Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 16, 2020
6th Sunday after Epiphany
Psalm 119:1-8; Matthew 5:21-37
In today’s portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus plays the role of Rabbi. Because he recognizes that being faithful to God takes more than following the Ten Commandments verbatim, Jesus boldly takes the old law and helps the people hear it anew. Jesus engages with the text and makes it applicable to the culture of 1st Century Palestine.
In his classic work, Christian Doctrine, Shirley Guthrie notes that being a student of the Bible can be riddled with danger. To read the Bible properly, Guthrie wrote, we must read it with the intention of learning “who God is and how we may live faithfully in God’s presence.” Furthermore, when we encounter difficult passages it is wise to examine other passages that might throw more light on the question at hand. In other words, we must listen to the “total witness of scripture, not just selected passages that support what we already think and want to hear. When anyone argues that ‘the Bible says’ this or that, it is important to ask, ‘Is that all the Bible says…?’”[i]
Engaging God’s word—wrestling with the text in new ways—the practice is as old as Scripture itself. Take the Jewish Midrash, for example. Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig explains that the ancient practice of Midrash offers a commentary, generally on the Torah. In this type of preaching, rabbis allow themselves creative license to help explain the story.[ii] The Midrash offers a way of examining Scripture that moves beyond the literal sense of the text, examines it from various sides, and fills in the gaps, all in an effort to penetrate its deepest meaning. You likely noticed that I chose The Message translation for this morning’s gospel reading. I did so because, much like a midrash, Eugene Peterson takes creative license to help us understand the story afresh.
When it comes to other styles of preaching, once upon a time, expository messages were all the rage—sermons that took on specific texts and interpreted them verse by verse. Extemporaneous preaching came into vogue in the 19th century, with the preacher saturating himself with details beforehand and then delivering the message without the use of notes. Topical sermons present a specific theme and then examines it using a variety of biblical references. I have a friend who prefers this style although she acknowledges that it sometimes feels like preaching “The Gospel According to Hallmark.”
More recently, narrative sermons that rely on stories to tell THE STORY have become popular. One way of using narrative preaching is to tell the story using a 1st person monologue. The most creative monologue I ever heard was on the character of Jonah, told from the perspective of a fly that got stuck on Jonah’s shoulder after he was vomited up on the beach. With one wing stuck in the muck, the fly tried just as desperately to get away from Jonah as Jonah had tried to get away from God. The incredible monologue made the story come alive—for people of all ages.
While preaching and teaching styles have changed from generation to generation, so have music styles. When it comes to choosing worship music, I enjoy variety. At our First Friday Contemplative Services, for example, as an offering of prayer, we sing Taizé pieces from the hymnal or short choruses I write to be accompanied by guitar. For Sunday morning worship, tried and true traditional hymns are chosen as well as contemporary pieces that are played on the piano—often as the middle hymn.
Contemporary music, in its early years, garnered lots of followers. It had more than its share of critics, too. The criticisms often concerned its lack of theological depth and its focus on individualism. My friend Heather who is a chaplain and accomplished musician calls those years the era of “Jesus is my Boyfriend Music.” Thankfully though, this style of music has greatly improved.
Of course, historically, the Psalter was the original hymn book of the Hebrew people. Instead of reading them or reciting them, the people sang them. Psalms flowed through their spiritual blood in ways that, sadly, have become foreign to us. So, in an effort to bring new life to an old practice, this morning I’ve asked Donna and Kinney for assistance. Please turn your attention to the inset in your bulletin underneath the sermon title. To start us off, Kinney will sing the refrain twice and then we will join him to sing it twice. Thereafter, we will read the parts responsively and sing the refrain where noted. Let us sing a new-old song unto the Lord.
The Word of God[iii]
Refrain: Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. (Sing twice.)
Oh, how I love your law! All the day long it is in my mind.
Your commandment has made me wiser than my enemies, and it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my study.
I am wiser than the elders, because I observe your commandments. [Refrain]
I refrain my feet from every evil way, that I may keep your word.
I do not shrink from your judgments, because you yourself have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.
Through your commandments I gain understanding; therefore I hate every lying way.
Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path. [Refrain]
Whether with words or music, our ways of communicating the message of God’s love are ever-changing—or at least they should be! Down through the ages, biblical interpretations have changed; sermon styles have changed; music has changed, too.
In the February newsletter, I wrote an article about our upcoming Lenten practice—something that will require change. From Ash Wednesday through Maundy Thursday, instead of the usual Wednesday night program and catered meal, we will meet for Wednesday Welcome Table from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. In the style of what new church developers are calling “dinner church,” we will share food prepared by individuals and/or teams who create something healthy and delicious for us to enjoy. Wednesday Welcome Table will begin with a short prayer. Then, as Donna plays contemporary hymns or other arrangements, we will fill our plates—to overflowing—I daresay. Once everyone is seated, we will examine Scripture and other inspiring readings. We will sing songs accompanied by guitar or other instruments. Finally, we will conclude with the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday and with Holy Communion on the remaining evenings of Lent.
To be relevant in each generation, the church is invited to bravely consider new ways of being the church in and for the world. The Wednesday Welcome Table is one such new way—one such experiment—if you will. And here is a personal invitation from your pastor. Even if you never attend our Wednesday programs, come at least once. That way, when we complete our Lenten practice, you can help assess the results. If dinner church does not make enough of a positive impact to continue, we will chalk it up to a good experience, bless it, and let it go. If it holds promise, however, we may consider adopting the model—or portions of it—when we return from our summer break in August.
With all the courage we can muster, let us look to Rabbi Jesus for how to take the old and help people experience it anew. Who knows what we might learn by stepping out in faith to try new ways of exploring Scripture? Who knows what we might learn by teaming up to make healthy, delicious foods that appeal to a wider range of people? Who knows what we might learn by including more contemporary songs in a worship setting? Who knows?
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 10-13.
[ii] Jana Childers, ed., Birthing the Sermon, 185.
[iii] Adapted from Psalm 119: 97-105.
*Cover Art by James Tissot via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain