Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content

Sermon Commentaries

Home > Sermon Commentaries

Your Preaching Can Sound Like Poetry

What we can learn from Gardner Taylor, the "Poet Laureate of the Pulpit"

This commentary is based on the sermon entitled “The 23rd for the 83rd” by Gardner Taylor. Throughout his long and distinguished ministry, Gardner Taylor was hailed as the “Dean of the nation’s black preachers” and the “Prince of the American pulpit.” In the book Learning from a Legend: What Gardner Taylor Can Teach Us About Preaching, Jared Alcantara also suggests another title for Taylor—“Poet Laureate of the Pulpit.”

Alcantara writes, “Poets don’t waste words. They care about how words are used, how they sound and how they function.” That describes Taylor’s preaching. “He cared deeply about words,” Alcantara notes. “He was an orator in the tradition of preaching eloquence.”

Taylor’s preaching shows that a Spirit-filled, Christ-focused eloquence can greatly enhance preaching. Of course, that’s consistent with a robust tradition of African American preaching. As Crawford LaRue has argued, “One of the most notable characteristics of African American preaching is the skillful use of oral language as a prized communication tool.”

In a 1981 interview in Leadership Journal, Gardner explained his commitment to what he called “the currency of words”: “The preacher has no excuse for unnecessarily sloppy language… There are words that caress, words that lash and cut, words that lift, and words that have a glow in them.” And then in one of his more memorable lines, he says, “Preaching is a raid on the inarticulate and the inexpressible” (what a beautiful image!). Taylor concludes, “A preacher should not worship at the altar of words, but he or she must have due regard for the reverence of language.”

Consider this sermon, The 23rd for the 83rd, from Gardner Taylor on the familiar Psalm 23. Don’t let the slow start and the outdated technological references create disinterest. This is a beautiful message. Read it slowly and you may share my initial reaction—I wanted to read it again.

The 23rd for the 83rd: The Good Shepherd supplies us with all that we need.

What does the psalm have to say to our day? I think it is possible to say with some confidence that this twentieth century has seen developments in many directions, not only never before witnessed but many of them undreamt of by all of the centuries that have gone before. We have seen the telephone come to a usage. And while it was invented prior to this century, we have seen it come to such a wide usage that our children call from the farthest distances by long distance telephone and talk along interminably in a way that those of us who grew up in another age with an instrument we used only in the rarest emergency. And so much so that they have forgotten almost completely how to write letters. We have seen the development of television. Somebody called it, perhaps, inappropriately an idiot box. Magic and miracle and, yes, the menace of it. The airplane. And one could go on.

But one also realizes that the year of this twentieth century brings us as we go into it and reminds us of great losses we have sustained. No longer is there in our society any general agreement as to what is proper to do and what is improper. And we see more and more in how many different directions in society that maxim which came to birth at a time of immediate liberation in the land but which says "We must all do our thing." So that the covenant of the society is broken. We have no longer any standards of what is proper and what is not. There are many signs all around us. As one of our lecturers said the other day. "The old confidence is gone."

And we discover in the year of the twentieth century that a new class of the impoverished has emerged. It is really a white collar poverty. We are told in this year of the twentieth century to stay the course, but many onboard ship are hungry. And many more—the elderly, the poor, the defenseless, and the young, interestingly enough—are all fearful and uncertain about the future. “The elderly, the poor, the defenseless, and the young.”

Throughout the sermon, Taylor will use lists to emphasize his point. Lists give his hearers a chance to slow down and see the magnitude, or breadth, of a problem or situation.

And at the same time, canons roll around loosely on the deck of the ship. Our captain [the President of the United States], who we were told by some of the television preachers, was indeed a true evangelical born again Christian, finds the renewal of his faith each weekend in Camp David. And deeper than that are the uncertainties about the direction, the lost sense of purpose and of national direction and destiny so that our nation today, however we mask it, is frightened, insecure, unsure about its original premises and more deeply confused about its destiny. Which once given all of our failures and derelictions which destiny was once clear to most of us. “Derelictions and destiny.”

Notice how many times Taylor uses alliteration throughout the sermon. It’s even better when you hear it. The hard “D” sounds have a powerful cadence.

The Good Shepherd Restores Me.

