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Preaching and Praxis

17 March 2020

Theological Education Adviser at Christian Aid, Sue is a facilitator and biblical study guide writer. She works in the formation of ministers connecting issues of justice and poverty with the practice of faith.

Preaching and Praxis

When I told family what I was writing for The Preacher they said, ‘But you’ve spelled it wrong!’ They thought I meant ‘practice’, which was partly correct of them, but I insisted on ‘praxis’. Why? Because ‘praxis’ is a useful word for illustrating the organic connection between what we believe and what we do, a dynamic that I am convinced can enlarge our preaching, even when the practical experience of the sermon is of one person in a pulpit speaking and others (respectfully) listening from their pews.

When preaching for Christian Aid I have tried to respect the lectionary, but also to seek to bring from the scripture it offers something more than explanation. In the spirit of a holistic faith, believing that God is active in and committed to this creation, I want to share the challenges of our world and relate them to God’s desire for justice and for peace. I hope for a recognition that we can find that desire resonating in both the Word we hear and in the lived experience that we bring with us to church. And find in that resonance inspiration and support for a commitment to transform ourselves and our world.

My belief that the Word can be a source of concrete transformation and not just a source of knowledge or instruction has come from exposure to how the Bible is read in Brazil, primarily, but also in other parts of the global South. Friends and colleagues through their work have shown that scripture can come alive for groups of very ordinary and often very poor people in a way that inspires change in themselves as individuals and in their communities. I suggest that here too this what a preacher is called to enable. The Word is entrusted to our care and we are invited to break it open so that it might resonate anew with its latest audience in their hearts and, importantly, in their lives. It seems to me that the processes through which Brazilians read the Bible are hugely helpful to anyone trying to communicate scripture when it is shared in liturgy.

I typically write a sermon at the last minute, but I will have spent much time beforehand ‘mulling’ the text. I read it through carefully and then allow it to sit in my thinking as I go about my everyday life. Here I am responding from a position ‘in front of the text’, as a reader shaped by a very specific context and experience. I will have some initial reactions and thoughts but for a while I let the text lurk, just below the level of consciousness, and there it is poked and provoked by what I read or what happens in the time that follows. The news sets off a sharp snap of recognition, the comment of a friend causes some new reflection on a well-worn phrase. I am mindful of Karl Barth’s (misquoted) words that we should read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

But if this was all my preparation, I could be justifiably criticised for sharing only my emotional reactions and opinions from the pulpit. So alongside, I need to spend time moving ‘within the text’ in close reading and with a number of fundamental understandings to guide the process.

Whatever we say about scripture is an interpretation. However hard we try, as with any attempt at human communication, words and texts carry many different meanings, depending upon the response from the reader or listener. We know that the canonical scripture we read from today is an assembly of writings from several millennia and has been through a process of choice and arrangement to become what we have in our Bible, today. Choice is an interpretation. Arrangement is an interpretation. The narrative created by our four evangelists is the result of choice and interpretation and we are not even their first audience.

So the text invites us to choose and arrange with thoughts and with words that are appropriate for our time and our lives, and we can celebrate that through an approach that while it is faithful to what is written, conscious of its origin and history, is also inventive, courageous, questioning and even playful as we encounter it today. My first step is always to examine my initial response to the passage. After careful reading, verse by verse, I reflect on what has struck me. Is there a word or a phrase attracting my attention? Are these new reactions from me? In what way has the passage surprised me and has reading it provoked any questions, or even criticism of what is expressed there? Where, for example, is the mother in the parable of the Prodigal Son?

I like to continue by asking what exactly is going on in this passage? This usually means recognising that much is already familiar to us because it has been explained by others and so we carry some assumptions about the text that we need to bring to awareness. To help here I like to find the verbs, the doing words that move the text on. There are more verbs in the Bible than any other form of words. They tell us what is actually happening, and they lead us on to consider the actors in the text. Who are these characters and what are they doing particularly? Reading this way with communities from very different contexts is a revelation here as they often characterise things that we think of as inanimate.

A Canadian colleague in role play of the very short passage in Mark where Jesus is ‘driven’ by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13) chose to ‘be’ the wilderness, which for him had incredible complexity as he had grown up amongst it. Communities with a close connection with the land can find character in the different soils of the parable of the Sower, and those whose culture incorporates the sacredness of their environment reinforce for us that for biblical writers the mountains, the valleys, the fields and the rivers all had personality and can be found clapping, witnessing to, as well as judging their human co-creation. Entering imaginatively in this way at this moment in our history must surely open up doors for us to consider our ecological relationships and the challenge of our climate emergency.

The way the characters are described (the adjectives) then invites us to think carefully about some of our basic assumptions of our understanding. The master who shares out the talents in Matthew 25:24 is described as ‘a hard man,’ reaping where he did not sow. We see an exploiter, yet our traditional interpretation of this story is that he stands for God. When we also go ‘behind the text’ to learn about the context in which it was shaped and how much a talent was worth and discover that one talent equalled 20 years of wages for an average worker we might wonder about the kind of economic activity that would generate the profit declared by the first two servants. We might find ourselves questioning our allegorical (and traditional) understanding that this story is all about how we use our ‘talents’ for God’s purpose in the world. We might be encouraged to look again at our current economic policies and strategies with regard to extractive practices. We would be supported by some controversial reading from the global South, where the burier of the talent is actually the hero!

We can recall other instances where the Bible talks about money (which is often) and bring them into conversation with this passage on which we are focussed, either to reinforce or to critique. While we need to remember that the Bible is distanced from us and our community by time and situation so we should not move too quickly to make equivalence between historic times and our own, the human experience shared with us from our poorest communities often finds commonalities in scripture when it addresses issues of power or poverty that call for a prophetic voice then and now.

The contribution that this exercise makes to our preaching is to offer us a range of thoughts we can share about how this text is speaking into our situation today and what might be our response. It is tempting to make some assertions about what should be done, but the movement from preaching to praxis needs to be a process of discernment and based more on questions than pronouncement.

We look to the Bible to help us lead faithful lives. Our encounter with it as preacher or audience is an invitation not merely to hear words, however wise or revered, but to make those words come alive in us. They are not a blueprint but a framework with room for our exploration, our questions, our imagining and our knowledge; a conversation of two partners: God and his world, our belief and our actions, our minds and our hands.

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