Many readers of Pilgrim Preaching know that I'm on a year long sabbatical from my teaching post in New Testament at Luther Seminary. My writing project is a book on preaching from Paul's letters. Preaching from the letters is risky: we can lapse into scolding our congregations ("I am Paul; you are the boastful, bigoted, fractured Corinthians"). We can wield a Pauline vice list like a blunt instrument, or present the fruits of the Spirit as a To Do list. Or we can turn everything Paul said into something it isn't: cheap grace.
No wonder preachers in lectionary-based worship choose the gospel reading upwards of 75% of the time! Even so, I want to see if together we can't do a better job of preaching from Paul.
Narrative sermons from Pauline texts?
I started this project thinking that the problem with epistles preaching was that preachers did not use what we know about narrative when we preach Paul. We know that stories draw people in. A story can inspire empathy for another's plight and spark the imagination for something better, both for the other and ourselves. Why not explore preaching Pauline texts with narrative sermon forms? All of Paul's churches had stories to tell; the letters have back stories. Moreover, they participate in the story Paul and his hearers are writing together as they try to live in Christ. I thought my book would document those Pauline stories and encourage narrative preaching from epistles texts.
Some of that original inspiration may still find its way into my work, but the bloom is rather off the rose of "narrative" for me at the moment. Some of it has to do with listening to a significant number of unintelligible narrative sermons in the not-too-distant past. Some of it has to do with not wanting to abandon the letter form and its non-narrative elements before I've explored more carefully how they might come to life in preaching. Some of it just seems beside the point: let's explore the texts before we decide that we should make them something they're not.
The plan is still to work letter by letter through all thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament. The Revised Common Lectionary includes something like 136 distinct texts from Paul's letters. Many of them are assigned in a lectio continua fashion, which means that the lectionary developers chose to stick with a particular letter through several non-festival Sundays. This arrangement of the lectionary is a lucky break for those who might want to sustain engagement with a particular letter through a number of Sunday sermons. If I end up writing what I'm planning, my book will offer initial remarks on each letter, then comment minimally (about 1000 words) on each of the texts from that letter that appear in the lectionary. In either an introduction or a conclusion, I'll add more general observations about themes that emerged during a year of reading Paul toward the task of preaching.
Already some themes seem to be occurring in my writing. Already, too, some questions are taking shape that I believe will accompany the work throughout the year. My next posts here will explore these themes and questions in more depth. Here is the list of topics I have so far. I'd be grateful for any you would like to add in the comments here.
We're in this together.
Jesus and us, Jews and gentiles, insiders and outsiders, you and me, Paul and those to whom he writes, strong and weak: the list of possible opposing groups who, according to Paul, are really not opposed seems to go on and on in his letters.
Some of the rap on Paul is that he did not know or care as much as he should have about the decades of Jesus' life and the years of his ministry before Good Friday. That criticism is not entirely without merit. I want to look at how the cross defines Paul's understanding of Christ and his work. I also keep seeing the cross in Paul's understanding of what constitutes life "in Christ." I think this will matter for how we preach Paul—just a guess.
How is the church's story related to Israel's story?
All of my graduate training was focused on exploring how Paul used Israel's scripture, and how he connected the story of Jesus with the story of God's choice of Abraham and his family as those through whom the whole would would be blessed. I wonder, will this theme of continuity between the testaments emerge as I read through the letters, and if it does, what will be its implications for preaching?
How is Paul's vision for the church related to the Empire?
For the last 15 or 20 years, it has been fashionable in my field to read various parts of the New Testament as offering subtle (or not-so-subtle) critiques of Roman imperial power and then to point out how the critique logically extends to American imperialism, or globalization, or some other 21st century principality or power. I am skeptical about the claims (they fit so tidily into our current context and are often articulated by rather privileged "tenured radicals"), but I am also curious with respect to how these themes may be discerned in Paul. I wonder whether the critique of imperialism is present in Paul. Is it represented differently in different letters? How does it relate to other themes present in his theology? I'm curious: What will we find in the letters and, embedded as many of us are in our own Empire, how will we preach what we find?
What of justice and justification?
During my senior year of seminary, I attended a conference on "justice and justification." I do not remember much about the papers presented, but the title has always stuck with me. Almost no one I know can hold these two ideas in their mind at the same time. Can Paul? And if he can, how does he do it, and does his way of doing it give us anything to go on if we want to try to hold such things together in sermons, or in the common life of a congregation and a neighborhood?