Review: Andrew C. Mead, Catechesis: Sermons for the Christian Year (Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, 2014).
By Brandt Montgomery
Thomas Long wisely says, “Being a ‘preacher’ is one of the most striking and public of all ministerial roles, and … anyone who would respond to a call to the ministry must surely be the sort of person who is ready and willing to preach and who earnestly covets this ‘preacher’ role” (The Witness of Preaching, 2nd edn. [Westminster John Knox Press, 2005], p. 19). Andrew Craig Mead is such a ready and willing preacher. In the foreword to Catechesis, Jon Meacham describes his onetime priest as someone who, from his 1971 priestly ordination onwards, showed a higher-than-average eagerness for the work of the gospel ministry, always ready to “hop to it” (p. vii). Andrew Mead covets preaching, as those who have heard him can attest, but he never approached the preaching task with inflated ego or want of praise. St. Paul’s claim would be appropriate: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). For Mead, the purpose of preaching is clear: It is all about Jesus!
When Catechesis was published, Andrew Mead was a short time away from his retirement as the 12th priest and rector of New York’s Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, after 43 years of active parish ministry. A vestry resolution marking his retirement and bestowing the title Rector Emeritus said it all: His 18-year rectorship from 1996 to 2014 “transformed Saint Thomas Church by creating a real sense of parish where there is a deep warmth and inclusion that makes visitors and strangers feel welcome” and in which he gave “all who worship at Saint Thomas a keen knowledge of how to live every aspect of their lives with Christ as their guide … evidenced by his preaching, teaching, and life example.” The Mead years at Saint Thomas Church can be summarized by these words of Saint Paul: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17).
Within Catechesis are 37 sermons of a humble priest whose love for Jesus shines bright and strong, devoted to his vocation “to instruct the people committed to [his] charge; and to teach nothing, as necessary to eternal salvation, but that which [he] shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture” (“The Form and Manner of Ordering Priests,” 1928 Book of Common Prayer). The sermons reflect Mead’s unabashed commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy, proclaiming nothing more than the gospel and the historic doctrines of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. Just like Saint Peter, Andrew Mead replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15-16; cf. Mark 8:29). For Mead, this is the ultimate truth. It is what fuels his commitment as a Word and Sacrament preacher — preaching in the pulpit nothing but Christ crucified, died, and risen, while pointing to the altar, where the gospel’s truth is revealed by the living Christ in the eucharistic sacrament.
Mead’s sermons are short, sweet, and to the point, yet substantive and persuasive. They are carefully worded and composed with the listeners’ (or, in this case, readers’) concerns in mind. Their expressive brevity is extremely helpful in keeping the mind attuned to the gospel’s explication, guarding against risks of distraction. For Mead, the time set aside in the liturgy for preaching the gospel is too important. The sermons in Catechesis demonstrate his commitment to making every moment in the pulpit count.
Hence, Mead focuses not on secular politics or the Church’s theological battles, but on Jesus Christ — nothing more, nothing less. For as St. Paul says, “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5), Jesus is the good news that remains “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). It is the confession of Jesus as God’s Messiah that is the Church’s foundation, and within and among us all is Jesus. Jesus provides for us the graceful means to carry on (Andrew Mead, “XII Rector’s Valediction”).
People today are still yearning for good news. A Gallup Poll released last year sought to provide better understanding regarding people’s reasons for attending church. Their main reason had nothing to do with contemporary praise music or volunteer opportunities, but with sermons: 76 percent of respondents said they went to church to hear “sermons and talks that teach [them] more about Scripture,” with 75 percent saying they went to hear “sermons or lectures that help [them] connect religion to [their] own life.” “Look,” Jesus says, “and see that the fields are white for harvest. I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor” (John 4:35, 38).
The preaching of God’s Word is important because the Church and the world continue on, and God still has good news to tell. It is incumbent on all Christian clergy to be as efficient as possible in their tasks as preachers. As Mead’s predecessor at Saint Thomas, the late John Andrew, said, “The art [of preaching] is to re-present the thrill of the Gospel imaginatively, cogently, and accurately. It takes [much] to maintain this ideal” (My Heart is Ready: Feasts and Fasts on Fifth Avenue [Cowley Publications, 1995], p. xvi). The risk of stale preaching diminishes only with diligence in reading, meditation, and study of Holy Scripture and in perseverance in prayer, public and private.
The proclamation of Jesus Christ is just as important now — perhaps more so — as it has ever been. With seriousness of thought and endeavor, from this duty comes through “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes …. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (Rom. 1:16-17). The minister’s role as preacher is crucial to the overall function of the ordained vocation, and must always remain so, for through it the revelation of Jesus comes to sin-sick souls — as the Way to a life that is truly worth living.
The importance of this task is best conveyed by Mead from the closing page of Catechesis.
A few years ago, an old friend, a distinguished priest educator, came to town to take me out to lunch. He has experienced much of the world, its glories and its sorrows. He is clear, direct, firm, and brave. I was waiting for him at our front desk. It was February. In he came, saying, “Hello, Andy, I have good news for you.” He had recently retired, having completed an extraordinary career. “What’s the good news?” I asked eagerly. “The good news,” he said, “is that it is all true.” (Catechesis, p. 52)