Marking Time: Sermon as Meeting Place

February 23rd, 2011

For preachers, this third millennium can be an exhilarating time. The biblical text has been given back to us with its wild untamability intact. Preachers are invited to let the words of the text speak to them without an unrelenting skepticism that the “real” meaning lies hidden in an oral prehistory. The gifts of historical criticism are not set aside, but neither are they assumed to be the only lens through which to read the words on the page.

Surprise and delight are encouraged as the reader pays attention to odd details within the texture of the text. Doctrinal formulations are not abandoned but the preacher has the audacity to listen for a word that leaks out under confessions and creeds. The role of the reader is acknowledged in ways that affirm approaching the text in faith as a “living word.” The text is subject and the reader is subject, and the two are in conversation with each other. Thus, the sermon is a meeting place between the Scripture text and the community text. Each text has a unique voice. Both the Scripture text and the community text must be exegeted with attentiveness and care, not in order to be “relevant” but in order to hear God’s living word in its depth and particularity.

How does marking time shape our preaching? Hopefully, such an understanding of the interplay between text and time will energize and enliven our engagement with the Scripture texts themselves. As preachers we will be more confident in bringing insights from our own particular time into conversation with the texts and we will invite the congregation to do the same. The sermon does more than apply an ancient text to a contemporary setting as though the conversation goes only one way. Our experiences in this time of history also mark the text and we understand the text in a way that is different from any interpretation in the past. There may even be passages we could not have understood until the present time. Did we New Yorkers understand Lamentations 1 before the devastation of 9/11? Did American Christians have any idea what Exodus meant before African slaves sang the story out of their own experience of oppression? Did I grasp the meaning of Psalm 23 before I walked through the cemetery after saying the benediction over my father’s coffin?

How might we prepare a sermon from the perspective of marking time? Imagine that the Scripture text is the familiar story of Jesus feeding the five thousand in Matthew 14:13-21, a story found in some form in all four Gospels. The text has its own unique voice and we need to let it speak fully on its own terms. You might ask a member of the congregation to read the text aloud to you—then write your response without stopping or censoring.

Over a year’s time, fifty different members of the congregation could be engaged as readers and feel more of a stake in the sermon itself. If this seems too difficult, read the text from a Bible without any notes or underlining, trying to hear the text as you’ve never heard it before. Walk around and let your body respond. Where did you walk faster or slower or come to a full stop? How did you feel in the midst of this great crowd? Why the little after-thought about “women and children”? How many would there have been if the women and children were counted?

Pay close attention to the texture of the text, looking for repetitions, patterns, or contrasts. This is a deserted place, yet there is great abundance—for “all ate and were filled.” There’s an opposition between the words deserted and filled.

The beginning of this passage won’t let us stay within the boundaries of the appointed verses: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there . . .” Such an opening line always points us to what came before we entered the story. What did Jesus hear that made him withdraw? We go back to the previous verses and discover another banquet—Herod’s birthday dinner. This meal is not in a deserted place but in the king’s palace. There isn’t a great crowd, but a guest list limited to a chosen few. Were there abundant baskets of food left over after Herod’s guests were fed? There was only one horrible leftover: the head of John the Baptist served on a platter. Two very different banquets placed side by side in Matthew’s gospel, but we seldom hear these stories together.

How does our time mark this text and how do the contrasting stories of the larger text mark our time? There are deserted places in our communities, in our country, and in the larger world: what do these deserted places look like and how do they help us see and hear Matthew’s story? Where do we see the contrasts between “deserted” and “filled” where we live? The pictures may be close at hand: the line around the block at the food pantry or senior citizens making choices between needed prescriptions and groceries. Newspaper stories and photographs take us beyond our immediate neighborhood to the Ninth Ward of New Orleans or a mother and child waiting for U.N. food relief in the refugee camps of Darfur. Surely there are five thousand longing to be fed—“besides women and children.”

The text also marks our time, for these side-by-side stories challenge us not only to observe but also to respond. We have seen other banquets in our community, in our country, and in the larger world—tables heaped high with lavish mounds of food and the deadly cost of protecting wealth and power. Is Herod only an evil villain or captive to imperial arrangements he refused to challenge? Where do we see Herod’s banquet serving nothing but deadly leftovers? Do the priorities of Empire, whether ancient or modern, crowd out Jesus’ abundant banquet? In spite of these overwhelming and often depressing questions, Jesus comes into our time with words of challenge and hope: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” The sermon begins to take shape out of this lively conversation: our time marks the text of these two very different banquets and the text marks our time with urgent challenge and irrepressible hope.


Book excerpt from Marking Time: Preaching Biblical Stories in Present Tense, by Barbara K. Lundblad.

comments powered by Disqus