Stewards of the Story: The Task of Preaching
Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
Paper, 108 pages, $16.95. ISBN 978-0664-22981-8.
In Stewards of the Story, James Earl Massey reminds us of the awesome task to whichwe have been called as proclaimers of the Word, and models for us what it means to be a steward of God’s story.
As Massey explains in his Preface, the book “treats four factors that influence the Christian sermon: the recital cast of the biblical narratives; the rhetorical demand for recasting the biblical message for our own time; the ritual setting in which preaching takes place, and how that setting affects the atmosphere and activity of the preaching deed; and the realities that inform us for preaching – the human realities to which we must give attention and the divine realities to which we point in witness as ‘good and faithful’ stewards.”
For Massey, “The Story” is the biblical truth which we have been called to preach. The definite article is intentional; this book is not about “stories” but about The Story – the divinely-inspired Word which we have in scripture. It is to that Story that we who preach owe a profound stewardship. For Massey, preaching is not a thing to be taken lightly, but a weighty task which demands the best we have.
As expressed more fully in the excerpt which appears earlier in this issue of Preaching, Massey notes that we are stewards of the “mysteries of God.” Such a calling requires that we “study the scriptures in order to know them, and to understand the Scriptures in order to utilize them properly.”
As “recitalist,” our task is to present the biblical Story to others. As Massey says, “We who preach are commissioned to tell, transmit, interpret, and reinforce the meaning and implications of The Story recorded in the Scriptures.” That implies an understanding of and faithfulness to the biblical narratives, which often requires that we follow the pattern of those narratives in our own retelling.
Preaching also involves effective handling of rhetorical tools as we tell The Story. Massey observes, “Preaching demands a knowledge of how to use words, how to handle language, how to organize aspects of a subject for proper sequencing, proportion, unity and clarity.” He demonstrates the ways in which our knowledge of the biblical text helps to shape our rhetorical approach.
Since, as Massey points out, “there are many ritual elements connected with the setting and task of preaching, . . . we who preach must understand the meaning, importance, and effects of those elements.” He discusses issues such as the role of dress and sacred space, and emphasizes the need for the preacher to understand the ritual element of preaching while not allowing our task to degenerate into a purely ritualistic event.
In his chapter on The Steward and Reality, Massey explains that faithful preaching is not an otherworldly task, but must be rooted in the reality of both world and Word He says, “We who preach can offer that real help if we are on business for the real and true God and truthfully speak God’s word with real concern to meet real human needs.” As preachers commissioned to tell The Story, we are “agents of grace,” and that agency involves announcing the reality of sin as well as the truth of God’s love. “In real preaching,” he says, “we offer something more than a mere theological statement. Ours is a living and lively word about the goodness, grace, and faithfulness of God.”
Much of the content of the book originated as The William Conger Lectures on Biblical Preaching at Beeson Divinity School, with portions of two chapters initially developed for the William L. Self Lectures on Preaching at the McAfee School of Theology. In addition to the five chapters which make up the larger body of the work, the volume also includes six of Massey’s sermons which model his approach to preaching.
James Earl Massey – who for more than twenty years has been a Contributing Editor to Preaching – is one of the most able and effective preachers I know. This book reflects his own love for The Story and for those who have been called to preach it to a lost world. It is a book that will benefit anyone called to share The Story.