What a turbulent awkward time. And what can the Twenty-third Psalm, that most peaceful, that calmest, most serene, perhaps, passage ever written? What can it say to this turbulent, anxious, awkward, disturbed, confused, frightened, insecure year of the twentieth century? Note the contrasting lists—“peaceful, calmest, most serene” contrasted with “turbulent, anxious, awkward, disturbed, confused, frightened, insecure.” Taylor could have just contrasted peaceful with turbulent, but once again, he helps our minds and hearts enter into the two different emotional states—peace and anxiety.

For that psalm does it not, speaks of quiet peacefulness, of green pastures. And one sees rising up out of its language almost a lush moist foliage of some retreat. Still waters. Brooklets that mirror surrounding trees and hills and the overarching sky. How quiet, how calm it is. There are times when such music, as we believe the Twenty-third Psalm to contain, is in order. “Still waters.”

Taylor fills his sermons with a few short sentences: Still waters. The path of righteousness. The valley of the shadow of death. My shepherd.

It’s an effective poetic technique, but more than that, he’s helping us meditate on the key words of the Psalm.

Joseph Sitler, the Lutheran theologian, has pointed out the differences between, say, the music of Handel and the music of Thelonius Monk and a child of my own congregation who was in worship last Sunday. He points out that Handel lived in what at least was believed to be the quiet, well-ordered, structured years of the century which he knew in England and in Europe. So that in Handel's music, as for instance in that haunting and lovely melody "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd," one hears the quiet even strains of the woodwinds. But over against that one hears the jar in the music of Monk, for in the bleak, urban turbulence of the twentieth century the music comes out differently. It is a prayer almost with a scream in it and with a cry of pain such as our time.

What does the Twenty-third Psalm with its calm and measured beauty and music have to say to this turbulent year? Well, one needs to look again at that psalm, perhaps the most revered passage of Scripture known to millions of people. It has about it not only that contained ordered measured mood; but when one comes upon the woods "He restoreth my soul," ah, that seems to speak of sweat and toil and stress and effort. “Ah, that seems to speak of sweat and toil and stress and effort.”

Eloquence does not diminish exegesis. But in our exegesis we have to see and feel the text. Taylor put it this way: “We must walk up and down the street where a text lives. The surrounding terrain ought to be taken into account. What is the block like on which the text is located? Does one hear light and merry music in the neighborhood of the text or is there solemn cadences of some sad and mournful time?”

The Good Shepherd Leads Me.

And then "He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake." That has about it, does it not, an austere note. Something stressful, vigorous, with muscles taut, the paths of righteousness, the paths of duty. We are called upon in our faith to take high roads, to meet responsibilities that are not pleasant and inviting. To not know merely the calmness of the hour of worship but to know also the unscheduled and the unwrit ways of the marketplace and of life in our families. The paths of righteousness. “To not know merely the calmness of the hour of worship but to know also the unscheduled and the unwrit ways of the marketplace and of life in our families.”

What a great sentence. Gardner Taylor loved and cared about words. As I quoted earlier, “The preacher has no excuse for unnecessarily sloppy language … There are words that caress, words that lash and cut, words that lift, and words that have a glow in them.”

I remember well as a boy my first fight with the boy who was my oldest friend, now gone. And when it was over, my mother knew about it, she forced me to go down the street in the little Creole town in which I grew up in Louisiana to make amends. And she gave me a little bag of pecans as a peace offering. How I hated to take that walk. I would rather have taken caster oil. Every step was an agony, a death. But she was telling me and teaching me about the paths of righteousness, of duty, the right unpleasant thing that must be done. “I remember well as a boy”

Taylor’s illustrations are vivid but simple and compact (about 100 words). He doesn’t waste words even when he’s telling a personal story. In the hands of a less skilled preacher, this illustration could have bloated to three paragraphs. But can’t you see that sulky little boy carrying his bag of pecans to his “enemy”?

Our need in our own time to come to grips with these things, to look upon people who are unlike ourselves with Christian regard, to accept into our friendship and into our comradeship those about whom we have only heard that they are robbers or extortioners. The paths of righteousness, of duty. To see that human rights are not as we're told isolated only in communist countries. This is not to say something extenuating about communism. It is to say something dishonest about our seeing of things, our refusal to recognize and to come to grips with the reality that human rights are violated not only the ugly spasmodic violence of communism but among our friends, yes, within our own borders. Paths of duty, that's austere, hard, plenty. But we are called to it.

The Good Shepherd Is With Me.

And "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death." This does not speak directly of death itself but of those terribly shadowed stretches on the road when our souls scarce know what will be the next step that must be made and when our very beings are being tested and tried. The valley of the shadow of death. “The valley of the shadow of death.”

