Tuesday 15 December 2009

Lee Beach on Esther and Preaching

Lee Beach, ‘Preaching Subversively: The Book of Esther as a Homiletical Model’, McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 10 (2008-2009), 75-100.

Lee Beach seeks to analyse both how the book of Esther functions as ‘a narrative designed to encourage and instruct Israel during their exile’ and ‘how such a narrative approach could be suggestive as a contemporary homiletical method’ (75).

Along the way, he’s interested in addressing the question – using Esther as a model – whether a ‘narrative sermon can speak powerfully about God without ever mentioning his name’ (76).

The article unfolds in three main parts:

1. Narrative as a theological and homiletical tool
This brief section refers to the ‘constitutive power of narrative’, how story can ‘reshape and define the world for us’, and how sermons are likewise ‘foundational avenues for shaping the theological and ethical life of a church’ (77).

2. Esther: a theological narrative without divine reference
Beach here summarises different dimensions of Esther: as exilic literature (a narrative ‘designed to embody… a diasporic lifestyle that demonstrated wisdom for exilic living’, 79), as a diasporic advice story (portraying people thriving in a displaced context), and as advice to a disaporic people (teaching Jews ‘how to live a productive life in the Diaspora’, 81).

He also looks at clues for God’s presence in the story (the possible veiled reference to divine sovereignty in 4:14, the call to fasting, the coincidences and reversals, the mass ‘conversions’ of Persians to Judaism), suggesting that God’s absence is ‘a literary device and teaching technique’ to show that ‘Yahweh is “experienced” in his absence’ (85). Moreover, he concludes, since Esther has now been incorporated into the canon, ‘it must be given a theological reading’ (86).

3. The sermon: Esther as a homiletical model
This, the fullest part of the article, is where Beach addresses his question of whether Esther can serve as a model for contemporary homiletics. He does so in four stages

• Foundations for Esther as a homiletical model – he mentions Nathan’s parable to David in 2 Samuel 12 which elicits the desired response from David without using the divine name; then there are Jesus’ parables which lack explicit reference to the name of God.

• ‘Preaching subversively’ as an effective approach – making little or no reference to the name of God can be a way of preaching subversively, drawing people into a story.

• A scripturally generated approach to narrative – Beach acknowledges the potential danger of rooting preaching in narrative theories alone rather than particular biblical narratives, but argues that his approach ‘stands in opposition to such charges and seeks to find narrative structures that are fully employed by the Scriptures themselves’ (89). With Esther (and with the parables of Jesus, for instance), ‘a narrative is constructed that seeks to intermingle human experience with biblical perspectives on that experience, ultimately seeking to interpret and shape that experience in a way that absorbs people’s experience into the biblical view of the world’ (90).

• Essential practices for using Esther as a homiletical model – such as locatedness (a sermon that speaks of things that are identifiable to its audience, like Esther does, using familiar terms and experiences), clues (allowing the hearer to deduce the presence of God in a narrative even where his name is not mentioned), the exemplary behavior of the main characters (helping people identify who the ‘heroes’ are), and the sermon as key interpretive clue (where, like the location of Esther in the canon, the sermon itself is augmented by other elements in a church worship service – including songs, prayers, brief concluding statement, and final benediction).

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