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Interpreting the Bible and proclaiming God’s Word faithfully

The Preaching Lab seeks to train ‘prophets of justice’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Kamal Hassan is pastor of Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church in Richmond, California.

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Kamal Hassan used a cartoon to open his turn to lead Saturday’s edition of The Preaching Lab, a five-part online workshop offered by New Hope Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, California.

Hassan’s cartoon had Jesus speaking to some first century scholars. “The difference between me and you,” he tells them, “is that you use Scripture to determine what love means, and I use love to determine what Scripture means.”

Hassan, pastor at Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church in Richmond, California, also employed a pair of articles by Sojourner Truth, the outspoken advocate for abolition and women’s rights, and the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, who teaches the Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, to explain the dangers brought on by interpreting biblical texts in the wrong way.

For Sojourner Truth, “God is a god of the oppressed,” Hassan said of the namesake of the church he serves. In her eyes, God’s character is one of liberator, “and anyone who uses Scripture for purposes of oppression and denying the divine image in a Black body is a heretic.” Hers was a minoritized voice, since “the right recognized interpretation of Scripture then was that God made white people masters and Black people slaves.” While “Sunday after Sunday, sermons were preached to support those ideas,” when Black people “had our own unsupervised services, it was the God of the oppressed we called upon and preached about,” Hassan said.

Gafney “asks similar questions, but she is looking at gender and sexuality,” according to Hassan. “As wrong as people have been on the race issue, they have been just as wrong on the female characteristics in the image of God.”

The Bible “was written by different people at different times in different circumstances,” Hassan said. “They are arguing different points of view.” It’s important to be able to “take these things apart, look at them closely, have some sense of what they meant to the people at the time they were written, and determine what applies and what does not apply to the times we live in,” he said. “Our understanding is literary, not literal. It’s not a museum piece. It’s a living Word that still speaks to us anew.”

Pivoting toward proclamation, Hassan said preaching the gospel faithfully means preaching it “from the underside of history — from the margin and the manger, not the palace. Because we — as Sojourner did — live in a time of contested Christianity, the religion of empire is the one that predominates — in our churches, in our pulpits and in our minds.”

“Everything you are saying relates to who Jesus was — marginalized, oppressed, born into poverty,” replied the Rev. Chineta Goodjoin, New Hope’s pastor. “We look at his life and his humanity and bring that into our interpretation of God’s Word. He brought Jesus [into the world] as oppressed as he was, and he remained that way. Ultimately, we see a God of love, even in his oppression. We are to interpret the Scripture through that lens of love.”

“The manger was intentional,” said the Rev. Dr. Alice Ridgill, associate general presbyter for the Presbytery of Charlotte, who was in on the call. “The announcement of his birth to shepherds — that’s a great model for seeing it from the margins.”

Preachers have, of course, decisions to make about which Bible translation to use as they proclaim the Word. Hassan used the New Revision Standard Version and the New International Version translations of Matthew 1:19 to point out marked differences. In the former, Joseph plans to divorce Mary quietly because he’s a righteous man. In the latter, it’s because he’s faithful to the law.

“I have to decide, will I preach that he didn’t divorce because he was a good guy, or that it required him to turn his back on his tradition — a tradition that if your betrothed is found to be pregnant, don’t marry her. Get rid of her, and if you are really feeling froggy, you can have her stoned to death,” Hassan said. “Which Joseph am I going to preach?”

“I have to think about who I am preaching to,” he said. “Which one of these do they need to hear? What are they dealing with in their community? How do people need to challenge themselves and step out of the traditions that are not serving them now? You have to exegete not only the text, but the people you are preaching to.”

Biblical writers were doing the same thing, he said.

“They were looking at their community and asking themselves, ‘What critical things are we wrestling with? Which story will help people understand God’s will for them, step out of their comfort zone and embrace a more excellent way to follow Jesus?’”

Don’t ever try preaching without praying first, Hassan advised.

“We Presbyterians believe the biblical text cannot be read and heard and preached properly if the Holy Spirit is not the motivator and the teacher for us,” he said. “Walk around with the text for a few days. How does it speak to me in my experience?”

Preachers also must decide on their identity, he said.

“Who am I? A chaplain of the empire, or a prophet of justice,” Hassan said. “Is what I’m going to say going to reinforce the status quo? Will I say, ‘I don’t preach on social issues — just spiritual issues?’ Or am I going to be the voice of the unheard that challenges the traditional way we have learned to think about the faith?”

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