Welcome to the blog of Bishop Will Willimon, Professor of the Practice of Ministry, Duke Divinity School.  Here you will find articles, sermons, lectures and other offerings from Will Willimon.

A Sermon for Every Sunday

My friend Jim Sommerville had had an intriguing idea – video sermons keyed to the lectionary texts for every Sunday of the year. I’ve enjoyed participating in his program from the first and commend it to you.  Lots of congregations and adult learning groups are subscribing to “A Sermon Every Sunday” and listening to video sermons. Here’s a portion of my sermon for this coming Sunday!



The News and Observer OP-ED
MAY 14, 2016

I have met the political enemy – me and my fellow Christians who find it so hard to live our convictions

Christians are ‘political’ in that beliefs, including religious beliefs, have political consequences

We believe that Jesus Christ reigns, not Caesar; that God, not nations, rules the world

Bishop Willimon,

I liked you when you were preacher at Duke Chapel. But now that you have gotten political, you are an embarrassment. Shame on you for your work against HB2!

– A concerned Christian

I’m in the middle of grading papers, and so have little time to respond to individual emails. But here is how I would generally answer such a note:

Dear concerned Christian:

I have never met Gov. Pat McCrory, though I did see him eating a halftime hot dog at the Duke-Carolina basketball game. He looked rational.

Then came the governor’s “bathroom bill.” I’ve been forced back into politics – as a Christian. I’ve attended rallies and signed statements and was interviewed on NPR about this misguided, mean-spirited bill.

Of all the things that need doing in our state, why did our governor sign a law that vilifies and makes life more difficult for some of our most vulnerable citizens? Why has the legislature taken time out from protecting ballot boxes from voters and keeping children safe from quality schools to protect people from non-existent threats to restrooms? What’s next?

I’ll admit that Jesus was notoriously disinterested in sexuality, though he was tough on heterosexual adultery. Jesus was adamant that his followers take responsibility for those who were vulnerable. Jesus commanded us to love others, welcome strangers, forgive enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I feel certain that Jesus would not have approved of vilifying someone for misusing a restroom.

I’ll also admit that Jesus took little notice of politics. Judea was occupied by the largest army in the Near East, at least before our occupation of Iraq. But it didn’t take politicians long to recognize Jesus as a threat. In a vain attempt to shut Jesus up, it was a politician who ordered that he be tortured to death.

Since then, Jesus’ followers have caused political trouble in just about every society where they have been located. Politics is about power, and Jesus commanded us not just to think good thoughts but actively to do good deeds. When politics works, it does something radical: assume responsibility for people who are neither in my family nor who look like me, people with whom I have no relationship other than Jesus.

That’s why I joined with the Catholic and Episcopal bishops of Alabama in suing the governor of Alabama for his mean-spirited immigration law. We bishops won.

During his campaign for governor, McCrory promised to keep undocumented workers out of our state but never pursued that. We bishops didn’t have to go to court.

In one sense, you have a valid objection that I, as a clergyperson, have “gotten political” in my criticism of our state’s politicians. Christians are “political” in that beliefs, including religious beliefs, have political consequences. We believe that Jesus Christ reigns, not Caesar; that God, not nations, rules the world. God’s peculiar answer to what’s wrong with the world, God’s showcase for creative social alternatives, is the church.

Our sweeping biblically based political claims mean that, when we are confronted with something like HB2, we’ve got to try to speak up like Christians.

Returning from a Moral Monday demonstration in Raleigh, where hundreds of us had gathered to once again protest the actions of our sorry politicians, I was rather pleased with myself for my courageous (though uncostly) political activism. Our protest got them told.

On the radio, McCrory dismissed our demonstration as just a bunch of aging hippies from the ’60s. Ouch! He bragged that polls show close to 70 percent support from North Carolinians for his policies.

“Preacher,” said the layperson whom I had dragged to Moral Monday with me, “sounds like we don’t need better politicians; we need a better class of voters. Maybe you should stay home and work on your Sunday sermon rather than go get arrested in Raleigh.”

I have met the political enemy – me and my fellow Christians who find it so hard to live our convictions. That’s why maybe my most radical, politically significant act is to stand up this Sunday and preach that God’s will be done, God’s reign will come on earth as in heaven, whether we like it or not.

Will Willimon, for 20 years dean of Duke Chapel, served as United Methodist bishop in Alabama and is now professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School.


Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/op-ed/article77494022.html#storylink=cpy



Listen to  Sermons from Duke Chapel

Due to the good efforts of Chuck Campbell and Luke Powery at Duke Divinity, Duke University has just published for download a huge collection of sermons from Duke Chapel going all the way back to my sermons in 2000.  This is stage one of a process of putting all past recorded Duke Chapel sermons in a digital format.

When I researched and published my Sermons from Duke Chapel (Duke University Press) in which I published and annotated seventy-five years of sermons from the Chapel, I saw that we had a great gift in these sermons from the past.  I have advocated for this project for many years, realizing that Duke Chapel had a treasure trove of American homiletics.  Now those thousands of sermons are available for download.

I’m sure that preachers and their congregations will be blessed by these sermons for years to come.

You may see the vast collection at:


Happy homiletics listening!


Will Willimon

Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, part 4, updated

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Please click on this link for more info, and to order

This month Abingdon Press publishes my book, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love.  It is my attempt to think through the sin of Xenophobia, fear of the other, in a Christian, biblical way.  The book has discussion questions for individuals and groups after each chapter, so I hope it will be useful in churches for study and growth.  

The Place of the Stranger in the Christian Faith

A parable in the Hindu Vedas tells of a man entering a darkened room. To his horror he sees what looks like a snake coiled in a corner. Though full of terror at the prospect of a venomous snake ready to strike, he fights the urge to flee and instead moves toward the snake to examine it. Upon a closer look the specter is discovered to be nothing but a harm-less coil of rope.

This, according to the Vedas, is the purpose of philosophizing to disarm the fearsomeness of the world by removing the threat of the unknown. Knowledge of the truth about the worldrenders the world less fearful and more bearable.

Is there anything more natural, innate, and universal than our fear of the Other? This natural, innate, adaptively beneficial propensity to stick with our own tribe makes all the more remarkable that early on in Israel’s history, God’s people are explicitly commanded to “love the immigrant… as yourself”: When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:3334 CEB). Unnatural enough to be told to “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matt 22:39) but to love even the foreign, alien (NRSV) is counter to the way we come into this world.

To be sure, there is some tension in the biblical story between God’s commands not to  “oppress the immigrant” and the command to exclude and drive out strangers like the Canaanites (many early American preachers labeled Native Americans as “Canaanites” and sought biblical justification for the European conquest of North America). Still, Leviticus’ command not just to receive or tolerate but to love the stranger is remarkable.

The stranger plays a curious role in Scripture, Old Testament and New. Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, threw the thirty pieces of silver on the floor of the Temple and then hanged himself. Matthew says that the priests who had paid him refused to use the “blood money” for God’s business. They bought a field “as a place to bury foreigners” (Greek: Xenois, foreigners, immigrants, strangers), casting the body of Judas among the im-migrants and foreigners as if Judas were not really one of the Twelve.

In Jesus’ parable of the Great Judgment, when all the nations would be judged and separated, the enthroned Human One says to the blessed sheep, “I was a stranger (Xenos) and you welcomed me” (Matt 25:35 CEB). Surprise. In welcoming Xenois, they had received the Human One unawares.

Ephesians joyfully proclaims to new Christians that they “are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s house-hold” (Eph 2:19 CEB). Xenophobia, the fear of the Other, stems from the Greek word for strangers.

Christians must learn to say to all those who would attempt to play on our innate fear of the Other, “For Christians, hospitality to the stranger is not only expected of us by God butalso commanded of us.”  The stranger, and our reception of strangers, is therefore a sort of acid test for Christian faithfulness.

Will Willimon


Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, part 3

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Please click on this link for more info, and to order

The Test of the Church

This month Abingdon Press publishes my book, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love. It is my attempt to think through the sin of Xenophobia, fear of the other, in a Christian, biblical way. The book has discussion questions for individuals and groups after each chapter, so I hope it will be useful in churches for study and growth.

Receiving Others as We Have Been Received

Xenophobic, exclusionary fear of the Other is more than a matter of preference for people whom we enjoy hanging out with, or those with whom we feel most comfortable. In deep fear of the Other we separate ourselves from others in order to better oppress, exploit, expulse, confine, hurt, or deny justice and access to others whom we have judged to be so Other as to be beyond the bounds of having any bond between us or any claim upon us.

A subtext of recent debates over whether or not to admit Syrian refugees, has been, If we let them in, what’s the cost? Will our nation be less secure? Will property values in my neighborhood be diminished? Will these newcomers help or hinder the economy?

