Storystitching a Sermon
(originally published in The Biblical Storyteller Outreach Issue)
Dr. Tracy Radosevic is the dean of NBS’ Academy for Biblical Storytelling and adjunct professor of biblical storytelling and Christian formation courses at Wesley Theological Seminary in DC and the Ecumenical Institute of Theology in Baltimore. She has also traveled extensively within the country and to numerous spots around the world teaching, preaching, performing, facilitating retreats and leading storytelling pilgrimages to holy sites. She has been a member of NBS since 1990.
Q. What is storystitching Tracy?
A. My definition is a hybrid of homiletical approaches presented by two of our past Festival Gathering keynoters: Richard Jensen from 1995 and Donald Davis from 2002. In short, storystitching is about using stories to interpret other stories (for Richard that would be scripture interpreting scripture; for Donald it’s usually personal stories interpreting scripture). In other words, rather than a 3-point sermon talking about or analyzing a biblical text, and/or using a story only to illustrate a point of the sermon, this method allows the stories to be the point.
One of the most memorable take-aways from Donald’s plenary sessions was his definition of “parable”—not “a short story with a moral,” which is how most people, and dictionaries, would categorize them. He took us back to the Latin and Greek roots of the word, particularly the “para” part (also the root of “parallel”) which means something more along the lines of “comparison.” In fact, here’s what Donald said:
“Parable means, literally, one thing laid beside another thing. Period. The end. A story is a parable if, functionally, as we listen to that story, it pulls from us a second story that comes from our own memory and experience—a second story we would have never thought of if we hadn’t heard the first one. And so now we have two things side by side shedding light on one another. Only when that happens is a story a parable. If that doesn’t happen, it’s not a parable, no matter what you call it. If it does happen, it is a parable, no matter what you call it.”*
It’s pretty basic, like when someone informally shares a story and afterwards one of the listeners says, “Oh, that makes me think of …” and launches into a story of their own (after which someone else may chime in with, “Well, that reminds me of …” and then tells their own story and so on and so on and …) So when Donald preaches, he’ll read (he’s not a biblical storyteller!) the scripture that his message/sermon/story will be based on and then spend a maximum of three minutes giving some helpful exegetical information to better understand the context of that scripture. That’s it. Then he’ll say something like, “With this background information in mind, when I hear this particular biblical story, this is what it makes me think of” and he’ll launch into a personal story that parallels the scripture. That’s his “sermon.” And he’ll usually end the personal story/sermon by saying, “That’s what I think of when I hear this biblical text; what do you think of?” Then he sits down. And it’s very effective! I distinctly remember most of the details of a “sermon” like this he shared about 20 years ago. Would that I could remember most sermons the next day!
Jensen is a little more traditional but there are still many overlaps with Davis. He was an early encourager of narrative preaching with his 1980 book Telling the Story: Variety and Imagination in Preaching. In 1993 he acknowledged even more the most recent major communication paradigm shift when he wrote Thinking in Story: Preaching in a Post-Literate Age. But it’s his 1996-1998 synoptic preaching aid series (Preaching Mark’s Gospel, Preaching Luke’s Gospel, Preaching Matthew’s Gospel) that I reference almost every time I’m preparing to preach.** These books follow the lectionary so the chapters are devoted to, and arranged by, the next successive gospel lection. He provides a couple pages of exegetical information for each week’s lesson and then gives a minimum of two, and often as many as four, possible thematic directions to go with that story, suggesting for each path other biblical stories to “stitch” (i.e. tell) along with the original gospel text. The end result is a “sermon” that consists mostly of two or more biblical stories, paralleling each other in some way, told with as little commentary (or “preaching”) as possible, which allows the stories to shed light on one another mostly by their individual potency alone. What I have found interesting is that I rarely follow any of Jensen’s suggested paths; but it’s seeing what he does suggest that gets my creative juices flowing and then I’m able to come up with my own theme and accompanying stories.
