A Reminder from Flat Worms

I would like to say with an embarrassing amount of pride that the following idea was my own, but truthfully it was a gentle reminder from Ordinary Preacher, Extraordinary Gospel by Chris Neufeld-Erdman. More truthfully, the reminder is rooted in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. This particular reminder is likely nothing new or unfamiliar, but like a rediscovered family portrait of yester-year, it is good to dust it off and place on your mantle.

Scripture is not yours. It belongs to no one person. Scripture is not to be tamed, controlled, manipulated, or exploited. Quite the contrary, Scripture is meant to transform, influence, and tame you. I know the relationship between canon and church is complicated and messy, but beneath that long and arduous history, Scripture is still God’s word for a people, not a people’s interpretation of God’s word for a people. Perhaps Steinbeck would help at this point.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream… How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise – the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream – be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto the knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book – to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves. [1]

Many preachers, including, and especially, myself, are frequently tempted to force a message out of a text. We justify this manipulation and paint our justifications with a hue of good intentions. We will even usually find a text that says or illustrates our point, and we do this because we are convinced people need to hear this message. Maybe sometimes that is even true, but I fear that we are most likely removing the text from its environment in such a rough manner that we leave it as broken and tattered as a flat worm.

Every so often I turn a sermon into a broken flat worm. I approach a text thinking I know just what it needs to say, ignoring the mischief it might be up to. Writing a sermon like this becomes work – hard work. It is not easy to successfully transform Scripture into your own words, and it is a dangerous endeavor to twist the word of God. Nevertheless, I deliver the sermon and it usually looks like you’d expect: a broken flat worm, taped back together with the level of skill Dr. Frankenstein likely had in preschool. It is a dead word. Worse yet, it is a human word. And the people can smell the stench of that tormented flat worm of a sermon from miles away.

Don’t do that. Don’t force, control, and bend Scripture to your will or your word. Let it ooze and crawl in by itself. I promised a reminder from Chris Neufeld-Erdman, so here it is, and I close with this because there’s no point in trying to re-package a well-spoken word.

I am not much interested in moving from the world we live in toward the text and trying to square its old ways with this new world as if the text must be made relevant to us. Rather, I think the text wants to make us relevant to God. And the text – not our own agendas, opinions, or desires – is the birth place of God’s new life for us and for the world. [2]

When you preach you must never tame the text. There has been too much of that. These sacred texts that bear the Word and Wisdom of God are anything but tame. The Bible, and the Character whose story it tells in such a wide and wild variety of ways, just cannot be tamed or flattened or simplified or reduced or distilled into some bland tonic or a handful of nifty words that the listener, eager pen in in hand, can stuff into blanks on some silly sermon note-taking sheet. No, when you preach you must respect this text more than that, and give it and its Author full room to do their own work. [3]

I am hard pressed to imagine a better way of handling the Bible [than] opening its pages among those whose lives are as full of as much stink and noise, light, tone, and habit as those whose lives the Bible wants us to capture whole. Work too hard at getting them out and off the page and you’ll do them damage or injustice. Better to open the page and let the stories crawl out all by themselves. That is when your preaching will be at its best, and you’ll find yourself working at your task with more wonder and a lot less chore. [4]

[1] John Steinbeck, Cannery Row: (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2002), 5.
[2] Chris Neufeld-Erdman, Ordinary Preacher, Extraordinary Gospel: A Daily Guide for Wise, Empowered Preachers (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 25.
[3] Ibid., 29.
[4] Ibid., 30.
Header image: Baron, Silke. “Gold dotted Flatworm.” Photograph. Flickr. June 16, 2009.
Chess serves as the pulpit minister at Gateway Church of Christ in Queen Creek, Arizona. A born and raised Texan, Chess earned a B.A., M.Div., and M.A. in New Testament from Abilene Christian University. He is passionate about God and his family, and deeply desires to help others fall in love with God so that they may imitate the life and love of Christ. Chess loves to read, learn, and have deeper conversations about God. He also enjoys Formula One racing, playing golf, working on and rebuilding cars, and translating and studying dead languages.
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Author:  Publish Date: February 16, 2017

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About CHARIS

CHARIS hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. The website is intended to support education for Christian life and community through contemporary discussions and historical sources that variously witness to the gifts (“charis”) of God among Churches of Christ, especially their plea for visible unity among Christians through ongoing renewal and restoration of Scriptural beliefs and practices among God’s people.

The CHARIS website is supported by Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX, USA), the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The purpose of CHARIS at ACU is to seek God’s blessings for a healthy relationship between the Christian college/university – its faculty, staff, and students – and the church heritage that gives identity and meaning to such a school. This underlying concern for Christian colleges/universities, and their relationship to the churches, is reflected in the form and content of the CHARIS website.

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