The Selected Sermons of Dr. Roger Bourland is a compilation of the works of one of America’s best and best-known preachers. In 1976, Dr. Bourland was the recipient of the United Methodist Church Outstanding Preacher Award and he was also a speaker on The Protestant Hour, a popular radio show that made its way into countless American homes each week. Now his son, Joe Bourland, has compiled some of his father’s best and most popular sermons into one volume for readers’ enjoyment and spiritual nourishment.
The sermons are divided into six sections. The first covers sermons Dr. Bourland gave when he was “preacher to the pack.” For several years, Dr. Bourland was a pastor in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and consequently, he had several of the Green Bay Packers’ players and coaches in his congregation, including Bart Starr. I am not a football fan, but it did my heart good to hear about his friendship with these men who are held up as role models to our youth. He often spent time with them, even worked out with them, and best of all, he talks about how no kid in his congregation will ever believe church is for “sissies” when he has the memory of a 250-pound pro football player sitting beside him in church.
The second and third sections of the book are sermons collected while Dr. Bourland preached first in Green Bay and then in Omaha, Nebraska. The fourth section encompasses many of his sermons from his years on The Protestant Hour. The fifth section is very special because it’s for special occasions—entitled “The Seasons,” it includes sermons for national and liturgical holidays—including for confirmations, for Thanksgiving, and for Advent as well as the very special sermon Dr. Bourland preached at his son Joe’s wedding.
The final section is a series of sermons Dr. Bourland preached during advent drawing upon Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. By using each of the three ghosts Ebenezer Scrooge meets as a focus for each week, Dr. Bourland shows us how Christmas is not just about gifts but about being sensitive to the people around us, realizing Christmas is not always easy for others, and being good Christians in our compassion for one another.
Dr. Bourland’s sermons are not heavy on moralizing and there is no sin and damnation focus here. He does talk about sin and even sexuality, but when he does, it’s in a heartfelt and practical way. In fact, we could term this whole collection as being about practical Christianity. Dr. Bourland does not believe in Fundamentalism, and he makes it clear that the Bible was written for people living in biblical times and not directly for us today—by extension, he says there is no point in trying to predict when the world will end based on Scripture. Instead, he urges us to live each day like it’s our last so we are prepared for whatever may happen.
Although many of these sermons were preached as many as forty years ago, they remain extremely relevant today. Dr. Bourland preaches about the Cold War and the fear of nuclear war, which remains a major concern today. He tells us not to focus on these things but to become used to waiting for Jesus’ return. He tells us:
So we must enter into moments of creative waiting. These are times of expectancy and hope and searching. What has gone on before is no longer part of us. It hasn’t yet been revealed what is to come next. God nudges us and we know that it is wrong just to stand there on the mountain, looking up with mouths wide open. We find ourselves in an interim phase. But it is a phase that points beyond itself.
“There is one thing wonderful about that. We come to see that this type of thing has always been a part of God’s eternal plan for his people. We watch and hope as God’s Spirit ebbs and flows about us.
At times, Dr. Bourland provides us with very close readings of the Bible, especially in several of the sermons that focus on the Psalms. At other times, he draws upon other sources to help illustrate his points and shed fresh light on well-known stories. For example, in his sermon on the parable of the Prodigal Son, he brings in Shakespeare’s King Lear as a reference.
As a Catholic, I found several of Dr. Bourland’s sermons about John Wesley and his preaching to be interesting so I could better understand Methodism. And I was glad to know Dr. Bourland clearly believes in ecumenicalism—even referencing Catholic beliefs that are of value, especially the power of going to confession.
In an age of random shootings and terrorism, we badly need to hear what Dr. Bourland has to say about the importance of nonviolence. He illustrates this point by talking about a wilderness camping trip he took when he considered bringing a gun with him for protection. He decided not to bring the gun, only to come within fifteen feet of a bear on a trail. Fortunately, the bear ran off because of the noise he and his family made, but Dr. Bourland makes an excellent point here:
What would have happened if I had taken a gun into the Quetico? I would not have shot that bear, but I am sure that the chemistry between us would have been dramatically different. Potential violence changes everything. Creative non-violence is one of the most powerful forces in the world. It takes away unfounded fears and builds the love of peace among people of goodwill. Real strength simply does not have to assert or prove itself. Real strength is gentle and kind. Such was the strength of the Lamb.
A final theme I’ll comment on in the sermons that really resonated with me was what Dr. Bourland has to say about patience. I could completely relate to him when he described his own impatience and how he hates meetings, and I loved when he described Jesus as one of the most impatient people of all. Then Dr. Bourland revealed that those of us who battle with our own impatience do not necessarily have to be so worried about it. He states:
What is patience in the New Testament? The patience that Paul talks about as a mark of God’s people is something so different and so much more important than what I had originally thought that I can kick myself for never having sensed it before. The New Testament word means steadfastness. The New Testament word means forbearance. The New Testament word means perseverance. The New Testament word means to bear up under pain or evil or suffering without showing a long face or needing to get revenge on somebody. Jesus speaks of being able to turn the other cheek when someone slaps you. The secret behind that is that in Christ, there is nothing inside that makes you have to slap back. Patience! The New Testament word means being able to hurt without blazing out in anger. The New Testament word means to be able to take anything life brings without losing heart or courage or poise. The New Testament word means to be able to take such a long view of life that neither the big things nor the little things can destroy you. That is patience and that is a gift.
Dr. Bourland has far, far more to say that can help us today. In this age of fear, anger, violence, and political fights, we all need to pause and remind ourselves what it means to be a Christian—to get along with each other and to put our focus on our relationship with God. Anyone looking for a little comfort, some good advice, or better knowledge of the Bible and what it means to be a Christian will benefit from the life-giving words in this book.
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