching which honors that understanding by being in harmony with it.(8)
David Landry will go to the shelves later for help from commentaries and other critical tools in order to grapple with the historical, political, and cultural realities behind the lines of the text, and to wrestle with the literary and structural issues between the lines of the passage. But for now he hangs in suspended animation spiritually, waiting for the wings of the Spirit to give flight to his imagination for the first breakthrough insight that will spark the beginnings of the sermon.
Preacher and People
But listening to God's Word is always a corporate affair. Note how many times in the book of Acts the Holy Spirit gives guidance to the primitive church when the people are gathered together in prayerful expectation. Jesus affirmed the importance of the corporate setting for revelation when he said to his disciples, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20). Sermon formation truly begins, then, when the body of believers, not just the preacher alone, listens for God's address in Scripture. The preacher discovers that this incorporated hearing helps safeguard him or her from forcing truncated agendas on the text. David Landry can testify that his Tuesday noon downtown group or his Sunday evening sermon forum, while not robbing him of his calling to preach the gospel as he sees it, has nevertheless kept him out of many blind alleys in seeking to ride the trajectory of the text into today. When David Landry listens in early morning solitude in the privacy of his study for the dawning of meaning from a scriptural text, he knows he is even then listening in solidarity with his congregation. He knows Andrew Abrams, one of his elders, will have had an ear on that passage the same morning before opening his hardware store and will be responding with insight at the Tuesday noon gathering. Landry also knows that Betty Salinsky will join a circle Bible study at ten o'clock that morning that will seek in holy silence some vision with that same pericope. Landry will open the sermon box in the vestibule on Wednesday and will find among a dozen notes his weekly word on the text from Sid Shoemaker. Landry now knows in ways he could never have dreamed of several years ago that listening for God's Word in the first moments of sermon formation is the province not of pastor alone but of a cloud of witnesses joining their pastor.
For David Landry such an experience of incorporated listening week in and week out has also cast a different light on the meaning of his ministerial leadership. James and Evelyn Whitehead accurately describe Landry's experience when they point out:
The minister today is seen less exclusively as the one who brings God and more as one who helps discern God, already present. The minister is a skillful attendant ... one whose role is to listen for the Lord's presence and to assist other believers in their own attentive response to God's movement in their lives.(9)
Albert van den Heuvel sums up this transformation in Landry's preaching and pastoral leadership when he says,
"The renewal of the preaching ministry is the rediscovery of its communal character."(10)
People and Scriptural Text
The upshot of Landry's seeking solidarity with his people in the first creative silences of the sermon's gestation is that the listeners, in James Sanders' analogy, are being coaxed on stage to participate themselves in the drama of redemption. The spotlight now shifts and the people themselves are entering the plot of the scriptural passage, joining with the characters and living their story. The loop that begins with the interplay of text with preacher in Landry's early morning solitude moves to include the interaction of Landry with his people in order to give integrity to that first hearing. But now the loop closes back upon the text, and in so doing, brings the people into direct interface with the passage. Now the people of God are accountable to the scriptural passage because they know of the tolling of grace firsthand. "Where the Bible's message is preached," writes Leander Keck, "the congregation is invited to appropriate (not merely affirm) its meaning, and so identify itself with the biblical faith and the world church."(11) Anyone can simply nod in assent to the preacher at the door following the sermon. Those who have appropriated the sermon from its inception, however, will more nearly identify with what has been said as direct address from the pulpit.
The Cruciality of Cultural Context
If hearing God's Word is a corporate affair, it is just as importantly a contextual affair. The circle that encompasses the interaction of biblical text, preacher and people, represents the cultural context of the hearers. This outer circle says that God's Word comes to fruition only in terms of the particular cultural setting of the hearers. For Don Browning, culture means "a set of symbols, stories (myths), and norms for conduct that orient a society or group cognitively, affectively, and behaviorally to the world in which it lives."(12) God's Word in Scripture always addresses itself to Israel or to the church at the level of the symbols, stories, and norms that related God's people to the socio-political particularities of their day. In the Old Testament the Word speaks through Israel's day-to-day life and death issues, as in bondage, wilderness, tribal life, nationhood, war, corruption, and exile. And if the Word's target in Scripture was the crucial happenings of God's people, so, too, was the Word's form always in the frame of reference of the people God addressed. God was revealed in Israel's and in the primitive church's history, not ours, and hence spoke the language of their time. Rather than a radar beam, God was cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; God's prophets spoke in pastoral rather than industrial imagery; God set the drama of redemption in the static three-story language of their universe rather than in the dynamic one-story language of our universe.
The supreme example of the Word's social contextuality is seen in the incarnation. When John, in one of the most penetrating verses in the New Testament, says, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us"(John 1:14), he shows the Word seeking its ultimate target and form in the person of Jesus Christ. If the Word's target is always where the action is, John implies the same with his use of the word, "dwelt." The Greek word for "dwelt," skenow, is the same word used in the Septuagint for "tabernacle." The tabernacle was for early Israel a special tent for worship and sacrifice that was always set up at the heart of the Hebrew encampment no matter where Israel was in her desert wanderings. The tabernacle was the dwelling-place for the special presence of Yahweh. Thus, wherever Israel went, God was always specially present in her midst. To say, then, that the Word "dwelt among us" is to say that the Word chooses as target the heart of the common life of the people of God, wherever that might be in their pilgrim wanderings. The Word, by definition, lives in the midst of the cultural context of God's people.
