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Excerpt from Chapter 1

Excerpt from From Gospel to Sermon : Preaching Synoptic Texts

Tell Me the Stories of Jesus

The Weekly Dilemma

It is Monday morning... again. You are sitting in your study, the lectionary texts for next Sunday open before you, staring you in the face: Proverbs 1:20-33 ... James 3:1-12 ... Mark 8:27-38.

     Which one do you choose? You have always been drawn to narrative texts; they are so much easier to preach. You begin to look more closely at the lesson from Mark. You read the passage silently, then gaze out the window at the church lawn while you brood. Nothing happens. You read the words out loud. Still, nothing grabs you. It sounds so familiar. Where in the story is something to preach about this week? You sit with your question for a few minutes, then walk down to the kitchen to heat some water for tea, hoping for inspiration to come.

     Nearly fifty times year, as many as two thousand times in the course of our ministry, we preachers find ourselves staring at a biblical text with next Sunday's deadline looming. With the open Bible in front of us, and a blank sheet of paper on the desk (or a new document open in the word processor), we find ourselves in search of a message. "How am I to speak a fresh word from this text?" The weekly search for an original insight, for a new angle, for an intriguing perspective, for a creative and effective way to proclaim the word, is both a significant responsibility and a daunting challenge.

     As if the sheer number of occasions on which the preacher is called "to get up a sermon," as Fred Craddock put it, were not intimidating enough, consider that the same texts keep coming up again and again. While the Common Lectionary offers the preacher significant benefits, it also means that the preacher will face the identical set of texts every third year. The memories of sermons past, or perhaps just the ingrained patterns of our interpretative style, seem to lead us down the same habitual journeys from text to sermon (just as our sermons tend to picture Jesus walking barefoot down the same dusty paths week after week). Can we preachers open our ears so that we can hear what the readings for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B have to say to us this year that they have not already said three, six, or nine years ago?

     Twenty minutes later, you are back in your study. The caffeine has kicked in, and you have a new burst of energy. Peter's Confession. What can I say about it this year? Your eyes pause briefly on the quarterly journal of preachers' helps lying unopened on the corner of your desk, but you resist the temptation. Though it's written by professional biblical scholars, you've never found it to be that helpful. When you begin with your own hunches about a text, it always seems to lead to a better sermon.

     Something occurs to you. You look through the files of last year's sermons, and sure enough, there it is. The end of last August, less than eleven months ago, you preached on the same story. "Child of the Living God, Child of Jonah" you called your sermon. You look back at the text from Mark and notice something about verse 29:

He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah.

"The phrases you based your whole sermon on last year aren't even in Mark. Peter doesn't call Jesus "Son of the living God," and neither does Jesus call Peter "son of Jonah." As you look more closely, you see a number of other differences as well.

     But can this kind of pondering lead to a sermon? You are looking at something that's in the text... or, rather, not in the text... but will it preach? You can imagine exactly which members of the congregation would fold their arms and lean back in the pews...

     This is part of the dilemma when we preach from the gospel lesson for the day. We have all noticed howsome stories keep appearing. Any number of stories are assigned two out of three years, some every year. How do we preach from different versions of the same "stories"? Do we preach essentially the same sermon, making sure we keep the details right depending on which text we are preaching from? Or are there other possibilities?

     Some would argue that it doesn't really matter. Some read the gospels as simply a historical record of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. From this perspective Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are windows into past events. We read them to learn what really happened, to hear the things that Jesus said and see the things he did. According to Mark, Peter said to Jesus, "You are the Messiah." Matthew corroborates Mark and adds an additional detail that otherwise we would not know. Peter goes on to say, "the Son of the living God." From this perspective, differences between or among the gospels are not significant for the preacher.

     Other readers are not so sure. They wonder if there is not something interesting and worthwhile to be found in the very diversity of the gospels. Redaction criticism is one approach to this question. Redaction critics study the ways in which Matthew, Mark, and Luke have edited the traditional material that has come to them. Paying attention to the differences among versions of a pericope can yield insight into the theological agendas of the authors, but is there more to be discovered? Can we gain a full understanding of Mark's message by focusing only on those places where Mark differs from Matthew and Luke?

As you keep reading the text, you begin to see other ways that the Markan Confession is different from the version you preached on last year. In Matthew's version, Peter receives high praise indeed.

Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
(Mt. 16:17-19)

But in Mark, Peter receives none of these compliments. He answers Jesus, "You are the Messiah." The only response Jesus makes is to "sternly order" the disciples "not to tell anyone about him." No praise, no recognition of divine inspiration, no conferral of a new name, no granting of leadership within the church, not even a hint that Peter answered the question correctly!

