The Eloquence of Grace: Joseph Sittler and the Preaching Life. Edited by James M. Childs, Jr. and Richard Lischer. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2012. xiii +325 pp., refs., index. $32.00 pb.
This book is a gem. For both the dried-out preacher who needs some slaking and the one who is forever whittling theological nuances, the language of Joseph Sittler is a gift. While published writings on preaching abound these days, few allow a preacher to settle into essays and sermons so rich in wisdom. At a time like the present in the homiletical realm — when we have “been the rounds” on rhetorical, narrative, deconstructive, conversational, round-table, and postmodern theories and seem on the verge of a new paradigm — Sittler offers a framework for taking preaching back again as a theological enterprise. His vision is open and inquisitive while holding firm that preaching ought to be proclamation of a carefully considered gospel witness. Thanks are due James Childs and Richard Lischer for creating this book and to the archives of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Chicago for housing the Sittler papers and recordings from which this book was built.
Joseph Sittler (1904-1987) was not only a pastor and a thoughtful and inspiring professor of theology and a sought-after preacher for many years in Chicago, but was given the opportunity early in his career to be in conversation with some of the most piercing minds of his time. He served for 35 years (1935-1970) on the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, grappling with the political and theological issues of his day, particularly Christology and the doctrine of grace. He argued on theological terms the vision offered to the world by the resurrection of Christ Jesus. Even when blind near the end of his life, he continued to preach and teach.
For those whom this book will be their introduction to Sittler’s work, the structure lays out necessary and important pieces of the portrait in three helpful sections: theological dimensions of the preaching life, goals of preaching, and actual sermons.
Part 1, “The Preacher as Theologian,” contains lectures and essays by Sittler on theological matters, but it begins with an autobiographical piece delivered when he was eighty years old, showing that the inquiry of a preacher never diminishes: “I wish I were twenty-five years old, starting all over again, because I am as troubled a theologian now as I ever was, in the sense that I’m always disturbed by the imprecision, the way our statements pass by or bounce off of or miss the mark, because we do not really find out what’s cooking” (p. 22). Would that all preachers cared so much about finding the exact words that, in Sittler’s terms, “catch the mind and the imagination, not only with the great, the resonant, and the noble, but with the vivacity of the real — whatever is life” (p. 15).
Sittler’s concern as a preacher was to “take people out of their inner world of self-concern into the wider world.”
Part 2 contains Sittler’s thoughts specifically about preaching. Childs’s introduction, “Joseph Sittler and the Preacher’s Calling,” sets Sittler’s preaching in the context of the mid-twentieth century and highlights his primary aims. Childs tells us that Sittler’s concern as a preacher was to “take people out of their inner world of self-concern into the wider world. . . [to] confront . . . the pain of want and injustice and indeed the pain of the very earth itself” (p. 112). Sittler’s definition of preaching militated against what he called “the preaching fashion” of “the holy branch office of the local psychiatric clinic…” (p. 169) in order to articulate, instead, a theology of the cross.
Part 3 makes concrete the assertions of Sittler’s understanding of preaching as a theological task. It includes eighteen of Sittler’s sermons bursting with the substance of human life, its joys and sorrows, its quandaries and mysteries. The sermons were profoundly shaped by the confluence of God’s word and creation. They are not like many sermons we are used to hearing today. They range far, pull art and science into the theological enterprise, define and deconstruct, all in the name of “fundamental evangelism” by which Sittler meant a “contrapuntal action in which the great language of faith crosses with a sharp impact the realities of ordinary life” (p. 16). This nexus of theology and present reality might have been a bit clearer if the location and occasion of each sermon (and lectures, as well) had been made more explicit, but this is, ultimately, a minor matter given the value of this volume as it stands.
Early on, Sittler had considered studying medicine, but he chose to preach because he saw that it would mean his intellectual endeavors would know no boundaries.
