review: the preaching life

by Barbara Brown Taylor (Cowley Publications, 1993, pb, 175pp)
“God has given us good news in human form and has even given us grace to proclaim it, but part of our terrible freedom is the freedom to lose our voices, to forget where we were going and why. While that knowledge does not yet strike me as prophetic, it does keep me from taking both my own ministry and the ministry of the whole church for granted. If we do not attend to God’s presence in our midst and bring all our best gifts to serving that presence in the world, we may find ourselves selling tickets to a museum.” (p.5)
“The one true turning point in a person’s life is when he or she joins the body of Christ … It was part of God’s genius to incorporate us as one body, so that our ears have other ears, other eyes, minds, hearts, and voices to help us interpret what we have heard.” (pp.23-24)
“… many who sit … at church … hear the invitation to ministry as an invitation to do more – to lead the every member canvass, or cook supper for the homeless, or teach vacation church school. Or  [they] hear the invitation to ministry as an invitation to be more – to be more generous, more loving, more religious. … [They should be] introduced to the idea that [their] ministry might involve being just who [they are] and doing what [they] already do, with one difference: namely, that [they] understand [themselves] to be God’s people in and for the world.” (p.28)
“Faith is the enduring ability to imagine life in a certain way. … While it may seem more respectable to approach faith as an intellectual exercise or more satisfactory to approach it as an emotional one, our relationship to God is not simply a matter or what we think or how we feel. It is more comprehensive than that, and more profound. It is a full-bodied relationship in which mind and heart, spirit and flesh, are converted to a new way of experiencing and responding to the world. … It is a matter of learning to see the world, each, and ourselves as God sees us, and to live as if God’s reality were the only one that mattered.” (p.38)
“… the Bible remains a peculiarly holy book. I cannot think of any other text that has such an authority over me, interpreting me faster than I can interpret it. … This, I believe, why we call the Bible God’s ‘living’ word. When I think about consulting a medical book thousands of years old for some insight into my health, or an equally ancient physics book for some help with my cosmology, I understand what a strange and unparalleled claim the Bible has on me. Age does not diminish its power but increases it.” (p.52)
“No place that is human is too messy for God.” (p.67)
“Watching a preacher climb into the pulpit is a lot like watching a tightrope walker climb onto the platform as the drum roll begins. … They both step out into the air, trusting everything they have done to prepare for this moment as they surrender themselves to it, counting now on something beyond themselves to help them do what they love and fear and most want to do. … [but] the sermon proves to be a communal act, not the creation of one person, but the creation of a body of people for whom and to whom one of them speaks. A congregation can make or break a sermon by the quality of their response to it. An inspired sermon can wind up skewered somewhere near the second pew by a congregation of people who sit with their arms crossed and their eyes narrowed, coughing, and scuffing their feet as the preacher struggles to be heard. Similarly, a weak sermon can grow strong in the presence of people who attend carefully to it, leaning forward in their pews and opening their faces to a preacher for whom they clearly expect a receive good news.” (pp.76-77)
This book is composed of two parts. The first half describes Taylor’s walk as a preacher; some of her perspectives and experiences, discoveries and surprises. The seventh chapter (and final chapter in this section) – Preaching – is simply one of the finest things I’ve ever heard or read on the subject. The latter half is a collection of thirteen of her sermons, five-to-seven pages in length, all but one based on some account in the Gospels. The sermons and their texts are:
One Step at a Time (Mark 5:38-39) “It takes a lot of courage to be a human being.”
The Fourth Watch (Mark 6:48-50) “He was not supposed to be there at all, and so they did not see him. They saw a ghost instead …”
I Am Who I Am (John 8:25) “We cannot nail him down. We tried once, but he got loose …”
The Tenth Leper (Luke 17:12-17) “‘Where are the nine?’ We are here, right here. But where, for the love of God, is the tenth?”
Do Love (Luke 10:36-37) “This is not a sermon about doing more. It is instead a sermon about not confusing the knowing, understanding, feeling, thinking, or saying of love with the doing of love.”
The Opposite of Rich (Mark 10:22-23) “There are days when threading a camel seems easier than following Jesus.”
The One to Watch (Mark 12:41-42) “… that is why he noticed the poor widow in the first place. She reminded him of someone. It was the end for her; it was the end for him, too. She gave her living to a corrupt church; he was about to give his life for a corrupt world. … It took one to know one.”
Knowing Glances (Matthew 25:37-38) “We can do this because we are one flock, tended and well fed by the Good Shepherd, who is also, I suspect, the Good Goatherd.”
The Voice of the Shepherd (John 10:25-27) “… the way true believers believe is the way most of us believe: valiantly on some days and pitifully on others, with faith enough to move mountains on some occasions and not enough to get out of bed on others.”
The Lost and Found Department (Luke 15:4-5) “I think of God ignoring those good folks in favor of the one sinner who says, ‘I’m sorry,’ and I want to sue God for mercy.”
None of Us is Home Yet (Matthew 6:26) “What that means for the church is that homelessness is not an ‘issue’ for us that we attend to merely out of social conscience; it is our primary identity, and when we forget that we forget who we are and whom we follow.”
The Prodigal Father (Luke 15:11-12) “Here is where the loving father earns his title.”
Surviving Eden (Genesis 3:6) “Paradise is lost and what was, or what could have been, is gone forever. How do you survive something like that?”
Each of these sermons affords abundant evidence of Scripture well pondered and applied. Imagination and immersion are two words that leap to my mind when I consider the construction of her words.
As to Taylor’s writing overall, an observant eye, a creative flair, a pondering mind and an honest, transparent way are her trademarks. Fred Craddock says it best in the book’s foreword:
“She has the rare capacity to sit on her own shoulder and report what she sees and hears herself doing and saying. She talks about what she does and then does what she talks about. … one is reminded of oneself, of what it is like to trust and to doubt at the same time, to be inside and outside at the same time, to love an activity more than anything and at the same time welcome the chance to be free of it.”
In short, read this book in private, for you will laugh aloud and perhaps even choke up more than once. Read it at your peril for it will cost you time and money. Time, in that you will find yourself returning to it again and again for the encouragement and inspiration of a friend who understands and speaks openly from their heart. Money, in that if you lend it out, you will likely not get it back. So read it and buy an extra copy or two to give away. To someone considering preaching. To someone ready to bail out of preaching. To all who are engaged with preaching or who simply love the life of the church and ponder the dynamics of things.
Yes, it’s that good. On a scale of 0-10, I give it a perfect 10.