“I remain committed to helping us recover our ability to speak Christian without apology,” writes the American theologian and prolific author Stanley Hauerwas in the introduction to “Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church” (Seabury Books, 2013), his fourth published book of sermons.
In this collection, Hauerwas writes as a layperson and theologian who is honored to be asked to preach, and honors those who preach on a regular basis. He emphasizes the interaction between preaching and his scholarly work. By writing sermons, he takes theology out of the academy and into the church.
The collection is divided into sections: sermons delivered at Hauerwas’ parish church, Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill, N.C.; sermons delivered at Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville, Tenn., where he is Canon Theologian; sermons delivered on diverse occasions, some of them ecumenical; sermons on the priesthood, which include occasions of ordination and seminary commencement; and a section titled “Other Writings.”
In under 200 pages of perfectly crafted sermons, Stanley Hauerwas comments on the lectionary and theology (never dumbing it down), always returning to what word and doctrine mean for the life of the church. The life of the church touches our personal lives together in the sacraments, and also our public lives together in the world.
This book of sermons would be useful to a preacher looking for material as well as to any reader looking for inspiration or spiritual discipline.
In an Advent sermon delivered at Christ Church Cathedral, Hauerwas pulls together philosopher William James, the prophet Isaiah, the psalm appointed for the day, Second Peter and Mark’s gospel, commenting on what this all means for the assembly gathered to hear the word and to worship. No mean feat.
His Maundy Thursday sermon includes a touch of humor at the expense of the Episcopalians squirming in the pews at the thought of letting others wash their feet.
His Palm Sunday sermon urges the assembly to pay particular attention to the role of the crowd.
An Advent sermon delivered at Dayspring Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, grounds Hauerwas’ pacifist convictions in the scripture readings for the day.
Always, he reminds us of the meaning of our faith and our church. In a sermon titled “Letting Go” he writes:
“That faith means learning to let go, to live out of control, is one of the gifts God gives us to recognize that we cannot do this alone. … To learn to live out of control means we must learn to depend on others who are also learning to live out of control. The name given such a people is church” (p. 39).
I found the “Other Writings” section less compelling than the sermons. These were solid essays reflecting Hauerwas’ themes and convictions, but I missed the grounding in Word and Sacrament that the sermons provided. Following the sermons, the Other Writings fell flat. I’d have preferred if he had resisted the temptation to include these pieces, and simply offered the collection of sermons, each one a little gem addressed to the community of people of God, the church.
To open a book by a major American theologian, grounded in the theology of Karl Barth and John Howard Yoder, an ethicist and public intellectual, possibly one of the world’s most influential living theologians, might be intimidating, even to a seminarian. In fact, Hauerwas’ eloquent and elegant sermons are readable and wise. The themes of his theology and life work are interwoven with a commitment to church (that’s ecclesiology to those of us in seminary) in sermons that are truthful, humorous and grounded in scripture and sacrament. His words connect doctrine to the concrete practice of the faith. Above all, these sermons are about the glory of the Triune God. Without apology.
(Susan Butterworth is a candidate for a Master of Divinity degree at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., where she is working on a special competency in Anglican, Global, Ecumenical and Interfaith Studies. She is a visiting lecturer in English composition and literature at Salem State University and a professional nonfiction writer. )