According to Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga Jr., students of preaching should “study great sermons, learn their moves, and master some of their aims and forms.” This is not unlike the reason “aspiring composers study Haydn symphonies and Bartok string quartets” and “serious chess players learn the great games of Tanasch and Capablanca” and “army generals master the battle plans of strategic and tactical experts from Alexander the Great to Douglas MacArthur.”
This is good reason for A Chorus of Witnesses, a collection of sermons that the reader may “ponder, inspect, disassemble, praise, criticize, and generally, learn from…” It is true that all sermons are not equal and not everyone will agree on what a good sermon is. Yet with sermons from the likes of Buechner, Brown Taylor, Craddock, Achtemeier, Barth, Lewis, Willimon, Peterson, and Buttrick to name a few, a volume like this one is an excellent starter for us to “tune our ears” and “untether our imaginations.”
“A written sermon is not a preached sermon. Reading a sermon is an importantly different experience from hearing one, and both differ from actually seeing a preacher aim and fire.” Reading a sermon is more like “reading the score of some musical masterpiece. Whether reading a piece is better or worse than hearing it depends in part on the quality of the performance.”
Reading excellent sermons can be helpful on a variety of levels. Even when we reject the theology in a sermon we may admire the form. Even when we think the sermon strayed too far from the text we may still feel that we have been strangely warmed. I will not guarantee that you will enjoy this particular collection of sermons but am in agreement that reading the sermons of others is a good practice. “Perhaps homiletic discernment, like general spiritual discernment, is a gift of the Spirit. In any case, serious study of widely varying sermons is likely to sharpen it.”
Frederick Buechner starts his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale with the struggle of being both preacher and human. I think he would also add that being human is a good thing for a preacher. In his book he reminds us that the preacher is not called “to be an actor, a magician, in the pulpit.” I find it interesting that Anna Carter Florence considers this to be her “favorite book on the theology of preaching.”
Buechner is amusing. His retelling of familiar stories is powerful. After reading Buechner I am certain that I have met Pontius Pilate. And am pretty sure that I heard Sarah and Abraham laugh when told they were to have a child. And I enjoyed his retelling of Mark 10.25 “the kind of joke Jesus told when he said it is harder for a rich person to enter Paradise than for a Mercedes to get through a revolving door, harder for a rich person to enter Paradise than for Nelson Rockefeller to get through the night deposit slot of the First National City Bank.” Reading Buechner makes me realize that I enjoy a clever Presbyterian.
In Telling the Truth, he addresses some temptations the preacher may face. Perhaps this can be summarized as “The pressure on the preacher is to promote the Gospel, to sell Christ as an answer that outshines all the other answers.” In short, Buechner might say that the danger is that the preacher becomes a public relations rep. Someone to convince consumers that Jesus is the solution to all their problems. Instead, he encourages preachers to boldly state that the Gospel is more than answers.
So he encourages the preacher to “make God real to them through the sacrament of words as God is supposed to become real in the sacrament of bread and wine.” The preacher should “use words which do not only try to give answers to the questions we ask or ought to ask but which help us to hear the questions that we do not have words for asking.” And he goes on “God is not an answer man can give… God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.”
Before he finishes, Buechner would have us know that after recognizing the tragedy and the comedy of the Gospel, preaching is about making the extraordinary appear in the ordinary. Buechner wants us to know that “You enter the extraordinary by way of the ordinary. Something you have seen a thousand times you suddenly see as if for the first time…” So we are left with no choice but to “preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy. Of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary…”