Monday, May 28, 2007

How to Preach Like Jesus; Parables

Last week I was at the Festival of Homiletics in Nashville. The first night’s lecture was by Barbara Brown Taylor on Parables. BBT has been an Episcopal priest since 1984, Taylor now teaches religion at Piedmont College in rural northeast Georgia, where she holds the Harry R. Butman Chair in Religion and Philosophy. She also serves as adjunct professor of Christian spirituality at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

I found her lecture and sermon the following morning to be one of the hightlights of the week.

My notes. (I have supplemented my notes with notes by Gavin Richardson, the youth minister at First United Methodist Church in Hendersonville, TN. I found his blog & he had put down some things that I had forgotten. You can find his blog at: I have marked his contributions with “GR”.

“A whole lot of preachers committed to Jesus end up preaching like Paul”

  • GR: Who was the church builder, not the savior. He was the left brain guy. The guy who gave answers. Left brain language is the language of clarity, factual. The right brain is the language of power. Impressionistic. Sets in space, not in time.

A parable is not an informational delivery system. It does much more than inform us.

1. Parables are stories.

  • They did not happen. We should not pretend that they DID happen, or force the point to make it like they did. They could have happened, but they did not. Don’t get caught up in the details of the story…”Relax! It’s a story!”
  • They knit our lives to divine life.
  • They could be called Christian Midrash. Midrash tells us “the back story” behind many of the biblical stories. (Ex: why Sara died. It is recorded that she died right after the story of Abraham offering Isaac. The Midrash tells us that a servant had told her what Abraham was up to after the two had left for the mountain. When she saw Abraham return alone, she dropped dead. That is not in the Bible.) It may or may not be true. But it shows the ways Jewish people tried to resolve biblical questions and it fills out the story & makes the story more interesting.
  • Jesus probably told the stories different times in different ways with different flourishes, maybe different emphases.
2. Parables are wisdom literature.

  • Wisdom Literature began with Job.
  • Wisdom Literature asks & answers the questions “How does the world work?” “How does the human heart work?”
  • GR: Wisdom is not all cheery. It asks the questions of hard human experience. Wisdom is interested in real life, not piety. Sin is not the problem in wisdom literature, foolishness is.

3. Parables are Paradoxical.


    • the story of the wicked judge & the widow. Is Jesus saying that God is like the wicked judge in his motivation?
    • · The story of the sly servant (knowing he was going to get fired, he “fixed the accounts” of those owing his master so that he could get in good with them). Jesus commends this sly servant. But we would consider this immoral. Why is Jesus commending him?

Jesus didn’t explain the parables…so who are you to do so?

GR: parables rightly told do not aid religious certainty. They more aid religious uncertainty. It's often a good mistake to try and tell the good and bad guys in a Jesus parable. Parables are to stretch the mind and beyond. Jesus didn't explain his stories, so should you. He left some stories unfinished. He trusted his listeners and his words. Trust god's word to do God's work even if you don't have the slightest idea how

4. Parables transcend themselves

GR: Parables offer themselves, their subject is life lived, but it does not necessarily dictate behavior. Parables do not tell the listener what they want. But they want to live in life. Jesus did not spend so much of his time on parables so that people would know good farming, party throwing, etc. But he was pointing to the moon. (Zen story of reference when one points to the moon it's not to look at the finger pointing)

How to Preach Like Jesus did:

  1. Tell more stories & invest the time to learn to tell them well. Find storytellers conventions & attend them
  2. Preach a sermon “without footnotes” in it.
  • Trust God to be clear in everyday life.
  • GR: Preach from the life that you and your listeners know best; eat locally.
3. Decline to chew your listeners food for them.
  • Introduce some problems that are not necessarily light or easily resolved.
  • GR: leave something for them to cut or chew. introduce some problems that you cannot solve. make trouble instead of moderating it for once. depending on what you feed your congregation it may not go over well at first.
  1. GR: Try sitting down three paragraphs before you are done. Or before they are done listening.
Note: I am still trying to figure out the formatting on this thing. If it is screwy, please excuse it. I am still working on it.

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