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Hear the Gospel

Angels

Hearing the voice of God, as recounted in the  Gospel of Luke 9: 28-36, 37-43a.

Reading the Gospel aloud invites the audience to experience human encounters with the divine as revealed in the Bible. We can leave interpretation and meaning to members of the clergy and other scholars. What we are most interested in as lay readers is the human experience found in the narrative.

the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

This excerpt from a passage from the Luke 9 is included in the revised common lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. The text is from the NRSV.

You can listen to a recording of this passage here.

First Impressions

The passage includes two short and distinct episodes. The first begins with the ascent of mountain and prayer because what’s about to happen is not of this world. It’s visionary and dreamlike. It prefigures the departure of Jesus into the world to come and his communion with Elijah and Moses. It’s an episode literally clouded in mystery that suggests a back story far deeper than we can imagine and a future glory in the company of prophets, nation builders and Christ. The vision is dazzling by our earthly standards.

The second episode begins with a return to earth (coming down from the mountain) and is very much of this world.  A father in despair for a child tormented.

Fathers and Sons

The two episodes contrast two fathers and their sons. For both, their sons are their only child. Jesus is chosen by God his father to be exalted. The second father and son are nameless and cruelly victimized by a demon. One father is desperate to save his son from this world, the greater father willingly gives his son to save this world. Both sons are, or will soon be, tormented, delivered and given back to their fathers.

Peter, John and James are not just witness to unworldly events on the mountain, “It’s good that we are here.” But they actually hear the voice of God. What these simple fishermen see is astonishing, yes. But what they HEAR is surely almost incredible. They literally HEAR THE VOICE OF GOD.

In the first episode Jesus is in his glory. In the second episode, Jesus shows that he is only too human. “Faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you…”   Jesus knows that faith is what cures, releases, and makes you clean. If the disciples fail to cast out the malevolent spirit, it’s a failure of faith. Are the disciples not up to the task ahead? Are those suffering too preoccupied with their own afflictions to be mindful of their faith? Is there a note of futility in his voice? The lesser miracle he performs here seems routine and almost dismissive in light of the preceding events up on the mountain.

Jesus knows he’ll be leaving soon and begins the mental and emotional separation process, “[How much longer] must I bear with you..?”

Both episodes pass very quickly, but are astounding nonetheless.

Text Analysis

Here we’re looking for words and phrases that make vivid the experience described in the reading.  We are also looking for keys to the subtext.

The first episode is set up on the mountain.  What is expected to be prayer becomes appearances on high of the transformation of Jesus being visited by Elijah and Moses in their glory. The rarified air of the mountain top is the perfect place to experience what is about to happen. We first encounter dazzling white.

The disciples are enveloped in a cloud: overcome by sleep and then in a fog they’re terrified.  A voice comes from the cloud. They are completely discomfited and know not what they are saying…

The second episode is down to earth, brutally physical and equally terrifying. Words like shrieks, foams, mauls, convulses, and dashes dominate.

Reading this passage aloud

There’s mystery in the first episode. A dreamlike quality pervades. And the biggest challenge for the reader is to image what must it be like to see Moses and Elijah standing before you? Would you recognize them immediately?

Then, what must it be like to literally hear the voice of God?  As a reader, this doesn’t mean that you should try to mimic what you think the voice of God sounds like. What would the voice of God sound like if God had your voice? What does sure power, infused with love, sound like in a voice?

What’s the experience of hearing God speak directly to you and to those with you?  Would you say to one another softly, tentatively, almost fearing to know the answer, “Did you just hear what I heard?” Or, would you tell no one what you heard?

There is a slight pause between the two episodes.

Then the brutality of demon possession and the evils of this world are made graphically real. The father’s voice is desperate. The son is perhaps not passive, but utterly helpless. The action is sudden and ruthless.

The voice of Jesus is perhaps weary, resigned, and compassionate: all three at once. He easily and swiftly rebukes the demon, heals the son and gives him back to his father in one continuous act.

And all are astonished.

What do you hear in this passage?

 

Fear not, Mary.

Fear not, Mary.

