Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

8/27 2015

Sermon Tips: Preaching from the Left-Hand Side of the Bible

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Pittsburgh Seminary continues our sermon writing tips series. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead and read our recent posts on preaching without notes, dealing with writer’s block, 12 questions for effective preachingusing art as a tutorial to Scripture, and preaching about current events. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.

Preaching from the OTI love the scene in the first Ghostbusters movie where the team warns the mayor of New York of a coming “disaster of biblical proportions”:

Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.

Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.

Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!

Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes…

Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!

Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Actually, except for the “dogs and cats” part, this is a pretty fair summary of the impression many people, even life-long believers, have of the Old Testament. No wonder we are reluctant to read and study, let alone preach from, the first two-thirds of Christian Scripture!

I am going to list the top three reasons I have heard for not preaching from the left-hand side of the Bible. I am then going to argue that each one is actually a reason that we need to preaching from the Old Testament.

1. The Old Testament God is wrathful and violent.

Certainly, there is bloodshed aplenty in the texts south of Matthew (for example, see the account of Nineveh’s fall in Nahum 2–3). But the New Testament certainly is not lacking in texts witnessing to this theme (for example, Revelation 16:1-20Matthew 10:34; or Luke 22:35-37). Avoiding the Old Testament doesn’t solve the problem. However, addressing these texts carefully in context reveals a God who cares passionately about justice, and who sides with the oppressed against the oppressor–themes we must address from our pulpits. For example: the horrific texts in Nahum are introduced in the final form of that book by a psalm (Nahum 1:2-11) affirming that the LORD is a God of justice who punishes the wicked and the oppressor:

The Lord is slow to anger but great in power,
    and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty (Nahum 1:3 NRSV).

Nineveh’s destruction, then, is presented as a measured act of just punishment, not the capricious act of a violent deity. Indeed Habakkuk, the book that follows Nahum, wrestles with the problem of divine justice in the face of violence and suffering:

Rather than providing simple, condescending answers to our questions, the Old Testament invites us to join in the age-old struggle for meaning, and so to find ourselves in conversation with the Divine.

2. The Old Testament is law, the New Testament is grace.

This misunderstanding of the Bible derives from a misreading, not only of the Old Testament, but also of the New–particularly, the letters of Paul, who sometimes opposes legalism to faith (for example, in Romans 4:13-16). Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is the idea expressed that, by proper observance of the law, one earns God’s favor. Rather, always and everywhere, obedience is a faithful response to the love and grace that God has shown. Micah expresses this very aptly:

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).

Grace is the beating heart of the whole of Scripture. Indeed, hearing that grace expressed in the pithy, earthy language of the Old Testament, rather than the often otherworldly language of the New, may make its message all the more potent. This leads to the third objection:

3. The Old Testament is odd.

Guilty as charged! The Old Testament is, after all, old: it reflects the worldview of ancient cultures, far removed from us in time and space. The oddity of texts such as Ezekiel’s vision of the LORD’s glory (Ezekiel 1) should not, indeed cannot, be denied or explained away. However, precisely because they are strange, these passages may be able to help us hear anew a message that more familiar texts no longer effectively convey. The message of God’s caring, and God’s determination to come to us where we are, may no longer sound so strongly in passages we have heard over and over again (such as John 3:16). But the wheels beneath the divine throne in Ezekiel’s vision reveal that God is enthroned in a chariot, enabling God to be present in God’s full glory wherever God wishes–a striking image that, in its very strangeness and unfamiliarity, may break through to us as it did for African slaves discovering the Bible and its faith.

Preaching the Old Testament is not optional: if we believe that the Bible is indeed word of God for the people of God, then we need to preach Scripture in its fullness. When we do so, we will experience the power of God’s word and God’s presence anew.

This post first appeared on The Bible Guy blog written by the Rev. Dr. Steve Tuell who serves as the James A. Kelso Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Other recent posts have looked at how to read the Bible, grace, peace, and violence in the Bible.