While these are not unreasonable questions, Christians ought to admit that in debates about others Christianity’s default position is hospitality, even as we received hospitality on the cross of Christ. Sure, we can argue about how we ought to be hospitable and what steps to take to integrate these newcomers and to enable them to thrive in North American cultures. We can be honest about the challenges involved in their coming to and being received as strangers in a strange land. However, as Christians we are “prejudiced” toward hospitality, particularly for those in need, because that’s the way God in Christ has treated us and commanded us to treat others.

Christians believe that the one, universal God is known in a particular way in the one who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly—Jesus Christ. God has refused to be obscure. In this one who was fully human like us, and fully God unlike us, we believe that we have seen as much of God as we ever hope to see in this world.

God’s move toward us enemies went against just about everything we thought we knew about God. It still does.

God? God is righteous, holy, high, and lifted up, glorious and good. We are not. God is up there; we are down here. Can’t say anything for sure about God because God is aloof, obscure, obtuse.

And then came Jesus, challenging and refuting by his words and his deeds just about everything we thought we knew for sure about God. He was Emmanuel, God With Us, but not the God we wanted to meet. Where we expected judgment and exclusion, he enacted mercy and embrace. Where we craved unconditional affirmation of our righteousness and insider status, he slammed us with judgment upon our presumption and a call to even higher righteousness. He practiced unconstrained hospitality, inviting to his table people whom nobody thought could be saved, people whom nobody wanted saved. Resisting the clutches of the powerful and the proud, he condescended, touching the untouchable and lifting up the lowly. In his suffering, loving outreach to us, in his truthful preaching, and in his resourceful, relentless drawing us unto himself, Jesus was other than the God we expected.

This is the Christological basis for Paul’s command to the church in Rome, “So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory” (Rom 15:7 CEB).

The cross of Christ mysteriously, wondrously unites Jews and Gentiles, without regard to ethnicity, gender, race, or class (1 Cor 12:13). God refused to stay singular, a monad. God is inherently self-giving, connective, and communicative. Not merely our otherness toward God but our downright enmity has been “put to death” and peace made “through the cross” (Eph 13:17 CEB). The power of the cross was so great over the imagination of Christians that Paul could say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20 CEB).

We Wesleyans believe this is not some heroic stance reserved for a super saint like Paul; it is a presently available life based upon not only what Jesus did for us in the cross but also what Jesus daily does in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. God is not simply love but love in action, love making a way for us to overcome evil with good and to miraculously unite with others despite our various separations.

The great liberator, Frederick Douglas, made a speech in the tense days before the Civil War. The equally courageous Sojourner Truth was in the audience. Douglas spoke honestly and eloquently of the plight of African Americans in this country where they were held as slaves. Douglas thundered that there was no hope that white America would ever grant freedom. Whites only understood violence.

“Frederick,” Sojourner Truth called out, “is God dead?”

Will Willimon




“Will You Enforce the Discipline?”

James C. Howell, pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte is one of our church’s most effective and thoughtful pastors. Now James is the Western North Carolina Conference’s endorsed candidate for election as Bishop. James recently published a blog in which he noted one of the most frequent questions put to him was “will you, as bishop, enforce The Book of Discipline?
Of course, everybody in the UMC knows that the question is really will you enforce the few paragraphs in the Discipline that refer to sexual orientation?

I was reminded that this was a frequently asked question of me before I finally blew my stack and said, “That’s insulting. As a bishop I would promise to administer the rules of my church. It’s like asking, ‘As a bishop, will you promise not to commit adultery?’ Besides, of all the stuff in The Discipline about mission, evangelism, pastoral effectiveness, why are these the most important paragraphs to ‘enforce.’”

