Monday, March 15, 2010

The Communal Word Progress Report

Before Lent began, I wrote a little about the Wednesday evening programs I'm leading during this reflective season. I'm loosely following a practice that Doug Pagitt and Solomon's Porch follow, which is to discuss the scripture text for the following Sunday and develop the sermon as a group.

We've been doing this for three weeks now, and I think it's been going well. I start off each session by having people say their name and then answer some silly question to get the jaw muscles working a little.

I then introduce the three non-psalter texts suggested by the lectionary. This has evolved every week. The first week, I thought that we'd read the first text, talk about it a little, and then move to the next until all three had been covered in an hour. This quickly proved to be foolish, as we spent the entire time talking about the one text (Genesis 15, for those wondering). So the next week, I decided that I'd give a brief synopsis of each one and see which caught someone's interest. This went okay, as we talked about the meaning of Jesus' fig tree parable in Luke 13.

This past week, I once again gave a synopsis of each one, but the group didn't really seem to connect with that approach, so I asked, "Would it help to hear them?" They indicated that it would.

Every week as we've read one or more of these out loud, I've invited people from the group to read. They can read as much or as little as they like, and then someone else picks up after that. I think that it helps especially when we have longer texts such as the Parable of the Loving Father from Luke 15, which is what we ended up discussing. I think that we'll stick with the practice of reading all three for the duration.

During the conversation itself, I try not to get in the way too much. I'm used to leading Bible study, which for me involves some teaching and clarifying up front before turning it over to the group. For this, however, I encourage them to react to the text before I say much of anything. They ask questions, or they point out something they think is strange or don't understand. The first week, for instance, someone was really bothered by the "deep and terrifying darkness" that comes over Abram while he's asleep, which she reiterated throughout the evening several times. In this midst of this time where God needed to reassure Abram about God's promises, here was this moment of darkness. It became one of the major thrusts of my sermon that Sunday. I might have focused on something else if I'd chosen that text on my own.

This past week was much more tricky. As I mentioned, the group chose the Parable of the Loving Father, which people may just assume that they know. Typically, the assumption is that this is a direct allegory for God welcoming back the lost sinner. Very early on in the discussion, one person said, "I think you need to preach on this one, because everyone just thinks they know what it says." I have an awesome group.

After a while, however, the discussion seemed to devolve. After we talked about redemption for a little while, someone picked up on a theme of penitence and started talking about his growing curiosity about Jesuit spiritual disciplines, followed by a question about similar practices in the United Church of Christ. This led to conversation about what our local church does to observe Lent and where it may show up in our denominational heritage. We talked about different rituals and how they can be helpful while cautioning against making the ritual equivalent to God.

I had a hard time with this. I didn't want to curb the discussion, as it would have gone against the intended spirit of the exercise. But I didn't immediately see the relevance to preaching possibilities, especially as I'd just preached on spiritual practices just a few weeks earlier. If I'd strictly gone that route, it would have felt like a retread to me, and possibly to the congregation.

After the conversation was finished and we began moving into our evening vespers time, someone pulled me aside and asked about the necessity of believing in Jesus to go to heaven. "If he died so that we could go to heaven, why do we then also have to believe that he died so that we could go to heaven?" This was followed by an admitted fear that her belief isn't strong enough for God to let her in.

I think that that's when I realized how the entire evening tied into the parable of the loving father. We have people wondering about practices of penitence and people wondering if their belief is acceptable enough. This past week was a case where these things didn't directly feed into the sermon as possible themes or illustrations, but they helped me understand what those who hear the sermon are thinking about. This is an aspect of this exercise to which I haven't paid as much attention, but I was glad to pick up on it this past week.

So on Sunday, I asked who each of us are in Jesus' story. Are we the younger son, wondering about penitence or whether he'll be accepted back, among other things? Are we the older son, offended by or jealous of the forgiveness that someone else has received, among other things? Are we the father, with an opportunity to be an instrument of grace and redemption, willing to forsake social convention to do it? And I tied it all into God's larger story of redemption in which we are all characters, and how that story contains forgiveness, jealousy, uncertainty, grace, joy, and love.

I've been so thankful for this exercise. It has produced so much more than I thought possible. And we still have two more Sundays to go!