Preaching seeks from the Word it embodies an analogous target and form in the world. As Craddock says so succinctly, "The way of God's Word in the world is the way of the sermon in the world." This means that without the bold particularity of the preacher riding the biblical text's trajectory to direct hits on specific targets today, interpretation of the biblical text has not taken place. Craddock says, "Interpretations and sermons. . . are not sent out to 'Resident' or 'Box holder' or 'To Whom It May Concern.'"(15)
David Landry does not hesitate to speak directly to corporate social issues about abortion, drug abuse, ecological rape, or minority rights in Metro City and beyond because he understands social contextuality as the norm for the Word realizing itself. Any people and pastor wishing to take God's Word in Scripture seriously, therefore, will regularly be asking what issues or values in the surrounding society are addressed by that Word. A sermon on the parable of the good Samaritan, for example, will dress the priest and Levite in the particular garb of the sermon's social locale if the Word is to hit home. In a racist community in the United States priest and Levite could be prejudiced blue-collar citizens who still fight to maintain closed neighborhoods. In Nicaragua, priest and Levite could be the United States that kept to the other side of the road when this Central American nation languished in the ditch under a dictator's heel. In a South African shanty town, a black preacher might see priest and Levite as Western nations that soft-pedal sanctions against the apartheid government in Pretoria. Without such particular contexts, a sermon remains a collection of useless abstractions, timeless comments that can never be timely. The Bible is its own best witness to that fact in that Scripture came into being through a process of conceptualizing interpretation and by its very nature asks for the continuation of that process.(14)
The preacher is constantly challenged, then, to enflesh the sermon in the prevailing symbols of the congregation's culture if the sermon is to be heard. The preacher is the keeper of the store of the people's values and images, the currency with which they trade in meaning. As Brandon Scott says, "The preacher is entrusted with the community's metaphorical stock, its repertoire."(15) Robert Worley speaks of this metaphorical stock as "the manifest culture" of a congregation. The set of perspectives manifest in a congregation," says Worley, "influences the style and content of sermons, the language of the preacher. the type of illustrations, etc. If a preacher cannot preach in a manner consistent with the set of perspectives that is manifest in a congregation, he or she is in trouble."(16) Many pastors remain in trouble, or are at least ineffectual in their preaching because as keepers of the store they assume sole responsibility for choosing and displaying the people's metaphorical stock. They exercise few options for discovering the range and depth of that repertoire of images and symbols, relying too often on private intuition and guesswork alone to determine how the sermon will dress and walk.
Several years ago, David Landry learned what a friend he has in the social sciences which help him mind the store at Faith Church. He learned from the social sciences how to "read" the environment of Faith Church, all the way from discovering the social networks and patterns in downtown Metro City to learning how such configurations connect with the wars, poverty, political oppression, and inflationary economies that mark the globe.(17)
First, David's faithfulness to the social contextuality of the Word pushed him to reach for some handles for grasping the structure and flow of the neighborhood where he lives and ministers. A week after he moved into his parish he began taking a series of late afternoon walks to acquaint himself with the various social worlds in this inner district of the city. He got into the sights, sounds, and smells of this world. Who's the man with a French pastry who sits by himself in the delicatessen and stares out the window at passersby every afternoon at five o'clock? How will John Donovan's sporting goods store make it here on Euclid Avenue when the new mall is completed four blocks away? Who owns that grand Victorian house that is so neglected and run down?
David Landry also began getting a feel for the delivery of basic services in the central sector. He visited both family practice health care centers in his district, found that AA met three blocks away at First United Methodist Church on Tuesdays, targeted where Big Macs and pizzas waited for his kids' eager grasp, noted the number of shops on Central Avenue that would be difficult for disabled persons to enter and found that there was no clinic for substance abuse and no shelter for the homeless for two miles in any direction. At one of the early meetings of his ruling board, David confirmed these impressions and enriched others from the board members' responses.
Four months after his arrival, the newly formed Long-range Planning Committee at Faith Church, with David's insistence, derived much helpful demographic information about this district of Metro City from the Lake County Planning Board. As the Faith Church committee sought to develop a pathway into the future, it worked with census data on ethnic diversity, household changes, and patterns of age groups in the district. It studied levels of family income, employment patterns, types of housing units, population mobility, and poverty pockets in the area.
One of the members of the committee, Jim Jensen, who teaches sociology at the Lake County Community College nearby, helped David and the committee locate the social classes, ethnic groups, and helping groups in the district and see how much interaction they have with one another and with the power at City Hall and in business.
In addition to providing a technique to grasp the social dynamics of the immediate urban environment, David Landry also learned from the social sciences how to get a feel for the identity of Faith Church. In helping the Long-range Planning Committee get moving, Landry led the members in exercises to identify what Max Weber calls the "webs of significance" of Faith Church, the network of natural awarenesses, beliefs, values, and goals that make up the culture of the congregation. Since a history of Faith Church had just been finished a few months before he arrived, Landry invited the committee to begin its work with a study of this history; the story of the church's founding, its significant experiences in the past, critical turning points, its line of important personages. Landry then helped the committee match its own story with its denominational heritage, noting where the people at Faith Church had cherished its sacred deposit from its total past and where it had gone its own way in the shaping of its local tradition.
