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.
As mentioned previously, Abingdon Press released earlier in February a collection of some of the stories Will has told in sermons, articles, and books over the years. Here’s another example of what you’ll find in its pages to whet your whistle while you wait for your copy to arrive:
A deep, irrational fear grips every preacher—the fear of inadvertently saying something inappropriate, tasteless, suggestive, or just plain stupid while preaching. Preachers have been known to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, haunted by nightmares of saying something that doesn’t come out the way they intend, in front of five hundred people. A slip of the tongue in the middle of a sermon is called “Freudian” by some, evidence of the humility-producing power of the Holy Spirit by others.
Once you’ve said it, there is no way to get out of a sermonic slip, no matter how hard you try. You can’t go back and explain. It is best to have the congregation immediately stand for the benediction.
I was preaching in a large auditorium in the West. Jet lag had taken its toll—at least that’s the best excuse I can find. The person who introduced me had told the crowd of students that I was a great preacher, much in demand, interesting, controversial, and expensive.
The pressure was on.
I launched into my sermon, a simple piece unworthy of such an extravagant introduction. “When the sermon is weak, say it louder,” somebody once told me. So, I was loud, emotional, passionate.
“And what is the most significant event our faith has to offer?” I asked. “The erection!” I bellowed.
Someone in the front row screamed.
“I mean the resurrection!” I said the correct word at least twelve more times. It didn’t seem to do any good. Church was out.
“I’m sure I shall remember your sermon for the rest of my life,” a young woman told me after the service. I could hear her laughing as she walked out of the building and down the street.
On another occasion, I was speaking in the Midwest. I spoke mightily, and at length, perhaps being too attentive to how I was speaking rather than to what I was saying. Afterward, as we left the auditorium, I hesitantly asked my host—who could be intimidating—“Well, how do you think it went?”
“Rather well,” he said. I sighed in relief. “Except for a couple of small matters,” he continued. “Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. Matthew was a tax collector, not a Pharisee. And the capital of Iowa is Des Moines, not Cedar Rapids.”
Picky, picky, picky.
A distinguished yet insufferably pompous evangelist was preaching before a gathering of Presbyterian ministers. He was attacking moral decadence, particularly sexual sin in contemporary society, which is risky business for a preacher prone to sermonic slips.
“I remember,” he shouted, “when we looked up to women, expected them to set the moral tone for society. We placed them on a pedestal of honor. But not anymore. Have you seen the scandalous way women dress today?”
To illustrate his dubious point, he offered his former organist as an example. “Our organist, a precious young woman, came to practice for the service, dressed in a pair of short, tight, hiked-up running shorts. It was disgraceful! Walking into the Lord’s house in those skimpy tight shorts. I determined to intervene. It was my duty as a pastor. I confronted her and asked her to come down to my study and talk about it. I shared Scripture with her and told her how those shorts looked. And I’ll tell you, in fifteen minutes I had those shorts off of her!”
He tried to retrieve the hysterically laughing congregation, but his efforts were in vain. Each time he attempted to resume his sermon, some comer of the congregation would erupt into renewed laughter.
So, he asked them to stand for the execution, er, uh, I mean benediction.
The Christian Ministry, November–December 1988
Continuing our series of excerpts from Leading with the Sermon (out now with Fortress Press!), here’s a piece on preaching as “A Mutual Endeavor”—
Throughout the history of the church’s preaching, one senses a certain nervousness within the church, a recurring lament over the state of preaching. The church is right to worry about its preaching because every Sunday sermon is an experiment, a public test of the church’s claim that Jesus Christ was indeed raised from the dead and continues to call the very ones who betray him. Either my preaching produces one credible Christian every decade or so or mine is a life wasted.
If embodiment, performance, of the gospel is the test of preaching’s fidelity, then my proclamation of God’s word is ground zero for the detonation called church. I can do many things well in my leadership, but if God refuses to construct the church through my preaching, I receive no greater accolade than being dubbed an effective manager of an efficient volunteer organization.
Preaching sets the terms under which my congregation can justly be called a church. In each Sunday’s sermon the church is reminded of who it is and to whom it is accountable. Preaching reiterates the identity and the mission of the church and enables Christians to discern and differentiate the story that forms and ever reforms the church as God’s.
In Mark 3:14–15, Jesus calls the disciples: “He appointed twelve and called them apostles. He appointed them to be with him, to be sent out to preach, and to have authority to throw out demons.” Three cardinal purposes of the church are in evidence: we are convened; Jesus speaks to us, commissioning us; and then we are sent, scattered as Christ’s witnesses. By his word, we are gathered and told who we are; at his word we are commissioned, sent out to speak his word. The preacher preaches to the church on Sunday so that the laity might proclaim Christ to the world all week.Leading with the Sermon, pp. 16-17
Abingdon released a collection of Willimon stories earlier this month, aptly named Stories by Willimon. Will was interviewed again by Rick Lee James on his Voices In My Head podcast to talk about the Stories book. You can find the interview here or wherever you prefer to listen to podcasts. More excerpts from the book will be posted on the blog in the coming week, but as Rick said, you’ll find that in the book there’s not a bad story among them. I really enjoyed working on the compiling process for this volume.
