Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Preachers other preachers read (and preach!)

I talk to lots of clergy - in conferences and one to one – and have a pretty good idea about their preaching styles, and the other preachers they read for inspiration.

An interesting thing happened on the way to writing this chapter,  on Mothers’ Day 2014. My wife has produced one of the two or three most popular Mothers’ Day sermons online. (Google those words and you’ll find hers in the top four – out of one million). In the week before every (North American) Mothers’ Day up to 5,000 people daily read her sermon. And many preach it – some without acknowledgement. (Jan still smiles when she remembers the apologetic email she received from an American pastor who did just that – and was caught out!).

Some people – I’m one of them – actually enjoy reading others’ sermons. When John Claypool used to publish his each week, and sent them out once a month, I often found myself dropping everything to read them. I’ve done the same with other contemporary homiletical ‘greats’ like Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Barbara Brown Taylor, Frederick Buechner, Tom Long, Eugene Peterson, Fred Craddock and William Willimon. And, a generation ago, W.E. Sangster, James Stewart, and Helmut Thielicke. Before that, F.W. Boreham and at the turn of the 20th Century the often-circumloquacious but erudite and orthodox Peter Taylor Forsyth [footnote Jason Goroncy review]. And if you add the black preachers Martin Luther King and Gardner Taylor, (and, if you want a Pentecostal, TD Jakes), that just about completes the list of English-speaking/writing ‘greats’ in the 20th and early 21st centuries, in my view.  (Oh, and don’t forget William Barclay, who in his commentaries and one-page reviews in the Expository Times provided more preachable material than anyone else in the 20th century.) [3]

So how would you select the best Christian sermons ever written? A book was published a decade ago in the U.K. titled Best Sermons Ever collected by – wait for it! – the assistant editor of the British newspaper Daily Telegraph, Christopher Howse [1]. Here’s Howse’s list: Peter the Apostle, John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, Aelfric, St. Bernard, The Homilies, Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, Jeremy Taylor, John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Lawrence Sterne, Sydney Smith, John Henry Newman, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther King, H.A. Williams, and Pope John Paul II.

Now, class, what does that list suggest to you? We’ll come back to that. In addition Howse offers excerpts from other sermons and prayers from people ranging from St. Francis of Assisi, George Herbert, John Keble… to moderns like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham.

First, a little introduction to the ‘practical theology’ of preaching. What is preaching supposed to ‘do’, if I can put the question into a utilitarian frame of reference? I’d suggest the best preaching is didactic, prophetic, and dramatic. [2]

Christopher Howse would, I think, prefer three other adjectives – erudite, scholarly, and/or ‘literary’. In other words, he comes to this exercise as a literateur, rather than as a homiletician. Notice the absence of modern American mainline preachers in his list? Yes, perhaps Jonathan Edwards, ML King and Billy Graham deserve a place, but what of the others most theologically-sophisticated Americans are reading, like those mentioned above? (The answer, from my experience of 8 – 10 trips to the U.K. for pastors’ conferences: on that side of the Atlantic many have never heard of them). And I’m surprised W E Sangster and James Stewart are missing.

So, frankly, most of these sermons are of classical – rather than devotional – interest only. Some of them are heavily impregnated with Latin phrases and other obscurantisms. And some fit into the category of ‘Why use 10 words when 100 will suffice?’

One of the best is a homiletical essay – Jonathan Swift’s ‘Upon Sleeping in Church’ . The text, of course, is about Eutychus falling out of the window, Acts 20:9: ‘The accident which happened to this young man hath not been sufficient to discourage his successors’. But frankly, I’d go to sleep in some of these sermons – especially Laurence Sterne’s on ‘Evil Speaking’.

And some are both brilliant and scary. How about this, from Jonathan Edwards’ 15-page sermon (without a title – but from one version of his famous ‘Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God’:

‘If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favour, that instead of that, he will only tread you under foot.  And though he will know that you cannot bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he will not regard that, but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment. He will not only hate you, but he will have you, in the utmost contempt: no place shall be thought fit for you, but under his feet to be trodden down as the mire of the streets.’ [4]

No wonder ‘revival’ broke out when people heard this sort of diatribe!

Some excerpts and notes (many of these are in the category ‘they don’t produce them like this anymore!’) :

* Wesley traveled on foot or horseback 225,000 miles and preached 40,000 sermons!

* Lancelot Andrewes mastered fifteen languages!

* ‘In Lapland witches sell winds’ (John Donne)

* ‘Celibate, like the fly in the heart of an apple, dwells in a perpetual sweetness, but sits alone, and is confined and dies in singularity; but marriage, like the useful bee, builds a house and gathers sweetness from every flower… and feeds the world with delicacies’ (Jeremy Taylor)

* ‘It is my duty – it is my wish – it is the subject of this day to point out those evils of the Catholic religion from which we have escaped’ (from Sydney Smith’s ‘The Rules of Christian Charity’ !). Another profundity from that sermon: ‘The evil of difference of opinion must exist – it admits of no cure’.

* ‘When people say that I acted charitably towards so and so, what they generally mean is that in fact that I hate his guts but managed to behave as though I didn’t’ (H. A. Williams)

An inspirational note from Martin Luther King: ‘Let us not despair. Let us not lose faith in man and certainly not in God. We must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed, and that man, by the grace of God, can be lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love… Let us have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that… we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.’

This book reminds me of the 9 November 1895 Punch cartoon, which showed a timid curate having breakfast in his bishop’s home. The bishop is saying “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”, to which the curate replies, in a desperate attempt not to give offence: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”.

If you are a theological or literary sophisticate who reads sermons without wanting to be ‘spiritually challenged’ by them, this book is for you…


[3] http://www.jmm.org.au/articles/8527.htm . This interesting list of the (twenty) ‘Greatest Preachers of the Twentieth Century’ is regularly at the top of the 20,000+ ‘most-accessed’ articles on our website – except in the week-and-a-half before Mothers’ Day (!). The Baylor University list of ‘12 Most Effective  Preachers’ actually listed a woman – Barbara Brown Taylor (http://www.baylor.edu/mediacommunications/news.php?action=story&story=1036 ). Google her sermon at Riverside Church in New York on the Good Samaritan for an excellent example of modern, lucid, challenging preaching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wds3OxzHNAI  The best list of outstanding modern preachers is the one comprising speakers at Yale’s  Lyman Beecher Lecture series - http://www.library.yale.edu/div/beecher.html


PTFORSYTH (Goroncy) - wordy, erudite,  knew it was acquiesce 'in'.

Goroncy: PTFORSYTH astonishingly circumloquacious, as familiar with then-modern 'critical scholarship' as with English poets. Sermons three times longer than they needed to be. Verbosity Petered out with Barth, Tillich, THIELICKE .

No comments:

Post a Comment