In the end, this is a book about “the preaching life” with all its breadth. Early on, Sittler had considered studying medicine, but he chose to preach because he saw that it would mean his intellectual endeavors would know no boundaries. He sought the needed theological word, the hardest nut. As Lischer points out, Sittler “rarely engages in the great weakness of preachers everywhere, the sermon illustration; he never tells a story or cites an example in order to shore up the Word of God, as if the biblical account is uninteresting or lacks concreteness” (p. 197). Those of us who were raised on — or teach — the use of everyday examples in a sermon to make a point will, perhaps, cringe at this. But Sittler is worth hearing. Does a preacher offer clarity or condescend by picking a theme out of a biblical text and calling the expansion of that theme a “sermon”? Does a preacher serve to feed the assembly the best of what God intends if the structure of the thinking doesn’t challenge assumptions and create discomfort?
Finally, I offer a few general comments about Sittler’s work to whet the reader’s appetite:
Much of Sittler’s reputation rests on his early and vigorous ecological concern. He ought to be consulted today — along with the environmentally-committed voices since his time — as preachers contend with God’s desired healing for Earth as well as for human life.
Sittler understood that preaching happens in the context of worship so that even when the preaching is dull or wrong-hearted, the words of the Prayer of the Day, a hymn, or the responsive singing of the psalm might carry the gospel proclamation. Here is a challenge from Sittler as we ponder the import of worship: “If the church really is, among other things, the community that remembers Jesus, then liturgy is but the obedience of the practice of the church to the reality of its mind” (p. 167). The church’s “mind,” for him, is its witness to the resurrection. As the world’s churches responded to the climate that created the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical shifts that followed, Sittler apparently saw a burgeoning problem and assessed it with humble concern: “How the powers of the Christian past are to be related to the living moment so as to help such a central affirmation as the resurrection of Jesus Christ to bloom in the mind to its indeterminate dimension, I do not clearly know. But I do know that shallowly devised, mood-engendering stimulants to unstructured piety are not helpful” (p. 168). This might give today’s worship planners and leaders pause before making liturgical changes on the basis of what is popular or “effective.” More fruitful is to ask how the resurrection can “bloom in the mind” to its appropriate, enormous infinitude.
Sittler celebrated the “ordered round of readings” (p. 169), the use of a common, ecumenical lectionary that, in 1961, was not yet the Revised Common Lectionary we have today. The ecumenical Consultation on Common Texts was not formed until the mid-1960s, yet Sittler’s enthusiasm for lectionary preaching is evident. (The practice in some churches today of reducing the scripture readings or re-shaping them, might well, I dare say, be critiqued by Sittler. Rectifying the problem of biblical illiteracy is not the task of worship. Worship is God’s invitation that we gather in order to be fed.)
Sittler’s preaching is a manner of proclamation that should bring preachers today to fresh evaluation of our work. One example will have to suffice. Preaching what some might call an “environmental” sermon (pp. 201-208), he juxtaposed several texts: Isaiah 6:1-3 (“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne…”), a poem by Richard Wilbur, and the foremost question in the Westminster Catechism (asking the purpose of human life whose answer is to glorify and delight in God). Working with these images and assertions, he defined “glory” and “enjoyment” in order to move the listener to both at once. He argued that “God is useful. But not if sought for use” (p. 207). He moved to a necessary conclusion about the use of things, whether God or Earth, saying: “Use is blessed when enjoyment is honored. . . There is an economics of use only; it moves toward the destruction of both use and joy. And there is an economics of joy; it moves toward the intelligence of use and enhancement of joy.” In this way, he made the theological and doctrinal case for care of creation as integral to the purpose of life: to glorify and enjoy God.
Some might say that Sittler’s erudition is too thick for present-day congregations. Indeed, he preached primarily in academic settings. Yet, the questions of our day remain as they were in Sittler’s time, revolving around how we are to understand our maker and redeemer and live with each other — and Earth! — in peace. May the work of this blessed pastor and theologian find its way into the reading of many preachers in the coming year.