On Preaching: Fresh Readings of Ancient Texts
Lis Valle-Ruiz, Ph.D. is assistant professor of homiletics and worship and director of Community Worship Life at McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois.
When preachers have read and proclaimed the same texts over and over, preaching the same lectionary for several cycles over the years, we reach a point in which we yearn to find new messages in the same ancient texts. Some preachers choose to switch from the Revised Common Lectionary to another one, such as the Narrative Lectionary or a women’s lectionary. These are important options, given that the RCL does not cover all the texts in the Bible, tends to avoid texts of terror and texts that empower women, and leads the preacher to certain predetermined interpretations in the way that the texts are clustered for each Sunday. There are more ways to find fresh messages from the Divine in the same ancient texts of whichever lectionary you are using.
There are many ways to rekindle your relationship with sacred texts that you have read and proclaimed many times before. Rigorous exegesis and thorough use of social, historical, and literary analysis of a sacred text are always important; and responsible use of cultural criticism, post-colonial lenses, and a wide range of other methods for biblical interpretation are vital as a preacher prepares to proclaim a text. I’ll consider two additional methods for gathering new insight from familiar or often-preached texts: (1) using trauma theory as a lens, and (2) interviewing characters as sacred imagination. These additional methods of biblical interpretation for preaching are not substitutes for exegesis and textual analysis. Rather, these approaches expand the preacher’s perception by inviting careful re-reading and re-examination of the text. The story of Thomas in John 20:24–31 serves as example to demonstrate how these two approaches can work.
Trauma theory provides different lenses through which to interpret Scriptures. Books such as The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., and Trauma and Recovery by Judith Hermann can serve as good points of entry to trauma theory to expand preachers’ perspectives. For example, in looking at the Gospel reading for the second Sunday of Easter, the story of Thomas, using trauma theory as a lens means considering the trauma of the disciples, who have just witnessed their leader tortured and killed. Preachers may understand their behavior in light of this vicarious trauma: The disciples locked the doors. They were in “flight” mode, scared and hypervigilant, displaying some of the many possible responses to trauma. Meanwhile, Thomas had a reaction shared by many survivors: disbelief. Out of love, Jesus invites Thomas to put his finger into the wounds, an invitation that may cause Jesus to re-live the traumatic event or activate a traumatic memory. Jesus made himself vulnerable. Thomas was, like all other characters in the story, also dealing with his own trauma. Wounded himself, Thomas may have wounded his friends and his leader by denying them his belief and jeopardizing Jesus’ bodily autonomy, thus interfering with the healing process of the others. Through the lenses of trauma theory, preachers may find more than a Jesus who scolded Thomas for not believing. Preachers may perceive a Jesus who is healing from the trauma of capital punishment and needs the gift of belief without having to re-live the traumatic event on his body, and who needs to reestablish his own safety through bodily autonomy. This different perception may lead to a sermon about trauma-informed care between the congregation to those who can identify best with Jesus because they are survivors of horrors. Indeed, it can lead to the exchange of trauma-informed care between members of congregations who are also survivors. The body of Christ, the church, can provide trauma-informed care beginning with believing survivors’ accounts of their pain and extending freedom for people to make their own decisions about their bodies. For more information on how to be a trauma-informed congregation, you may visit the website of The Chicagoland Trauma Informed Congregations Network, or others like it.
Drawing on contemplative practices, dream work, and improvisational theater, another approach to interpret biblical texts is to cultivate sacred imagination through a method of interviewing characters. For example, looking again at the story of Thomas, preachers may choose to interview Jesus, Thomas, one or more of the disciples in the room, or all of them in rounds. To engage in this imaginative spiritual exercise, find a safe place, sit down (avoid crossing your legs or arms) and re-read the story. Then close your eyes, if you feel comfortable, and take a few deep breaths. Feel the air going deep down into your lungs, pushing your diaphragm to about two inches below your belly button. Do this slowly a few times and imagine that you travel in time to that first day of the week, one week after Jesus’ resurrection, the day Jesus showed his wounds to Thomas. You may choose to hold the conversation in your imagination, or you may choose to have the conversation through writing. If you choose writing, use your dominant hand to write your questions and use your nondominant hand to write the character’s responses. Use the characters’ responses to develop a sermon that includes your study of the text and your imaginative practice.
For example, in my imaginative practice, I saw Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John. Mary told me, “Peter should have understood Thomas better because Peter, too, wanted to see to believe. Peter and the other disciple did not believe me when I told them that I had seen the Lord. They went into the tomb to see for themselves. Today, I am just happy to see Christ again.” Mary Magdalene’s words in my sacred imagination led me to conclude that I see Christ in every vulnerable person who embraces even more vulnerability to meet the need of others. I see Christ putting other people’s needs first with compassion, but also holding them accountable. One thing does not take away from the other. With this in mind, I could preach about noticing the needs of others and paying attention to where Christ self-manifests today. What did you see or hear in your imaginative practice?
There are many other ways to find fresh messages from the Divine in the same ancient texts found in any lectionary. Trauma theory as lens and interviewing characters using your sacred imagination can help you find new messages in sacred texts that you have read and proclaimed so many times before. Combined with exegesis, these and other approaches multiply preachers’ insights as they read and proclaim texts again and again.