Friday, June 1, 2012

Great Preachers

I have been haunted of late by something I said some years ago:

It hit me as I was overseeing the annual James Kenneth Echols preaching competition at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, again as I wrote letters of recommendation for students applying for The David H.C. Read Preacher/Scholar Award competition, and last week and this week as I write for Good Preacher, the lectionary commentary of The Festival of Homiletics. I have my face buried in exegesis while the “great preachers”—and the list is really great—are gathered in Atlanta. I did the same thing last year, and agreed to write again, just because I feared my negative reaction was “sour grapes” over not being regarded as a “great preacher” by the Festival of Homiletics, and taking ribbing for it.  

It’s not sour grapes. My wife, who watches as I write and write and write and finally asks why I am doing this, reminded me of that. The friend who emailed the link to this You Tube video and invited me to take heed of my own words also reminded me. And taking a look at my own teaching of preaching, both in Master of Divinity Programs at LSTC and Notre Dame, and the ACTS Doctor of Ministry in Preaching Program, also reminded me. Bottom Line:   “I don’t teach or approach preaching as a competitive sport!”  We collaborate in class, workshop among peers, logjam in my office and at An asset of the ACTS Preaching Program is that it’s not competitive—though every so often, a student or two try to make it that way.

I am, frankly, confounded as I try to find objective criteria with which to determine who wins LSTC’s preaching competition or what makes a preacher “great.” A graduating senior recently told me he was glad to hear that our preaching competition was not my idea, and that I do my best to downplay its competitive aspect by declaring the real winner to be the listeners and the congregations the competitors will one day serve. Nevertheless, LSTC’s preaching competition will continue, and I am responsible for it. If students undertake the $20,000 Read Preaching/Scholar Award, I will write them letters of recommendation. But I will step away from writing for the Festival of Homiletics. I know the editor of “Preaching Helps” in Currents in Theology and Mission, and suspect he’d let me write.

Somewhere in her chapter “Preaching” in The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor debunks best and worst sermons. Every semester, I read those passages to my students before they preach their first sermons in class. For me, today, what makes Barbara Brown Taylor “great” is her insight.

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