Taylor repeats this simple line five times in this section. It’s so easy to rush breathlessly from one idea, one image, one sentence to the next. Taylor slows down and lets us dwell in the valley of the shadow of death for a few minutes. He lets us feel it, and walk in this valley.

Drive from Easton to Montego Bay in my adopted country of Jamaica or the route down from Montego to Kingston and one comes across scenes of almost incomparable beauty. By automobile the road suddenly turns toward the sea, and one sees the blue waters, the greenish waters of the Caribbean sporting foam as the billows come in lapping the impeccably white sands of the beach. And then as some of you will remember, the journey rises through the mountains, and one sees almost unimaginable wild beauty. But along that journey there is what is called Fern Gully where trees completely overarch the roadway and where dampness is perpetually along the road. What a terror that passage of Fern Gully with its darkness, unlighted, ominous, with shadows seeming to take shape out of the darkness and out of the limbs and leaves of the tree. What a terror Fern Gully must have been to travelers in days gone by. Well, there are such stretches along life's road. The valley of the shadow of death. “One sees the blue waters, the greenish waters of the Caribbean sporting foam ...”

As Taylor told a group of preachers, “Your words should sing.” But note that his beautiful description of the lush roads of Jamaica isn’t just grandiose. He’s not drawing attention to himself or his eloquence. He stays rooted in the text.

Notice the last two sentences of this paragraph: “Well, there are such stretches along life's road. The valley of the shadow of death.” He is helping us see and experience the text.

I sat last night with a gracious group of people of your state and some of this city. There across from me sat a beautiful young woman, who had received but a few hours ago word from California of something that was amiss in the health in her family. And the quiet ordered beauty and stillness and serenity of her home were all suddenly shattered and broken and if not broken then put under a terrible threat. The valley of the shadow of death.

Our nation, as I said earlier, is no longer certain about its direction. Set in the midst of allies about whose purposes we do not feel sure and with an ever widening group of nations who look upon us with suspicion. The valley of the shadow of death.

People who will perhaps never again know the security of employment which they once knew. The valley of the shadow of death. That is austere and dark and shadowed also.

The Good Shepherd Prepares a Table for Me.

And one other word. "You prepare a table before me in the presence of mine enemies." Who are these grimly shrouded figures who stand all around our lives—disease and dis-ease, apprehension, anxiety, uncertainty, fear, alienation, loneliness. Who was it? Can you calculate the mathematics of our human condition? This grimly shrouded figure, figures who point thin, bony, trembling, accusing fingers at us all around us, all around us. Around your life and mine. And yet in the midst of it all this word of my Shepherd who leadeth me in the paths of duty and who when I walk through the valley of the shadow is with me and who prepareth a table in the presence of mine enemies.

That is what the Twenty-third Psalm has to say to the where it speaks of a shepherd with that intimate tie and communion between the soul and its God, which knows no substitute in all of the things of faith. For it has been truly said that religion that ends with the individual ends, but that faith which does not begin with the individual does not begin. My shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me. He leadeth me. He restoreth me.

We gather today as we do in this cathedral with its venerable tradition. How much more clearly and with how much more authority have we the right to speak of our shepherd who came to what my poor people call "this lowland of sorrow?" He made common cause with our humanity. It is enough to take the breath away that God in Christ would come down and enter the context of our humanity, the sweat and strain and blood and anguish and sickness and sorrow, and, yes, to become death eligible. My shepherd. He made common cause with our humanity.”

Notice how beautifully and simply he turns the focus to Jesus, the True Shepherd of our souls.

How much right, more right have we to order the words, those austere portions of that psalm, what with our shepherd with the marks in his hand and in his side and the thorn prints in his brow, the words upon his lips, "I am the good Shepherd," and then those other words so treasured, so rich, so rallying, "The good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Thanks be to God. How much right, more right have we to order the words …”

This is one of the most concise applications ever seen—24 words in seven brief sentences (or even sentence fragments). As preachers we often assume that more is better. More words. More content. More analysis. Taylor demonstrates how sometimes, less is more. No wonder Alcantara called him the “Poet Laureate of the Pulpit.”

The Lord Christ is my Shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me. He leadeth me. He restoreth. He prepareth. Surely I will dwell.

Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.

Related sermons

Gardner C. Taylor

The 23rd for the 83rd

The Good Shepherd supplies us with all that we need.

Those Who Rise

Why suffering is a necessary part of building great families