(I was asked to read and review this for Touchstone, a journal produced by United Church folk)
Preacher: David H. C. Read’s Sermons at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church
David H. C. Read, edited by John McTavish (Eugen: Wipf & Stock, 2017) Pp.289.
One of the great challenges of being in solo ministry is that you rarely get to hear another person preach. And that is too bad because exposure to other preachers sermons is a great tool to help reflect on one’s own preaching. This is why books like this can be so helpful.
In some circles David Read is likely a big name in preaching. Certainly John McTavish thinks highly of him “...the preacher who has most nourished my soul and stimulated my mind...” (1). However since he retired almost 30 years ago it is very likely that a large number of people have never heard of him or have any familiarity with his work. For this reason it is very helpful that McTavish starts the book with and introductory preface that includes a brief biography. McTavish places Read as a theological centrist and suggests that this may be why he is less well-known that people like William Sloane Coffin or Billy Graham, saying that “...crowds tend to gravitate to simplistic extremes” (2). It is likely that many in the United Church of Canada would not find Read to be a centrist by 2018 standards, but that may well be because a) thirty years have passed, and more importantly b) the centrist position of the worldwide church is quite different from the centrist position in the United Church.
David Read is a product of the early 20th century, being ordained in 1936 at age 26. He served as a chaplain in World War 2, spending most of the war as a prisoner after being captured during the fall of France in 1940. Theologically he was a follower of Karl Barth and so in the neo-orthodox school of theology. In 1955, ten years after the war, Read was offered a chance to work in academia in his native Scotland when a chance event lead him to be invited to cross the Atlantic and begin ministry at Madison Avenue Presbyterian in New York. He would remain there until his retirement in 1989. The forty (well sort of forty-one since the first entry in the Christmas section is actually two Christmas stories from different years) sermons in the main section of this volume all come from Read’s tenure at Madison Avenue. The earliest sermon in the collection dates from 1970 and the latest from 1989, the year he retired.
The forty sermons McTavish has selected for this volume are arranged according to the church year. This gives the benefit of following through a ‘year in the life of a faith community’ with David Read. The downside is that this means they are not arranged chronologically so it is harder to trace how Read’s theology may have grown and evolved between 1970 and 1989. Both organizational schemes would have had merit, so it works to follow from the Season of Creation, into Advent and Christmas, then Epiphany, Lent Easter and Pentecost. In an epilogue McTavish has included a listing of books written by Read and some reviews of some of those books. Then there is one last sermon (from 1967) to close off the book. Before each sermon is an “editor’s introduction” to help set the context when the sermon was originally preached—with the occasional editorial comment added.
Is it worthwhile to read sermons from another city, another country and a whole other era? After all the youngest sermon in this book is 29 years old and we know that much has changed in the last 29 years. Sermons are intended to speak to the current context, what is the value of sermons to another, very different context. Well, people still read and quote from sermons by John Chrysotom and John Wesley and Martin Luther and Charles Spurgeon (to name a few). All those sermons are far older than 29 years. Good preaching is both contextually sensitive and also has a timelessness about it. Then again there is the sad fact about humanity that the species keeps acting in the same unhealthy ways, only the details change. So many of the issues that Read addresses echo in the news feeds of 2018 as much as they speak to the headlines of 1970 or 1980 that the sermons continue to speak to the soul of the one trying to follow Christ.
This is a worthy addition to the shelf of someone in preaching ministry. The reader may not follow the same theological path as Read, may not come to the same conclusions, may even argue strongly against his tack. But that helps to make the preacher a better preacher, which seems to be the point of such a book.