In a divergent time, leaders cannot waste energy attempting to foster unity and uniformity; rather, the leader aspires to have the congregation muddle through with enough people on board and a good-enough, workable consensus. Gil Rendle says that consensus is not everybody in agreement, but rather everybody realizing that all the voices have been heard and all agreeing to muddle forward, in spite of continuing disagreements.
After a disastrous special General Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC), I preached a Lenten sermon on Mark 8:31–33, in which Jesus baffles and shocks his disciples by predicting his death. When Peter expresses his confusion, Jesus rebukes him. Jesus doesn’t elaborate; rather, he keeps walking and talking and the disciples keep walking and listening. The disciples don’t understand; they have no consensus among them- selves, no clue what’s going to happen to them in the future. They just keep muddling through with Jesus, which was the title of my sermon.
What’s going to happen to our church after this General Conference vote? I don’t know. I expect there will be schism, posturing by this group or that. Some will leave hurt and angry; some will stay, though they will be miserable and make everyone else so, which is sad.
But the amazing thing is that, even though you don’t know the future for our church, and you don’t know what comes next, here you have come to worship again this Sunday. In that, you are like Jesus’s first disciples. They couldn’t understand his talk about the trials ahead. A crucified Messiah? It’s unthinkable.
So they just kept listening, just kept talking and arguing, just kept walking with him. And so have you.
Thus my proposal for you this Sunday: Let’s muddle through together, with Jesus.
As we muddle on, I promise you: No vote will be taken here that intends finally to silence dissident voices. I plead with everyone to keep talking—more importantly, to keep listening and learning. We will not decide any- thing once-and-for-all; we’ll keep walking with Jesus and expect him to keep working with us. We’ll keep check- ing in with each other, keep evaluating, willing to ditch plans on the basis of what we will learn tomorrow, pray- ing for openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit. We won’t expect everyone to agree in order to move forward, but rather that we all agree to muddle on, even with our differences. We won’t spend time attempting to control, constrain, or coerce any of you into abandoning your positions, but rather we all agree to be on the way toward possibly different positions. And through it all, we agree to continue to break bread together at the Lord’s table.
Now, let’s refocus on the most important thing that Jesus asks of us. Let’s accept Jesus’s invitation to join with one another at his table, invited not because we hold the correct or consensus position on some issue, but rather invited because he loves us all, even in our differences.
Then, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent of the same year the assigned gospel is John 12:1–8. Word had reached us that some United Methodist churches were threatening to take their expensive church property and bolt from the denomination. After narrating Mary’s anointing of Jesus’s feet with “expensive perfume,” Judas (“one of his disciples”) makes a perfectly valid objection that this much money should be “given to the poor,” whom Jesus loves. Jesus responds, “Leave her alone,” predicting, “You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”
I concluded my sermon that Sunday with the following:
Our church is in a mess, and maybe always has been. With Jesus, sometimes it’s not crystal-clear what faith- fulness is supposed to be. We build this costly building to worship a Savior who loves the poor. Jesus’s closest disciples are also his most heinous betrayers. The one who raises the dead is on his way to die on a cross. Was Mary right in her extravagant devotion to Christ, or was Judas right in his objection to her act and his advocacy for the poor?
I don’t know. Perhaps John tells this story with deliberate ambiguity because maybe that’s the way it is with discipleship—when it comes to faithful discipleship, we just don’t know for sure. If Jesus Christ, the soon-to-be- crucified Messiah, is also the Light of the World, there will be gaps in our understanding, disagreements among us about just which way is the path that Jesus wants us to walk.
What are we to do along the way with Jesus? Maybe the best we can do is what I suggested a few Sundays ago: muddle through, keep walking, keep talking, keep listening and learning from one another and from Jesus. Even after we get to the cross and the empty tomb, we’ll have more questions, there will be ambiguity— especially there.
Let’s muddle through in the faith that at the end of our Lenten journey, we’ll get something better than clarity and answers; we’ll get Jesus, who stands there to say, “All you muddlers who don’t always do right, or know right, I love you, still.”Leading with the Sermon, pp. 90-93
I had the privilege of working with Steve West when I was in Alabama, preached in Steve’s congregations on a number of occasions, and enlisted him to reform Annual Conference worship. We even wrote and published two hymns together. It’s great to see clergy like Steve standing up and saying clearly, “I’m not leaving the UMC and I don’t want you to leave the UMC.” You can find his reflections on his resolution to remain here.
Here’s a sermon preached yesterday by Bishop Willimon at Matthews UMC outside Charlotte on how Jesus’ plan for the world is being worked out now through the sending of the church.