19 June 2017

Narrative Preaching

Yesterday morning I tweeted this, reflecting on the style of sermon I was offering:
This was somewhat confusing to some, so I'll clarify its meaning. And share the experience of trying out a new format for sermons: Narrative preaching. Yesterday was the first Sunday of a new sermon series on Genesis. I am a Lectionary preacher, so I am following the outline of the texts listed there, for the most part. The Sunday before last, June 11, was Trinity Sunday. Genesis 1:1-2:4 was the assigned Old Testament reading for the day, but Pastor Leon preferred to preach from the Matthew and 2 Corinthians texts. The next Sunday, June 18, the Lectionary jumped to Genesis 18:1-15. Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood... skipped. And several vital interactions with Abraham, specifically Chapters 12-17, were skipped. So we jumped from Creation to Sarah laughing from her tent in one week. Okay.

After June 18, the sermon series based on Lectionary texts goes to:

  • Abraham and Sarah sending Hagar and Ishmael away (who are these people? Their origins aren't included.) Genesis 21
  • The choosing of Isaac's bride (who is Isaac? Not included.) Genesis 24
  • The birth of Isaac and Rebekah's twin sons Genesis 25
  • Jacob's dream of a ladder between earth and heaven Genesis 28
  • Break from the Lectionary to address sexual violence in Genesis 34 & 38
  • Introduction of the Joseph cycle Genesis 37
  • End of the Joseph cycle Genesis 45
The Lectionary texts this summer do not introduce Abraham, one of the key characters of the Old Testament; instead it relays one story and moves on to his sons, grandsons, and great grandsons. I can't deal with that. In a conventional sermon on Genesis 18 I would have to introduce Abraham and Sarah and the Promise which made both of them laugh. The Promise of an heir to Abraham is one of the central tenets of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Skipping those stories, as the Lectionary does, robs Genesis of one of its underlying pillars-- the covenant between God and Abraham and Sarah. Then moving on to an adult Isaac's marriage to Rebekah skips the horrendous tale of Genesis 22, the completion of all the talk of the Promise in the previous ten chapters of Genesis. No, No, No.

For sermon planning, I was stuck in a difficult place: many church goers know the Abraham story. But many do not. Or they know only the highlights: Abraham followed God, Sarah went with them, they had a baby when they were both in their 90s, Abraham believed in God, God is faithful to God's promises. It's all good stuff, but it misses so much. Thankfully last week I pulled off the bookshelf a book I hadn't read in a while: Preaching Old Testament, by my former preaching professor and colleague in ministry Dr John Holbert. Here's one of the advantages of narrative preaching Holbert shares:

All ears prick up when the advent of a story is announced. Just say, 'Once upon a time,' and watch your hearers' anticipation play across their faces and surface in their eager movement toward you. If the first aim of preaching is to be heard, then a narrative, almost inevitably, will gain a hearing. If a second aim of preaching is to involve the hearers, then a narrative wins high marks on this score as well. 

Based on my own observations of the congregation during the sermon, plus the feedback following worship, I absolutely agree with John. People were engaged and listening, including many who normally become distracted during a traditional exposition/teaching sermon. Here are some of the comments I heard from people after worship:
"I loved that story."
"What a great way to share the whole story."
"I loved the narration approach."
"I really enjoyed that today."

Holbert even offered a sample narrative sermon on the sacrifice of Isaac story (Genesis 22) in Chapter 4 of his book. He used a metaphor of laughter throughout his sermon. In mine, I used a metaphor of a "well-worn leather suitcase," since Sarah and Abraham were life-long travelers. I brought my father-in-law's old leather suitcase, which I pulled out at the beginning of the sermon:

As I planned the sermon, I felt it was important to give a full context to Genesis 18. I briefly told the stories from:
  • Genesis 12: Abram's original calling to follow God and his plan to trick Pharaoh into believing Sarai was his sister
  • Genesis 15: The original covenant between Abram and God
  • Genesis 16: Sarai's plan for Abram to have a child with Hagar
  • Genesis 17: Circumcision and Abraham's laughter at the renewed Promise (God changed their names in this text)
  • Genesis 18: The assigned text of the day; Abraham and Sarah welcome guests, plus Sarah laughs at the Promise renewed
  • Genesis 21: They name their son Isaac, which means "laughter"
  • Genesis 22: Abraham nearly offers Isaac as a sacrifice
I began and ended the sermon with some exposition, so it was not 100% narrative; there was one takeaway for the congregation. I don't know how often I will use narrative preaching, but it is perfect for books like Genesis, Exodus, the Gospels, Acts, which are almost entirely narratives. I know those stories well, and I was comfortable preaching in this way. Honestly, it was the best sleep on a Saturday night before preaching in a long, long time. 

