Thursday, July 05, 2018

Festival of Homiletics: Anna Carter Florence

Here it is, the last post of reflections from the Festival of Homiletics! On Friday morning, we got to hear both a lecture and a sermon from Anna Carter Florence. She's been one of my favorites at the Festival since the first time I heard her speak about pastors and plagiarism. She was booked in a room that was too small for the crowd that was there to hear her, and from then on, she was given bigger spaces. Two years ago, she preached at the opening worship service at the Festival, an Easter Sunday service for all of us preachers who never get to attend Easter worship, and I found myself crying during the opening processional, unaware of just how much I needed to be in a resurrection service I wasn't leading myself. 

Carter Florence's lecture was titled, "The Book of Esther and a Truth for the World.” She spoke about her class called "Rehearsing Scripture" (see book on these themes here). Each semester, the class would spend time with one text, one story. And this particular semester, the focus was Esther. She talked about how enriched their experience of the text was after celebrating Purim with a Jewish congregation. She said, "We knew Esther was about parody and reversal, we just didn’t know what it would be like to reenact that, pushing the limits in the sanctuary." But "this is what we do when we read about a genocide that almost happened but didn’t." She continued, "Esther means: I am hiding. My students knew all this, but they were tossed in the deep end after practicing in the shallow end. And the experience helped them asked new questions, like why are identity questions so often at the root of violence? Does hiding who we are perpetuate/allow violence for others? Does pushing against the sacred help us figure out what is sacred?" 

Carter Florence talked about "play for the sake of justice" and described four "Roadmarkers" that make for the epiphany of scripture, drawing on her theatre background: 

1) Performance/rehearsing scripture is subjunctive. It happens in “as if” mode. What if we rehearse the text as if we are soldiers, as if we are teens, if we read it with a real congregation? Subjunctive is the first roadmarker: rehearse possibilities. Change one variable. See what transpires. 
2) Performance/reading of scripture is liminal. Plays at edges. Pushes limits. Takes us past limits of acceptable/believable/possible. What is more unbelievable? Margaritas in the sanctuary (as she and her class experienced with the congregation celebrating Purim), or ignoring genocide? 
3) Performance (reading scripture) is duplicitous. It isn’t the real world as we know it, but is more real than the reality we live. We expect theatre, but why does it seem to hold more truth than our every day lives? 
4) It is dangerous. Real lives are affected. Real change happens when we rehearse scripture. 

She also shared with us "rehearsal practices" for rehearsing scripture: 

Staying in the scene – walk into the text and keep listening. Don’t break character. Don’t interrupt once it starts. We would sometimes make the mistake in acting as though we were only one in a scene, not part of an ensemble. Stay in it to find something true to say together. Rehearsal reveals things about the script, but also about ourselves. Scripture is much better at reading us than we are at reading it. Requires great compassion and love for one another.
Switching roles - Rehearsing scripture is the first place where we learn to switch roles in our sacred stories. Think of how many different roles Sunday School kids get to play in the Christmas pageant over the years! Each time shows us something new. Every text is worth an annual pageant. 
Pushing the limits - Rehearsal is time for careful pressing against boundaries and limits. We can’t change play or cast or hurt or violate. But we can suspend judgment. It only happens in rehearsal or set aside space. Do it like Max in Where the Wild Things Are - he has adventures and then goes home for supper. Can we tolerate dissonance without shutting down, or questions without calling others heretics? If answer is yes, you can move forward. 
“What if? questions about scripture can change the reading faster than anything else. (Sticking to script while changing the one variable!) One very effective what is question to ask: “What if we read this text as an underground community of believers?” Slaves, Christians in communist countries, Jews in Nazi Germany, original readers of text. We take our free and open reading of scripture for granted sometimes. Descendants of slaves and descendants of Pharaoh have important things to wrestle with. 

***
Carter Florence preached her sermon, "Blessings for Latter Days" on Job 42:1-17. This sermon was transcendent, and my notes in no way do it justice. I tried to describe to colleagues after what she said and did a terrible job. So note below I include a link to where you can purchase his sermon.  

Job Scholars conclude, “Those speech cycles (from Job's terrible friends) are insufferable by design. It’s what the author of Job was going for in those chapters. Job is the puzzle that can’t be solved.” 

Carter Florence said, "What words say and what they do are very different matters. It is one things to expect galling speech to make you mad – it is another thing for it to happen. The point of Job perhaps is not inspiring us, but infuriating us, so that we can’t stand one more word of terrible teaching about suffering." 

"If you’re going to be a talking theologian, you better be a walking theologian, all the way to the White House."

How the author chooses to tell the story is as important as story itself, Carter Florence said. Chapter after chapter of tiresome speeches. Chapter after chapter of Job-splaining! His friends telling Job how to feel. 

One outcome of a function-driven reading of Job: we pool our rage, and throw it at Job’s friends. We could critique them/the book of Job and call it a day. But, Carter Florence says, that's too easy. It protects us from our own story. We have to play this script – some days as Job but we are often Job’s friends. Searching for words and failing. We must speak, speaking is inadequate. 

She had her students participate in a Worst Words of Consolation Ever Contest! What were the worst things people ever said when you to you to "comfort" you when you were broken and grieving? Results? Everything collected was a paraphrase of what Job’s friends uttered. 

The message we/others/the world seems to speak to suffering: "If you are not ________ enough, you deserve _______, it’s God’s will so accept it." 31 chapters, weeks, years, centuries, this Author of Job wants us to FEEL IT, how it enrages us, wants us to feel it. Job’s voice refuses to accept their view of the world. They DO NOT get to name his experience, and they DO NOT get to come in between him and God. 

Political preaching: It's lament. It's dispute. It's embodied preaching that is unafraid to name truth and experience for yourself. "Political preaching feels like freedom and restored order." 

You can purchase a recording of Carter Florence's sermon here. (Scroll to the bottom.) I have never purchased a recording before myself, but I think I will have to with this one!

I didn't take notes, but you can also find the excellent remarks from Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren here

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