Next, Landry helped the committee conduct a series of cottage meetings that uncovered the world view and character of the congregation, along with what symbols and rituals have become important for them. After two months of sifting through the data from the cottage meetings, the committee came up with some interesting conclusions. They discovered that 30 percent of the members think of God's intervention in their lives as only occasional but dramatic. Fifty-five percent feel that God actively engages their lives all the time in the normal processes of human interaction. Fifteen percent believe God is more elusive than engaging, a hidden unfolding reality encountered in meditation, prayer, or altered states of consciousness.(18) David Landry was helped immeasurably by these data in determining as pastor and preacher how to talk with people about how God works in their world. In particular he determined that the half of his congregation who see God as more absent than present in the world, would need help in thinking about God's presence if his preaching to them about God's abiding care for the oppressed were to mean anything.
Landry and the committee also derived help from the questionnaires regarding the character or personality of Faith Church, those traits and dispositions of the congregation as a whole that distinguish it from other parishes. They learned that Faith Church's morale does not easily erode in crisis, that the outlook for the future is almost naively rose-colored, and that the manner of doing things at the church is corporately, rather than individually, oriented. The committee determined the controlling symbols and rituals in the congregation's life. The stained-glass windows and the huge wooden cross top the list of visual symbols held most dear. Family-night suppers and Sunday evening hymnfests rank high as symbols of the congregation's fellowship. Some symbols the people struggle with, such as the chandelier in the vestibule that some feel speaks of ostentation, or the stiffly decorated church parlor that many feel is more mausoleum than a meeting place.
The rituals the congregation ranks in preference also proved illuminating. The structure of the Sunday morning liturgy received the strongest affirmation, with the funeral's accent on the resurrection and the wedding's emphasis on worship not far behind. Controversial rituals include the way the sacraments are administered. Members disagree on the use of a common loaf and common cup in the Lord's Supper, or on how water is to be applied in baptism. Some members are restive about seating patterns at worship that are too strung out to express the unity of the worshipers. Some respondents do not care for Sunday greeters who seem too assertive or deacons who would rather count money and gab in the basement than stay with the worshipers at sermon time.
In uncovering this store of information about his congregation's context and identity, David Landry could thank the social sciences for facilitating his entree into the culture of Faith Church. Yet, Landry also knows that societal studies serve only as tools for enabling a people to give meaningful context to the gospel in their lives. The Whiteheads offer a helpful perspective here:
The ... findings of social sciences are important tools in understanding the contemporary situation. But it must be stressed that what the social sciences provide for the community of faith is not answers but access to resources. Determining the shape of the contemporary Church remains, under the influence of the Spirit, the task of the believing community.(19)
As social scientists assist pastor and people in developing a rich fund of the stories, traditions, world views, character, symbols, and rituals of a congregation, chances for God's Word impacting the congregation in profound ways are greatly enhanced. The people have made accessible to themselves and to their pastor their metaphorical stock. A wise pastor will use that stock for the currency of his or her sermons, recognizing that such a practice not only ensures meaningful communication, but also improves the chances of God's Word being heard in its depth and power.
The Social World of the Scriptural Text
Up to this point the investigation of preaching as the interface of two social worlds has delved only into the social dynamics of the contemporary preacher, congregation, and social context as they are addressed by the scriptural text for the sermon. These understandings gained from the preaching model should enhance the important remaining task of examining the social realities of the sermon's text. The same social dynamics apply to understanding an oracle of Ezekiel or a pronouncement of Paul as they relate to the moment today when the sermon happens among the faithful. Sensing those ancient corporate realities and learning to bring them into creative correlation with the social factors of Faith Church constitutes one of the most creative challenges in preaching. When the sermon becomes the vital moment of interface between contemporary and ancient social worlds, then the Word of God happens.
The preaching model already established to depict the contemporary social dynamics of a preaching moment serves as a convenient model for the social realities of the scriptural text. This model of the corporate life inherent in a passage of Scripture features obvious parallels with the model of a present proclamation event.
As with preaching, so with Scripture, a biblical passage is as much a communal act as the expression of a single author. The way Scripture itself was born and nourished validates such a claim. The events that became the church's story of salvation happened to a community of believers. Both the old and new Covenants were made with a community as community. The story of the holy history of the people of God is cradled in community, shared in community, guarded, and offered to the world by community. The Old Testament prophets, seeming paragons of charismatic individualism, declared the Word of the Lord from within the community as committed members of the community.(20) John the Baptist, often regarded as a loner, proclaimed God's will from within his band of disciples. Supremely, Jesus Christ, the incarnation and epitome of the declaration of God's Word, referred to himself as the Son of man, a term in the Old Testament for the community of Israel.(21) This Son of man surrounded himself with twelve disciples, a deliberate representation of the twelve tribes of Israel, the community of faith he embodied. In short, Jesus embodied in himself communal proclamation. In addition, however individualized is the expression of the authors of the New Testament epistles, what they have to say cannot be understood apart from the
Tradition --- People ----Author/Speaker |
| | -------------The Word
Cultural Content |
corporate life of the faithful who brought these authors to new life, who put in their hands an established tradition and fueled the passion and agenda of their writing.
