Why do we tell stories? For lots of reasons, you’re no doubt thinking. We tell stories to share experiences, to teach lessons, to create community, to reveal ourselves, to gain attention, to lighten a heavy moment, or . . . lots of reasons. Stories have power and have an effect beyond the words of the story. Stories shape our experience of the world; they shape us in that world. Sometimes, stories dream of a world that could be or might be. Everyone leans in when stories are told.
So, why did Jesus tell stories? For all the reasons above, no doubt. Something is happening when Jesus tells stories, something beyond the words of the stories themselves. Even when the words are hard to hear.
Let’s face it, sometimes talking with Jesus is a difficult task. Or maybe we should say, listening to Jesus can sometimes be hard. Jesus has a way of getting to difficult, hard-to-hear issues quickly and easily. Sometimes it is in a story where he is revealing to us our own secret sins; other times, it is the answer to a question that catches us in our prejudice or blindness. Sometimes, it is a teaching that we struggle to wrap our heads around. These are his words - words we believe are valuable, words with which we need to wrestle, words that we need, somehow, to learn to live by.
Our September series is called “Having Words with Jesus” to reflect a variety of moods and meanings. Maybe we want to argue, or turn away, or give up. Or maybe we really want to know, to spend some time in his presence to understand and to explore, and finally, we hope, to hear. This is a call to listen again, even to the more difficult passages that we sometimes want to skip over. Join in this month as we have words with Jesus in worship.
It is not the goal of this series to explain away difficult sayings of Jesus; neither is the aim to make things more difficult than they are. We can sit at Jesus’ feet and wrestle with these words, much like the first hearers did. Like them, we can grab hold of the things that seem clear and contemplate what doesn’t make sense on our first hearing. We need to give the word time to settle within us. We need to listen multiple times, perhaps from many translations. The worship team might partner with various Bible study groups for this series. You could assign all the texts for the series to groups who will then share insights and understandings. Maybe print some interpretations or interesting takes on the words in the bulletin or as a handout for folks coming into worship. Or start an online conversation around the texts through social media or an email chain just so that folks are ready to worship having been exposed to this word ahead of time.
Even during worship, if there is time and space, you could have multiple readers, or multiple translations. The same text could be read more than once with some silence for consideration afterward; perhaps a modified lectio divina could take place during the reading of the word. Let the text speak for itself before interpretation. Then have a time of laity reflection before the preacher speaks. Ask two or three members of the congregation to reflect on the words, share what they heard, or say something about how they reacted to this challenge that comes from Jesus. And this is not an adversarial presentation, a debate, or argument. This is a conversation, a sharing and listening. We are having words with Jesus.
We also remember that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the very embodiment of the words we read. So, our music and our liturgy can celebrate and embrace the living Word that is the Christ we worship. The Word defines us, transforms us into the followers of Jesus that we are longing to be. This first week of this “Having Words” series is a great time to remind ourselves of the commitment that we made to make and to be made into disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Do we understand how all-encompassing that is for our lives? Jesus is asking us to count the cost, to consider the radical change, the radical difference we are called to make, and to live in a world with different priorities. Are we ready and willing to make the sacrifices necessary to live this life? Maybe this is time for a call to commitment, like the Wesleyan Covenant prayer we pray at the beginning of the year. “I am no longer my own, but thine” (United Methodist Hymnal, 607). This is the challenge that Jesus is giving to us today. What must we give up to be his disciples?
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.