I came across an interesting article at the Baptist Press website today. The article profiles a talk that Russell Moore gave at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: Moore examines paradoxes in Scripture & ministry. What’s the story here?

Those of you who follow my blog know that I strive to be (near) perfectly ecumenical. IMHO, you don’t need to strictly adhere to the doctrine of any particular, or in fact any, denomination in order to count yourself a Christian. I do believe that you must commune with other Christians, and I believe that we have something to learn from all denominations. God can be found at Mass and a Bar Mitzvah. The church I’m affiliated with hosts guest preachers (and organists) every Sunday who are Methodist, Baptist, UCC, Unitarian, Episcopal, Lutheran, etc.  They’re all trained at the widest variety of seminaries. The resulting mosaic is like a stain glass window, stunning in variety and luminescence. So, it’s not the doctrine of the seminary that interests me here.

I love articles like this because they mean you don’t have to take just my word for it. Human beings respond to narratives. Understanding and experiencing the narrative(s) of the Bible helps make sense not only of the Bible, but of our own narratives. We bring the narratives of the Bible to life and into our lives in public readings of scripture.

It’s all about the narrative

Here are a few (admittedly cherry picked) quotes from Russell Moore, with my emphasis added.

“As the apostle John put it in his Gospel, the abstract and pre-incarnate word (mystery) is made clear to human beings in a narrative.”

“…not only because Christians need to know how to read texts, but because they need to read people.”

“The Bible is not a collection of propositional truth, but a grand narrative that cannot be preached as a theological or doctrinal treatise…”

The bible is not a book of listicles and laws. It’s about people, their struggles in daily life and their extraordinary encounters with the divine; all expressed through narrative. As readers, we read not to decode theological or doctrinal meaning, but to experience other lives lived in the presence of the living God.  We read to gain the kind of insight and wisdom that only comes from experience.

Lose yourself in the text

“…a deep familiarity with the narrative of Scripture itself.”

“Christians can communicate this word by being conversant in narrative and literary structures…”

The narrative form allows us to experience empathy, to more easily remember, and to share those experiences with others. There’s a reason Jesus taught in parables and not with worksheets. We all need to be more intimately familiar with the narrative of Scripture.

What is your story?

 “…the problem is not just that you won’t interpret the Bible rightly, but that you won’t be able to interpret people rightly.”

Sharing, even vicariously, in the experience of others gives us insight into their lives and can hold a mirror up to our own lives.  We’re commanded to love our neighbors.  This is only possible when we recognize what it is we have in common, for better or worse.

“Christians must pay attention to the plot of Scripture so they can explain it to another person who is looking to make sense of their own life’s narrative.”

Not just looking, but hearing. This is why we read scripture aloud. We give shape, direction and meaning to the lives of others.  We gain insight into the shape, direction and meaning of our own lives.  Our own stories.

Hear the Gospel!

Wilderness

Reading the Gospel aloud invites the audience to experience human encounters with the divine as revealed in the Bible. Leave interpretation and meaning to members of the clergy and other scholars. What we’re most interested in as lay readers is the human experience found in the narrative.

“…for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”

This excerpt from a passage from the Luke 4: 1-13 is included in the revised common lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. The text is from the NRSV. You can hear a recording of this passage here.

 

First Impressions

What is it that impresses you most as you read through this passage for the first time?

This passage moves at rapid pace from one temptation to the next.

It really seems more like perfunctory preparation for what’s to come: Jesus in training and this is the regimen. He will face much greater crisis in the time to come.

He’s led into the wilderness where everything is stark and threatening….  Even the language is spare.

Jesus is left famished. He’s vexed and tempted by the Devil with things of this world. Things that vanquish mortal hunger, pain and powerlessness. But things that pale in comparison to the real food and water of life.

Jesus is full of the holy spirit…and that is what is sustaining and carries him through this ordeal. He dispatches each temptation quickly and surely. He is centered, focused, and resolute.

The devil by comparison seems lazy. Is the best he can do? This is school yard level bullying “If you’re so great, do this!”  The snake in the Garden of Eden is a much more beguiling, sophisticated and seductive character.

