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Preface to the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” Collection

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Homiletics in America for the last two generations can fairly be said to have been dominated by George Buttrick and David Buttrick, father and son. George was the preacher at Harvard, and his sermons, many of which I heard when he visited Yale where I was a student during his time, reflected a Christian mind relating to the deepest intellectual and existential problems of his day. David is recently retired from Vanderbilt where he taught homiletics for many years and authored the most distinguished textbook of his generation. The point of that book was to teach the techniques of communicating through the sermon form. Communication and performance were the hallmarks of preaching in his generation, with deep concerns for connecting with different ages and social classes of hearers, including the un-churched who had few if any Christian symbolic references. Sensitivity to different styles of preaching, too, became an important pre-occupation as the distinctive qualities of African-American homiletics entered the larger mainstream, through the influence of preachers such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson. What dropped out of the central consciousness of the communication/performance/style generation of American homiletics, however, was deep intellectual concern for inquiry into the Word of God in the context of the most complex rational and existential concerns of the time. Not that the preachers of that generation could not do that—many of them were extraordinarily intelligent and engaged: they chose not to do that because the most complex truths do not communicate, entertain, or express stylistic solidarity with the audience they sought. They might be right about that audience.

The loss of the frontline intellectual orientation of preaching was grave, however, because it excused congregations from having to learn to think complexly about religious matters, suggesting that being entertained and motivated is enough. This fed Christian anti-intellectualism. Moreover, this loss often fostered contempt among those who do think responsibly for the shallowness of Christian thinking. All throughout Christian history the sermon has been the genre for the most important theology, not theology for theologians, nor biblical study for scholars, nor religious social science for secular journalism, but theology that combined all these ways of thought for the sake of the mind of the Church. Chrysostom preached as a theologian forming the mind of the Church. So did Augustine, Bernard of Clairveau, Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Paul Tillich. We remember these thinkers as theologians and churchmen. But they were preachers first, and their sermons sacrificed nothing for the sake of communication, entertainment, or stylistic solidarity. Rather, their sermons drew out their audience to master high levels of interpretation, to find excitement in ideas, and to define their spiritual solidarity with the mind of the Church, not some more parochial constituency. I once read aloud a forty five minute sermon by Charles Wesley to an introductory theology class of master of divinity students, and they were enraptured the whole time, despite its archaic language, politically offensive pronouns, and length beyond any sound-bite or memorable image. Even if not for Americans who want to be entertained by what can be communicated in a style in which their group already thinks, a need remains to recover the sermon as a form of public theology for the mind of the Church.

The pulpit of a university church is the ideal place for such preaching. I have been graced by the opportunity to preach at Marsh Chapel for three years now, and the sermons in this volume come from that final year. People in the Marsh Chapel congregation expect its preachers never to talk down to them and always to strive to identify and address the most difficult religious issues that trouble their hearts. The services are broadcast over WBUR and the internet, and have attracted a large audience of people who say they either cannot or will not attend services with preaching less respectful of their intellect and questions.

The university context is not the only place to find people hungering for theological preaching, however. In every community people exist on the margins of congregations who feel that the social and entertainment aspects of the Christian life are not enough. Many avenues other than congregational life present opportunities for service, education, fellowship, and entertaining recreation, unlike earlier times when churches was the only show in town. Moreover, many congregations are socially unstable because of the culture wars that divide Christians. The reason to be a Christian now has to be because Christianity offers a truer word, deeper insight, more honest analysis, and a more rigorous discernment of spirits than alternative forms of life.

In many congregations good reasons exist not to preach theologically, and instead to heighten through excellent communication and performance what people already think they believe. These reasons are reinforced by the ethos of democracy, which at its lower end is spiritual consumerism. People do vote with their feet. But the voting trends are mixed. Many people do not return to congregations whose worship and preaching they find boring. Nevertheless, many others do not return because they find the worship and preaching entertaining but shallow, not touching the depth and complexity of the issues that trouble our times and their hearts. So sermons that aim at theological complexity and depth are good to have around in every community, even if not preached from the pulpit. The university is not the only place where people agonize about what truly should be said concerning the Christian Word for our watch.

The sermons in this collection, ordered according to the academic year of university life, reflect the theme of Christian nurture. The complex character of Christian nurture consists in the fact that we are brought closer to God in the divine eternity while we engage more particularly the personal, communal, and social issues of our particular time. Nurture has two dimensions, eternity and time, whose connections are sometimes puzzling and complicated. But we cannot do without both, tied together.

The Church sometimes has tried to separate them. The eternal dimension of spiritual nurture leads us upward toward our Creator, beyond space and time, whose immensity is our original home and in whose glory lies our final bliss. The ancient heresy of Gnosticism showed how pursuit of this dimension wrongly can lead us away from the world into which we are created to live. Gnosticism deals with the troubles of the world by recommending that we leave it behind for some higher realm. But then God’s creation is for naught.

The temporal dimension of spiritual nurture is committed to bringing God’s love, justice, and mercy into the affairs of our personal, social, and political lives, amending ourselves, our communities, and our civilization to the extent our efforts and God’s grace make possible. Liberal social gospel Christianity sometimes forgets the eternal dimension and reduces spiritual nurture to personal transformation and ethics alone. But you don’t need Christianity for ethics or personal transformation, and the created glory of the world, resting in the divine eternity, slips from spiritual efficacy. Both the eternal and temporal dimensions require each other for us to live truly in the face of the ultimacy of divine creation.

How easy it is to get this wrong! A popular mistake today in this regard is the revival of classical dispensationalist theology, according to which the eternal Creator God is reduced to roles within history, fighting evil of cosmic proportions and finding consummation in apocalyptic battles. The Left Behind series of books illustrates this theology vividly. More subtly, this theology is often mixed with patriotism in our time to identify political enemies with the forces of evil, so that people think that political armed struggle has apocalyptic religious meaning. Much macho Christianity is viscerally committed to the imperative to boot backsides for Jesus. Or for Allah, if you happen to be a Muslim for whom America is the Great Satan. This theology distorts the transcendence of God by representing “Him” as a warrior for righteousness defined by the contest with evil within the world. It also distorts the loveliness of all creation, even the sinners and evil people who are equally children of God and for whom Christ died: if anyone is irrevocably lost, God is not God, only a sorcerer’s apprentice. Instead of truly engaging the complex issues of our time, including moral and political ambiguities, this theology reducing God to narrative roles is a new form of Gnosticism, substituting a dramatized simplification of the world for the complex created reality and failing to grasp God’s eternal transcendence with much imagination.

The sermons here probe both the eternal and temporal dimensions of Christian nurture while dealing with the many topics at hand. What it means to live in eternity is a paradoxical thing to think about, and the sermons develop this theme bit by bit, summed up in the penultimate one. We might think we understand far more about what it means to live in time, but that too is more complex than meets the eye. The sermons about engaging the issues of our watch struggle with how to live temporally while also living in eternity. The final sermon emphasizes the incarnation of the eternal within our time.

Preaching has been the most significant spiritual road of my life so far. Given the high calling to which I have said preaching is accountable, my limitations and vulnerabilities are raw within my consciousness. But then I am not the judge of what is offered here as the result of this commitment.

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