YOU need a visa to read Sam Wells’s sermons. There’s always a great take-off, followed by a steady flight, usually with a bit of turbulence, but you have no idea quite where you’re going to land. This collection of sermons, previously published in the United States in 2008, but with some new material, is evidence of how, whereas we tend only to have words for things that we no longer wish to say, a good sermon will prompt a re-imagining that is worthy of the word “transformation”, making us hungry for a new compass for things as yet unexplored. Hence the visa.
There is so much ambivalence about the idea of truth, especially if it has a capital “T” and the word “the” in front of it; but this book boldly is composed of sermons placed under chapter headings on how we “speak the Truth” about God, Faith, the Bible, Discipleship, Resurrection, Salvation, Politics, Truth, a University, and in America. Most of the sermons were preached when Wells was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, and each has a small introduction that places it in some context for those of us who weren’t there.
The sermons are all marked by an acute intelligence, a theological seriousness, and an obvious passion, and ability, to show the deeper resonance more than the passing relevance of the Christian faith in a world where its echoes are faint if not silent. In one, he lays out how a chapel might remind a university that it has a heart and how it should speak to it: “by cajoling and surprising, by making beautiful gestures and being disarmingly honest, by being persistent and being gentle, by being bewilderingly generous and uncomfortably truthful, by asking awkward questions and by being an example. In other words, the way Jesus did it.” This is a good summary of Wells’s homiletical style, and I, among many, am very grateful for it.
In the prologue, Wells sets out how a sermon takes shape, on the basis of the primary principle that it is to “communicate the awesomeness and yet the intimacy of God”. He comments that “it is not a sermon unless it has an argument.” It is here alone that I take a slightly different view. I think that you can still have a sermon that, like poetry, allows room to graze slowly and defies quick clarity and the sense that there is only one meaning or argument to be taken away to discuss on the way home. A sermon can be a fountain of images and provocations in which we can dive, like the liturgy of which it is part, rather than a premise that has some designs on us.
Fortunately, though, at the end of the day, sermons come in many forms. The good ones make their way to the intellect via the heart, and this is an important book that shows us how that can be impressively achieved.
Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.
Speaking the Truth: Preaching in a diverse culture
Canterbury Press £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20