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.” 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.”
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 Times bestsellers 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.” 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).
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
Notes & References:
 Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far From Home. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020, p. ix.
 Taylor, p. xi.
 Mark Oakley in Mayne, Michael. Responding to the Light: Reflections on Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2017, p. vii.
 Taylor, p. 5.
 Taylor, p. 12.
 Taylor, p. 37.
 Taylor, p. 37.
 Taylor, p. 40.
 Taylor, p. 116.
Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His first book, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, is now available.
Book cover image courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press.
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