8/20 2015

Sermon Tips: Current Events and When the Regular Sermon Just Won’t Do

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Pittsburgh Seminary continues our sermon writing tips series. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead and read our recent posts on preaching without notes, dealing with writer’s block, 12 questions for effective preaching, and using art as a tutorial to Scripture. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.

current-events-and-sermonsOn the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The murders took place after Roof sat with the congregants for an hour-long Bible study, and after he made clear that this was a racially motivated hate crime. Later, our horrified nation learned that Roof had done this hoping to start a race war.

That evening, as news reports came in and the media attempted to make sense of the nightmare, I sat with my family in Seattle, Wash. We were on vacation, and were not due back in Pittsburgh until that Friday night. In advance of our trip, I had prepared everything for the coming Sunday service at the small, aging, Caucasian church in rural Pennsylvania where I was the interim pastor. The bulletins were copied, the prayers composed, and the children’s message outlined. I had even finished the sermon early. All I had to do was show up on Sunday morning.

But this current event … the shooting at Mother Emanuel seemed to demand something more. A response of some kind was required. God’s voice needed to be heard; God’s message needed to be spoken. But what, exactly, should I do? The way I saw it, I had one of three choices:

  1. I could keep the service the same, and use the sermon I had prepared. The murders at Mother Emanuel would be mentioned, perhaps in the morning announcements, and definitely included in the prayers.
  1. I could rework the sermon to a degree, and attempt to make the events of June 17, the lectionary texts, and my sermon all fit together. I would also rewrite the pastoral prayer.
  1. I could throw away my existing sermon and start over. I would still read from the lectionary, but speak from the heart about the murders, racism, and violence. I would speak about how the people of Mother Emanuel opened their doors and welcomed a hate-filled young man into their midst. And I would speak about how the pastor and members of that congregation lived out what Christ taught his people: that we love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.

I chose the third option, which I realized was also the riskiest. Like all pastors, I struggle between the twin poles of challenging my congregation and not rocking the boat. The potential for offending people is great in ministry, and we all have colleagues and friends who have either landed in trouble with governing boards or in hot water with parishioners for taking stands on controversial issues. Everyone in my congregation was horrified by these shootings, but the fact is, discussions about racism in our country still make many uncomfortable. Yet, I felt that this time of tragedy and horror demanded that I take the risk of potentially upsetting people.

Obviously, deciding to throw away a sermon in order to address an event or issue depends greatly on one’s pastoral context. But here are some questions that have helped me make this decision in the past:

  1. Does this situation affect the congregation, or the community in which the congregation resides?
  1. Do the Scriptures, the congregation’s tradition, the revelation of the Holy Spirit, or the wisdom of the pastor and/or members of the congregation speak to this issue in a particularly powerful way?
  1. Is this sermon going to help the congregation grow as the people of God? We are all called as Christians to grow and mature in our faith, but there is a difference between raising controversial issues for their shock value and genuinely pushing the growing edges of our faith communities.
  1. If the situation or issue is not addressed, will parishioners feel that I have missed an opportunity to connect the gospel with something that is weighing heavily on their hearts and minds? If little or nothing is said, will what is said ring hollow?

This is not meant to be a comprehensive rubric for deciding what to do when a major event occurs in your community or our nation. Still, what we say and do in the pulpit matters, often more than we think. Connecting the gospel message with the lived experience of our brothers and sisters in Christ feels risky at times, but it is vital because this is how we stress the relevance and importance of both to our parishioners.

The Rev. Scott Fuller is a D.Min. student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the interim pastor of St. John’s UCC near Irwin, Pa.


8/13 2015

Sermon Tips: Art as a Tutorial to Scripture

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Pittsburgh Seminary continues our sermon writing tips series. Be sure to look for other tips from faculty, staff, and alums in the months ahead and read our recent posts on preaching without notes, dealing with writer’s block, and 12 questions for effective preaching. Have a tip you’d like to offer or have a sermon issue you’d like help with? Let us know by using the comments option.

Words are a preacher’s joy, delight, and challenge. But at best, words are just one of the many tools of the blessed Holy Spirit. As a lover of words I give my best to each word, but I realize the real sermon is the one going on in the hearer’s heart and mind, touched by the Spirit of God, not necessarily my words. So whenever possible, I enjoy offering two sermons—the words so carefully prepared as my prompt and a visual with an artist’s interpretation.

