Howard Thurman: Sermons on the Parables (David Gowler & Kipton Jensen, editors) -- A Review


SERMONS ON THE PARABLES. By Howard Thurman. Edited with an Introduction by David B. Gowler and Kipton E. Jensen. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018. L + 157 pages.

Having recently and belatedly read Howard Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited (1948), a seminal study of the life and vision of Jesus and a book that gave spiritual sustenance to Martin Luther King, I was pleased to receive a review copy of a newly published collection of Thurman's Sermons on the Parables. Jesus' parables have been illuminating and challenging for many over the centuries. They often subtly convey the essence of Jesus’ message, pushing us to consider more deeply what it means to be a disciple, of course, but more importantly, what it means to be human (and humane). Here, in this collection of sermons delivered by one of the leading African American intellectuals of the twentieth century, we are led into a deeper encounter with the often subversive, but also transformative message of Jesus.

In this volume edited by David Gowler and Kipton Jensen, we have a collection of sermons preached in the 1950s, following in the wake of the publication of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. In many ways this collection is a natural extension of that important book. As with the earlier book, Thurman reminds us in these sermons that Jesus always had in mind those on the margins. We fail to properly interpret Jesus if we do not connect these dots.

Thurman may be best known today, if he is known, as one of Martin Luther King's spiritual mentors. While it is true that he influenced King, he was an important leader in his own right, laying the foundation for what would emerge in the 1950s and 1960s. Thurman provided the spiritual foundations for the movement and its use of nonviolent action to move the civil rights agenda. He may not have been a marcher, but he was a key leader of the movement. While Thurman is a product of the Black church, his spiritual vision reached beyond, not only to the wider Christian community, but to the wider religious world. The editors remind us that Thurman was one of the first African American intellectual to meet with Gandhi in India. Their conversations helped Thurman develop his own understanding of nonviolent action. While he was thoroughly Christian, he found elements of Hinduism to be important contributors to his Spiritual Development.

As the editors note, "Thurman reminds us that Jesus spoke primarily to those who were oppressed by the powerful and that Jesus' prophetic message continues to be relevant to the oppressed in any age and in every place, albeit in ways not completely understood or acknowledged by many who claim to follow him." (p. xvi). As for Thurman's sermons, the editors write that his sermons and writings "provided succor and sustenance to an entire generation of civil and human rights activists." (p. xxxvi). Reading these sermons, we are challenged to embrace the prophetic message of Jesus in every age. Consider this word from a sermon titled “Commitment” preached in 1951:
And do you wonder why we have a so-called Christian civilization that doesn’t bother with Jesus? He’s the most dangerous, the most dangerous figure on the horizon of mortal man. And if we seek to reproduce in ourselves the religion which he experienced, we shall destroy our civilization, and there shall not be one stone left on the other. So what do we do? We pray to him instead. That’s easier. (p. 63).
This is the message we hear in these sermons. A call to live into the life of Jesus in a way that could upset civilization. Thus, the book itself might prove dangerous. Considering the times, maybe this a collection that will inspire and encourage action in the spirit of Jesus.

                There are in the book fifteen sermons, all of which were preached in the 1950s. They have been gathered and transcribed from recordings by the editors. These editors, one of whom is a New Testament Scholar who has written on the parables (Gowler), and the other a professor philosophy at Morehouse College, where Thurman studied and taught (Jensen), bring their expertise and experience to the task of bringing the sermons to our attention. Because they have transcribed sermons from recordings made in the 1950s, it’s understandable that not all the words could be discerned. There are words missing, but they are noted. In some cases we can fill in the gaps, but not always. Nonetheless, the fact that they are transcribed live sermons, we get some of the feel of what was originally delivered. However, as is always true of speeches and sermons put into print we don’t get the full experience.  What cannot be fully communicated is the tone of voice and the embodiment of the message. Where possible, the editors add in parenthetically that there was, for instance, laughter. That helps to some degree but isn't the same. Nonetheless, the words printed communicate important truths. We can read with listening hearts.

Each of the fifteen sermons, which take up one or more of the parables, is introduced by the editors, who give us an overview of the text and sometimes the location and context in which it was delivered. Some of the sermons were delivered at The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, where he served for a time as co-pastor. Others were delivered at Marsh Chapel at Boston University, where he served as Dean of the Chapel and professor of spiritual resources and disciplines.

As to who might benefit from this book. Preachers, of course, will find encouragement and spiritual sustenance, that will empower preaching that might just disrupt civilization. Seekers after truth will be inspired as well, as they are introduced to a word from Jesus. While Thurman doesn’t offer “expository” sermons, he does bring the text of scripture to life. For those who wish to understand the civil rights movement in its fullness, they will benefit both from the sermons and the introductions. Finally, those wishing to experience the parables of Jesus in a modern context will find the collection stimulating. I can say this, if Martin Luther King was inspired and encouraged by Thurman's vision of Jesus, perhaps we might as well. As the editors not in their concluding word, suggest that these sermons on the parables “offer clues for living in harmony with the will of God and the purpose of life” (p. 155). Agreed, and thus, Howard Thurman's Sermons on the Parables is highly recommended.

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