From Genesis to Revelation, God is revealed in an unfolding communal dialogue. As Eugene Ulrich and William G. Thompson conclude, "Scripture, which began as experience, was produced through a process of tradition(s) being formulated about that experience and being reformulated by interpreters in dialogue with the experience of their communities and with the larger culture."(22) This tradition, told and retold, shaped and reshaped as world views of believing communities evolved, was heard by these communities as the Word of God.
The model of the corporate life in a passage of Scripture carries some of the same important dynamics that emerge from the preaching model. First, the Word of God in Scripture is no more a lodestone to be mined than the Word that comes through the sermon. God's Word as revealing action is just as dynamic a phenomenon in the formation and witness of the Bible as it is in the formation and witness of a sermon. Word happens at the confluence of author/speaker, community of faith, and cultural context.
Second, the author/speaker of the biblical passage is as much a receiver of God's Word as its conveyer. Those individuals who put down on parchment the tradition that the community of believers garnered and protected for them, spoke primarily as a part of God's people even when they sounded as if they stood apart from the faithful. When the prophets railed at and rebuked their people, they nevertheless did so as committed members of those people, willing to join them in the exile of which they warned.
Third, the community of faithful in, or implied by, a passage of Scripture is just as actively engaged with God’s Word as is the author/speaker. As with a sermon, so with the formation of Scripture, the people of God as community are co-creators with the author/speaker of the passage of Scripture. Every school of criticism in biblical studies assumes a faith community that cradled the formation of the passage.(23) Form critics now realize with reference to the Psalms, for instance, that the "authors" of the Psalms were more communities than individuals. A canonical approach, in Brevard Childs' words, "interprets the biblical text in relation to a community of faith and practice for whom it served a particular theological role as possessing divine authority."(24) Structuralism, the critical theory that asserts that meaning is a function of the structures of a cultural system, presumes communities that give rise to and nurture the structures of that culture. Structuralist criticism of Scripture looks to structures of a faith community's corporate mind for meaning. Hence, each theory of criticism implies a body of believers actively participating in the formation and perpetuation of that tradition.
Fourth, God's Word is no less contextually oriented in Scripture than in preaching. Biblical scholars have recently turned to the social sciences for clearer insights into the social forces that molded faith communities in Scripture, all in an effort to sharpen the reading and interpretation of the Bible.
"Historical method and sociological method," writes Norman Gottwald, "are different but compatible methods of reconstructing ancient Israelite life and thought."(25) The insights of anthropology, ethnology, social anthropology, ethnography, archaeology, structural anthropology, and psychology are now fair game for students of Scripture in seeking to walk the streets of King David's Jerusalem or the Apostle Paul's Corinth. Wayne Meeks' notable work on the social world of Paul, The First Urban Christians, gives the church a fascinating workaday view of its primitive forebears.(26) Examining the Pauline corpus with a sociological eye, Meeks uncovers the earliest Christian community as a scattering of small colonies throughout cities of diverse local character. These local cells of believers, while highly unified, intimate, and exclusive, still interacted routinely with the larger urban society. The social correlate for these early Christians' intimacy was the local household assembly where interpersonal engagement is strong, authority structure fluid, and internal boundaries are weak. Such studies assume an important interface between the words of a scriptural passage and the social reality undergirding those words. Close examination of the social contexts of the various communities of faith in the Bible, therefore, sheds new light on the faith of those believers. What is at stake here is the social contextuality of God's Word in Scripture.
Gottwald stresses the cruciality of this when he writes, "(The biblical) writers lived in an everyday world of their own and many of the topics and interests of biblical texts reflect the conditions and events of that everyday biblical world which it is folly to ignore if we want a well-rounded understanding of ancient Israel." The exegetical approach that attempts to "spiritualize" or "abstract" texts at the expense of social analysis, in Gottwald's words, "flattens and denatures the powerful individualities of style and content that play throughout the rich texture of the Hebrew Bible."(27)
Interfacing the Two Horizons
The preaching moment, therefore, is a time when two social worlds come together in the proclamation of the Word of God. As Norman Gottwald urges:
We must at one and the same time interpret both the social situations and the literary idioms of the biblical texts and the social situations and literary idioms of ourselves as interpreters/ actors. This is the multidimensioned interpretative task now widely called . . . the hermeneutical "fusion of horizons."(28)
The model on page 79 attempts to portray that interface. Here the dynamic world of the biblical text becomes the Word of God that extends itself through the dynamic world of the contemporary preaching situation. As the Word springs forth from the vortex of its ancient setting to express itself through the vortex of text/preacher/people in social context, the Word of God happens; it becomes a proclamation event in the lives of the people experiencing the sermon. At this point of confluence in the preaching model, the absolute cruciality of the pulpit makes itself known, for as David Tracy asserts:
Without the actuality of proclamation, the (New Testament) narratives lose their character as confessing narratives and become . . . quarries for historical reconstruction. Without proclamation, the symbols (crossresurrection-incarnation) lose their tensive, religious reality and become occasions for other kinds of reflection. . . Only with a sense of the religious-event reality named proclamation is the New Testament recognized anew as the Christian classic text, the scripture.(29)
Cultural Context | | Tradition — People —Author/Speaker
| | ----The Word---- | |
| | | |
Biblical Text — People — Preacher | | Cultural Context
Where scriptural text, with its own social dynamics, interacts with preacher and people in social context at the preaching moment, then God speaks from that swirl as surely as Yahweh spoke to Job from the whirlwind. In this harmonious communion of two social worlds the Word of God speaks meaning to a people and even becomes the chemistry of change in that people. In T. S. Eliot's words:
music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
Interfacing the Two Horizons in a Sermon
I preached the following sermon on Pentecost Sunday at a large suburban congregation outside Chicago. In fairness to the congregation I shall use fictitious names for this congregation and community. The congregation shall he called the Community Church and its town, River Oaks, Illinois.