In his thoughtful response to this less than thoughtful question, James said:

Now, if you had never laid eyes on The Book of Discipline, but only heard Methodists talking about it, you might assume it was (1) a law code, and (2) an exceedingly short one. Yes, you might overhear other unhappy United Methodists yearning for that very short law book to be changed, although in gritty but defeated resignation. Either way, you’d think it was very brief, and focused on one law.
A common question asked of episcopal candidates is “Will you enforce the Discipline?” This is code language. Although the Discipline is far from a short book, bulging at more than 800 pages, the Discipline to be “enforced” is no more than a page, three paragraphs really, the only portions we vest any emotion in. The little sliver of the Discipline that commands our attention, the insistence on enforcement, and also the craving that it might one day be changed, is about homosexuality in general, and marriage and ordination in particular.
I wish we wouldn’t speak in code. Or if we are so deadly earnest about the Discipline, press for the full 800+ pages to be enforced. But the whole idea of “enforcement” should trouble us all. Something feeling like “enforcement” is required when we have illegality, evil run amok – and it sounds punitive. Bishops then are asked to function as a robed police force.
But Jesus established a different kind of community that trades not in force and punishment, but in love and reconciliation. If you actually read the Discipline, the bishops are charged with theologically robust tasks, like vision, pastoral care, renewal, and prophetic transformation. Maybe we can expect them to “uphold” (rather than “enforce”) the Discipline and all its lofty dreams.
Besides, when we have rules, and a genuine need for order, what are theologically meaningful processes to restore order? Punishing, like public censure, the loss of income, or permanent removal from ministry, seems so very secular. Should church authorities dispense punishment? Or offer something better? Aren’t there wise ways to uphold the Discipline and honor our covenantal relationships forged through it?….
Aren’t there creative, humble, healing ways to uphold the order established by the Discipline – as it must be upheld? If a pastor re-baptizes, for instance. Yes, we could eradicate his income or fire him from ministry. But perhaps, we could send him to the Jordan River with a veteran pastor who would befriend him and help him understand the overwhelming power of God’s mercy and grace…. Of course, there are egregious infractions that harm others (like child abuse) or break the law (like embezzlement), and the Discipline rightly deals firmly with those, although even with a criminal action we would, as Jesus’ people, still pray and yearn for redemption.
Reflecting a little further on rule-breaking:  we have in our country and in the long history of the Church a tradition of civil disobedience.  Once in a while you see disobedience with malevolent intent.  But most rebels I know who break rules with some real theological gusto are noble in intent.  They show considerable courage, and risk-taking, and quite often are zealously advocating for somebody who’s been marginalized.  We don’t suffer from an excess of courage in ministry – so are there ways to uphold the Discipline and yet in some fashion uphold the holy boldness and willingness to bear the cost in a pastor who with some agony feels it is God’s hard will for her or him to choose covenant with God over covenant with fellow clergy?
Let’s be candid about what the Book of Discipline is, and what it isn’t. I recently decided to read the thing, cover to cover. It is in quite a few places surprisingly profound, theologically rich, downright compelling, and it is everywhere very much obsessed with our common mission to be the Body of Christ in a lost world. As best I can tell, Wesley and the early geniuses of Methodism fixed our need for such a book so we could get organized for mission, so we would never forget how connected we are in our labors for Jesus. But who notices, or alludes to the dominant content of the Discipline nowadays?
.…let’s acknowledge the Discipline is not divinely inspired Scripture. Who is the author of this book? Several hundred people, clergy and laity, working through translators in nine different languages, meet every four years, and after considerable rancor, debate that involves no listening whatsoever, and backroom manipulation, and in an exhausted, cranky mood, finally take a vote, and the winner, maybe with nothing more than 50% plus one of that vote, becomes the Discipline.
….after the majority vote, we don’t excommunicate or murder the losers. We are the Body, with different members. We disagree, and then we get this book that I will never for a moment believe enfleshes God’s will in any perfect way….
And have we even understood the Discipline’s own humble claims for itself? The preface to the Social Principles, that chunk of the Discipline that contains the few paragraphs we treat as if it’s the whole book, plainly and rather invitingly declares “The Social Principles, while not to be considered church law, are a prayerful and thoughtful effort to speak to human issues from a sound biblical and theological foundation… They are a call to faithfulness and are intended to be instructive… a call to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.” This doesn’t sound like an ironclad decree to be enforced. It sounds like a holy conversation starter.
If I could wave a magic wand and change our relationship to the Book of Discipline, I’d say Let’s actually read the whole thing; it is profound and highly motivational. Let’s be humble about it; its composition happens during our denomination’s most embarrassing moments. Let’s treat it as a covenant between us all…. Let’s find ways for this book to be a joyful liberation to launch us into exciting and transformative ministry in today’s hurting world. The Discipline truly can be a book of good news and great joy.

Thanks James. The UMC is blessed that you have been willing to offer yourself for leadership in our church.

