The hallmark of social-activist preachers is not complacency. Instead, they should inspire you to both think and act. You want it, you get it, in Twice-Told Tales: A Collection of 21 Sermons.
I am surprised to recommend a collection of homilies. If you pardon the expression, Lord knows that I have squirmed enough times listening to tedious, cliched, often repetitious preaching. While the author doesn’t have a recognizable first name among his Rev. Dr. Farley Wilder Wheelwright, he is an excellent minister, both from the pulpit and, as many have told me, for pastoral counseling.
Disclaimers: I have known Farley for decades, back to 1987, when he was interim Senior Minister at Boston’s Arlington Street Church. I was a board (Prudential Committee) member, then chair. We solved many problems together. I loved his preaching and we have been good friends since. I also wrote the book’s forward.
The book has some potent historical mentions. Farley is still, as he has always been, an egalitarian, free-thinking, atheist, activist. Ministers in general and UU ones in particuar divvy into a big bucket of the timid and a smaller one of the righteous. My chum was active in civil rights, knowing many of the leaders and being a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, Rev. King was to deliver the Rev. Wheelwright’s installation sermon, only to be assassinated a few days before that could happen.
Over my life involved as a worshiper and in various churches’ politics and polity, I have known many ministers. I have lost count of the boring and inane sermons I have heard. The winners are regular surprises and delights. Farley’s book is filled with those.
As a side note, the Arlington Street Church has an illustrious history filled with many noted Unitarian preachers. It is know as the mother church of American Unitarianism, as the base for Rev. William Ellery Channing (although he had to go to Baltimore to preach the sermon that defined his brand of religion, because the board found him too radical). I joined the ASC when the Rev. Victor Carpenter was senior minister. He did not believe in comfortable congregants and gave us social-action homework from the pulpit weekly. Following Farley and to this day the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie holds the high pulpit. She can be insipid, but when she hits one, it is out of the proverbial park. She is the rarest of liberal preachers, a charismatic one.
Farley is a magnificent preacher. He is smarter and better read than any minister you are likely to have known. Yet, his sermons got you to the conclusions without letting his intellect get in the way.
When he began discussing this project with me, he envisioned it as a nice-to-have for new ministers. He knew that there are likely the roots of three to five sermons in each of his. He figured newbies would benefit. He says he’d be happy for them to built sermons from these and they’d only need give him credit if they lifted large portions or whole ones.
Drawing on my experience with ministers, I think more established preachers might gain more. As we all who visit various churches have noted, many of the same sermons reemerge. For UUs and beyond, I think immediately of the Rev. Clark Dewey Wells’ You be glad at that star. Sure, it’s a good idea and sermon, but why have so many ministers modified or lifted it? The answer is simply that most run out of ideas. They are constantly reading their peers’ work and listening to their podcasts. They aren’t forever insightful and creative. They really couldn’t cut it as newspaper columnists who have to come up with three or five pieces a week. Although in fairness, sermons are not their only duties.
I have read or skimmed numerous books of sermons. They tend to the trivial and saccharine. From my ASC days, I recall visiting the Boston Athenæum for research on my own church and board speeches. I rather loved the 19th Century monthly The Liberal Preacher. Many of those sermons were smarter and harder hitting than modern ones. I also have judged UU sermons for the annual Skinner Award; fortunately there were always deserving ones in a UUA-wide contest.
My prejudices aside, Farley’s collection is full of good ones. I heartily recommend it for your own reading and as a gift for ministers you know.