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Dr. Anna Carter Florence has a how-to for Presbyterians who want to go beyond the lectionary’s scripture passages

The Columbia Theological Seminary preaching professor was a recent guest on the ‘A Matter of Faith’ podcast

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Anna Carter Florence

LOUISVILLE — A recent installment of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” saw Dr. Anna Carter Florence speak with hosts the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong over “engaging the biblical text.” Listen to their conversation here. Florence comes in at the 26:42 mark.

The hosts asked Florence, the Peter Marshall Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, about how to approach scripture “in ways that are relevant to our current context. Also, it seems like we always hear the same stories in church. How do we include more narratives from scripture?”

“Those are essential questions” that imply “we aren’t setting a big enough table for people to get around and read scripture together,” Florence said. When she works with students and with churches, Florence has people note the verbs in a scriptural passage. “Not everyone knows who the Jebusites are, but everybody knows what a verb is,” she told Catoe and Doong. “Everyone can get in on the conversation.”

“As soon as we set a bigger table and invite people to read scripture together,” she said, “the more it’s going to be our book.”

As for hearing only the biblical stories included in the lectionary, “preachers are kind of to blame for that,” Florence said. “The first thing is to get on your preacher about that. The second thing is if you’re someone who works on planning worship, go rogue. There are so many amazing stories in scripture, and most of them are not in the lectionary.”

“Open the table,” she suggested, “and break the rules.”

Doong said he’s part of a young adult group that meets online for Bible study. The group generally uses lectionary passages, but sometimes decides to explore something different because members have recently heard a sermon based on the lectionary passage. “We often end up with lesser touched-on passages, which I really appreciate,” Doong said, likening the experience to listening only to radio stations that play only the day’s most popular music. “I’m not expanding my musical horizons by doing that,” he said. “I think about that in the context of scripture.”

“Such a great analogy,” Florence said. “When you go to a wedding or a party, a great play list has old and new stuff.” Worship planners should “be aware the church is an open door, and some people may be hearing stories for the very first time. I hope we can encourage people to look not for the meaning, but for what it is saying to you today. The text speaks so differently depending on where you’re sitting, what’s happening in your life … and who’s reading with you. The stories you’re reading over and over can leap out in completely different ways when you sit at a table with new people.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

Catoe recalled a seminary professor who was fond of saying the Bible “is the best-selling book in the world, and the least read.” He lamented the fact that we live in a time “when people take texts and use them out of context.”

The Bible “is being weaponized all over the place in ways that are pretty awful,” Florence said. “It has more to do with politics than scripture.”

“For many of us, scripture is used to prooftext and close a conversation. That’s not the way scripture is meant to be read,” she said. “When it’s the community’s book, it’s not meant to have one person say definitively over time, ‘This is it. This is how we’re going to read this, and this is what it means. If you disagree with me, that’s an example of your lack of faith or obedience, or of sin.”

The ancient rabbis “were reading scripture all the time, and they never read it alone,” Florence said. “They loved interpreting new things, hearing new things, seeing new things, and seeing what it was saying in their own day. That is something I think some of our Christian traditions have lost along the way.”

We have “some backtracking to do and we have some listening to do,” Florence said, “to acknowledge the hurt that scripture has caused and then to really covenant together to say, ‘How can we hear it as a book that speaks to us about human flourishing?’”

The good news in a text “is not necessarily something happy,” she said. It’s “What is bread for your life right now in what you’re hearing in the scripture … and what is the portrait of God that you’re seeing here? What is this saying to you today, and why is it important that if you’re going to share it with someone else, why would it be important to say so?”

Texts of lament “are in scripture all over the place,” Florence said. “There is precedent for the people of God when they are in deep pain for expressing that honestly and fully [to God] without holding anything back … knowing this is part of being a human and being in pain.” People who have experienced deep trauma “often don’t know that the Bible gives them space to lament what has happened to them.”

In the Bible, “you see stories of resilience and you see stories of people coming back around and trying to make the best of what they can,” Florence said. Preachers don’t want to trigger people in worship, but “there are ways to say to a faith community, ‘OK, we are going to explore some of these really hard [texts].’ Give people a heads up and maybe read them together” before preaching on them, Florence suggested. “I want [students] to know that there is nothing they can’t look at in the text and in human life because that’s the job. It’s to be with people and to be able to sit with them even when it’s really, really hard.”

In her book “A is for Alabaster: 52 Reflections on the Stories of Scripture,” which Westminster John Knox Press will publish on Oct. 3, “I spent some time with a number of women who have heart stories,” Florence said. Jesus himself “gravitated to women who had complicated stories.”

For her book, Florence picked 26 images or figures each from the Old and New Testament, each starting with a successive letter of the alphabet. “I gave myself a discipline of finding a story that seemed to me to be really compelling and important and maybe overlooked and writing an essay for people to think about” or share in a Bible study, she said. The book is reminiscent of the kind of lexicon that the late Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner used to write, she noted.

“The best part was being able to sit down … and freely listen to these stories. I tried to set a big table myself,” she said, dropping a story at the end of the podcast of being a fourth-grade Sunday school dropout. “I think I’m writing for a lot of the people out there who were also Sunday school dropouts.”

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