Q. Give us some examples of this.
A. My favorite example, and one I’ve used many times to powerful effect, is actually the example Jensen himself used at the Festival Gathering. The base story is Mark 4:1-20, the parable of the Sower and Four Soils. When I get to the part of the story that explains everything, I insert another narrative from Mark after each of the four types of soil to further shed light on those metaphors. So Mk. 2:23-3:6 is inserted after the explanation of the seeds that fall upon the path; Mk. 14:26-72 (with some paraphrasing of verses 32-52 to shorten that section) parallels the seeds that fall on rocky ground; Mk. 10:17-31 comes after the seeds sown among thorns; and Mk. 5:1-20 (with a slight editorial comment about how the next time Jesus goes to the Decapolis—i.e. Gentile/enemy territory—there are 4000 people prepared to spend three days with him so apparently someone—the Demoniac? —had done some “planting of seeds on good soil”) finishes up the stitching and the “sermon” experience. It takes about 25 minutes in total and I was once told by someone in the congregation that day, “You need to drop everything else you do and only do this. I mean, that’s the message right there. What more do we need?”
The story of Jesus’ baptism from Luke 3:15-22 could be stitched with: other water-symbolizing-new-life stories (i.e. Noah, Crossing of the Red Sea, Rev. 22, etc.); other Luke-Acts stories of baptism (Pentecost, the Ethiopian Eunuch, Lydia, Paul and Silas’ jailer and his family, etc.); or follow Jensen’s suggestion on p. 54 of Preaching Luke’s Gospel and stay completely within the Lukan corpus concentrating on its Son of God theme using 3:21-22, 3:23-38, 4:1-13, and 4:16-21. “The climax of these stories is Jesus’ reading from the book of Isaiah. Jesus defines the meaning of Son of God through this Isaiah passage as the life of a servant. The Son of God/servant cares for the poor, the captives, and all who are oppressed. In our baptism we are called “sons” and “daughters” of God. It follows that our baptismal vocation is precisely to live the life of servants. We, too, are called upon to care for the poor, the captives, and the oppressed. Such a sermon is obviously a call to the children of God to take up the yoke of Christian discipleship and live lives that are focused not on self, as the devil would have it, but on the needs of others.”
Q. What are the advantages to this approach?
A. Several years ago I had a Lenten post-dinner gig at a big church outside of Atlanta. During the meal, one of the church’s clergy sat down at my table and expressed how excited he was about my program because, as he then confessed, “I’m a bit of a storyteller myself.” I told him that was great and he grinned ruefully and said, “Well, my homiletics professor in seminary didn’t think it was so great! I always got a very positive response from my fellow classmates but the professor wasn’t a fan of my use of stories in preaching and always graded me down as a result. I finally went to see him about this and asked what the problem was. He said, “Look, if all you do is tell stories, that’s all the people are going to remember!’”
Now, I have no idea what kind of stories this guy was using in his sermons. If they had nothing to do with the scripture or overall sermonic emphasis then his professor was probably correct in discouraging him. But his professor was also, ironically, correct about how stories are what people tend to remember. It’s not that three points are impossible to recall but it takes way more effort for us to do so, especially the further away from the event we get. Stories are easier to remember because they hit us in our heart and gut, where they immediately connect with our emotions and our experiences. And because we can then relate to them from a personal, lived vantage point our likelihood of remembering them rises exponentially.
Most of us probably can’t remember much about what we learned in fifth grade, but we most certainly remember some of the experiences of fifth grade—the teacher, a class project, reciting a book report, a crush we had, “the movie”—the viewing of which required parental approval—where the phys. ed. teacher took the boys into the gym and the girls stayed in the classroom. We remember these things because we lived them. I’m hard-pressed to remember most (“non-lived”) sermons, some evaporating by (early!) Sunday afternoon. But I can recount for you stories I heard decades ago, including stories I heard within sermons (see my comment above about Donald Davis’ sermons). And I don’t just remember basic narrative plot lines, I remember, and am still impacted by, the experience of them. So if stories are “all the people are going to remember,” why in the world wouldn’t we want to employ as many stories as possible into, what for most church goers is, the main conduit for receiving a biblically-based message, (a message we certainly want them to remember, right??), i.e. the sermon?
