When I was four years old, I would (so I’m told) stand the ottoman in the living room on its end so that it could serve as a pulpit. I would place my mother’s hardback copy of The Living Bible on it, opening it at the middle, to a passage I couldn’t read. And I would arrange a few stuffed animals in a semi-circle, stumped as to how to provide them with pews but willing to make do regardless. There is still a recording of one of these sermons that my parents have on a cassette tape, that they delight in playing at inopportune times. On that recording I sound emboldened, fiery; I am quoting Bible verses from memory. And that, I think, was the beginning of my devotion to preaching—to the proclamation of the Christian Gospel.
The ardent, authoritative preaching I heard at First Baptist Church in Conway, Arkansas, where my newlywed parents attended, must have prompted my childhood sermonizing. A recent alumnus of Dallas Theological Seminary, the pastor of First Baptist had been marinated in dispensational theology, a method of biblical interpretation that—its serious (and bizarre) flaws notwithstanding—made for Scripture-centered, whole-canon-focused sermons. I must have absorbed his passion, and I must have admired it. Why else would I perform such an elaborate flattery of imitation? Buried somewhere in my attic is a sheaf of drawings I made as that pastor preached, week after week—a three year-old’s scrawled renditions of David and Goliath, Daniel in the lion’s den, and Jesus hanging on the cross. And these were the stories I spoke about when I addressed my congregation of plush toys from behind the ottoman pulpit.
None of this interest in preaching abated as I grew older. I still vividly remember ordering my first cassette tape recording of a sermon by John Piper, when I was a teenager. His text was Hebrews 1:1–4, and I sat in the living room, listening on a Walkman with headphones, my feet propped on the ottoman behind which I’d preached over a decade earlier. I remember a tingling enthrallment as I followed along with an open Bible on my lap. A Calvinistic Baptist, Piper was committed to expository preaching, and I’d never heard anyone do it so well. Each sentence, each phrase and cadence of that text, suddenly pulsed with meaning. A couple of years later, when I had to be in the car for several hours a week for my summer job, I listened to the rest of Piper’s Hebrews sermons, fifty-two in total.
I’ve been known to listen to recorded sermons while jogging, cooking, or taking a shower. I’ve listened to sermons on road trips and in airplanes. Besides Piper, I cut my teeth on evangelical Reformed (upper- and lowercase r) preaching: Tim Keller, Sinclair Ferguson, Graeme Goldsworthy, and Kent Hughes, among others. Since high school days, I’ve been a devoted reader of sermon manuscripts too. I started with Frederick Buechner (The Hungering Dark and The Magnificent Defeat are collections I return to), moving backwards chronologically to historic exemplars like Jonathan Edwards and forwards to Fleming Rutledge and Rowan Williams (whose February 2007 sermon at Zanzibar Cathedral remains one of my most treasured). Once, I drove the ten hours from Minneapolis to Upland, Indiana to hear the late John Stott, the prince of Anglican expository preachers, give the inaugural Charles Simeon Sermons at Taylor University. Sitting among undergraduates, I experienced something close to veneration.
I am an Anglican myself now, and my views of preaching have shifted from what they once were. Truthfully, I can’t imagine going back to forty-five-minute oral commentaries on a biblical passage. I also don’t think recordings are really “sermons,” strictly speaking; if preaching is in some way sacramental, surely it requires the bodily presence of preacher and hearers to each other? And I have enough Lutheran in me now to think that it’s perfectly possible to preach a faithful, verse-by-verse exposition of a biblical passage and still miss the Gospel. If the point of preaching is to publicly exhibit Jesus Christ as crucified, per St. Paul’s lapidary summary in the epistle to the Galatians, then no sermon, however “biblical” it might be, is complete without that. If it doesn’t lead inexorably to the Lord’s Table, at which the word of forgiveness becomes tangible and edible, then it isn’t really gospel preaching.
Admittedly, though, I worry as much or more these days about the disillusionment with preaching I find among many Anglicans my age. Many of us were raised in low-church evangelical traditions with strong pulpit ministries, and part of what has drawn us to the Anglican fold is the weekly Eucharist, which was marginal in our upbringings. (My childhood Southern Baptist church took Communion quarterly, with disposable cups of Welch’s and cufflink-shaped saltines.) At the evangelical Wheaton College, where half my friends, it seemed, discovered Anglicanism during their undergraduate years, I frequently heard sighs of relief: “I’m happy to go to a church where the altar, not the pulpit, is at the center.” If they had read Ishmael’s homiletic paean in Moby Dick, “Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out . . . and the pulpit is its prow,” my fellow students would have substituted altar for pulpit without batting an eye.
I worry about this tendency not just because I am nostalgic for serious, rich, demanding sermons. Rather, I worry about it because I persist in believing that preaching—the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ from an appointed text or passages of Scripture—is inseparable from the deep sacramental life I’ve found in the Anglican church. “When the sacrament is severed from proclamation and so from scripture,” as George Hunsinger wrote in a recent essay, “it threatens to become an object of priestly manipulation and superstition.” But when the sacrament fulfills and interprets the preached Word, then preaching comes into its own. “The word,” Hunsinger continues, “proclaims Christ in his saving significance as the Incarnate Saviour” and is thus brought to completion when its hearers commune with that same Christ by receiving his body and blood.
I hope that my church will rediscover and do its part to guard and advance what the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann has called the “unbreakable unity of word and sacrament.” I pray we continue to be a Eucharistic community, feeding on Christ each week in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving, as the liturgy has it. And may we also celebrate the rootedness of that feeding in the preached word. May we, as Schmemann puts it, celebrate preaching as what gives the sacrament its “evangelical content,” what prevents it from becoming a free-floating magical exercise shorn of its proclamatory character. May we, still and again, defend and love the pulpit.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.