Read an Excerpt
Preaching Biblical Stories in Present Tense
By Barbara K. Lundblad
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2007 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Marking Time: Reading Scripture at the River's Edge
At 8:46 a.m. there was silence. No sound on radio or television. No shouting or laughing in the grade school auditorium. No speeches. No taxis honking. The day was September 11, 2003, and New York City was marking time. How long will this go on? Will the silence be broken when the memorial is completed? When Freedom Tower reaches to the sky? When the children sitting in the grade school auditorium have graduated? There are no answers now, only the need to mark time.
"Marking Time" has at least two meanings. When the drum major whistles a certain signal, the marching band comes to a stop. The marchers' feet are still moving up and down, but the band stays in one place. We say they are "marking time." There is another meaning: an intentional attentiveness to the time so that an hour or a day does not pass unnoticed. Someone held in captivity scratches a line on a wall or a stick to mark the rising of the sun, the numbering of the days. The people in the city watch the clock: at 8:46 a.m. they mark the time when the first plane hit the glistening tower on the bluest September day. They etch another mark on their memories, drenched again in sorrow, grateful to be alive one more year.
Throughout the centuries, cultures have developed rituals for marking time: birthing and dying, naming and coming of age. Families celebrate birthdays and circle the dates on the calendar even after loved ones have died. Nations mark the end of a war or its beginning. Religious communities mark time in Sabbaths and seasons. In the church year, even the long season not marked by events in Jesus' life has a name—"Ordinary Time." The longest of the Ten Commandments gathers up both meanings of "marking time." Even as the Hebrew people marked time at the foot of Mount Sinai, God called them to mark their time intentionally with the remembrance of Sabbath:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Exodus 20:8-11)
For those wilderness wanderers, time was to be marked not only by sunrise and sunset but by making a special mark on the stick—a longer mark, a different color—a reminder that God created the days and the nights and all that is in them.
I learned to mark time in a different way during my years as a pastor in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. In earlier times, this uptown neighborhood on the cliffs above the river was known as "Frankfurt on Hudson" because of the many German Jewish immigrants who settled there during and after World War II. Our church was on Bennett Avenue, an obscure street only eleven blocks long, still home to two Orthodox congregations. On weekday mornings the men rise early for study and prayer at the yeshiva before going to work and on the holidays the street is filled with people.
The parish I served shared space with Beth Am, a Reform Jewish congregation. Every Friday night, the music of Sabbath worship drifted up three flights of stairs to my apartment. Over the span of years, I learned to mark time by the rhythm of the Jewish Sabbath. September and October were marked not only by the falling leaves, but by the coming of the new year, Rosh Hashanah. Though I have moved from that street and the apartment above the sanctuary, this rhythm still marks time for me.
The Beecher Lectures that form the core of this book began on the day of Yom Kippur. This timing was coincidental, since convocation at Yale Divinity School was normally scheduled for the second week of October. But as the date approached, my chosen theme of "marking time" intersected the rhythm of these holy days. On the morning of the first lecture, the people of Beth Am had gathered to pray the Yom Kippur liturgy:
This is the day of awe. What are we, as we stand in Your presence, O God? A leaf in the storm, a fleeting moment in the flow of time, a whisper lost among the stars.
This is the day of decision. Today we invoke You as the Molder of our destiny. Help us to mend the evil of our ways, to right the heart's old wrongs. On this Sabbath of the soul, inscribe us for blessing in the Book of Life.
This is the day of our atonement. We would return to You as penitent children long to return to a loving parent. We confess our sins on this day, knowing that the gates of repentance are always open. Receive us with compassion, and bless us with Your forgiving love.
At the end of the day, the setting sun marked the time when the long day of fasting was broken by sharing a simple meal. The fall cycle of holy days ends with Simchat Torah when people dance the scrolls down the aisle of the synagogue and out into the street. On that day, the Jewish people read the last words of Deuteronomy and the first words of Genesis within the same service. The end and the beginning are brought together. Then, for the rest of the year, they unroll the scroll, reading from Genesis toward Deuteronomy, until they arrive once more at the river. No matter that we are almost certain Deuteronomy was written centuries after crossing the Jordan. No matter that we understand the "Books of Moses" as metaphor rather than historical reality. (Hadn't we wondered even in junior high how Moses could have written about his own death?) But in their wisdom the ancient writers returned to that place on the far side of the Jordan. Before crossing over into the new land they stopped. They did not move. They marked time and they listened:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying [God] ... so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)
Every year it is the same. The Jewish people unroll the scroll until they reach the river. Of course they are not the same when they arrive. The same people do not hear the same text in the same way.