Q. What, if any, are the possible pitfalls pastors should be aware of when they try this the first few times?
A. Well, there are potentially some of the same pitfalls as traditional preaching, i.e. trying to force connections that aren’t there; incorrect (and possibly dangerous, especially considering how powerfully manipulative stories can be) interpretations; lazy exegesis; etc. But I suppose the biggest challenge for many pastors, as well as for those sitting in the pews, would be getting past the idea that the main purpose of the sermon is to tell the listeners the meaning for that day’s scripture passage and what/how they’re supposed to think about it. Let me be clear: I’m not saying that every possible interpretation is valid or that allowing the average congregant to come to his/her own conclusions isn’t risky. That’s why it’s important for preachers to do their due diligence in their preparation and proclamation (thus avoiding, hopefully, the pitfalls listed above). But it also behooves them to educate and prepare their members ahead of time to other possible homiletical approaches. The beauty of storytelling is that ultimately the interpretation/point of resonance of any given story is up to the individual listeners. In addition, there can be more than one possible—and appropriate—understanding of each biblical text. This frees up the Holy Spirit to work with each of us in the way that’s most beneficial at those particularly times and places along our spiritual journeys.
But many preachers were trained in seminary to have the “last word” and be the expert on biblical interpretation. They, in turn, “trained” their congregations by example in the same understanding of that approach. And, quite frankly, in a lot of ways this makes sense. After all, unless there’s been some serious and intentional education and formation done for the congregation, how can they be expected to know how to interpret the Bible? On the other hand, the biblical examples of explained parables are few (the Sower being an exception). Either Jesus trusted his listeners to figure them out, in a way that did no harm, or the gospel tellers/writers intentionally left out Jesus’ other explanations, trusting their audiences to figure them out responsibly.
Do preschoolers need to be taught how to understand a story told to them or do they just experience it … enjoy it … maybe get bothered by it? In like manner, can church goers simply be trusted (provided there’s the prepared, but minimal, guidance mentioned above) to receive what they need to receive from a storystitching experience, and to make their own connections with it, pulling out other unique memories/experiences/stories to set down next to those that were presented so that all might shed light on each other and thus more deeply illuminate their lives? I believe so.
Granted, this will be a harder sell for some churches than it will be for others. Several years ago I taught a doctoral class on liturgy, worship and preaching and at one point performed the Sower and the Four Soils storystitching example mentioned above. Afterwards I asked the class if they thought an approach like that would work in their churches. One student said, “Personally, I loved it. But I just don’t see that working in my church.” When I asked why he replied, “Well, my people come to church to hear the WORD” … and as soon as that sentence hit his own ears, he joined the rest of the (laughing!) class in realizing how ridiculous that statement was. He’d just spent 25 minutes hearing nothing BUT the Word! What he meant, of course, was his people come to church to hear the Word explained to them (via traditional preaching). If they were only told stories, they’d feel cheated, like the most important part had been left out.
So my challenge to him was the same as it is to you: Help your congregations broaden their definition of what “hearing the Word” can mean, particularly in the context of sermons. Assure them that the Story/Stories can stand on their own and be “the point.” Empower them to make their own (responsible) connections and then validate those insights. Provide plenty of opportunities outside of worship to further form, educate and inspire your members in performed-narrative learning. And remind them that this is not a new-fangled approach but is actually ancient, authentic, and embedded into the very DNA of Christianity.
Considering all this reminds me of how effective, powerful, and accessible our Festival Gathering worship services are when the focus isn’t a sermon but the multiple approaches to, and experiences of, that day’s biblical story. Because of this, I can still recount, and be inspired by, memorable FG worship experiences from decades ago. What does all this remind you of?
* The entire transcript of Donald’s Festival Gathering plenary sessions can be found in The Journal of Biblical Storytelling, 2002-2003 (Volume 12, Number 1).
** Storystitching isn’t limited to preaching. This is a method that also works really well for Bible study, Sunday school, youth fellowship, pastoral care … pretty much any kind of opportunity for formational ministry.