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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — When Scripture Hits Too Close to Home

Hello everyone! It's a beautiful day in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; I'm weekending in the region and was a little worried when I couldn't find a stable internet connection this morning to get AtM out to you, as the blogpal on the go. But here I am, and here we go!

I want to ask other matriarchs what they do when the scripture passage for the week is one that is either too close, or has become one's personal agenda for some reason.

Of late, God has been dealing with me personally and the passages that have been assigned for the Sundays are ones that either convict me personally, or touch me deeply. Today's lessons are specifically difficult for me.

I feel that I don't have the "space" to deal with the passages objectively (as if we ever deal with scripture objectively?). I know it is inappropriate to deal with my personal issues in the sermon--it makes the sermon too much about me and not enough about God. But at the same time I want to make the sermon personal to the congregation so that it touches them.

It's good that you're aware of your "objective" limitations, write our matriarchs. But even with those, the personal touch often is what helps the congregation connect with your sermon. The thing to do is to keep the former issue in mind while you're working on the personal touch. As Ann notes, "Good for you for not working out your personal issues on your congregation; that sets up a weird dynamic. We had a male priest with a midlife crisis who preached every week - all about him."

In other words, the pulpit shouldn't be about a pastor's self-help hour. Ann continues that enablers and "helpers" loved it. But just the same, as a layperson in Ann's circle notes, "I would rather have a priest speak from their personal experience as to how they struggle with scripture or are inspired by scripture (or both on the same day) than make it all about God." Ann talks about the reflective process she uses: Go ahead and make your "first-draft sermon" the deeply personal one, and then distill from that its spiritual significance and make that part of your second-draft sermon. I'm paraphrasing a bit, but here's what Ann says:

Go into it deeply as though you were writing a sermon but don't preach that one. It is okay to share your struggles with a text and how sometimes the scriptures touch upon your personal journey, but you do not have to (nor should you) cast it as though you want your congregation to help you with your problems.

Perhaps if you can look at your feelings and remember some other times when you had those feelings. Are there other Scripture passages that speak to those feelings or that have characters going through similar things. Is there a movie where the characters wrestled with these issues? or a book or story you read? Maybe you can find an example that is not so personal.

Sermons are not just about God but about how the Bible lessons speak of God in our midst, and how people of those days experienced God and is there any thing for us today in that? I see sermons as connecting THE story (as in scripture) with our stories. Our stories are a continuation of the story of the people of God and how we work that out.

After all, being in relationship with God is a great way to talk about God, isn't it? Perhaps seeing how you have had a wake-up moment will help folks connect with theirs. As Jan says:

This could be a golden opportunity to share your own faith story — just in an appropriate way. Without know the particulars of which you speak, it's hard to know if this would work, but I'm reminded of the Gandhi story about drinking milk:

Mother of a child who refuses to drink his milk travels at great expense to take her child to see Gandhi, his hero. She figures that if Gandhi tells her child to drink his milk, he'll listen. She and son have an audience with Gandhi and she shares her problem. Gandhi tells her to come back in a week and then he'll offer his wisdom.

So she and the son, again at great expense, hang out for a week and then return to Gandhi for a second audience. Gandhi looks directly at the young son and simply said, "Drink your milk" and the boy said, "Okay, I will." And the mother is appalled, asking, "Why did you make us wait a week before you could tell my son to drink his milk?" And Gandhi said, "Because I wasn't drinking my milk."

If not too painful/personal/damaging to your cred, this might be the time to share that a particular passage has convicted you because you hadn't been "drinking your milk."

Another suggestion, this time from one of Ann's colleagues:
Sometimes our personal issues are "everywoman's" issues. If that's the case, I say go for it. But be very careful about pronouns. It's especially important to use "we" and "our" as opposed to the singular "I" and the plural "you." I think it's really important to reflect on what's happening in the parish that might be similar to some of the issues you're dealing with. Start out with your story (succinctly) and then expand it to the readings and the universality of the issue.

Couple of final notes. If you simply must stay away from your personal issues for any reason, you can try approaching the Scripture a little differently by reading a couple of challenging commentaries and seeing if a more universal issue comes out of that, suggests Ann's colleague. Or, as Jan adds, you could not preach the lectionary that week.

Hope that helps. How about the rest of you?


  1. All good and wise suggestions for getting into the text and walking with it as it also walks with us in our lives....while keeping a healthy distance at the same time.

  2. Whether we like it or not, the sermon does reflect who we are and what we are struggling with. That is scary: we reveal who we are everytime we preach. When I was in seminary, I went to hear a prof preach at the big downtown church. She never alluded to anything going on in her life. When we left, I looked at my companion and said, "her marriage is in trouble". Her husband left her shortly after that. What we choose as examples, the text we choose, unconsciously reflect our struggles. If we reflect on what we are preaching, we can see the Holy Spirit at work on our lifes, helping us be the people God calls us to be.

    When I preach out of my body, out of what is happening to me right now, my congregation has responded and the sermons have touched them more deeply than other sermons where I try to hide who I am .

    This is not to say the sermon is about the preacher; it is not. But the preacher is in some way the sermon.

    I don't like preaching Luke because that gospel indicts me. But, I pray through the working of the spirit that God may transform me even as I preach.

  3. Recently I found the binding of Isaac very personally challenging and painful. Because the concern in my life is present, and not past, I didn't preach about it, especially because my primary feeling was despair! I went at the text in other ways, and I continued to ruminate on it right into the following week, using other lenses than my usual "what happened to me this week" perspective. In the end working on the passage at a slight distance helped me with my own difficulties, or so it would seem a few weeks down the road.

  4. On the occasions when I preach I realize that I have to walk a fine line between humanizing myself in a way that helps people relate to me personally, and giving witness to the Gospel in a way that is accessible to everyone in the congregation. I know a pastor who was called out by members of his church council for spending too much time in his sermons on his own life stories and not enough time connecting those stories to the lectionary texts, so I remind myself of his experience when, as the song goes, "I want to talk about me, I want to talk about I..."

  5. Excellent stuff...A sermon is for the preacher as much as it is for the pewsitter. Through the sermon God is speaking to all in the community. That includes the ordained.


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