In Christian congregations Advent marks the beginning of the church year as the secular year is coming to an end. The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent startles us with words about the last days even as we anticipate Jesus' birth. End and beginning are gathered into one piece. Like Jewish people gathered beside the river, Christian worshipers are not the same as they were a year ago when Advent began. Perhaps for some, there was an empty place at the Thanksgiving table just days before and Christmas seems almost impossible to imagine. The text marks our time, but our time also marks the text. Something will be heard that was not heard a year ago, that was not heard the first time the people stood at the river or when the scroll was read in the time of good King Josiah or when Jesus stood up to read Isaiah's scroll in Nazareth.
Each time we return to the river something has changed, something new is discovered. This is the wonder and urgency of preaching. We may understand this return to the river as the need to make the text relevant to contemporary situations, but there is something more profound going on, something far deeper than finding a new anecdote that will work better now than when we preached this text three years ago. Jewish interpreter Michael Fishbane invites readers to bring their own experiences and questions to the biblical text. Such engagement is not so much a matter of making the text relevant, as it is to gain deeper understanding of the text itself:
The rhetorical question, "to what does this matter compare?" opens up a hermeneutical space in which similarity is imagined ... The significance of a similitude is thus that life serves to explain the text, and it gives a concreteness or directness to the text which it might otherwise not have.
When people gathered in New York City churches after the towers had been destroyed, this text from Lamentations was often read:
How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!
... ... ... ... ... ...
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her. (Lamentations 1:1-2)
Before September 11, 2001, the reader could understand this poem as a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem. But those who heard this passage of Scripture on the evening of September 11th came to a much deeper understanding of this ancient text. Jerusalem was no longer a biblical city far away in space and time: Jerusalem was now a smoldering heap of ashes and the dust of the towers mingled with the dust of the dead. We had not fully understood the text from Lamentations until that day, but our lives gave "a concreteness or directness to the text," which meant that we heard it and understood it as never before.
"The text lingers," as Walter Brueggemann has said. "Out of that lingering, however, from time to time, words of the text characteristically erupt into new usage.... What has been tradition, hovering in dormancy, becomes available experience."
Marking the Text and Being Marked by It
For centuries, the church has preserved a finite space known as "the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testament." Though lively arguments about the boundaries of the canon remain, the sixty-six books of the Bible (plus the Apocrypha in some traditions) have shaped the life of the church since the fourth century. Martin Luther was neither the first nor the last to raise questions about the inclusion of certain books deemed unworthy. Others have protested not what was included but what was left out, suspecting that the powers of patriarchy had deleted gospels affirming women. Such debates will no doubt continue, but there is a sense in which the canon can be affirmed as a strange gift and blessing. It is a strange gift because even though many "losers" didn't make the final cut, the "winners" are wildly diverse. Tensions remain visible and contradictions unresolved. Two creation stories follow each other with no attempt to harmonize them into one that might make more sense. Miriam's short song is remembered beside Moses' long oratorio in Exodus 15. Jonah and Ruth expand the boundaries of God's beloved people even as Ezra and Esther insist on the peculiar particularity of the people Israel.
Old Testament scholar David Carr celebrates this diversity as a blessing, the strange "untamability" of Scripture. Differences and even outright disagreements don't disappear when we move beyond Malachi but may be even more pronounced in the Gospels. Luke's nativity story differs from Matthew's and Mark has no birth story at all. The four stories of Jesus' resurrection all place Mary Magdalene at the tomb, but there are different people at her side in each of the gospels. "Countless harmonizers have attempted to combine these multiple Gospels," says Carr. "Yet the multi-voiced character of the canon stands ... In sum, untamability is present from the beginning to the end of the Christian canon."