Had I been the pastor of the Community Church, I would have worked with a sermon preparation group from the congregation in the formation of the sermon. Since, however, I was a guest preacher that Sunday and had no access to such a group there, I turned to a group of clergy in south Georgia with whom I was working several weeks prior to Pentecost and asked them to be my sermon formation group. These were pastors I had been leading in a continuing education venture in preaching over the previous ten months, preachers who were working with sermon preparation groups in their own congregations.
The Georgia pastors began by imagining themselves members of the Community Church in River Oaks. Since I have acquaintances in the congregation and had preached there twice before, I felt that I was on speaking terms with the congregation. The Georgia formation group began by assuming the identities of the bankers, lawyers, doctors, and business executives who are in such evidence at the Community Church, successful professionals most of whom work in the Loop in downtown Chicago forty minutes away. The group also identified with the majority of women in the congregation who are homemakers with growing or grown children and with busy schedules in volunteer work and social activities.
The group immersed itself in the ambience of River Oaks, a lovely exurban village with its studied country quaintness, winding wooded drives, and imposing homes. This quiet "edenic" ethos proves an apt setting for people in River Oaks to pursue the dominant, traditional values of marriage, family, and career. Yet this idyllic scene has its dark side. The affluence and power that permeate River Oaks bring with them expected problems of emotional breakdowns, divorce, substance abuse, and a high teen suicide rate. The atmosphere of luxury and ease also makes it difficult to sense the cruciality and immensity of social issues beyond its borders. While the leisure mentality that pervades River Oaks recognizes that a cruel world rages just down the road, it chooses a posture of gentility and repose that seems to ignore that world, a stance that serves as an apparently deserved reward for doing battle in the power corridors of that world during the week.
For two hours my south Georgia sermon formation group worked to connect the world of Jesus' followers at Pentecost with the world of the Community Church in River Oaks. Our text for this Pentecost sermon was Acts 2:1-13, the opening verses of the account of the church's birth amid the dramatic coming of the Holy Spirit. Each of the seven pastors had already done exegetical spadework in the historical-critical issues in the passage. Now, in solidarity with seven colleagues, I listened to these verses for God's Word to the Community Church in River Oaks.
I gained a number of insights from this group exegesis that proved critical in the formation of the sermon. Some new light came to me amid the group's acting out the Pentecost event. Before we turned to any exegetical insights generated by our individual historical-critical investigations of the passage, we immersed ourselves in the dramatic flow of this Lukan account of Pentecost. We left our tables and books and occupied open space in our classroom, imagining we were Jesus' disciples in that upper room in Jerusalem, waiting for his promised Spirit. We sat in a circle and talked about what it must have been like to pray for ten days together for some kind of reunion and renewal with Jesus. Some got into this imaginative identification a little deeper and began to talk about their sense of failure as disciples when Jesus walked with us. It was as if no matter how hard they tried to follow Jesus along those Galilean roads, the Kingdom never took good root in their souls.
Then, we as a group got into the cataclysm of the wind and fire at Pentecost. We determined to see to what extent our bodies could "tell" us things by literally acting out some of the action in the passage. We got down on our knees in a circle, held hands, and "heard" the thunder, "saw" the flames that shook our bodies and souls. Then we were on our feet, spilling out of the room as if we were newly charged disciples tumbling down the stairs to the streets to engage Jewish pilgrims in their own language.
Once we got beyond the uneasiness that we adults often bring to such role play because we feel safer intellectualizing a reality than trying to embody it,(30) two insights struck us that dictated the shape and accent of this sermon.
First, the literal acting out of Pentecost gave us such an awareness of the event kinesthetically that we determined the sermon had to be structured along narrative lines if the hearers in River Oaks were to have much of a chance to taste and feel the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Second, our enactment of the event underscored for us two radical swing points in the story: (I) the personal upheaval amid wind and fire that jarred the disciples into new life, and (2) the movement of the disciples from the prayerful safety and quiet in the upper room to the hustle and excitement of engaging other seekers in the streets below. In its narrative shape the sermon would lead the hearers through a Pentecost that would be grounded in radical, often painful upheaval, and would reach its stride in the missional stance when they shared their new life with others in surprising ways.
When our sermon formation group returned to our discussion table after our role play and shared further insights from our earlier historical-critical homework, two further revelations came into focus for the sermon.
