Theological Reflection Statement

June 10, 2002



Theological Reflection - Adding New Dimensions in Sacred Listening


 My goals for this course were to explore my exegetical skills in greater

depth, while joining with other pastors in studying the texts from which we

preach.  Exegesis and preaching require a certain “sacred listening,” that is,

an openness to the Word of God as it is directed to a specific community of

faith through a particular preacher.  The structure of this course brought

together several powerful concepts which I will term “Dimensions of Sacred



Dimension 1 - The Historical-Homiletical Work Method


 In my seminary studies, I benefitted greatly from the six step

historical-homiletical work method (HHWM).  This method combines historical

inquiry along with inquiry along lines more centered on the preaching event,

such as considerations of the needs and background of the congregation.  The

HHWM is summarized In Table 1.


Table 1: The Historical-Homiletical Work Method


Step I - (Initial) Acquaintance

A. Comparison of English or other published translations

B. Greek/Hebrew Textual Criticism

C. One's Own Rough Translation


Step II - Disposition

A. Genre - How the text says what it says

B. Personal Interaction - Questions and observations

C. Organization - Where the elements of "B" are located


Step III - Composition

A. Immediate Context - preceding/following pericope

B. Organization of the Compositional Whole

C. Issues of Authorship


Step IV - Context

A. Primitive Christianity

B. Old Testament and Judaism

C. Hellenistic World


Step V - Distillation

A. Summary of Salient Features

B. Smooth Translation

C. Hermeneutical Bridge


Step VI - Contemporary Address

A. Description of Audience

B. Intended Goals for the Address

C. Address


Note: Steps I-IV cover aspects of historical inquiry.  Steps V-VI are the

homiletical steps.


 This course has allowed me to re-examine this first dimension of sacred

listening. In seminary, I was not writing a sermon every week.  In my

ministry, I have used parts of the HHWM, but almost never attempted the whole

method in a given week.  This course gave me a chance to try the complete HHWM

in real time.  It was fruitful, but exhausting.  In the process I made some

practical observations.

 Using the Nestle New Testament marginal references to follow biblical

allusions and then using the Internet to copy ALL the allusions into one

document was very helpful. The peculiar language of some New Testament texts

became much easier to understand when the Hebrew scriptures behind them were

kept in mind.

 For instance, the story of Jesus fasting in the wilderness for forty days

paralleled Moses’ forty days and Elijah’s forty days.  Some of the New

Testament phrases could be direct translations from the Hebrew.  Although the

forty days of fasting might seem to a modern reader to be a “proof” of Jesus’

unique devotion, Hebrew scripture reveals that it does just the opposite.

Instead of separating him from the rest of humanity, it places him firmly in

one particular human tradition.

 Another useful tool I discovered in this course was the Perseus Digital

Library website which can search for particular Greek words and phrases in

hundreds of ancient Greek documents and then translates the relevant texts

into English. This was a new possibility that gave me access to Hellenistic

culture that I could not have had 10 years ago.  For instance, it was

eye-opening to read from Diodorus Siculus in the first century BCE  about

whether earthquakes were purely natural phenomena or divine judgements.  This

text connected to the sermon text because both used the root for earthquake,


 Theologically speaking, this method of listening to scripture shows a

confidence that God speaks to God’s people in a variety of ways.  Historical

studies are valued because, when conducted according to commonly accepted

acedemic standards, they are an open and honest study of the world God

created.  The historical steps of the HHWM cover a wide range of academic

disciplines, including the work of translators, literary scholars, historians,


 Once having listened to these contributors, the exegete turns back to the

faith tradition and the living family of faith, and asks how her/his

particular faith tradition hears the text in question.  Current events in the

life of the congregation influence the meaning of the text as well as classic

theological writings.

 This first dimension of sacred listening is like a vast antenna.  The exegete

spreads wide the array of various ways of listening.  All of this energy is

taken in at a particular point in time and in a particular place.  Then, all

of this is used to produce a statement of faith for the day.


Dimension 2 - The Lectionary Cycle used Over Time


 The second dimension of sacred listening is the dimension of time.  Having

used the HHWM once on a particular text, that same text may appear in the

lectionary in three years time.  In that time, the exegete has been changed by

interaction with other texts and more of life in general.  The ears with with

she/he listens have changed.

 For nine years now I have preached regularly from the lectionary, and this

has allowed me the opportunity to experience this second dimension of my

sacred listening. As I conduct my exegetical work for a given Sunday, I now

have two or three sets of sermon notes from previous years to aid me in my

studies.  This has given me a chance to reflect upon and critique my own work

from a significant distance in time.  It has also helped me notice how the

life of our congregation has changed and grown in relation to the scriptures

we gather to hear each Sunday.

 This dimension has obvious theological ramifications.  God speaks to us at

all times, yet in different times of life we are able to hear differently.

Hopefully we grow in faith and maturity as time passes.  We learn from

mistakes.  We repent of old vanities.  We appreciate the patience with which

our congregations must listen to us week after week.


Dimension 3 - Collegial Work


 Maintaining a disciplined life of listening to Scripture through weekly

exegetical work and the maintenance of organized notes led me to this point in

my sacred listening.  This class has helped me develop a third dimension to my

sacred listening. Although I have participated in weekly lectionary study

groups, this has been my most academically intense experience.  I have been

able to share in in-depth exegetical studies with other pastors as they

prepare to preach in their particular contexts.  The two-week course gave me

time to get to know these pastors and a little of the contexts in which they

serve.  Then, with face-to-face discussion of our in-depth exegetical work, my

own understanding of particular texts significantly expanded.

