Home By Another Way

By Barbara Brown Taylor
Cowley. 1999. Pb. 212 pp. $ 11.95. ISBN 1-56101-167-3

Reviewed by Elisabeth Lunz


When I first met Barbara Brown Taylor more than 20 years ago, she was becoming a writer. We were both at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, where Barbara worked in administration during her postulancy for the Episcopal priesthood.

She spoke admiringly then of Annie Dillard, with whom she corresponded, and described her own growing sense of call to write — like Dillard — professionally in a way which explored and illumined meaning in the world.

God was certainly leading her along the right pathway to beautiful preaching. Her newest collection of sermons, Home by Another Way, vividly reveals how the honing of her writer’s style contributes to sermons that can be heard or read (or maybe even sung aloud) with clarity, grace and revelatory power.

The sermons follow the liturgical calendar, with the title sermon retelling the story of the magi so that it “comes to life inside of us” (p. 28), and concluding with the wise men thanking the holy family “for a really great story” as they leave (p. 31).

Mary of Nazareth appears in the title sermon and in “Mother of the New” (on Jesus’ words from the cross, “Woman, behold your son”). Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus on Easter Sunday is retold in “The Unnatural Truth,” and the parable of the persistent widow is put together with an account from Taylor’s own family life in a powerful sermon about justice, “Bothering God.”

These are the book’s only sermons based on biblical women, but “To Whom Can We Go?” (on Peter’s question to Jesus in John 6:68) helpfully addresses texts such as “Wives, be subject to your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22) as problems for all Christians. Here Taylor describes difficulties in the Bible and the church, then balances the offenses of both with their beauty, concluding, “But where else would we go? This is where we have heard the words of eternal life” (p. 179).

Even though much contemporary proclamation has come to depend on story as a stylistic caveat, Taylor’s preaching makes biblical narrative human again, giving it new life no matter what might have already been done with or to it in sermon circles.

“Believing in the Word,” for Eastertide, describes Thomas’ experience with the risen Christ, and commends the original transmitters of that story and the other Gospel materials. “We can thank God they did not . . . [reduce] Jesus’ life to five easy-to-remember slogans . . . . Instead, they collected all the stories they could remember about him . . . . They wrote them down with all the power still in them” (p. 116). The stories of Jesus bring him back to life. For that, writes Taylor, “is the power of the word, and when the word concerns Jesus, that power becomes God’s power” (p. 117).

This fall, we will watch for a new book from Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web, which will bring together questions of faith and science. Perhaps there she will share more of her original search for meaning which has led to the publication of such insightful, exemplary and persuasive homiletics in Home by Another Way.