Always a Guest (Barbara Brown Taylor) -- A Review

 ALWAYS A GUEST: Speaking of Faith Far from Home. By Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Xii + 242 pages.

                Preaching takes on a different feel when you're a guest preacher than when your preaching in your home pulpit.  I've done both, so I know that each has its own identity. When I preach to the congregation I serve as pastor I know the people in the pews. I know their stories and their concerns. I know who is going to laugh at my vain attempt at a joke. However, when I go to another church and preach, I may know some of the people, but not in the same ways as I would as their pastor. I will admit that there is a certain degree of freedom that comes when you’re away than when you’re at home. So, we who preach, our sermons will take on a different texture depending on the location. Since I’ll be retiring in the relatively near future, my preaching will be as a guest and not as the home preacher. Thus, it is with interest that I read Always a Guest by the well-known preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor.

                In her book, Always a Guest, shares sermons preached "far from home." This book contains sermons preached over the past twenty years since Taylor left her Episcopal parish and took up the calling of teacher and guest preacher. Among the many sermons preached over this twenty-year period, she has selected thirty-one sermons to share with us. Some were preached in a church on a Sunday morning. Others were preached in a college chapel. Still others were preached at special events. Each of these locations has its own identity, and therefore the sermons reflect their context.

                Those who know her books, likely have been inspired, encouraged, and comforted by them. This collection of sermons, covering a wide variety of texts and subjects, should prove equally valuable. Preachers will find inspiration for their sermons, but non-preachers will find stimulating and inspiring messages to meditate upon. Because they are sermons, they are accessible to the general reader.

                As for her own experiences after leaving parish ministry, she notes that her "preaching life was born again." While her expectation, one she suggests is shared by colleagues, was that "guest preaching was for people who didn't have a real preaching job." This would make for a rather "lame gig" (p. ix). She writes that some of this critique proved to be true, but she also found it to be a worthwhile opportunity. She quickly learned, she reports, that when one is a guest preacher, it’s important that one ask certain questions beforehand as to how things should go. It’s also important to remember that the congregation loves their pastor, so "don't pretend to be something you're not" (p. x). That's good advice. You’re not there to show up the incumbent. The blessings that came with this new situation, begun when she moved from being a settled priest to college professor, was the "loosening of denomination bonds." That meant recognizing that appropriate sermon lengths differed from tradition to tradition. The language that worked in one place might not work elsewhere. But all of this offered welcome opportunities.

                As for what was the "most surprising gift" from preaching away from home, she reports that it was "the freedom to preach without fear of being fired—or if not fired, at least roundly criticized with apparent relish" (p. x). She also came to value traveling light. This meant learning to take only a few things with her when she preached as a guest. These few things included "a sacred text, a trust in the Spirit, an experience of being human, and a desire to bear good news" (p. xi). You will find all of this present in the thirty-one sermons that make up the collection.

                Preaching is a calling that requires a monologue that brings a word from God to a people. It's a calling that is not always well understood, which is why it's easy to critique sermons. Preachers are the worst at that. So, sometimes it's good to hear from a master preacher or at least read her sermons. When reading a book of sermons it is always good to remember that we are not getting the full picture. We have the words, but not the voice or the body language. We don’t have the context of the worship service. These are important, but reading a sermon as a message can be worthwhile. So, preachers will find this volume encouraging and life-affirming. Non-preachers may find that this volume will provide a way of exploring one's faith in a devotional way. Because it is a collection of sermons preached over many years, there isn't a cohesive message that carries from beginning to end. Each sermon stands on its own. The exception to this rule is found at the end of the book, where we encounter a series of two sermons titled "The Wise and Foolish Church" (chapters 30 and 31).

                One thing I do appreciate about Barbara Brown Taylor, as a preacher, is that she understands the importance of the text of Scripture. Her sermons are filled with stories, but their all connected to the text of Scripture. As you read her sermons, you realize that the definition of a biblical preacher is not uniform. One need not be a biblical literalist to preach biblical sermons that are deeply rooted in the text and honor the text as well.

                As you pick up Always a Guest and open it, what you discover is a month of Sundays to dive into. May it prove it to be a blessing to you. When I move from settled preacher to guest, I hope and pray my experiences will be as much of a blessing as her experiences have been for her. 


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