Today in the intro to preaching class that I’m auditing, Nora Tubbs Tisdale delved into the topic of exegeting congregations. Cool, right? Nora has spent an entire book (Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art–which, yep, is now on my reading list) talking about this topic, so today’s class was the abridged 45-minute version.
One of my favorite suggestions Nora offered as a way to begin reading congregation was to look at what stories they told and symbols they offered you as their pastor. The suggestion made me think back to my summer supply preaching at a rural church in Maryland. I was privileged to hear so many stories there, but here’s one of my favorites.
I’d met the man who told it twice: once when I did his mother’s funeral, and again when he came out to a farewell breakfast the congregation offered at the end of my summer there. He had inherited his father’s grain business, and spent most of his time growing cereal crops and turning them into feed for cattle and horses. The man never set foot in a regular worship service the entire time I was at his church, but made it clear, in his way, that he was grateful for what I’d done for his mother. One of those ways was by showing up the this breakfast.
I was seated next to his niece, who is about six years old, and whose birthday was coming up in September. We got to talking about what the plans were for her birthday. Evidently a trip to Disney World was in the offing, and this generated much excitement around the little group of people I was sitting with. All of a sudden, in the midst of talk about princesses and mouse ears, the man leaned forward and addressed himself to his niece. “Do you know what else we’re going to do for your birthday?” he ask. She shook her head. “After the corn harvest, I’m going to plant a field of sunflowers. And guess when those will bloom?” She wasn’t sure, but she smiled at him and he said, “Right near your birthday. Would you like a field of sunflowers for your birthday?”
I left the congregation after that breakfast, so for me, it was a story to take away with me. But I wish he’d told it sooner, and I wish I’d have had the wisdom to weave it into my preaching. To tell the congregation some of things that story told me: how well they were rooted in their soil of tradition, community, and history. How much they loved their children. How those places were where they saw Christ.
Looking back at that summer, I think I preached only two sermons that anyone there would remember. One was the funeral homily, which was made up of the stories I’d been told about the lovely woman who’d died, and how they shone with gospel. And the second was one where I talked in the very beginning about the challenges of decluttering a house. That story of exasperation and spring-cleaning got SO many responses after the service that I found myself wondering, “Didn’t y’all hear the gospel?” But of course, they did. They heard it in the parts that spoke to them, to their lives–they heard it in the moments when I seemed to “get” their community, and joined them in their experience, without asking them to come join me over here, in mine.
So here’s to the Son and to sunflowers, and to the hope that the next time I find myself in a community of faith like the little church in Maryland, I’ll have the wisdom to let them preach to me before I think myself prepared to preach to them.