13 February 2011

When Theologians Preached, Museum-Quality Sermons, & Camera Angles

Several years ago I attended a theological circle in Boston, MA. Myself and a room full of retired Baptist preachers. Someone mentioned Paul Tillich and that was all they talked about. I remember rolling my eyes, leaving the room, and thinking these men were stuck in the past with their infatuation with Tillich. (historical note, up to that time I had only read The Courage to Be, and oddly enough loved it). Fast forward a few years but stop before you arrive at the present, stop a few days ago.

At the beginning of the year I decided to read a good number of works by one theologian, I chose Paul Tillich. Why? I am not for sure. I have been struggling with religious language, meaning, and the relation to culture - who would one turn to than Tillich? But what to read and where to start? By chance on Facebook the other day my theology professor was online and started chatting with me. So I asked Dr. Cauthen where to start. He suggested I start by reading Tillich's book of sermons, The Shaking of the Foundations; which I had on my shelf. Last week I picked up STF and could not believe how good his sermons were. I was amazed. I was also instantly envious of all those who gathered in the chapel at Union Seminary and got to hear them live. I don't think I've ever read such rich theological sermons. I have preached my own share of theological sermons, but nothing like those. They are tough but accessible. I find them to be quite inspiring.

I also found my Easter sermon! You Are Accepted a sermon which is also included in the collection American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King, Jr (one of those Library of America editions with the black cover, white lettering, and the red, white, and blue ribbon). No, I am not going to copy the sermon but I am going to write the sermon by spinning off a paragraph or two.

Am I allowed to that? Good question. I will explain myself this way. Shortly after arriving here someone called with boxes of books from the library of the former pastor. I and a member drove out and picked up the collection. There were several Fosdick and Weatherhead books of sermons along with others. I began leafing through the sermons and noticed that a good many of the sermons were outlined, marked up, and noted. The pastor did not copy the sermons but he did use them for organizing his own sermons, for constructing themes, and for laying out series of sermons.

I read books of sermons all the time ( my favorites right now are William Sloane Coffin's). I am sure sentences and phrases invade my sermons from my reading. I do not copy but I am not afraid to use past sermons for inspiration. How else to get better than to read (and preach on a Thursday morning when no one is around) great sermons?

But the question lingers: Do theologians preach today? If so, who?

I spend a good amount of tie thinking about the craft of preaching. The conversation I am sharing today emerged last week while listening to Terri Gross' interview with Rodney Crowell on Fresh Air last week. I suppose I am sold on the idea that preaching matters, that good preaching can bring change and growth. Here is the money quote, for preachers, from the interview:

In 1972, Crowell left East Texas and moved to Nashville to follow his own passion: songwriting. He quickly fell into a musical scene, where he met fellow songwriter Guy Clark, who offered him some sage advice.

"He said, 'Now, look, you can be a star or you can be an artist. You can be an artist and then become a star, but I don't think it works the other way around. But they're both okay. Pick one and get good at it,' " Crowell says. "Well, I knew he was an artist, so I said, 'I want to be an artist.' "

Clark, whose songs have been recorded by Ricky Skaggs, Johnny Cash, Vince Gill and Steve Wariner, then sat Crowell down with some Dylan Thomas poems.

"[Clark] said, 'Listen to how good this is. You have to make your songs this good,' " Crowell says. "And it had a profound effect on me. It took me a while to absorb the information that was being given to me, but eventually it gave me the intent that I wanted to try to write good songs and always strive for timelessness or museum-quality work. I'm not saying I've achieved museum quality, but if you're not swinging for museum quality or timelessness, then why bother?"

Substitute artist with pastor/preacher and good songs for good sermons. Why shouldn't we swing for museum-quality sermons? It does not mean we will achieve them but doesnt those who gather on Sunday morning deserve our best efforts?

While I'm on the topic of Rodney Crowell I have to share the one video, I Couldn't Leave You If I Tried, he shot in my home state, right outside of the town I attended my first year of college: Philippi, WV.

Watch at the 30 second mark. This is a great song but the camera action needs some tinkering.

No comments: