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On Preaching

Although I am a philosopher of the most abstract sort, preaching was almost the earliest form of my intellectual writing and remains so today. Having just completed a three-volume Philosophical Theology, I am more conscious than ever of the need for theoretical theological understanding to be expressible in terms that help create an audience beyond the professional theological and philosophical fold. When in high school I preached a time or two in my local Methodist Church; in the summer after high school, when I was 17, I had a regular job as a licensed local preacher in the Methodist Church of conducting services at Kingdom House, a mission church in downtown St. Louis. Shortly after I was married in 1963 I did some summer supply preaching at my wife’s home church, the Dutch Reformed Church of Claverack in Claverack, New York, though the invitations to do that dropped off when I grew a beard a few years later (although the distance between Claverack and Woodstock was short in miles, it was virtually unbridgeable in culture). In 1965 my wife and I moved to the Bronx where we joined St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church where I became a very active if unofficial associate pastor for the next thirteen years, preaching frequently. In 1978 we moved to Long Island where I became an unofficial but not so active associate pastor at the Huntington United Methodist Church, preaching perhaps half a dozen times a year. Fortunately for all concerned my sermons from those early days are lost.

Coming to Boston University, associated with the School of Theology where I was dean for fifteen years and with Marsh Chapel where I was dean for 3, I became a manuscript preacher and took the art of preaching with great seriousness, preaching very frequently. A volume of early sermons from that period remains unpublished and is not in electronic format (my office got its first computer in 1992!). The God Who Beckons: Theology in the Form of Sermons (1999) contains the sermons from the mid and late 1990s. Preaching the Gospel without Easy Answers (2005) contains the sermons from the first year in the pulpit of Marsh Chapel as the regular university preacher. The sermons from the second and third years at Marsh Chapel are unpublished and are contained here under the titles Seasons of the Christian Life (2004-05) and Nurture in Time and Eternity. They are to be found in this sermon archive. I am a lectionary preacher, and so the last three cycles are a complete tour of the lectionary as it was constituted when I was Dean of Marsh Chapel.

The prefaces of those four books of sermons are brief essays on the philosophy or theology of preaching. They illustrated my growing understanding if not mastery of the homiletical art. But since completing Philosophical Theology, I have an even deeper appreciation of the need for good preaching. Everyone knows that preaching, in any religious tradition, is a hermeneutical act of interpreting the tradition’s scriptures to the current situation, and of interpreting the current situation in terms of the scriptures. But I have become much more conscious, reflecting analytically on preaching in worship, that in nearly every situation there is a continuum of listeners that at the one hand hears in the terms of folk religion and at the other in the terms of sophisticated theology and knowledge about the world. Most scriptures and other symbols of religion that are terms within preaching lie in the middle of this continuum and are a mixture of folk religion and hyper-theology, of intimate symbols and transcendent ones. In most Christian congregations people pray to God as Trinity, one of the most abstract and highly developed concepts in any conceptual scheme, to grant them favors, a shamanistic motive. Moreover, any of those scriptures and symbols can be given interpretations at either end of the continuum. Sometimes the transcendent symbols are the truest and speak to the heart, but at other times they are irrelevant and off-putting. Sometimes the folk religious notions are the most important and provide the priorities of life; but at other times they are just lies. The very important and delicate art of preaching is the deployment of those symbols in ways appropriate to the context, knowing when to stretch to the heavens and when to be earthy. Given the diversity of people in most late-modern congregations and religious gatherings, this is a daunting hermeneutical art.

This archive of sermons contains the two unpublished volumes of sermons mentioned, Seasons of the Christian Life and Nurture in Time and Eternity. It also contains miscellaneous sermons preached since 2003, sometimes with services attached (in the case of wedding sermons, for instance).

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