Tom LongAt first it was quite a surprise for me to learn that Fred Craddock, who was, of course, the preeminent preacher of our time….that Fred Craddock, who has now taken his rightful place with Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, Sojourner Truth, Henry Ward Beecher, Phillips Brooks, Harry Emerson Fosdick and the other saints in the pantheon of the great American preachers….that Fred Craddock, who modeled for a whole generation of us the qualities that make for creativity and excellence in sermons….it was a surprise to learn that Fred Craddock, the preacher par excellence, expressed his desire that there be no sermon at this memorial service.

I say that this was a surprise at first, but then I began to think about this from the point of view of the vocation we shared, he and I—as teachers of preaching. Given the length of Fred Craddock’s teaching career and the wide range of his influence, by my calculation Fred probably heard upwards of 40,000 sermons in his day. Perhaps then we can understand why his image of eternal rest might be one in which there would not be one more sermon.

Fred also desired no eulogy at this service. Typical of his modesty, he did not want us to spend time here today praising him rather than praising God. What he said he wanted was congregational singing, and lots of it. The voices of God’s people lifted up in thanksgiving and hope, even in the midst of our grief.

We will, of course, honor Fred’s requests—there will be no sermon, there will be no eulogy, and there are plenty of good hymns for us to sing. But I think Fred would understand that we bring here today the need to remember him with gratitude, not to eulogize him but to call to mind how it was that the grace of God was refracted through his life and shone in so many dazzling colors upon us all. So, with a promise to Fred that I won’t take too long, I do want to give thanks to God for so much in Fred Craddock that brought blessing and energy and creativity and merriment and life to his family, to his students, to his hearers, to his friends, to the church…to the world. Because I know that you are feeling this gratitude as well, and to accord with Fred’s wishes, we can perhaps think of these few words as a couple of stanzas of a congregational hymn of thanksgiving.

It is probably Fred Craddock the marvelous preacher and scholar that the wider world and also many of us here think of first, and to do so evokes our gratitude for the extraordinary gifts that the Spirit gave to Fred and the remarkable ways in which he used them to God’s glory. When in 1971, Fred—then a relatively unheralded teacher of preaching in Enid, Oklahoma—published his book As One Without Authority, the tectonic plates shifted in the world of homiletics. I first encountered that book as a doctoral student in preaching. I was reading my way down the library shelf of books in my field, and when I came to the “Cs” – Craddock – I read the book, and the wind ruffled through my hair. It is probably the single most influential book on preaching published in the last one hundred years. Suddenly preaching was re-imagined not as a bucket of words that preachers pour out on unsuspecting and passive congregations, but instead as a process of conversation, collegial interaction, and mutual discovery of the gospel. A sermon, Fred liked to say, isn’t always what the people need to hear; it is also what the people would like to say, if they were the preacher.

Those of us who were learning how to preach, when we read Fred Craddock and when we heard Fred Craddock, became imitators of Fred Craddock. John Blake who is a reporter for CNN and who was a friend of Fred’s, said, “Preachers studied classic Craddock sermons such as ‘Have You Heard John Preach?’ and ‘Grace and Disgrace,’ much like aspiring jazz musicians listened to … John Coltrane and amateur boxers studied tapes of Sugar Ray Robinson—for clues to greatness and inspiration.”

Indeed. We tried to make our sermons more Craddock-like. We put in more pauses, more time for the listeners to think and interact. We spoke more colloquially and conversationally. We told more stories like Fred did…many times we told Fred’s stories….we tried to end our sermons hanging in mid-air, like Fred often did, and some preachers even tried to stoop a bit in the pulpit and to raise the pitch of their voices a notch or two to look and sound like Fred. We were, of course, no match for the original. We probably needed somebody like Lloyd Bentsen around to say, much as he said to Dan Quayle, “I knew Fred Craddock. I worked with Fred Craddock. Fred Craddock was a friend of mine….and you are no Fred Craddock.” No we weren’t, but preaching all across the church became more lively, more relational, more honest, and closer to the realities of lived experience because of Fred Craddock. Because of Fred, we gained a deeper grasp, not just on what Fred Craddock was doing in sermons, but what the gospel was doing, what Christ, the true witness, was doing in and through preaching.