The devil gives up easily, almost as if each response is expected.  When did the devil realize that tempting Jesus was hopeless?  Finishing the testing is more humiliating for the devil – the devil can’t win.

The devil seems to have no regard for the person, Jesus, and is really only looking for a way to wound God.

But the devil never goes away entirely.  Temptation is always there waiting for a more opportune moment. Waiting and looking for weakness.

Text Analysis

Here we are looking for words and phrases that make vivid the experience described in the reading.  We are also looking for keys to the subtext.

The contrast is between physically famished and spiritually full.

The Devil deals in uncertainty and equivocation.  The word “If” comes up again and again.  “If you are the son of God…”

The text uses repetition.  Three tests.  Three times “it is written.”

The progression becomes predictable.

The word “opportune” at the end is important.  That’s the way the devil works.  Waiting for the right moment to strike.  The implication is, this is not over.

 Reading this passage aloud

The passage can be read swiftly. Jesus is stress tested and given a clean bill of health.

The devil is cynical and mocking. His voice betrays contempt. His voice may show frustration as each of his lies and “offers” are rejected.

The voice of Jesus is calm and unwavering.

But there is some suspense in the reading of the last sentence.  This is not over.  The foreboding and ambiguous “opportune time” hangs out there.

What do you hear in this passage?

Sensual

Words as Feelings, is an interesting article at Aeon.co. The article describes the connection between specific words and sensual experience. While focusing primarily on the origins of language, the article introduces some interesting ideas that relate directly to the physical act of reading aloud.  Specifically, the article addresses ways in which we communicate experiences  to each other.

It’s really interesting because as we read scripture aloud, we’re interested in the experiences described in the text and the language that’s used to communicate those experiences to listening audiences. We pay attention to word choice and then use those words to create vocal imagery – sound paintings —  to bring this experience to life for the audience.

The article, by Sally Davies, begins with the familiar onomatopoeias.  These are  words that mimic specific noises.  Next, she introduces us to the idea of ideophones.  These are words that areespecially vivid and evocative of sensual experiences.”  These are the words we highlight as a part of text analysis when preparing to read aloud in church.  Look for words like love, dream and demon. Look for words that resonate in the chest, vibrate on the lips, or are shaped with the tongue to convey experiences. Look for words that transport or enthrall us.

Then, what I REALLY like are the references to research that explore relationships between specific words, vocalization, gesture and facial expression to achieve maximum effectiveness in communication.

 Reading aloud is physical

Reading aloud is a physical act. We actively breathe, speak and project our voices. We communicate information to listening audiences using specific words pertaining to our own experiences with, and the experiences of others from, the Bible. These are words that have evolved and were selected to communicate specific human experiences. The words used in the Bible are not arbitrary. Words that “resemble” their meaning are selected for a reason.

The Bible isn’t simply a book of laws. As we read, we’re not reciting rules, or guidelines or telling cautionary tales. The Bible is infused with emotional and sensual experiences.  The Bible includes the language which best communicates those experiences (in any language.) By sensual, of course, I don’t mean sex (Or mainly. Song of Solomon.)  I mean physical sensation, including fear, pain, hunger, awe, relief, laughter and comfort, etc. The Bible communicates the full experience of living in a world inhabited by the living God. As readers, we express all of these things with our voice.  Our voices find power and authority through physical engagement and the active use of specific words.

The Bible chooses words that  — like ideophones  — communicate added nuance and meaning when spoken aloud. We use those words and related “vocal gestures” to communicate emotional (internal) and sensual (external) sensation.  When we read aloud, we can turn even common words into ideophones that resonate with audiences and fully realize the word of God.

Ideophonic communication

The article notes how remarkable it is that we can share sensual experience “across time and space” through sounds alone.  But to do that we can’t read in a neutral, detached voice. The Bible is not neutral. It demands engagement.

As you read, find specific words that work like ideophones and speak them with energy. Amplify those words with [appropriate and well-modulated] gesture and facial expression to communicate joy, suffering, passion, forgiveness and the experience of grace. That’s how we begin to fully engage with the text, how we engage our audience with the text, and together how we engage in transformative experiences.

Hear the Gospel.