     You leaf backward and forward through Mark and think about the picture of the disciples that Mark is painting. It's not so complimentary. They seem so obtuse, so slow to learn, so quick to say something totally inappropriate. In the end, all of the twelve fail Jesus: Judas betrays him, Peter denies him, the other ten flee from him when he is arrested. None of the twelve encounters the risen Christ or receives a Great Commission at the end of Mark as they do at the end of Matthew.

     You see that Mark's account of Peter's Confession is different from Matthew's, but you are beginning to see that their stories-as-a-whole are different as well. Is the way Mark narrates Peter's Confession somehow related to the way he tells the whole story? Is the meaning of the part somehow tied up in the meaning of the whole? Is there a sermon here?

     By asking questions like these, preachers are moving beyond reading the gospels as history and are beginning to read the gospels as works of narrative literature. While continuing to affirm that God has worked through the historical events described by the biblical narratives, I also want to affirm the importance of the narratives themselves. By the way they tell us the story, the evangelists are making their witness to the church about the meaning of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

What Do We Mean by the "Stories of Jesus"

     The title of this chapter is taken from gospel song "Tell Me the Stories of Jesus" written by William Parker in 1885

Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear,
things I would ask him to tell me if he were here:
scenes by the wayside, tales of the sea,
stories of Jesus, tell them to me.

     This phrase can be taken in two very different ways. The more obvious way is to think of the "stories of Jesus" as the individual episodes that took place during Jesus' career, the events to which the four gospels witness: Peter's Confession, Feeding the Five Thousand, Welcoming the Children, Calming the Storm at Sea, etc. This is surely what William Parker had in mind when he wrote the hymn. The gospels contain dozens of stories when we think of them this way... "scenes by the wayside, tales of the sea."

     But what if we think of the "stories of Jesus" in another sense? Whatever else they may be, each of the four gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--is a story about Jesus. Or to put it more precisely, each is a telling of the same story. We might even think of them as four sermons preached on the same text. Each gospel writer has proclaimed the story of Jesus in a particular way. They begin at different places, end in different ways, and portray the various characters differently. Each conveys a particular theological understanding of the meaning of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Each addresses a particular audience, a church in its own situation facing unique challenges and opportunities. Each appropriates the story of Jesus for a particular purpose, whether it be to guide, to challenge, to comfort, to exhort, or to reassure the church. Toward that end, each emphasizes some things and glosses over others, includes some incidents and leaves out others, places greater stress on some details and less on others. These four tellings of the story of Jesus show that the four evangelists had diverse talents in the art of preaching, a differing way with words, peculiar patterns of speaking and writing, and unique gifts of storytelling.

     What are the "stories of Jesus" that we preach? Are they self-contained episodes, each with its own message? Or are they stories-as-a-whole that convey the faith and understanding of each of the evangelists? I am encouraging preachers to think of each gospel as a story-of-the-whole. The shift that I am proposing offers new possibilities to preachers seeking a fresh look at overly familiar texts.

     When we treat gospel lessons as self-contained stories of Jesus, each one in effect becomes a parable with its own message to preach, its own point to make, its own lesson to teach. After a lifetime of hearing these stories in Sunday School, children's sermons, and church services, and then years of preaching these same stories over and over, we lose the capacity to be surprised by them. Traditional interpretations of those stories ring so loudly in our ears that we cannot hear a new word. They ought to excite the spirit and stir the imagination, but our hearts feel strangely unwarmed.

     I am convinced that the new narrative critical studies of the gospels, one of the creative edges of recent biblical scholarship, offers immense promise for preachers. I am calling on preachers to think of the "stories of Jesus" as the four stories-as-a-whole told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I am urging preachers to read lectionary texts not as isolated stories but as an integral part of the fabric of a larger narrative. I am arguing that the meaning of those isolated stories unfolds when read in the context of the narrative-as-a-whole. There is untapped promise in pursuing such an approach. By inviting the gospels to speak to us as whole narratives, we can move beyond habitual readings of all-too-familiar stories, allowing the gospels to surprise us with insight we did not expect.

     Nineteen centuries before the contemporary turn to narrative preaching, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were preaching the good news through the medium of narrative. (Paul was also preaching the good news, but he used the medium of logical discourse rather than story). The evangelists were narrative preachers. Like all storytellers, they conveyed their understanding of the story--their sense of its meaning--by the way they told it, by the way they added or left out details, by the way they described its various characters. When we listen to Garrison Keillor's stories of Lake Wobegon, we notice how much of the storyteller's point-of-view gets communicated to the listener by the simplest things... a subtle inflection in his tone of voice, a well-chosen detail added to the narration at just the right moment. I am suggesting that the four evangelists were already doing in their first century contexts what preachers and storytellers are doing today.

--from From Gospel to Sermon : Preaching Synoptic Texts, by David Ourisman. © March 2000, David Ourisman used by permission.

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