Barbara Brown Taylor is Far From Home

What do we look for in a sermon? Wit? Inspiration? A profound dive into Scripture? A drawing in and drawing together of the people of faith? As her readers know, these are some of the marks of Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons.

Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home, is her latest collection, sermons preached after leaving parish ministry “twenty years earlier than expected.”1 As a guest preacher far from home, she packs lightly, only “a sacred text, a trust in the Spirit, an experience of being human, and the desire to bear good news.”2

The earliest sermon in this collection is from 2006, the latest is January, 2020. Most of them were preached up and down the East Coast from Chautauqua, New York, to Florida, with several in her home state of Georgia. Others were farther afield: Winchester Cathedral in England, along with pulpits in Ontario, Minneapolis, and Portland. Although she is booked two years in advance, many of her sermons appear on YouTube.

Always joins a list of fifteen books that reaches back to 1986 with Mixed Blessings, her first, and includes such New York Timesbestsellers as Leaving Church, An Altar in the World, and Holy Envy. BBT (as her readers call her) is an ordained Episcopal priest, professor, theologian, and author, who Time Magazine named to its annual list of Most Influential People (2014), and who was named by Baylor University in 2018 as one of the world’s twelve most effective preachers.

British priest and author, Mark Oakley, writes that, “The preacher begins by declaring war on cliche and then conscripts words and images that resist the quick clarity of relevance in order to find resonance, words from which we cannot retreat.”3 Oakley, a fine preacher himself, seems to imply that relevance must be sacrificed for resonance. But shouldn’t every preacher try for that delicate balance between present relevance and future resonance? Topical or timeless, Taylor’s sermons speak to the historical moment she and her audience are experiencing without losing a step for the times her readers find themselves facing.

Sermons read do not have quite the same effect as sermons seen and heard. There’s something about the cadence in the delivery, the gestures of the speaker, the liturgy that embraces the sermon, that creates a different ambiance. But reading the sermons in Always a Guest consistently drew me in through the warmth of Taylor’s storytelling and her earned wisdom.

There are thirty-one sermons, “a month of Sundays,” as one reviewer called it. Each is based on the lectionary texts for the day, texts which Taylor mines in her unique fashion through a combination of storytelling, personal anecdotes, and vivid exegesis. Time and time again, I enjoyed a jolt of surprise as Taylor unwrapped a text in a way that was fresh, yet with a gravitas that made her interpretation feel both satisfyingly inevitable and narratively definitive.

In “How to Live with High Anxiety,” Taylor provides relevance for her audience and resonance for the reader. “How did Jesus speak to their anxiety?” she asks. “Most importantly, I think, he did not tell them to cut it out. ‘People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,’ he said. Who could have known that better than him(emphasis the author’s)”?4

Taylor grew up with the civil rights struggle in Georgia and has ministered in the South her whole career. Yet, in a sermon entitled “Errors About Beauty,” she slips in a gentle critique of activism without confounding the thrust of her message.

“The arts thrive on self-interest, leading them to think of their own pleasure instead of pleasing God. Some of the most activist Christians I know might say it differently, but they too harbor a fear that beauty has the power to distract people from the work of justice. They may even be right. At the moment, I can think of a lot of people who say they feel closest to God in nature, and none at all who say they feel closest to God in a picket line at a refugee detention center. If justice has to be beautiful to get our attention, justice will suffer.”5

One of the best aspects of her sermons is her ability to relate Scripture to our daily problems. In “Paralyzed by Polarization,” a sermon preached in 2018, she speaks about conflict. “What matters is that like a lot of Christians, I have a hard time with conflict,” she says. “I have learned to view it as un-Christlike, which means that I know how to avoid it, deny it, sublimate it, and internalize it, but not how to enter into it with other people without feeling like a sinner.”6

Her trademark humor comes through when quoting Jesus in Matthew 5:23-24 about first reconciling with someone before worshipping. She says, “Sometimes I think Jesus said things like that because he never pastored a church. Paul pastored churches, which is why I like his iteration better. ‘Bless those who persecute you,’ he told the Romans, ‘bless and do not curse them (12:14). See? He knew about the cursing.”7

With a common sense approach to our fallible natures, Taylor says, “It’s not just that conflict is inevitable and some fights are worth having; it’s that conflict is one of the ways God gets most deeply to us . . .” She continues, “But the dream is not to stay out of conflict. The dream is to remember who we are and what matters most to us in the midst of conflict . . . to love each other in ways that mystify our neighbors, on the off chance that it will do a little good.”8

Most of the sermons in Always are based in the New Testament, with several from the Old Testament (the one on “Sabbath Rest” from Isaiah is especially good). Taylor’s themes constantly circle around and through Jesus, his life with the disciples, his parables, his forgiveness, his humanity, and above all, his transparency as the face of God in this world.

“God has entrusted us with the teaching of the gospel,” she said to an audience at the Chautauqua Institution in 2016. “More than that—with its embodiment, which includes protecting the vulnerable bodies all around us each day. The good news is that we have everything we need to do that: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. May they be with us all forevermore.”9

In these anxious times BBT travels light, but her humor is reassuring, her scriptural insights challenging, and her breadth of vision inspiring. Always a Guest is the guest who becomes family, even in a pandemic.

  1. Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020, p. ix.
  2. Taylor, p. xi.
  3. Mark Oakley in Mayne, Michael. Responding to the Light: Reflections on Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2017, p. vii.
  4. Taylor, p. 5.
  5. Taylor, p. 12.
  6. Taylor, p. 37.
  7. Taylor, p. 37.
  8. Taylor, p. 40.
  9. Taylor, p. 116.

