The Seeds of Heaven: Preaching the Gospel of St Matthew
Barbara Brown Taylor
Canterbury Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90
“THE best sermons are not essays but events”: so says Barbara Brown Taylor in her preface to this volume. And how right she is: the preaching of a sermon has much in common with the performance of a piece of music. There are many variables at play, and the text itself is never enough (just as a musical score is never the music). The time of day, the weather, the nature of the festival being observed — these things and many more are important factors.
As is the audience. To whom is the sermon being preached? What are their concerns? I am sure that I am not the only preacher who has slaved over a brilliant text that ended up being a mediocre sermon either because it was delivered badly, or because it took no account of the intended hearers. Equally, a disgracefully under-prepared scrap of paper has struck gold because it happened to say the right things at the right time. It would seem that when it comes to judging whether a sermon is “good” or not, context is all.
Perhaps. If context is indeed all, then there would be little or no need for volumes of sermons to be published. And yet there is much to be gained from reading the sermons of other people, if for no other reason than to improve one’s own style, or to stimulate one’s own reflections.
Barbara Brown Taylor is an American Episcopalian priest, and the author of many books, including volumes of sermons. The current volume concentrates on St Matthew’s Gospel, and will be invaluable for preachers looking for inspiration from Advent Sunday this year. Taken, in the main, from a series of addresses that were originally broadcast on the radio, they are designed to speak to a readership that is not known to the preacher, and whose reactions cannot be gauged at the point of delivery, like most sermons. There are 15 examples here of what can be done with a Matthaean text, taking his images and drawing out their meaning. These are very well crafted examples that show how to be faithful to a scriptural text while at the same time being clear and truthful to a contemporary audience.
There are times when the text shows its age — is this not true of the early Fathers? — but then the point of books such as this is not imitation, but inspiration. Read, then go away and think for yourselves.
The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.