St. Augustine, writing in what is arguably the most influential handbook for preachers in the Christian tradition (De Doctrina Christiana) begins by citing the experience and words of St. Paul to emphasize the importance of learning from the example and wisdom of others: “What do we have, after all, that we have not received? But if we have received it, why should we boast as though we had not?”
Augustine was writing against a practice that is all too common in our time: preachers who claim to receive “messages” directly from God but without the mediation of human teachers and preachers. Augustine’s words call attention to our place within the “great company of preachers” with whom we share the vocation of hearing and speaking the word of God in Scripture, a practice best learned by attending to and thinking with the faithfulness of others who dare to speak the truth of Jesus Christ.
We are fortunate to have received the most recent publication of one such exemplar, Richard Lischer, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Duke Divinity School. Just Tell the Truth: A Call to Faith, Hope, and Courage (Eerdmans, 2021) is a collection of edited sermons preached over many years of ministry. These sermons, thirty-seven in all, represent the seasons in the Christian Year (33), as well as preaching on special occasions (4). Learning from a book of sermons means more than simply repeating what the author has already said. Imitation entails attending to habits of believing, thinking, perceiving, and speaking in fidelity to the gospel. As Lischer notes in the introduction: “For us [Christians], telling the truth begins with an accurate and passionate account of what the book of Acts calls ‘the facts about Jesus’ – who he is, what he did, what he demands, and the sort of people he empowers us to be.”
As a preacher, Lischer stays close to the text while also remaining close to life. Here the modern dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity is overcome by a unity of sermon content and form offered as a living witness to the truth of Christ. Lischer’s present tense preaching means listeners are not invited into a historical and cultural time warp by which he works to transport them back to biblical times. Rather, the use of personal language, informed by closely attending to the scriptural witness to the “Word made flesh” in Jesus presses the “today” of God’s address which is sufficient to create, sustain, and strengthen faith. In a sermon from Luke 10, Lischer announces the change of the ages brought by Jesus: “We see something small: he sees something big. We see churches struggling for solvency: he sees a large and more exciting arena in which God’s power is at work. We see improvements here and there: he sees a transformation under way fueled by the Holy Spirit. We see the church at its most fragile: he sees the church at its most majestic.”
This form of preaching—which is called “sermon”—is best understood as a conversation initiated by God in Christ and mediated to the church by the Holy Spirit. Here Lischer’s consistent, pastoral use of “we” invites listeners to see themselves as graced participants in a divine/human dialogue in which Christ is speaking to evoke the offering of living faith with and through himself to the Father. A sermon on John 9, the story of a blind man healed by Jesus concludes: “We are free from having to be religious experts or self-appointed saints, free from having to calculate the cost-benefit ratio of every decision we make, free to be brave in the world. We have the freedom to stand up in a god-free culture where so many claim to know so much and to say, ‘One thing I know … and it is no small thing. It saved my life!’”
Lischer’s truth telling reflects the paradox of his own Lutheran tradition. This is evinced by his use of concrete language as a means of directing attention to the radiant glory of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Lord of all that is. A theologian by training and lover of good literature, Lischer speaks eloquently of a God who is with us in the life and ministry of Christ while doing so with a particular kind of “learned ignorance.” On the one hand, these sermons provide outstanding examples of preaching that is “learned,” the fruit of many years of prayer, study, teaching, and practice. On the other hand, this learning is largely hidden in elegant expressions that seek to make room for the Word in the words that are spoken. Preaching on the Ascension, he declares: “We stand between two advents, the first and second coming of the Lord. That means that we are free to look for Jesus in all the wrong places, for he is coming toward us from more than one direction.”
Lischer’s sermons read therefore like acts of worship, offerings of love for the Word and words that seek to be an enactment of that which he seeks to exemplify: Just tell the truth. He does this in a manner that prompts deep existential questions that resonate throughout the book. If this really is the truth, what would my life look like; what would our lives look like? A brief childhood anecdote illumines the cost of telling the truth: “When I was a kid, my mother always told me what your mothers told you: ‘As long as you tell the truth, you won’t get in trouble.’ Our mothers lied. ‘Did you cause your brother’s nose to bleed’? ‘Yes, I did.’ ‘It’s good that you told the truth. You’re not in trouble, dear, but you are grounded for three weeks.’ And then this brief summary: “You see, it’s just the opposite: Tell the truth, and that’s when the trouble starts.”
The sermons challenge and correct without being polemical. They seek to comfort without being sentimental. They speak the truth in love without sacrificing either. Taken as a whole, they stir a deep longing to receive God’s gifts of faith, hope, and courage without neglecting God’s commands as the means of their realization. In each instance, the hearer or reader is a respected, beloved conversation partner. Or, as Lischer depicts this: “You might think of the sermon as a picnic to which the preacher brings the basket and the listener brings the sandwiches.”
Preachers will benefit by attending to Lischer’s clear, compelling prose and economy of words. Here I would also point to the unpredictable nature of the sermons. For example, these sermons do not begin with long human interest stories that do little good work other than to serve as attention getters. I suspect this is because Lischer begins with the conviction that preaching is situated within, and contributes to, the church’s worship of the Triune God who summons and claims our attention by all that is prayed, sung, spoken, heard, celebrated, and shared. The sermons are therefore conformed to the pattern of truth revealed in Scripture and the sacraments of Baptism and Lord’s Supper: the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, of his body broken and blood poured out for the life of the world.
Lastly, conspicuously lacking in Lischer’s preaching are what many contemporary preachers consider to be the heart of a sermon: practical applications, “take aways,” “so what?” moments, and lists of things to do for improving ourselves or changing the world. I suspect a reluctance to provide such practical props betrays a greater confidence in the spoken word to transform listeners by faith that comes by hearing God’s promises and commands that are fulfilled in Christ. Thankfully, readers will find Just Tell the Truth to be a timely reminder that encountering the truth of Christ is the gracious work of the Spirit who freely bestows the gifts of faith, hope, and courage so that the whole church, and not only the preacher, may delight in being more truthful in a world of un-truth.