First we were struck by how middle class Jesus' disciples actually were. Recent sociological studies of the New Testament suggest that Jesus' band of followers, far from being ignorant peasants, were a group of capable merchants, entrepreneurs, organizers, and motivators, people recruited from the hustle of the business and political world at that time.(31) In this fact I had a crucial point of identification between the power brokers in the pews in River Oaks and the disciples who waited in the upper room for heaven to break loose.
Second, we came into a new awareness of what it can mean to be given the gift of speaking another's language. We had already noted that the miracle of tongues dramatized in this passage in Acts involved the disciples speaking known languages rather than the ecstatic utterances usually associated with glossolalia. Hence, we got into a fruitful discussion of what it means to be given the gift of speaking another's language. We talked of language as the extension of being. Hence, to speak in another's tongue is to be given the capacity to identify closely with the other person and to find the sensitivity to be open to the other person's need. Speaking in the tongues of other seekers at Pentecost, then, means among other things entering deeply into their lives to promote shalom, or wholeness. The devout Jews thronging the streets of Jerusalem at Shabuot, or the Feast of Weeks, in celebration of the day the Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses, were in one sense not too different from Jesus' followers in the upper room. Both groups were hungry for wholeness, one questing after it in the promise of the Mosaic law, the other seeking it in Jesus' last earthly promise. Pentecost would empower the seekers in the upper room to offer this wholeness to the seekers in the streets below. And Pentecost would drive Jesus' followers to help other seekers find wholeness. Hence, the title and theme of the sermon were born.
With the above insights gained through this corporate hearing of God's Word in Acts, I went to the drawing board to shape the sermon. I would give the sermon the shape of Acts 2:1-13, involving the hearers at the Community Church of River Oaks in the dramatic action of Pentecost. I would begin by assuming that many hearers in the pews at River Oaks find it difficult, by virtue of their education and sophistication, to imagine what the Pentecost of Acts 2 would be like, much less feel any degree of comfort with such a cataclysmic experience. I would plan to spend little time, however, attempting to argue them into a sense of connection with that upper room in Jerusalem. Rather, I would take them to that room and let them experience in a narrative format their own Pentecost with its sense of expectation, its traumatic upheaval, and its drive to help others find wholeness.
One important key in interfacing the two horizons would be the use of the Community Church's metaphorical stock in the representation of Pentecost. I would help the people of the Community Church see themselves in the capable, first-century entrepreneurs who sat in the upper room praying for new life. I would work to avoid trivializing the wind and the fire in that upper room by bringing these primal elements through my hearers' lives as the upheavals in marriage, family, and careers that jar us into new possibilities for wholeness. I would picture their speaking other pilgrims' language as exercising new sensitivities in their professional lives that promote wholeness in the social structures where they work. My concentration would be wholly on images of their witnessing in their work world as a means of counteracting the temptation to believe that God as Holy Spirit is mostly at home in the wooded lanes of River Oaks. In all, I would so refashion the Pentecost experience that the hearers in River Oaks might feel the winds of the Spirit come upon them to claim them, surprisingly, for witness in unlikely places.
"Pentecost: Driven to Help Seekers Find Wholeness"
And they were amazed and wondered, saying ,..."we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." (ACTS 2:7,11)
Your first reaction to Pentecost may well be that there's little place for you in that upper room.
Such a scene may offend the sensibility of your spirituality. Why not just slip quietly out of the room and down the stairs and let some holy roller take your place up there.
But there's a deeper sense in which you belong there. Some spiritual part of you has always been at Pentecost. Like the genetic pool of your and my spirituality, it came into full force and focus that dramatic day. We were there when all heaven broke loose.
Do you remember that strange calm before the Spirit came?
We sit in that upper room in expectant silence.
Quite a contrast with the hubbub below of milling crowds of religious pilgrims, devout Jews from everywhere, Phrygia, Egypt, Cappadocia, Judea, Libya —
An estimated one million seekers were down there for the annual festival of the Feast of Weeks, one million pilgrims choking the streets designed to accommodate fifty thousand, seekers after shalom, God's wholeness and peace.
But above the jostle and hum of the seekers we sit in our quiet space.
We're local people, ordinary people. No super spirits.
Over there, Simon Peter, business entrepreneur, with his small fleet of fishing boats.
Next to him, Matthew, bureaucrat and tax man, on leave from his regional office near Jericho.
Then there's Simon the Zealot, political activist, good organizer and motivator.
And on around the room, James, John, Andrew, and the other disciples, and the women, and about a hundred others.
Capable, sensible people.
People you might see any morning nowadays at the 7:37 train in business suits with attache cases, bound for the Loop.
Ordinary people waiting for Pentecost up there above the seeking millions.
So we sit and wait.
We sit with Christ's promise, not sure what that Spirit will look or feel like when Pentecost happens.
All we know is that Christ promised to empower us for mission and so we wait prayerfully, expectantly, silently.
Then, the Spirit breaks loose.
God's order explodes into our order.
A deafening, thundering sound like a Kansas tornado.
A rush of warm wind slams us all into a huddle, making our hair stand on end.
Crackling streaks of flame pop and dance about our heads as we clutch at one another in fear and awe.
Finally, the swirl of heat and thunder above our heads turns into a pressure cooker within us that explodes in acts we never knew we were capable of. Now we're on our feet, tumbling down the stairs, driven by the Spirit out into the melee of seekers in the streets below.
