‘A Poet at the Table’: Florence to serve as Week Eight’s chaplain

In her book Preaching as Testimony, the Rev. Anna Carter Florence wrote that “too much restraint leads to preachers so fearful that they never speak up, even when they want to and believe they should.”

But testimony, meanwhile, “calls to the deep-seated human longing to be real, for once; to say what we believe and to be honest about what we see and where we are, without fearing what may happen.”

Florence, who is the chaplain for Week Eight at Chautauqua Institution, will preach at 10:45 a.m. Sunday at the morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title will be “A Poet at the Table.”

She will share her faith journey at the 5 p.m. Vespers in the Hall of Philosophy. Monday through Friday, she will preach at the 9:15 a.m. morning worship service in the Amp. Her sermon titles include: “Filling Station,” “This Foreigner,” “Unmarked Grave,” “Big Ceiling” and “Why Couldn’t We Cast It Out?”

Florence is the Peter Marshall Associate Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and holds degrees from Yale College and Princeton Theological Seminary. Before joining the Columbia faculty in 1998, she served as an associate pastor for youth and young adults at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.

Her books include Preaching as Testimony and Inscribing the Word, as well as the forthcoming ‘A’ is for Alabaster: A Preacher’s Alphabet and The Repertory Church, based on her 2012 Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale Divinity School.

In a chapter Florence contributed to What’s the Matter with Preaching Today, she wrote about teaching preaching to first-year seminarians. Her students come into her class in the spring of their first year, armed with knowledge of the biblical languages and trained in the exegetical methods of modern scholarship. But they immediately attack the Scripture with a sword, trying to take it apart (the chapter was titled “Put Away Your Sword! Taking the Torture Out of Preaching”).

Florence wrote that she had to talk them into letting go of their swords, which they did not know they had, but the swords come back out when it is time to write a sermon.

“The students simply freeze, like rabbits in the headlights,” she wrote. “It suddenly occurs to them that they are not reading these texts for an exegesis paper; they are reading these texts for preaching, and they just can’t wander around the text anymore — they have to get serious!  It is almost as if tiny, invisible preacher people set up camp right smack in the forefront of their minds and start shrieking, ‘Enough playing around!’ You don’t have time to ‘live in the tension’ when you have a sermon to write; you have to find out what this passage means! Your job is to explain the text!”

In the essay, she noted that teachers of poets and preachers have a similar problem: students beat a text to death to try to find meaning rather than just being with a text.

How is a preacher to manage?, Florence asked. Preachers, she wrote, are witnesses.

“We are artists, rooted in history and in the realm of God,” she wrote. “When our texts and lives are threatened, we are the ones who choose (or perhaps are sent) to remain with our people, standing in line with them day after day, instead of leaving the text for an easier life.”

Preaching, she wrote, is testifying.

“We preachers are people who have seen and heard something, and who have to tell about it. We are the people who pay attention in the first place: we pay attention to sacred texts and to human life, and then we try to describe what we see, even when it is beyond belief,” Florence wrote. “Our authority as preachers does not come from having answers or making sense. It doesn’t come from being right about a text; it comes from being true to it.”