Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s our first time together back in this sanctuary in 2020 (following our ecumenical service last week), and I’m excited to be kicking off a new sermon series for the new year. It’s a series inspired by the book Rehearsing Scripture by preaching professor Anna Carter Florence.
Carter Florence points out that when 21st century readers try to interpret passages from the Bible, we end up spending a whole lot of time on the nouns. Understandably enough, given our distance in both time and space from the Ancient Near East, biblical nouns require explanation and translation. Here’s how she puts it:
“Most of us encounter Scripture nouns-first. And when we do, our conversation tends to get sidetracked. The nouns in the biblical text are just so distractingly not of our world. Here are cubits and shekels, arks and archangels… Pharisees and Philistines, Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, and divided tongues of fire. The book of Revelation features a seven-horned, seven-eyed … lamb, which should under no circumstances mix with the other lambs and sheep and cows in the Christmas pageant. We don’t meet many of these biblical nouns in our neighborhoods today, so every time we turn around, we have to explain one of them. It’s a constant reminder that we’re reading about a galaxy far, far away. And that, in turn, let’s us keep our distance.”
Granted, if we spend enough time at church, or studying on our own, we get the hang of some of these nouns. There are, after all, wonderful resources available to us like Bible stories and biblical commentaries and Bible dictionaries and so on. We can educate ourselves to understand whole big bunches of biblical nouns over time. But I’d have to agree with Carter Florence that they often require extra effort.
Not so with verbs, she says. Because as humans, “we all have verbs – the same ones, actually. You and I share verbs with Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Miriam and Ruth and Naomi. We share verbs with Mary and Joseph and Peter and James and John and Martha and Lydia and Paul. We even share verbs with Jesus. That does appear to be the whole point of the Incarnation, doesn’t it? That God came to share our verbs. The Word became one of us and lived among us. Apparently, … God thought the best way to reach us was to meet us, verb for verb. Meet us and raise us and change the whole game… Enter Scripture verbs-first, and … the verbs you meet are as fresh and recognizable as if you had found them in your own backyard. You want to linger over them, to turn them over and over in your hands, and then take them out for a spin. But it’s the other way around. The verbs take us out for a spin... It’s hard to keep arguing about what Scripture means when the verbs keep showing us who weare. If you’re looking for a way to make Scripture relevant, start reading the verbs. You’ll have more relevance on your hands than you know what to do with; you’ll see yourself everywhere, in verbs you’ve played.”
Speaking personally, I don’t actually mind the kinds of word studies and cultural and historical side trips required by biblical nouns. We can learn a lot from them and no doubt we’ll have occasion to enjoy more of those studies together over time. But I’m certainly intrigued by this thesis that concentrating on the verbs will lend a new immediacy to our understanding of Scripture. So I thought we’d give it a try this winter and verb our way into the gospels together for a while.
My hope is this will prove a helpful exercise both for newcomers to the New Testament and for those of us who’ve spent years within its pages. If we know nothing at all about Jesus and his early followers, surely their verbs are a great way to meet them. And if we’ve been hanging around these stories for years and wonder if they have anything new to say to us, paying special attention to the verbs will offer us an opportunity to see them with new eyes.
We’ll be focusing primarily on stories from Jesus’ adulthood, but I thought: why not try the strategy first with a story we just read over the Christmas season? So pull out your pew Bibles, if you would, and let’s turn to the text Sally just read for us, Luke 2:15-20, which you can find on p. 935. The biblical nouns in this case are a little less strange to us than some. At least they’re ones we’ve been seeing and hearing a lot of over the last few weeks - from our children’s Christmas pageant to our readings together on Christmas Eve. We’re talking about angels and shepherds, Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus lying in the manger.
But let’s try focusing on the verbs this time through. First let’s verb with the shepherds. Glance through Luke 2:15-20, if you would, and call out only the verbs, or action words, that are actions of the shepherds: they say, let’s go and see, and then they go, they find, they see. Once they see, then what do they do? They make known (in other words, they tell what they’ve seen and heard). And then if you jump ahead to verse 20 we’re back to the shepherds again, and what are they verbing about there? They return, glorify, and praise God.
So as the shepherds have this encounter with God’s angels and then with God’s Son, what are they doing? Having just heard the angels in the prior verses telling them about the child in the manger, they go– they make haste actually, or hurry - and find, and see for themselves. They tell what they’ve seen, not keeping it to themselves. Then they get back to work (returning presumably to their fields) and as they return they glorify and praise God for what they’ve been privileged enough to verb for themselves (in other words, for what they’ve seen and heard).
I’m starting to think Anna Carter Florence is onto something here. Because for all the sermons I’ve heard about the practices of Ancient Near Eastern shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, the fact of the matter is I’m not an Ancient Near Eastern shepherd – I’m thousands of years and thousands of miles removed from the world in which they lived - so it’s always going to be a bit of a stretch to identify with all their nouns. But I can verb right along with them. I know what it means to want to hurry and goand find something out for myself, to see with my own eyes if a word from God is true. I’m perfectly capable, too, of telling what I see. As I am of glorifying and praising God wherever I happen to be, whether in a powerful moment of encountering Jesus, or back work on a regular day.
Let’s take a look at Mary’s action here, too. She only gets a verse in this particular subsection of Luke 2, but look what she does there in verse 19. What are Mary’s verbs? She treasures and she ponders. She treasures the words she’s just heard from God’s messengers (both angels and shepherds) and she ponders them in her heart. Again, any one of us can get in on verbs like these, wondering about divine mysteries, or appreciating, valuing, treasuring beautiful experiences of God’s grace.
So there you have it. You’ve already begun verbing your way into the gospels!
Anna Carter Florence reminds us that “the language of Scripture moves. It is concerned with concrete actions. It prefers to ask, ‘What then shall we do?’ rather than ‘So how do you feel about it?’ … The language moves, and it invites us to move with it, to trace how the mighty acts of God flow through the text and straight into our lives.” So how might our “reading of Scripture… shift if [we] let the dynamic nature of the language itself – all that movement – lead [us]?” I’m excited to begin reading Scripture in this new way, and I’m confident we’ll learn from each other if you’ll come along with me on this journey.
Meanwhile as we wrap up today, I’d like to pray us through the verbs we’ve just highlighted in our text from Luke so you can consider which ones are perhaps most familiar to you, and whether any one of them feels like a personal invitation. Might God be encouraging you in the days ahead either to verb with the shepherds or to verb with Mary?
God of action, God of movement, God in whom we live and move and act, help each one of us to see ourselves in the story as we learn together how to read the gospels verbs-first. Help us, too, to receive any invitation you already wish to offer us through the verbs we’ve encountered today. Might you be asking us to hear a word from you through your messengers? Or to go and find and see something for ourselves? Might you be inviting us to tell what we’ve seen and heard? To return to a familiar place in our life or work and to glorify and praise you for something we’ve been privileged to witness? Or are you inviting any of us to treasure or ponder a gracious gift or a divine mystery? Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening. Amen.
 Anna Carter Florence, Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Col, 2018), p. 17
 Florence, pp. 20-21.
 Florence, p. 17.