Apologies up front – this is very much a ‘thinking out loud’ blog entry and may well descend into a bit of a rant. You have been warned! Even so, I’d appreciate your thoughts.
On Sunday I was leading the whole service and the choice of hymns, reading, sermon, etc was entirely mine. Over Advent we have spent a bit of time in Luke’s gospel and finished off towards the end of Luke chapter 2. I decided to pick up from that point and deal with a passage that isn’t (in my experience) covered very often – the incident of Jesus, as a boy, doing a bunk from the family group and being found in the Temple. I felt it fitted well with a Ne Year start as I believe the passage does a number of things, including giving a glimpse of Jesus’ future life, ministry and purpose but also leaving us with a challenge also very appropriate for the beginning of a new year and a new session – where would we expect to find Jesus if we went looking for Him?
OK, so that’s the background and now here’s the rant.
I received a comment that the sermon was a bit too ‘Bible-study’ and I think this harks back to the issue of story-telling. Basically, I didn’t weave much in the way of anecdotes into the sermon. Quite simply, I didn’t have any – at least none that made any contextual sense. Yes I have kids but I’ve never ‘lost’ them for several days and, quite frankly, that’s not the point of the passage. I could have spoken about the importance of being in church regularly but that would be to utterly miss the point. Precocious children? Possibly, but again, not the issue.
This passage is utterly focused on Jesus – His self-understanding, His mission and His purpose – and here is the root of my issue with stories and anecdotes. They’re not about Jesus! (Warning – rant time) I love theology. I love Biblical interpretation. My narrow-mindedness struggles to understand why others don’t love it too. I don’t need/want other stories to chew over – the ones from scripture are ‘chewy’ enough. And here’s another point – they’re not made up stories! People like hearing anecdotes because it makes things more ‘real’ for them. What!? The Bible isn’t ‘real’ enough? I think we often forget that the stories we read in scripture are real people, dealing with real situations. Even the metaphorical passages and the myths/sagas have real people behind them struggling with the real issue of making sense of God and of faith. How much more ‘real’ do you need?
I also think there’s a more subtle, insidious undercurrent to this as well. I think there is an element of “don’t explain the passage to me, just tell me what to think”. I hate doing this. I would much rather do a ‘Bible study’ approach, give people the pertinent details, point out the subtleties, the nuances, the allusions and let them start thinking for themselves (or, more importantly, begin thinking things through prayerfully and seeking the Spirit’s guidance).
OK, for this passage I simply couldn’t come up with a vaguely pertinent anecdote or personal story. Maybe that’s not an excuse and maybe my negative reaction is a defensive response to a criticism that makes me wonder if I tried hard enough during preparation. It also doesn’t mean I don’t see the value of stories – in their place.
I have also been wondering about another aspect of this. I claim to love theology and Bible study but when I deliver from the pulpit I suspect it comes across as dry and academic. I’ve spoken to people about theology and they’ve commented that they can tell I’m passionate about it. Maybe that’s part of what I need to be doing – passing on that passion.
I do think that the ‘stories’ we have in scripture are more than adequate and that they really don’t need to be augmented with lesser anecdotes. I do think that people need to be led into really thinking about them, seeing them as ‘real’ and relevant, not just as dusty history or dry theology. I was also told that my job is to ‘sell the message’. I don’t agree – the message is there for people to take to themselves in the power of the Spirit, not me. Charismatic preaching often lasts only as long as the charismatic teacher. When we learn to read and understand for ourselves we rely only on our relationship with God. We undoubtedly need others to bounce our understanding off and to provide the checks and balances for our own interpretation, but we should not be relying on others to tell us what to think.
I suppose, if nothing else, it all gives me a sense of what sort of ministry I would see myself in. But, of course, that’s not to suggest I’ll be given that luxury.
OK, rant over, for the moment. As you were.