The canon may be closed, but the texts are open. This untamability is a virtue rather than a problem or a threat. Indeed, the problem comes when we try to tame the texts and erase the tensions. Whether we do this by insisting that there is only one static interpretation of a text or by reading all texts through a prescribed doctrinal formula, we wring the life out of the untamable text. Walter Brueggemann warns that this not only muzzles the testimony of the texts but leads to a "thinning of God, the attempt to flatten and refine Yahweh's dense interior. Creedal reductionism does not want to acknowledge this God who leaks out beyond good doctrine. However, the maddening leakage is there in the text, waiting to be spoken of in faith and in dismay."
So it is that when we affirm the biblical canon as "the authoritative source and norm" for our faith and life, we are affirming a book of texts that "leak out" beyond our norms! For preachers and parishioners this means that we do not come to these texts convinced of the correct interpretation nor to discern the one right meaning, but rather to stand on holy ground believing God will meet us there. God is in the tensions within and among texts even as God is present in the tensions and contradictions of our lives. It is the canon itself that has preserved these tensions.
Within the finite boundaries of the canon the texts themselves are not closed, but are open to new hermeneutical insights and possibilities. Every generation, every particular community, hears the texts anew even as former generations wrote these texts out of their own particularities. The texts are marked by the time in which they were written, marked also by editors who reworked the texts at a later time. This marking of the text continues in each generation including our own. For some this may sound like relativism or an undue search for relevance. Rather it is the nature of the texts themselves to be open, untamed, leaking out under our rigid formulations.
Reading Texts in This Time of History
Through most of the long journey of interpreting the Bible there has been a strong conviction that the written text marks the reader. Such an understanding was true when the texts were taken literally as dictated by God. When the literal meaning was obscure, it was the text's allegorical meaning that marked the reader or the hearer. In later years, an enlightenment approach to the text as historical document meant that the text could be understood rationally. But even this rational meaning continued to mark the reader.
In recent years more attention has been paid to how the reader marks the text. Every reader comes to the text from a particular social location that determines how the text is heard and interpreted. Objectivity is an illusion that denies the role of the reader, whether that reader is an untrained layperson or a tenured biblical professor. Subjective approaches such as reader response theory have suggested that texts have no meaning other than that brought by each individual. Without saying the text has disappeared, such approaches have opened the way for readers to have a bigger role in discerning the meaning of biblical texts.
New Testament scholar Vincent Wimbush sometimes startles students by telling them the Bible is a modern book. While they protest that the Bible was written long before they stepped into class, Wimbush nudges them to see that each generation reads the text in new ways and, in that sense, creates a new book. He lifts up the experience of African people in the United States as one example. In the late eighteenth century African Americans became familiar with the Bible through evangelical camp meetings. They were drawn to the vivid stories, even when those stories were read by white people, including their masters:
What did not go unnoticed among the Africans was the fact that the white world they experienced tended to explain its power and authority by appeal to the Bible. So they embraced the Bible, transforming it from the book of the religion of the whites ... into a language world of strong hopes and veiled but stinging critique of slave-holding Christian culture.
From his own experience and his research, Wimbush then asks an intriguing question: "How does a people enslaved by a people of a Book come to accept that Book as authoritative and legitimate?" He finds the answer in a "meeting of worlds." African-Americans' experience of slavery and survival met the world of the Bible where God led Hebrew slaves to freedom and where a Savior, who was as harshly treated as they were, ultimately triumphed. Obviously, the white slave masters had read the Bible from a very different social location, a radically different particularity. For African Americans the Bible "changed from 'text'— understood as static source of eternal truth ... to a language world that could easily, freely, with much creative play, be engaged 'from below,' or from the margins." Such a "meeting of worlds" has elicited new readings of biblical texts in Latin American base communities and in the Circle of African Women Theologians. Biblical texts have found new meaning in church basements where African-American women have seen reflections of their own lives in the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael. Gay and lesbian communities have seen themselves sitting at Jesus' expansive banquet table and have heard echoes of their own commitments in the lifelong covenant between David and Jonathan. These communities have brought their own lives into conversation with the open, untamable text. They have marked the text in new ways.
Excerpted from Marking Time by Barbara K. Lundblad. Copyright © 2007 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.