Will Willimon

Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, part 2

will new cover

Please click on this link for more info, and to order

The Test of the Church

This month Abingdon Press publishes my book, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love. It is my attempt to think through the sin of Xenophobia, fear of the other, in a Christian, biblical way. The book has discussion questions for individuals and groups after each chapter, so I hope it will be useful in churches for study and growth.  But for the Grace of God

The phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” was first used in the sixteenth century by John Bradford upon seeing a group of men led to the gallows. If God practiced justice rather than graciousness, if God loved high moral standards more than God loves us, we all should be headed for the gallows. Or, as Paul put it, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (Rom. 3:23 CEB). Not “most,” all.

“But all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24 CEB). Jesus Christ saves sinners, only sinners.

Paul’s sweeping declaration of our sin and Christ’s redemption is a basis for Christ-like response to the Other: “While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people” (Rom. 5:6 CEB).

Or as 1 Peter puts it, “Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous” (1 Pet 3:18 CEB).

“Joe would do anything for his family. He was a great husband and father,” a speaker intoned at a funeral. Goodness toward ones family is morally noteworthy? As Eddie Murphy complained of folk who brag about how much they love their families, “That’s your job!”

Of course I love my wife, my children; they look like me. When I have loved the Other, as Christ has loved me in my otherness and enmity, then that’s a specifically Christian, countercultural, virtually miraculous love.

When a presidential candidate talks of closing our borders to members of one faith, speaking about them as insidious, dangerous, threatening, evil doers, I remember a TV program some years ago (during one of our many wars to end all wars in the Middle East). A group of Afghan boys had their homes and town destroyed by American bombs. Now, without parents, they had fled to a safer but more wretched life in Karachi, Pakistan. They now lived in a garbage dump, surviving off rotting food and living in filth.

The boys’ only hope was to be received by one of Pakistan’s many madrasas, Muslim religious schools, infamous breeding grounds for Jihadists. The boys told the reporter that they hoped to be selected as students because there they would be protected, fed, and clothed.

When asked what they thought of Americans the boys responded that Americans were cruel killers who bomb a whole country into oblivion and ought to be paid back for their cruelty.

We have met the enemies of Christ—us.

I remember when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a victim of Soviet repression and punishment, was invited to the United States. We celebrated our welcome of this hero of the Cold War (a deliciously in-your-face gesture to the Soviets). Then Solzhenitsyn gave a stunning speech in which he failed to condemn the Soviets but instead criticized American capitalism, superficiality, and godlessness! Solzhenitsyn really believed what he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago: “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties….but right through every human heart.”

More than one presidential candidate has recently bragged, “I will never apologize for America.” Christians, on the basis of the great grace we have received from Christ are always apologizing, confessing, and repenting. “While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people [us]” (Rom 5:6).

In the light of Paul’s testimony in Romans, an important function of Christian preaching and church life is to render me into the Other. I am the enemy of God. I the one who by my lifestyle and choices makes myself a stranger to my sisters and brothers. I’m free to admit that because, in spite of my hostility to God, Jesus Christ has received me as friend.

I am also the one who has received grace and revelation from the Other. Even as Christ came to me before I came to Christ, I have been the beneficiary of ministry from the Other before I was able to receive the Other as Christ had received me.

I grew up in the segregated South; I’m a product of an unashamedly racist culture. Every day I boarded a Greenville bus with a sign: SOUTH CAROLINA LAW. WHITE PATRONS SIT FROM THE FRONT. COLORED PATRONS SIT FROM THE REAR.

Nobody I knew questioned that sign, especially no one who sat next to me in church each Sunday.

My Damascus Road conversion came when my church sent me to a youth conference at Lake Junaluska and I was assigned a room with another sixteen-year-old from Greenville. When I walked in, there he sat on the bed opposite me, better prepared for me than I was for him. We had never met, even though he went to a school four blocks from mine and played on ball fields where we never ventured. He was black.

I recall nothing from the conference worship or lectures, but I’ll never forget our conversation that lasted until dawn. He told me what it was like to go to his church, and not mine, his school, rather than mine, his world in which I was a stranger. In a paraphrase of Langston Hughes, your Greenville was never Greenville to me. By sunrise, I had my world skillfully cracked open, exposed, and also infinitely expanded, ministered to by the Other who was kind enough to help me go where I avoided.

Later, when I read Richard Niebuhr define “conversion” as “a new way of seeing,” I knew he was talking about me. I once was blind, but now I see.

Will Willimon