Eugene H. Peterson
WaterBrook Press, 379 pages
Reviewed by Karen R. Dukes
Eugene Peterson is known for bringing us “The Message.” He is less well-known as the pastor who gathered and led Christ Our King Presbyterian Church outside of Baltimore for 29 years. From 1962 to 1991, he preached sermon after sermon, Sunday after Sunday. “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” gathers 49 of his sermons on texts from Genesis to Revelation preached in this one place.
These sermons are not intellectual essays floating in the ether. They are grounded. They are grounded in the Bible. They are grounded in the geography of Abraham and Peter. They are grounded in Peterson’s personal geography of his native Montana and the church’s location in Maryland. They are grounded in the seven preaching companions that organize these sermons, from Moses to John of Patmos. They are grounded in Peterson’s down-to-earth explorations of the text. They are grounded in Jesus, who walked the earth as we do. Ultimately, they are grounded in Sunday morning worship, in a specific place and with a specific congregation.
The sermons mention hymns sung that morning, baptisms, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and ordinations. Reading these sermons puts us in the pew, participating in the communal act of engaging, imagining and understanding the Word with this congregation.
Collectively, these sermons comprise a survey of the Bible. They were not selected as his “best” sermons, but rather those that represent different biblical approaches that he believes necessary to an understanding of the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). The 49 sermons are gathered into seven sections of seven sermons each, from the five books of Moses, the Psalms, Isaiah (as representative of the prophets), the wisdom literature, the Gospels, the letters of Paul and the letters and Revelation of John. Reading these selected sermons gives us the opportunity to reflect on his representative choices from the Word, and on what our own choices might be.
The sermons are so well grounded in both the Bible and geography that it is slightly disturbing that they are not grounded in a specific time. The sermons were not preached sequentially, but were selected from across his 29 years in this one pulpit. There are tantalizing clues within the sermons as to their dates. The first sermon refers to the crew of Apollo 8 being in flight more than a year before. Others can be roughly dated by the publication dates of cited books and articles. Only one sermon includes a specific date, telling us not only that it was preached on the 50th anniversary of the congregation’s founding, but that it was preached on May 5, 2013.
In the preface, Peterson reminds us that he began these sermons in the 1960s, a time of unrest and upheaval. In our present day, when there is likewise more than enough unrest and upheaval to go around, these sermons ground us in the Word of God. They are not a quick read. They reward time taken to read and reflect upon them, one at a time, giving us space to participate in what he calls “imaginative collaboration” with Peterson and the congregation of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church.
Karen R. Dukes is a minister in New Hope Presbytery in North Carolina who is finding creative ways to live out her vocation with energy and imagination.