Three Degrees of Success

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If the audience easily recognizes the three degrees of failure (birds, rocks, thorns), how would it interpret those three degrees of success (thirty, sixty, hundredfold)—even in the literal microcosm of sowing? Jesus’s parable seems quite ready to expect and accept degrees of failure and of success. — John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable

“Listen!” Jesus is saying, “a sower went out to sow.” The people on the shore listening smile and nudge one another. The Master is on a roll, telling his stories. There are so many people gathered that he’s in a boat a few feet offshore, speaking to the crowds by the lake in the late afternoon sun.

He speaks in parables, short stories whose meaning lies outside the literal elements of the story and points toward a moral or theological purpose, what New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan defines as “a story that never happened but always does—or at least should.”

The Parable of the Sower in Mark’s gospel (Mark 4:1-20) assures us of God’s pleasure at any degree of return on crops planted. In Mark’s version of the parable, Jesus tells of the loss of seeds to the birds, to rocky soil, and to thorns that choke their growth. But for the seeds that land in good soil and survive there is an eventual harvest. Some patches have a return of thirty percent, some up to sixty percent, and others — perhaps optimistically — a full one hundred percent. The Sower tends them through their growth cycle right up to the harvest and is glad for whatever they produce. Reading this, we never get the feeling there’s anything less than delight and satisfaction for the sixties or even for the thirties. They’ve taken root, they’ve flourished, and they’re ready for the harvest. Next year maybe there will be more.

Mark tells us that Jesus “began to teach them many things in parables,” these pithy, sometimes enigmatic stories that puzzled and angered the religious authorities, and seemed to trip up the disciples as well. This parable, by Mark’s reckoning one of the most important in Jesus’ teachings, shows us that God is realistic about our growth rate and unfazed by what we are now.

We grow and develop spiritually at different rates and in different ways. For some, the obstacles to trusting God can be formidable. If our trust has consistently been sabotaged by parents, friends, and others — those we can actually see — why would we trust an invisible God? For others, trust comes easier. They’ve had the good fortune to grow up with people who could be counted on to keep their promises and who usually chose to do their best for their children. Or maybe they just have the “religious knack,” as religion scholar and author, Karen Armstrong, puts it.

After the crowds leave and Jesus is alone with his disciples, they press around him. Why does he speak in parables, they ask? Why doesn’t he just tell the people straight out what they should and shouldn’t do? It’s easier, quicker, and there’s less chance of being misunderstood. Don’t you get it? he asks, surprised. “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” And he tells the parable again, annotating and explaining as he goes, filling in with more details the story he had told in brief to the crowds. He seems to think of this one as a template, that in some way it holds the key to understanding how he uses any parable, which, in turn, is the way he most often communicates his good news about the kingdom of God. It may also keep him from being arrested.

John Dominic Crossan, a New Testament scholar, puts forward the view in The Power of Parable that Jesus was using this common story-telling device in a new way as a challenge to the status quo. Parables operate as metaphors, a Greek term which means “‘carrying something over” from one thing to another,’” writes Crossan, “and thereby ‘seeing something as another’ or ‘speaking of something as another.’” The challenge in these metaphors, he continues, is this: “If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed. That is the challenge of this and of all other challenge parables.”

It challenges those who place burdens of guilt cemented in tradition on the ones who seek the kingdom by telling them they are not worthy to come as they are. And it challenges we who are called — not because there isn’t room for us in the kingdom, but because we do not stop to listen to the call. And if we do listen and respond, we may be fighting the idea that we have to be free from sin in order to apply and to qualify. But it’s the Sower who sows, not us.

We are tempted to wait until our potential for spiritual growth comes naturally, without effort. We are tempted to measure ourselves by those we admire or against a list of virtues or the gifts of the Spirit. We succumb to these temptations because we compare ourselves to others and we become impatient when we don’t see in our lives the virtues that take time to develop. As for gifts, we may be born with them or get them later in life, but in either case, we don’t generate them.

We are quick to judge others. If we keep our judgements of others to ourselves it’s all to the good. In time, we may even judge them less. When the ratio of judgement to empathy and understanding begins to change we’ll see them much differently. We will see ourselves differently too, perhaps as people who can forgive in spite of not yet forgetting. Patience, grasshopper.

We are quick to judge ourselves, a response that is hard-wired into most of us. Thankfully, we usually know when we’ve gone off the tracks. Thomas Merton has said that we don’t need to create a conscience. “We are born with one, and no matter how much we may ignore it, we cannot silence its insistent demand that we do good and avoid evil.” Still, a lot of us find ourselves rehashing the same arguments with others and with ourselves, over and over in our heads, attacking with our vorpal swords and blocking the parrying blows. And while passing judgment on ourselves is not quite the same as exercising our conscience, it often feels like it, enough that we may desire “the rotten luxury of self-pity,” as Merton says, and just leave it at that.

But like the seed which the Sower sowed, we grow as we go, for there is no practicing before we enter life, only a continual trial-by-error. Self-reflection — not the same as debilitating self-criticism — helps us see ourselves as we are. And as someone has said, God loves us the way we are, but he doesn’t want us to stay the way we are. So, we walk by faith, not by sight, as we are renewed from day to day.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her collection of sermons, The Seeds of Heaven, gives us a way to read the Parable of the Sower that upends our expectations about the kind of ground we are supposed to be.

“The focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of our maker, the prolific sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even very practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into his seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of his truth.”

As Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Photo: Jonathan Bowers, Unsplash.com