Surprising words start tumbling from our mouths. We're talking other people's language, standing there eye-to-eye with Parthians, Medes, Pamphylians, Romans, Cretans, Arabians, telling them about the wholeness God gives, putting it in their own thought frame, their own symbol system, their own language.
The Spirit has driven you and me out of our prayer room to help seekers find wholeness. That's Pentecost!
Now look again today out the windows of that upper room. The Parthians, the Medes, the Pamphylians are still down there in our streets, hungering for wholeness, pilgrims in search of inner peace.
Up here in this room you and I wait again for the Spirit, not really feeling special, spiritually.
We're capable people. But ordinary peopl~ in the things of the Spirit.
As you and I sit together in the quiet, you tell me your story.
Like Peter, James, and John, you've tried to follow Jesus for some time, but only so much of it really "takes."
You've sought Jesus for years in Sunday school. You've done time for Jesus on church committees and boards.
You've listened for Jesus in a thousand Sunday sermons. You gave money to Jesus, even wrote letters and made house calls on Jesus' behalf. Still, something's missing.
While He sweats blood at Gethsemane, you, with us, still fall asleep at His side.
While He gets crucified again and again at City Hall, on Capitol Hill, at Corporate Headquarters, or even at your own breakfast table, you, with us, only stand at a distance and watch. At a distance you don't say much. Nor do I. We simply ease away one more time into our own shadows with Peter and weep for want of a Pentecost in our own lives.
The wholeness isn't there. We don't really have our act together. Our spouses could tell you that. Some people at the office could tell you that.
Surely we're capable enough to have enjoyed some power in our friendships.
But we know there's a wholeness that's missing.
Where's the Pentecost that will open the flow of personal, emotional, and spiritual power within us?
Where's the Pentecost that will so ground us in ourselves that we will be less controlled by anxieties and fears? Where's the Pentecost that will break the dam of distrust within us and give us more of a flow of trust both of ourselves and of others?
So we sit in the upper room and wait for Pentecost.
And then the Spirit breaks loose.
God's order explodes into our order like a tornado rearranging the landscape of our psyche, like cleansing fire spreading through our souls.
Wind and fire sweep through this upper room of our habitual spirituality to upset the self-protective scene we have built around ourselves.
Maybe your Pentecost begins with the wind and fire that sweeps through your marriage,in some cases destroying the marriage entirely, in other cases radically rearranging the relationship.
But in the wake of the pain and struggle, you are learning at last how to love and how to be loved.
You are seeing how even through the wind and the fire God's Spirit is moving you toward wholeness.
Maybe your Pentecost begins with the wind and fire that shakes your family life to its foundations, when your son confesses he is gay, or when your daughter is hospitalized for depression, or when your son can no longer hide his addiction.
But now with professional help and much confrontation, and much reconciliation, you begin to see the flames that once seemed to sever family ties as the very fire that cauterized long-standing wounds.
You are seeing how even through the wind and fire God's Spirit is moving you toward wholeness.
Again, maybe your Pentecost begins with the wind and fire that leaves your career hopes in rubble, when the company power-play leaves you on the street, or when the budget crunch cuts all your work away, or when the people upstairs plot your demise.
But now, with the help of family and friends, you see yourself rise from the career ashes like a phoenix, not only with a new job, but also with sounder values and your head at last screwed on straight.
You are seeing how even through the wind and the fire God's Spirit is moving you toward wholeness.
However your Pentecost begins, the pattern's so often the same. Wind and fire shake your whole space, and traumatize you and me into new perceptions. We're beginning to see what it looks like to be human beings, to respond to God's Spirit in our lives. We're beginning to see the Spirit move us toward wholeness.
Then comes the climax of this contemporary Pentecost. The swirl of wind and fire above our heads turns into a pressure cooker within us that explodes into action we never knew we were capable of.
At some point we're on our feet, down the stairs reaching out to seekers in the streets below.
And what's amazing is how readily and naturally you can speak the language of those seekers, to share with another seeker in his or her own language the gift of wholeness.
What a gift of the Holy Spirit to be able to do that!
Look how speaking in other tongues happens today.
To speak another's language is to enter deeply into that other person's world to promote wholeness.
Maybe you are a surgeon who was once content to use your surgical skills on your cancer patients to remove tumors while letting the patient adjust to the process the best she or he could.
But then the wind and fire of Pentecost comes and now you find yourself driven by the Spirit to enter much more deeply into your patients' lives.
You start a center for holistic surgery.
You recruit a team of professionals to work with you in promoting peace and wholeness with patients, psychotherapists to help them focus on hope, physical therapists to help them learn to be at home in their bodies again.
You are helping seekers find wholeness. You are entering deeply into their lives, speaking in their language with God's gift of wholeness.
Or maybe you are the first woman executive in a corporation where the existing idea of management is more a matter of headship than leadership.
For a while, you are good at rules and regulations for making the employees do what you want them to do.
But then the wind and fire of Pentecost comes, and now you find yourself driven by the Spirit to enter much more deeply into your people's lives. You find yourself treating your staff as if they have capacity for creative input into company planning. You get help in learning really how to listen.
