Thursday, December 18, 2008

O'Donovan on reading

Reading is the act which opens us to the voice of Jesus’s witnesses, and so to history, to the world, and to the empty tomb at the world’s centre. Reading should be the core moment in all our liturgy, the heartbeat that gives life to the sacraments, the preaching and the prayers. Reading should be at the focal point of our church buildings, so that what we see first is not an altar, not a pulpit, but a lectern. Reading should be the lifeblood of our preaching, so that every new sermon we compose springs from a study of the Scripture that is for us as though for the first time, new, vital, surprising. Reading must be the rhythm of our life, the daily beat of the Gospel which gives order to the flurry of undertakings all around it. Reading schools us in self-denial and flexibility, emptying out the imaginations of self-generated visions and filling us with the thoughts of others. Reading accepts the divine violence upon the world that has given us life, but offers no violence back to the messengers through whom the news of that life comes to us.

Oliver O'Donovan, "Saint Mark, violence, and the discipline of reading: a sermon"

I am astonished when church services are confined to a single short reading to make more time for preaching (or singing, or coffee). This usually means the congregation rarely hears the Old Testament and what it does receive frequently lacks much context. Worse is when a "reading" from an extra-scriptural source is regularly substituted for the Bible. I am all for introducing congregations to the riches of Christian thought through the ages, but not as a substitute for Scripture. Using a lectionary makes more and more sense to me as a liturgical discipline of regular, systematic, extended engagement with the actual words of Scripture.
Thanks to Æ for posting this sermon. He also points out that a book of O’Donovan’s sermons, “The Word in Small Boats”, will be published by Eerdmans in the northern Spring of 2009.


Anthony Douglas said...

Hear hear. Pun definitely intended, of course.

That's a superb quote from OOD. Though I'll have to think more about the priority of a lectern over a pulpit...aside from the huge cost of remodelling hundreds of old churches, there seems to be grounds to see the sermon as the word proclaimed as much as the reading is the word read...

Last Sunday, our sermon was on Jeremiah 31. The focus was always going to be on the latter half, and so as I planned the service, I opted to let Jeremiah set the order: I just read from the start of the chapter, and where it called for song, we sang; where it called for confession, we confessed; where it called for prayer, we prayed. Then we reached the 'reading' and read the rest of the chapter. It worked for me, anyway.

And yes, we had a second reading!

Dave Barrie said...

Byron, in practice I think that many passages of scripture make little sense to most of the congregation unless they are explained.

At our 8am service we follow the lectionary for two of the three readings and the third is replaced by the passage being preached on. The two lectionary readings are read without any explanation and my feeling is that they just as often leave the congregation confused as edified.

You actually need an extremely good knowledge of the scriptures to understand a (seemingly) random passage read in isolation during the service.

At the evening service I have introduced a segment called story time. It is essentially a mix of scripture reading and story telling. The story teller (myself and one other person usually alternate) reminds the congregation of where we are up to in the narrative and then unfolds the story for us reading some sections and paraphrasing others.

The goal is to familiarise the congregation with more of the biblical story and help them understand sections of scripture which would otherwise be opaque or prone to misunderstanding.

Since I introduced it 10 months ago we have covered: Acts 1-10, Ruth, Esther, Exodus 1-6, Hosea, & Jonah. So far it seems to be working very well.

byron smith said...

Dave - I love the idea of storytime! Great stuff. I agree that often a (very brief) intro to a reading is very appropriate. Also, the sermon can be an explanation of one or more of the lectionary readings

However, I also think it can often be a good thing for people to go home not feeling like they have understood everything. Too much of this can be disheartening, but too little is part of what makes church "boring". The Scriptures (or parts of them) are challenging: not just ethically and spiritually, but intellectually. Explanation is indeed often required, but I don't think everything needs to be explained all the time. Leaving people to puzzle over a passage can be very fruitful (this also means the leader doesn't need to pretend to understand every passage either!).

byron smith said...

Anthony: I also liked your idea of Jeremiah 31 structuring the service. How explicitly did you bring that out?