The journey from commentary, blog, and library as guide to scripture to listening to artists, liturgical and otherwise, was not an easy one in my case, but the Holy Spirit is relentless. My conversion to listening to art and the artist began with the story of Joseph and Mary. With simple pen drawings of a reluctant Joseph traveling with a pregnant Mary on a lonely road, and a framed window where Mary might have looked out to the glowing night sky, which anticipated the magnificent Glory to God in the Highest, to the transformed Joseph holding his Christ Child, I watched fabric artists bring scripture to life. It helped that I had been part of the audience in a fabulous production of The Black Nativity, a dramatic musical set to Scripture’s deepest beats. My tutorial in hearing Scripture through art has continued for years.

By engaging with art a sermon is given the opportunity to explore multicultural images. We think and visualize in images that mirror our own reality. Imagine, “A man walks into a room . . .” what does he look like, what does the room look like, is this sinister (and why?), is this a threat (and why?), is this comforting? Where are the lights and shadows in your imagination? An artist provides these interpretations by which our assumptions may be challenged.

My favorite image of Abraham used during a sermon from Genesis, is a poster advertising for a film about Abraham, the name of the film escapes me. The poster had Abraham’s face, lined, aged, seasoned, hardened, and softened with experience—a man of great sorrow and equal joy. His head was draped in the fabrics of his time and place. The face was that of the Disney actor Dean Jones, a face I remembered well from my childhood. Dean Jones played fun characters, good stalwart characters, enjoyable TV movies for a Sunday evening. What crossed my mind as I saw him portraying Abraham was, how could Dean Jones ever commit to killing Isaac?? The picture gave voice to “how could Abraham have done that?” Art has the blessed ability to challenge our basic assumptions.

My reluctant journey into art’s interpretation of Scripture brought me into contact with dozens of liturgical artists. No image may be printed or projected without the artist’s permission—which gave me the opportunity to meet several artists. Most are thrilled to hear how their art helps you interpret God’s word. Most liturgical artists merely ask that credit be given where due. Friendships developed and I am the richer for it.

One liturgical artist is Gwen Meharg. For years she managed www.drawneartogod.com. Her joy is to interpret Scripture through art, often on a Sunday morning during the sermon, during the hymns, or the child wiggling in the back of the sanctuary. Gwen writes on her blog, sometimes she has a plan, other times God drops ideas and pictures into her heart and she paints. *

The Exchange

As an example, in Jesus’ crucifixion she paints just the end of one cross beam, with Jesus’ lifeless hand. Reaching toward Jesus’ hand, really his finger, is the very finger of God in the same style of Michelangelo’s famous painting of God touching Adam at Creation with new life, but this new creation is reviving the new Adam, Jesus the Christ. Gwen writes that in the cross beam of Jesus’ cross she sees a bridge between God and humanity. To this Gwen adds, of all things, a curious little sparrow. The viewer sees the sparrow long before recognizing the cross of Jesus. It draws down our defenses; it gives us, the preacher and congregation, a point of contact because the finger of God also seems to be reaching for the sparrow to cross the gap into life. The sparrow is not intimidated by God, but free and accepting. Gwen writes, “(I) represent Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross as being our bridge to God. Of course, the sparrow is us. The little sparrow is resting on Jesus—oblivious to His condition—and about to hop over to stand on God’s hand. Seeing His Son suffering, God still reaches out for the sparrow.” The Exchange has helped me see and live the life-giving cross, provided by the God of the sparrow, God of the whale; God of the swirling stars, (and with all creation we sing) how does the creature say awe? How does the creature say praise?** Amen.

*Used with permission www.drawneartogod.com

** Thank you Glory To God: Presbyterian Hymnal #22

Jane Esterline is new to the PTS community this summer. She is a minister with a heart for the congregation who served a mid-sized church in rural Illinois before moving to Pittsburgh to join President David Esterline. Together they served as mission co-workers in Cameroon and Fiji Islands. Her focus was on building bridges through solidarity.


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