You begin working to reshape policy structures so the workers can begin owning more of the company work process and sharing more of the company vision.
You are entering more deeply into your employees' lives, speaking their language, with the gift of wholeness.
Or, maybe you were once a lawyer who enjoyed a sizable reputation for ably defending clients who had the money to pay for your services.
You know how to work the legal system to make things happen pretty much the way clients want them to happen.
For you, working for success and working for justice were not necessarily the same thing.
But then the wind and fire of Pentecost comes, and you find yourself driven by the Spirit to enter more deeply into your client's lives.
Your life-style now isn't as important as it used to be.
You surprise yourself by taking on more than a few clients who hardly have a dime, but who have been unjustly violated by the system.
You've fallen in love again with justice, and with the chance to be a part of others' quest for wholeness.
You are entering more deeply into your clients' lives, speaking their language with the gift of wholeness.
So, seeker, do you wonder if there's a place for you in the upper room?
Well, think again-Feel the wind of the Spirit against your face.
Feel the fire of the Spirit spread through your soul.
And listen, seeker, to how you're beginning to speak.
You're offering the gift of wholeness.
Pentecost has come!
And it comes again and again.
The theme of this sermon centers on the reenactment of Pentecost. That ancient event happens again today when the Holy Spirit surprises and empowers expectant Christians to share in depth the ways God brings wholeness with those seeking such wholeness. Many Christians at the Community Church in River Oaks may not see themselves as worthy or capable of being used by God to reach other people in this way. Therefore, the purpose of this sermon is so to involve them in the drama of the Acts 2 account that they will sense the possibilities of their becoming involved as the Holy Spirit's instruments of wholeness.
I begin with the congregation and seek to engage and expand their imaginations rather than admonish them. As they move out, I redraw the picture of the waiting disciples so that they are no longer distant images on the horizon. Then I combine the strange experience of wind and fire with the all-too-familiar struggles of many in the congregation until there is a fusion, an identity of the past with the present and the present with the past. The Word of God at Pentecost is a contemporary Word.
The specificity of the examples from personal circumstances, in part two, allows me to particularize about more controversial areas in public life in the final section. If the congregation can recognize that God may be involved in their own lives, they are better able to be led by the Spirit to be God's instruments in the world where they work and play and vote. Grace that is experienced grounds the call to service. The personal and the social are linked, not through ideological arguments, but in a theological understanding of grace. The affirmation of Pentecost compels a new approach to the world. A social analysis of the world of the biblical text and of the congregation enables a fresh and broader hearing of the Word of God.
1. David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1981), 389.
2. The conclusions from this paragraph are derived from the author's work with dozens of pastors who have worked with formation and feedback groups in their congregations.
3. Leander E. Keck, The Bible in the Pulpit (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), 63.
4. Fred B. Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), 26-27.
5 .Robert N. Bellah Ct al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 79.
6. Craddock, Preaching, 129.
7. Bernard Brandon Scott, The Word of God in Wor&s (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 16.
8. Craddock, Preaching, 55.
9. James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, Method in Ministry (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 82.
10. Albert van de Heuvel, quoted in Clyde Reid, The Empty Pulpit (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 67.
11 .Keck, The Bible in the Pulpit, 107.
12 Don Browning, The Moral Context of Pastoral Care (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 73.
13 Craddock, Preaching, 52, 137.
14. For more on this important subject see Craddock, Preaching, as well as James Sanders, God Has a Story Too (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979).
15. Scott, The Word of God in Words, 77.
16. Robert C. Worley, A Gathering of Strangers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), 81.
17. For particular help in understanding the social realities of a congregation, see Jackson W. Carroll, Carl S. Dudley, and William Mc Kinney, eds., Handbook for Congregational Studies (Nashville: Ahingdon Press, 1986).
18. For a helpful chapter on the comic, romantic, tragic, and ironic world views of congregations and how to identify them, see the chapter by Jackson Carroll and James Hopewell on congregational identity, Handbook for Congregational Studies, 21-47.
19. Whitehead, Method in Ministry, 76.
20. For a helpful survey of the literature on the communal orientation of the Israelite prophets, see John S. Kselman, "The Social World of the Israelite Prophets: A Review Article," Religious Studies Review, 11, 1985, 120-29.
21. See T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1954), 141-42.
22. Eugene C. Ulrich and William C. Thompson, "The Tradition as a Resource in Theological Reflection-Scripture and the Minister," in Whitehead, Method in Ministry, 36.
23. For a helpful review of the communal character of different schools of biblical criticism, see John Barton, Reading the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984).
24. Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philsdelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 74.
25. Norman K. Gottwald, "Sociological Method in the Study of Ancient Isrsel" in Encounter with the Text: Form and History in the Hebrew Bible, ed. M. J. Buss (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 69.
26.Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).
27. Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 32, 608.
28. Ibid., 607.
29.Tracy, Analogical Imagination, 274-75.
30. For more consideration of the values in such an approach to group Bible study, read Walter Wink, The Bible in Human Transformation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973).
31. For a summary of viewpoints and this consensus, see Robin Scroggs, "The Sociological Interpretation of the New Testament: The Present State of Research," in The Bible and Liberation: Political and Social Hermeneutics, ed. Norman K. Gottwald (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1983), 341-43.