I will never forget the time that Fred lectured at the Furman University Pastors’ School. He looked out at the audience and said, “I love speaking at summer ministers’ conferences. Everyone is so relaxed. Golf shirts. Bermuda shorts. You may be wondering why I’m not wearing Bermuda shorts. These are Bermuda shorts.” He could say that, but everybody in the room knew they were in the presence of a giant, a giant who employed the many gifts God had given him to irrigate the dry fields of preaching. The grace of God shone through Fred Craddock the preacher.

So prominent is Fred’s public face, as a preacher, as founding pastor of this church, as the creator of the wonderful Craddock Center, it’s sometimes easy to forget that he was a very private man, with a need for solitude and with a deep commitment to the intimate relationships of his family…a devotion to Nettie, his wife of almost 65 years, to his two children John and Laura, to all of his family. Like every wise preacher, Fred spoke only rarely in his sermons of his family, refusing to take what is private and cherished and turn it into public display. But when he did speak of his family, it was always in tender and loving terms. His son John once said of his dad, “I won the lottery as far as great fathers go." The grace of God shone through the public ministry of Fred Craddock, but it was also visible in the private Fred Craddock, Fred Craddock the husband, the father, and the friend.

Fred’s pouring out of love for his family sprung, I am sure, from his faith and from many other deep and hidden wells. It always seemed to me, though, that much of what made Fred Craddock the Fred Craddock we knew, his steadfastness as a father and husband, his imaginative power as a preacher, his creativity as a teacher, his trustworthiness as a pastor, and his tenaciousness as a person of faith, was strongly and specifically connected to his love for Scripture and his rich grasp of its generative and redemptive power. The theologian Karl Barth once spoke of “The Strange New World within the Bible.” For Fred, though, it was more like “The Enchanted World within the Bible.” Fred did not so much interpret biblical texts as he inhabited them. He hung his cap and coat on the rack, sat down in the big rocking chair in the center of the room, and made himself at home in biblical texts. He looked out through the big picture window of the text at the world with insight, amusement, and intrigue.

This meant that biblical phrases and images were always on the tip of his tongue in the most unexpected and delightful ways, both in sermons and in ordinary conversation. I remember late one spring, when Fred, Barbara Brown Taylor, and I were all leading a preaching workshop together, that we took an evening off and went together to an Atlanta Braves baseball game. Four or five rows in front of us was a group of college-age guys, who started the game in a rowdy mood and grew even louder and more disruptive as the game progressed. About the fifth inning, a group of black-shirted of security guards, with earphones plugged in, came scurrying down the steps, stopped at the offending row and pointed at the ring-leader. They then grabbed him by the arms and muscled him unceremoniously out of the stadium. Barbara, Fred, and I sat silently for a moment, thinking about what we had just seen. Then Fred said, “Must not have had on a wedding garment.” Somehow I believe Jesus was quite delighted by that use of his parable of the Wedding Banquet, and most of all I give thanks to God for the Fred Craddock whose delight in the language of Scripture and in the descriptive and transformative power of biblical texts became our delight as well.

So, today we are grateful to God for the life of Fred Craddock, grateful for all the ways he made our lives more spacious, our hearts more hospitable, our imaginations more free. We laughed harder because of Fred Craddock, loved more, and grow closer to the Christ he winsomely preached, faithfully served, and deeply adored. A few days before Fred died, I called him on the phone to see if we could find a time to have lunch. He said, “I’ll need to check my calendar,” and he put down the phone. A few seconds later he came back on the line and said, “I’m in another room now.” And then characteristic of Fred he added, “I’m trying to let you know how many rooms I have.” Today we are filled with gratitude that Fred stands joyfully in the presence of the Christ he loved, in the presence of the one of who promised him…and promises us all, “In my father’s house there are so many rooms you can hardly imagine them. I go to prepare a place for you”

For that place. For our brother Fred Craddock who is now in that place. To God be the glory. Amen.