In Always a Guest, Barbara Brown Taylor preaches good news to faith communities, seminarians, and readers in her role as guest preacher and messenger of hope.
A Voice from the Wilderness
by Margaret D. McGee
On any given Sunday morning, the sermon I want to hear takes certain actions: it welcomes me in, challenges my view of our world, holds up a mirror for an honest look at myself, and most importantly, delivers good news. On a good day—dear God, let this be one—the sermon might also make me laugh, squeeze my heart, bring tears to my eyes, and send me out into the world with the peace that passes understanding. In Always a Guest: Speaking of Faith Far from Home, a collection of sermons and talks delivered at churches, seminaries, and other institutions between 2006 and 2020, Barbara Brown Taylor delivers the goods again and again. She may not hit the ball out of the park every time, but you can bet she’ll connect for extra bases, and if the opportunity presents itself, Taylor’s got the guts to steal home every day of the week.
Each talk in this book was delivered as a guest preacher after Taylor left parish ministry. In the Preface, she speaks to the challenges and advantages of being “always a guest” at the pulpit. Challenges include preaching to a roomful of strangers, many of whom love their pastor and react to any deviation from what they’ve come to expect in style or message. Advantages include the freedom to speak without fear of losing your job—after all, it’s just a one-shot deal and everybody in the room knows it—as well as widening her horizons in worship as she travels among Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and seminarians with any and all approaches to being church. “The first gift of guest preaching was the loosening of denominational bonds,” Taylor writes. “None of my Episcopal lingo worked. I had to reach for language that lived closer to the heart of common Christian experience.” (p. x)
The language she finds delivers good news in the lively voice of a witty friend sitting across a wine-stained, crumb-strewn table. Taylor does not hold back or pass lightly over the pain of human existence, but insists that the gospel dwells in the heart of it. “How to Live with High Anxiety,” delivered on the first Sunday of Advent, 2018, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, speaks of apocalyptic times: “Jesus’ lifesaving news is that our redemption is embedded in the things that cause us the greatest anxiety,” she asserts, then goes on to show how that works in life as well as scripture. The sermon could have been written last week and delivered yesterday, as fitting as though made for this precise moment in time.
She’s unafraid to challenge received wisdom. “The Parable of the Fearful Investor,” delivered at the Chautauqua Institution in July of 2016, uses as its text the opening verses of Matthew’s the Parable of the Talents. Taylor starts her sermon like this: “This is the beginning of a well-worn parable that is told most often during stewardship season, apparently to convince listeners that even Jesus thinks their money would be better invested in the church than in a hole in the ground. But I am not at all sure the parable will serve the purpose it is so often recruited to serve, especially once you let it off the leash to see what else it might have to say about money and power.” (101) She proceeds to eviscerate 100 years of biblical commentary on the passage, and ends by agreeing with a group of subsistence-level farmers and fishers at a lay monastery in Solentiname, Nicaragua, who after talking it over at services one Sunday, decided this was a “lousy parable.” (103-104)
Taylor then provides a close reading of the passage that made this reader sit up straight and take heart. “So maybe this isn’t a sermon about the parable of the Talents at all,” she concludes. “Maybe it’s a sermon about how we read Scripture instead—about why we are so reluctant to challenge established meanings, about what we think is at risk if we do.” (108) Taylor delivers good news to any preacher stuck in a rut and longing to just tell it like it is, for once, for Christ’s sake.
Each presentation in the book is tightly constructed, weaving personal stories and other anecdotes with fresh exegesis that opens the text to be heard as new. Taylor’s speaking style lends itself more to laughter than lament—every chapter in the book contains laugh lines, but only one brought real tears to my eyes. In “Bathing Deep,” with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet on the last night of his life as its text, Taylor tells of co-teaching a class on Christian practice. She and her partner decide to wrap up the week with a wordless foot-washing among the whole class, “with full confidence that the act itself would teach us what we needed to know.” (148) The resulting scene offers a heart-rending portrayal of both our visceral fears and deepest desires for intimacy with one another. I laughed, I cried, and I turned to the next chapter with peace in my heart.
Always a Guest concludes with two paired sermons delivered at the opening and closing sessions of the Emergence Now Conference held at the Columbia Theological Seminary in 2010. Titled “The Wise and Foolish Church,” Parts One and Two, the talks focus on two closely-juxtaposed passages from the latter chapters of Matthew. Part One provides a bold reading of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins having their troubles with a late bridegroom and limited lamp oil; Part Two examines the story of the woman who pours out expensive oil on Jesus head, to the dismay of disciples who feel that valuable resources are being squandered. An acknowledged heavy-hitter in theological and homiletic circles, Taylor often speaks to rooms filled with folks for whom church is a passion as well as a vocation, and this is no exception. She takes the opportunity to explicitly address the Church in these final chapters, weaving the two stories with oil at their center into a study on how faith communities are called to conserve their fuel, to pour it out, and to live into a faith where the two can be one.
Take note, dear Church, and take heart. You’ll find good news in the telling.
This review originally appeared in the Englewood Review of Books.