When I was young, the youth leader of our church would occasionally ask for someone to give a testimony during the worship service. All the kids would get quiet, shuffle their feet and squirm. For some reason I would feel the responsibility of the group shift slowly to my shoulders. The silence became more and more uncomfortable until at last I would give in and speak up.
Christopher Niebuhr of the well-known Niebuhr tribe wrote to me recently. He is celebrating the Yale University Press publication of Sermons and Discourses, 1743-1758 (edited by Wilson H. Kimnach), 800 pages of transcribed scripts and notes that make up the 25th and final volume of The Works of Jonathan Edwards.
He was not the young man they had known before. They were sizing him up, as people in small towns will do, when he stood up in the synagogue to read from the prophet Isaiah. He read a fantastic and otherworldly passage, plainly not about Nazareth, but about some other place. And then he startled them all: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Was he talking about them? Or himself? And what did he mean by proclaiming right there, in his hometown, “the acceptable year of the Lord”?
During the first Iraq war, after the United States started dropping bombs as a prelude to Desert Storm, homiletics professor David Buttrick surveyed mainline churches around the country to see if the war had been mentioned on the previous Sunday, whether in the sermon or in the voicing of prayers and concerns. In the vast majority of cases the answer was no.
As a lectionary preacher who works mainly on Sundays, I have spent much of my preaching life grazing the well-fertilized pastures that my tradition has laid out for me. Sometimes I press up against the fence, drooling over an especially tasty-looking morsel from 1 Chronicles or 2 John, but on the whole I stay where I am supposed to stay.
Carl Parker died recently. The Reverend Carl Parker. That you have not heard of him is an indication that you have never praised God in a church that bears the name of Wampee, Little River or Indian Field. For over 50 years he preached the gospel at places like that.
All I know about Jesus is what I heard him say. That’s all I know about almost anybody. It’s not true that “deeds speak louder than words.” Only words speak. The old “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one” is only partly true. Most ministerial speech these days tends to be in the affirmative mood. We pastors are, in the acerbic words of Stanley Hauerwas, a “quivering mass of availability.”