Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Things Your Pastor Would Totally Avoid Preaching About Were It Not For The Lectionary," Part III: The Letters of Paul

Our Lectionary Readings this week are Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Romans 7:13-25a, and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. The readings as always are found here, but it would really be helpful with these somewhat complex passages to read the entirety of each chapter (Genesis 24, Romans 7, and Matthew 11) rather than just the brief segments chosen by the lectionary.

In case you have not picked up on this pattern by now, each week the Revised Common Lectionary of suggested scripture readings that we follow lists four texts for the church's consideration: an Old Testament text, a Psalm, an Epistle reading (i.e. a New Testament reading other than from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John), and a Gospel reading. In my year at Broadneck, I have preached on a good number of Old Testament texts and a large number of suggested Gospel readings; I have even preached the Psalms a few times; and I have occasionally brought in Epistles. I have not, however, preached a sermon solely focused on one of the books that makes up a third of the New Testament canon: the letters attributed to the apostle Paul. In spite of Paul's frequent appearance in the lectionary, I tend to avoid him whenever possible.

Why, you ask?

I ask myself this question, too. There are a few reasons I can think of: an obvious excuse would be that it is some texts attributed to Paul that have been used to argue things that have been damaging to so many people--including passages that have been used to justify the exclusion of women from ordained ministry. Yet heaven knows that there are offensive things in the Old Testament, too, and occasionally in the this isn't enough.

I guess another reason is that I love stories--I love the rich characters and encounters that emerge in Gospel and Old Testament texts, and the dense theological statements of Paul are sometimes harder to convey. But...Paul's letters were also written to specific communities, each with their own stories to be this isn't enough either.

I suppose, if I am honest, Paul is just hard. He seems to contradict himself at points, and so much of his complex language could be construed in so many different ways. When I was in college, the girls' small group I was part of my first year decided to spend a semester reading the book of Romans, and we only made it to chapter 2 before we had gotten into so many arguments over Paul that we had to call it quits. Theologians and biblical scholars have exhausted bottle upon bottle of ink, roll after roll of parchment and paper, and countless Microsoft Word files over the past two millenium going at it about what Paul means not just overall, but in a single word here and there---for instance, today's text has raised exponential scholarly debate over the identity of the "I" (is it Paul? is it a rhetorical device representing all humanity? Is it Jews who have not believed the message of Christ? Is it pagans? Is it Christians continuing to struggle?), and each of these interpretations would cause you to preach the passage in a different way. With so many opinions, how can you ever know that your interpretation of Paul is "right," that you are not becoming another in a long line of preachers and Bible readers who have misconstrued his letters?

Still, in spite of all these misgivings, we cannot ignore Paul-- such a large portion of our canon is attributed to him, and he has perhaps done more than any other theologian to shape the theology of the Church--some have argued his teachings had more of an impact on the direction of the church than those of Jesus himself! So this week, if I don't wimp out, Paul will be present with us in will we read his words in Romans 7 together? Hopefully with a lot of openness and grace, wrestling with Paul as so many have before us in hopes that the wisdom of God's Spirit will prevail even amidst the confusion.

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