John Ames, 76-year-old Congregationalist minister and narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s stunning novel Gilead, keeps his old sermons in boxes in the attic. “Pretty nearly my whole life’s work is in those boxes,” he says.
Every other week, on Thursday afternoon, several editors at the Century gather around a cluster of filing cabinets. With the pages of the next issue spread in front of them, they work on coming up with titles for the articles. The editors do this job standing up. I notice that they laugh a lot during the process, which usually involves tossing out outrageous as well as serious possibilities.
I preached a sermon this morning—one in a long line of sermons stretching back to 1992. I’ve preached so many sermons by now that I find it almost impossible to remember any particular one. Right now, on a Sunday night, I don’t want to remember any of them. The discipline of Sunday night is forgetting.
If you were to visit Trinity United Church of Christ, a predominantly African-American congregation on the Chicago’s South Side, you would be warmly welcomed. You’d experience spirited singing that comes deep from the soul.
Contemporary Christian homiletics has taken a wrong turn. Reaching out to speak to the world, we fell in—face down. Too troubled by what our audience could and could not hear, we reduced the gospel to a set of sappy platitudes that anybody could accept and no one could resist.
In a recent essay, Marilynne Robinson attributes the struggles of mainline Protestantism to preaching. She claims that the sermon, as the center of worship in the contemporary mainline church, is “pretty nearly defunct.” Is that true, and if so, why?
For the past few years the religion department at the Chautauqua Institution near Buffalo has sponsored a program for new clergy and their families. This summer I was invited to meet with the group, especially to talk with them about prophetic and pastoral preaching.