Preaching the Luminous Word: A Book Review

Preaching the Luminous Word: A Book Review

Preaching the Luminous Word: Biblical Sermons and Homiletical Essays

Ellen F. Davis. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016. 356 pp.

Reviewed by Phina Borgeson

When I started reading Ellen Davis’s latest book, I wished I hadn’t. I was in the midst of preparing a sermon, with a preconceived notion of where it was going.

But then I read Davis’s foreword to her latest book: “On Not Worrying about Sermon Illustrations,” which followed a foreword by Stanley Hauerwas. I like to think of myself as preaching in dialogue with scripture, and here Davis was encouraging me to do just that, letting examples from contemporary stories emerge from that dialogue, rather than straining after them as I had been doing.

Each of the five essays brings the gift of encouraging, and, at the same time, challenging what we do in biblical preaching. How do we approach lessons appointed from Hebrew scripture, especially those from the wisdom literature and psalms that we often neglect? How do we preach from Isaiah considering the sweep of the book, not just the upbeat passages in our lectionaries? In other essays Davis writes of “inhabiting the story as a whole” in both testaments, of bringing imagination to scripture and recognizing its use of the imaginative, and of resisting moralism in preaching.

After each essay, there are examples of Davis’s sermons – some 50 of them, spanning 30 years of preaching. There are occasional sermons and holiday sermons. There are sermons in ordinary time, and sermons that follow the academic year. There are sermons which inform our understanding of vocation and sermons which challenge our everyday ethical choices. The selection is too rich for the book to be swallowed whole.

You will meet Davis in these sermons, though never in an obtrusive way that leaves you thinking, “Enough about her.” But as she engages the central scriptural message in each you will find information about her work with the people of South Sudan, and a little more about her agrarian vision and concern for planetary well being. You’ll learn that Davis was inspired by reading the sermons of John Donne when in seminary, and you may wonder why you don’t read more sermons, especially ones, like these, which have the potential to inspire your own efforts.

About the reviewer: Deacon Phina Borgeson serves in the Russian River Deanery where she is engaged in a range of food system ministries. A retired professional ministry developer, she continues to mentor and teach those involved in diaconal ministry.

About the author: Ellen F. Davis is the Amos Regan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. Other recent titles include "Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives for Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry; "Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible" and "Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament." She will be the speaker at the diocese's annual clergy conference in May.

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