In this issue, Mennonite Life inaugurates an occasional feature on the most widely practiced Mennonite art form—the sermon. We believe some of our best creative thinking, writing, and theology may be happening in the pulpits in our churches. Yet the sermon remains one of the most under-appreciated and under-studied of Mennonite art forms. A 1998 symposium at Bethel College,
Proclaiming the Word, was one effort to correct this situation. A presentation from that symposium, by June Alliman Yoder of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, is the first article in this issue.
The new technology of electronic publication opens new possibilities for highlighting the practice of Mennonite preaching. Preaching is essentially an oral art, rather than a written art. Sermons published in books lose much of the intensity and vibrancy which belong to the experience of their original creation and delivery. Thanks to the capacity of electronic audio, however, we now can listen to sermons online and recapture much more closely the experience of preacher and congregation.
Earlier generations exhibited more interest in reading sermons than does our own. In 1891, Samuel F. Sprunger, pastor of the large Mennonite church in Berne, Indiana, felt constrained to apologize when he published an international collection of Mennonite sermons preached in the U.S., Russia, Germany and Switzerland.
Yet another sermon collection? . . . Aren’t there already enough of them? (Festklänge, Berne, 1891). Sprunger’s goal in publishing Mennonite sermons was to contribute to denominational unity based on essential faith in Christ.
John Esau, retired Mennonite preacher, has written that sermon preparation
demands inspiration—that flash of insight into truth, that moment of emotional energy matched with wisdom, that careful attention to words and their power to convey truth. Inspiration for sermon preparation was besieged in the 1960s and 1970s when a cultural revolution against all established authority put preaching on the defensive. By the beginning of the twenty-first century the cultural mood has shifted. But a genuine revival of preaching remains to be achieved.
The sermons in this issue of Mennonite Life are a small beginning. They are a sample of the resources readily at hand in the Mennonite Library and Archives at Bethel College, rather than a wide-ranging winnowing of materials for the greatest examples of excellence in preaching. These representative sermons come from several sources. The first, a sermon from Prussia in 1790, with its sharp polarities (light/darkness, good/evil, converted/unconverted) represents a theological contrast to the more modern sermons. In its opening lines, the Prussian sermon uses almost the same language as that of Christian Halteman’s Easter Sunday sermon of 1782 in the Salford Mennonite congregation in Pennsylvania:
There are two kinds of people in the world. (See the article by John Ruth in Mennonite Life, March 1983,
Lecture for a Limited Audience.)
We have both text and audio for the rest of the sermons presented in this issue. Two of the selections, actually brief meditations rather than sermons, by Edmund G. Kaufman and Winifred Waltner, were delivered in the 1950s on a daily
Faith and Life devotional series on radio station KJRG in Newton, Kansas. One, preached by Russell L. Mast at the Bethel College Mennonite Church, was the lead sermon in a collection published by Herald Press of Scottdale, Pennsylvania (Lost and Found, 1963). An example of a present-day sermon is that by Eric Massanari of Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, Kansas.