So preachers: give it a shot! It's fun. Buy John's book: $18 on Amazon. Layfolk: encourage your preachers to try a new method. Summer is a fun time to take a risk in worship. Take a listen to the sermon and let me know what you think:

03 June 2017

Wonder Woman

The days between Mother's Day and my wife Christy's birthday are called "Christymas" in our home. It's a time to celebrate her. According to the calendar, that range of days can be anywhere from two to eight days. I buy her little trinkets for each day. This year since I was traveling I lined out the gifts for her to open each day. One of the days included a Wonder Woman plastic water cup, some WW car fresheners, and... five tickets to take the boyos to see the new film on opening day at the Alamo Drafthouse, one of my favorite places on earth! We went yesterday. The whole experience was incredible.

Christy has loved Wonder Woman since she was a little girl. She wore her WW t-shirt. She posed front of the Metropolis background flying the invisible jet while wearing WW's crown and bracelets. I have great pictures but she banned me from sharing on social media.

Wonder Woman is not our first exposure to Gal Godot. She appeared in last year's otherwise disastrous Batman vs Superman movie (read my theological review here). She was by far the best part of that movie. Here's I said about her fifteen months ago:

And in a nod to the future JUSTICE LEAGUE movies coming soon, they partner with Wonder Woman, who is all kinds of awesome. She is a strong woman not defined by her looks or the men around her. Her powers to deflect Bruce Wayne's flirting are just as strong as the tools she uses against Doomsday. She'll get her own solo film next year.

And that solo film is a smash hit, one of the best of 2017. Debate is already happening online as to whether WW is the best DC, or any comic book, film of all time. I'll reserve comment on that; The Dark Knight has a solid hold somewhere in my top 5 all time.

This movie takes place (at least the prologue and epilogue; the actual setting of the film is during WWI) after the events of BvS. Bruce Wayne obviously knows her. Her first words (narration) are, "I used to want to save the world." And I thought: oh no, DC has gone and done it again. They've already made two depressing Superman movies, where he reluctantly identifies as a hero. His own father would rather die in a tornado than have his son reveal his powers to the world (what???). But the sentiment about saving the world doesn't mean that Wonder Woman has become jaded. It refers to the mindset she had when she first left Paradise Island to fight the battle she believed would end war forever. By the end of the movie (she repeats the same line again) she understands her place in the world differently. Here are a couple of lines that speak to her mission:

I loved this movie. It has all the action you want in a summer blockbuster/tent pole movie. It is hopeful and optimistic. Unlike Clark Kent, Diana Prince is not afraid to own her power. When it is time for battle, her focus in not where the others aim. She wants to save the hungry and the lost. When everyone else gives up on the innocent because the risks are too big or the outcome is not guaranteed, she leaps into action-- not needing the approval of the men or the experts around her. In fact, she publicly shames their laziness, cowardice, and complicity in the killing. Likewise, when they act justly she lauds them. Her example and bravery inspires the same in others. I wanted to jump out of the cinema and into battle alongside her as well.

There are also many sweet, funny moments in Wonder Woman. One of her companions, talking about his life before the war, says he wanted to be an actor, but was unable to because of the color of his skin. Another, an American Indian, says his people lost all they had to the ancestors of the Chris Pine character. The fifth member of the group is a Scotsman who was once a sure shot with a long range rifle. After years of war and violence he has lost this gift. But one night after a victory he's heard playing the piano and singing in a local pub-- the first time in years. The next morning, Wonder Woman encourages him to remain part of the group despite his doubts in himself: "You can sing for us."

The central theme of the movie is about the human character-- or the human condition, as we say in the church. Are we inherently good or evil? Are war and violence the result of the actions of a few individuals or is there something imperfect in all of us that leads to destruction-- the opposite of which could be our redemption? I would love for Justice League to pause the fighting (it's not going to happen, but roll with me for a second) and have its heroes and shero sit around a Thanksgiving table and debate their understanding of the human story: Batman, whose parents were murdered when he was a child and who grew up seeking vengeance; Superman, whose home planet was destroyed, growing up here as an alien in every sense of the word; and Wonder Woman, whose understanding of the world evolved with each step she took away from her insulated home.

But enough about Batman and Superman. There have been so many films about those guys, some good, some transcendent, some dubious. Today is the 75th anniversary of Wonder Woman. It's her day. #WonderWomanDay is trending on Twitter. I tweeted this out a coupe of hours ago-- check out the number of favorites and retweets vs. the tweet I listed above:

That's a ton of social media interactions! Go see the movie this weekend if you can. Boost the numbers. It's important. Take your girls, obviously. Also take your boys. I have three (15, 12, 9). We all loved it. We went as a gift for Christy (she was blown away, BTW). It turned out to be a gift for everyone. Have fun, share your experiences on social media, and embrace a more positive view of the human condition in these difficult days. We all need it.