The curriculum and faculty of Wartburg Seminary are constantly challenging us to broaden our awareness of the human experience and recognize the danger of assuming our experiences are the norm that should be applied universally. At the same time, we are challenged to effectively communicate the message of Scripture in a contextually relevant way to a wide variety of people, without diluting the message. How do we meet this challenge when there are an infinite number of “others” and our grasp of the human condition is limited to our own experiences? I recently had a dream which wove together complex ideas about race, ethnicity, gender, class, language, identity and reverence for the Word of God. I understand this dream to have been my psyche attempting to process these complicated ideas. However, I wonder if it might have also been a visual representation of my calling within the Church? While the location, languages, and people of my dream are quite specific, the message and themes could be applied to most any situation. Imagine yourself as the main character of this dream. What aspects of this dream resonate with you? In what ways would your dream be different?
Loaded down with many heavy bags, I slowly venture into the church where I have been invited to serve as a guest preacher. It will be my first time giving a sermon. Meeting me at the door, the junior pastor introduces himself to me and quickly leads me to the sanctuary, where I take my seat in a side pew and wait for the service to begin.
Midway through the greeting I realize I do not have a copy of my sermon and cannot recall the sermon text. Anxiety sets in. Am I to preach on a text from 1 John? Is 1 John even in the Bible? Am I unable to recall 1 John because it does not exist or because I am biblically illiterate? How can I give a sermon on a text I can’t remember? I assure myself it would be alright. The Bible on the lectern will be open to the sermon text. There is no need to panic.
Looking at the assembly I note that the congregation is divided into three sections. The right-side consists of Spanish-speaking immigrants and first-generation families. There are men, women, and children of all ages dressed in faded blue jeans, plaid oxford shirts, polka-dot dresses, tan polyester pants and mid-riff tops. “Don’t forget these people,” I tell myself. “Make sure the sermon speaks to their situation.”
Taking a deep breath, I prepare to read the sermon text. To my surprise and bewilderment the Bible is in Spanish, a language I do not speak. What am I to do? I look to my host for clues and he motions for me to read from another Bible. The lectern is a light-pine, circular kitchen table, much like the table my parents have in their dining room, and it is covered with a multitude of Bibles.
Selecting another Bible, I once again look at the congregation. This time I focus on the center section of the assembly which consists of white, Midwestern men and women, old and young, wearing sweater vests and blazers, slacks and pant suits, blue jeans and Green Bay Packer shirts. “Remember these people”, I tell myself, “make sure the sermon has relevance for them.”
I open the Bible, only to discover it is a Children’s Bible. If 1 John is a biblical text, it will likely not be in this Bible. Or, if it is, it will be an illustrated paraphrase in a juvenile vocabulary. This will not work.
Taking a deep breath, I select another Bible. Before opening it, I again turn my attention to the congregation. This time I see African-American women, men, and children, in elegant dresses, pressed suits, polished shoes, and fancy hats. With conviction, I tell myself “Remember these people; speak to them.”
Looking down, I realize a dish towel is hanging from my cincture. It is a damp, wrinkled white towel with blue stripes. I have no idea where it is from but feel strongly that it needs to be part of my message. The towel serves as a reminder of the women in the assembly. “Don’t forget the women. Don’t forget you are a woman. Speak from your experience. Speak the truth.”
All of these people are sitting, waiting for me to tell them something important. Something which will change their lives. They deserve to hear something fresh and meaningful – not a regurgitation of something they already know. They yearn to know Christ in a way which offers them wholeness and shalom. With my dish towel in hand, standing at this holy kitchen table, amidst a community of individuals united in their Christian heritage, I decide to tell them a different story. I will tell them John’s story of the Adulterous Woman. Though this story is not part of the lectionary calendar, it is an important story. It is a story of liberation and life. Liberation from the restrictive judgments, identities, and expectations imposed upon us and which we impose on others. Life reclaimed through the practice of a perpetual and intentionally intimate relationship with God. These are important messages for all people. People who may impose judgment on others and people whose lives are dictated by such judgments. People in need of the unconditional and life-affirming love of God.
Once again, imagine yourself the main character of this dream. What would words of liberation and life would you offer this assembly of people, each uniquely shaped by their life experiences, yet united as heirs of Christ?