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Helping preachers navigate difficult Old Testament passages


Doctoral students produce the weekly podcast ‘First Reading’

November 7, 2019

The Rev. Rachel Wrenn, left and Tim McNinch, graduate students at Emory University, created the podcast “First Reading” to help preachers with difficult Old Testament passages. (Contributed photos)

One year into providing their First Reading: The Old Testament Lectionary Podcast, Emory University Hebrew Bible doctoral students — and preachers — the Rev. Rachel Wrenn and Tim McNinch are delivering a weekly tool for preachers who crave practical sermon help on the Old Testament passages found in the Revised Common Lectionary.

McNinch, a graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary who’s served as a campus pastor and church planter, and Wrenn, an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, say their labor of love is a product of their shared passion for the Old Testament, which is sometimes relegated to a secondary position during Sunday sermons in favor of, say, the lectionary’s gospel passage.

“We discovered we both have a side passion for translating this stuff into something usable for people preaching on the Old Testament,” McNinch said.

Once each month, the two scholars interview a guest expert — a seminary or university faculty member — on an upcoming Old Testament lectionary passage. Those podcasts last for about 50 minutes.

During the other weeks of the month, Wrenn and McNinch offer their own thoughts on the passage in podcasts that last roughly a dozen minutes. For each Old Testament lectionary passage, podcasts are recorded a couple of weeks in advance so they’re ready for preachers who enjoy working ahead on their sermons.

The first podcast came out on July 29, 2018.

“I remember that first episode,” Wrenn said. “We had Tim’s mom call in and read the Scripture for the day. She had a lovely Midwestern accent, and I’d served churches in rural Minnesota. To hear her reading that text (2 Samuel 7), I teared up. It felt like both worlds coming together. This is who I had in mind for why I wanted to do this (podcast) in the first place.”

The two sent links of those early podcasts to their friends in various preacher networks and received “a lot of good feedback” that helped them shape future podcasts, McNinch said. The nature of podcasts, he said with a laugh, is that “you hear only positive feedback.”

Wrenn said her love of Hebrew Scripture goes back to middle school, when her mother suggested she read all 150 Psalms.

“The Psalms were always a place that felt very much like home to me. The poetry spoke to me, and then I had some great Old Testament professors who made the Hebrew Scripture come alive,” she said. “These are the stories that formed Jesus. What more beautiful way to understand our Savior than to study the Scripture he studied?”

“There is this notion that the Old Testament gives us a picture of an outdated God of judgment and wrath and the New Testament a God of love and grace,” McNinch said, adding this reason for dispelling that particular view of the Old Testament: “I guess Rachel and I both have sort of a rebellious streak.”

A fair amount of the Old Testament “is painful stuff that has formed our Western society on relationships and the roles of women, including what is allowed to be done to women’s bodies,” Wrenn noted. “It’s important for me to be a voice for how you wrestle with that. Many people would just reject it, but I want to pursue another way with wrestling with these Scriptures.”

Experienced preachers themselves, the two work during their podcasts to offer preachers practical tips on which teachings might be accentuated in that week’s passage. They often invite preachers to extend the narrative before and after the weekly passage to set it in context. They also provide their listeners with help with, for examples, synonyms that can be substituted for biblical words that some listeners will find hard to hear from the pulpit.

“We’ve heard from pastors and scholars who find this life-giving,” Wrenn said, “and we have had fun conversations with the academics” they’ve had on their podcasts.

“We are both Hebrew nerds, so we try to provide Hebrew linguistic tidbits to the texts at hand,” McNinch said. “Someday we could have a resource for preachers who are rusty with their Hebrew skills.”

“We’ve found that podcasts are a good medium for getting resources into the ears of preachers,” he added. “Because preaching is an auditory medium, it’s a natural for preachers.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service,

Today’s Focus:  Old Testament Passages

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Emily Kiefer, Presbyterian Publishing Corp.
Janice Kim, Presbyterian Publishing Corp.

Let us pray:

When we open our hearts to your love, O God, we can share stories of our seeking and finding you and so receive new experiences of your grace. Thank you for the blessings you pour into our lives when we reach out to one another. Amen.

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