Preaching to Strangers

William Williman & Stanley Heuerwas, Westminster, 1992

Reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Willimon and Hauerwas, of Duke University, join forces in this book:  Willimon contributes ten sermons and Hauerwas responds to each.  The sermons are the occasion for Willimon to preach to strangers (mainly to students and to tourists).  The sermons are addressed to students who are passing through, to people who share no common tradition, to people who have so little in common that they are not even able to locate disagreements.  ‘Most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers’ (p 6).  Christians once understood that they were pilgrims; now we’re just tourists who happen to find ourselves on the same bus.

        Preaching needs to translate the language of the gospel onto experiences that are already well understood; preaching is not about communicating but about challenging our understanding.  Willimon’s sermons reflect startling perspectives, eg “Jesus’ systemic abnormality’.  The pretentious power of the state is countered by healing the ill, telling the truth, feeding the hungry, stampeding swine—systemic abnormality had to put him away.  Here is the power in the sermon, that summons each of us to submit to transformation (p 33). Willimon’s sermons reflect the canonical range of ‘the systemic abnormality’, of ordinary people eg Ruth, Joseph/Mary, Christmas, urging us to universal human love (!), and all we get is a hasty trip from nowhere Nazareth to Left Armpit Bethlehem.’  The nativity story is small, specific and particular.  It’s not about the whole human race; it’s about real people with real names—you can make a road map and follow Mary’s and Joseph’s journey (p 124).  G-d did not appear as an idea or a program:  G-d came to Mary and to Joseph (p 129).

        Preaching to Strangers suggests an old and a very new way to think about theological words to strangers.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.