 God has called us to be the Church in community.  The work of a solo pastor

can be a very isolating experience.  Even when we have time to work with other

pastors, we rarely hear another pastor preach, and it is even more rare to

discuss theological implications of differing translations from the original

Greek.  This time together has allowed me access to fellow Christian preachers

as they listen intensely to God’s Word and respond to that Word in a way that

is appropriate for their community.


Dimension 4 - Benefitting from Internet Technology


 Finally, through the use of the Internet, our conversation continued for an

additional six weeks beyond the time we spent together.  In addition, more

people were able to join in the discussion.  Just as Paul was able to benefit

from the ease of travel and the mail delivery system made possible by the

Roman Empire, the Church today may use the tools of our society-at-large to

benefit our work in proclaiming the good news.

 In my experience, e-mail communication is a unique tool.  E-mail is much

faster than standard mail, yet like standard mail, our communications are

recorded for future reference.  E mail allows for more thoughtful discourse

than telephone conversations.  These advantages worked well in our situation,

since we knew each other from our work together in the two-week class, and the

format for our work had already been established.

 Obviously, face-to-face discussions have an immediacy and an obvious sense of

humanity that is lacking on the Internet.  Through e-mail postings we can

describe our contexts and stories, but probably never equal the emotion of

personal communication.  However, our Internet conversations demand far less

time and money to conduct.  Long after our two-week course was over, our

conversation continued to grow.  In addition, many more people can benefit

from our discussions.

 In a similar way, Paul used letters to communicate with Churches which Paul

had already visited.  These letters continued to hold meaning as generations

passed and Christians who had never met Paul read these communications.  But

when Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Rome, a Church that had not yet

become acquainted with Paul, the result was a much longer letter.  Paul had to

introduce himself and explain his beliefs.  The result is a letter that may be

more accessible to later generations.

 Learning from Paul, we can expect e-mail communication to slow down and

become more cumbersome when strangers must address each other.  My local

conversation partners had a difficult time responding to the work of the other

class members, primarily because of the lack of familiarity with the people

and stories behind the words on the screen.


Comparing Face-to-Face Discussions with Website Exchanges


 In spite of the advantages of Internet communication, several problems arise:


1) We can add many more people, but how does a community establish boundaries

in this environment?  How do we get to know each other?  How do we hear the

gospel in light of contexts with which we are unfamiliar?  How do we establish

trust in the quality and faithfulness of the work we encounter?

2) In our particular experiment, the web postings lagged significantly behind

my submissions.  As time passed, it was more difficult for me to maintain a

passionate interest in the work.  Learning to communicate in this environment

will always face these kinds of technical challenges.  In our situation, I

think we needed more feedback to be confident our work was being received.

But more feedback requires more time, and this leads to another problem:

3) Learning to operate in a new environment demands new skills and choices.

Where do I spend my time and effort as I look at my vast array of exegetical

tools, which have now been expanded?  Do I find particular exegetical

submitters who I learn to trust over time and follow their work, tracing them

by use of their cryptic initials?  Do I somewhat randomly peruse all the work

that is available on the Bi216 website, trusting in the overall quality of the

work of this particular community?

 As this type of work continues, I trust we will discover answers to these

questions.  In general, we will always communicate more efficiently with

people we already know and trust.  And the more separated we become, the more

effort it will take to maintain meaningful communication.  Not knowing an

exegete’s name and background is a major stumbling block.  If I am already

under the pressure of the many demands of pastoral work, I am unlikely to take

the time to investigate an unfamiliar source.

 Similarly, the exegete with many demands on her/his time must focus on the

sermon for which she/he is responsible.  When time constraints are tight,

providing feedback to others’ sermons will not be the first priority.  And if

the others’ sermons are posted after the sermons have been preached, there is

even less impetus to provide meaningful and timely feedback.


Conclusion - Continuing the Collegial Exegetical Process

 In conclusion, the intense nature of this course provided unique learning

opportunities as well as unique drawbacks.  In my experience, I discovered

that by expending significant effort, I can use the HHWM to great advantage in

the course of an average week.  However, any number of pastoral duties can

make this approach seem unsustainable.  A death in the congregation, a

Presbytery meeting, or organizing a new mission task force are typical

pastoral situations that can easily consume all the time normally allotted to

weekly exegesis.

 I was much less successful in providing feedback to my peers.  Almost all of

my feedback was given well after the sermon I was responding to was preached.

Much of this delay was due to the necessity of choosing between completing my

exegetical work and responding to others.  Some of the delay was due to the

slow appearance of work on the website.

 For all of the benefits of exegetical work, a pastor can only do this work if

she/he is truly immersed in the life of the Church.  Ironically, the time a

pastor takes away from sermon preparation provides the experience and wisdom

that nurtures sermon preparation.  Therefore, for our work to remain

meaningful we must have adequate time to live full lives.  Our home life, our

play time, our prayer time, our time to simply sit and reflect, our time to

brainstorm with Church members . . . all of these empower our exegetical


 If I were to make a plan to continue this work as an ongoing effort, I would

limit my attempts to use all six steps of the HHWM to once or twice a month.

In my experience,the discipline of giving time to each step tends to result in

remarkable insight into the text, and it has always been well worth the

effort.  In the remaining weeks I would use the HHWM in a much more casual

way, choosing only the steps that seem most appropriate after a careful

reading of the text.  However, in these weeks I could have enough time and

energy to give feedback to perhaps two or three exegetical efforts by other

pastors.  With this level of effort, I believe the benefits of this collegial

exegetical process could extend indefinitely.