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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.

To Tell the Truth

“I wish Sean Spicer had been my dad,” said the Duke student.

“Why on earth would you wish for that?” I asked, in shock.

“Wouldn’t it have been wonderful,” he explained, “when you got stopped by the cops in high school for speeding, or when you got caught with a bag of pot, to have a dad who was willing to let you lie and then to stand up and lie for you?”

He was kidding, of course.  But the lack of truthiness in Trumpdom is no laughing matter.  I know someone who refused to vote for Donald Trump because of his violation of the Ninth Commandment.  I had to think a moment before I could remember that commandment’s  prohibition: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

This Christian felt that Trump’s self-evident lie that he had personally seen New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11 was an egregious instance of false witness that indicated deep moral flaws.  I told my friend that while I tended to be more concerned with Trump’s violation of the Seventh Commandment, false witness is bad too.

It’s one thing to disagree over the facts; it’s quite another knowingly to lie.  We do our sisters and brothers no favor when we aid and abet their deceit.  Let Shawn Spicer and Kellyanne Conway be a warning to us all.

Christians are those who not only believe that Jesus Christ is the truth about God.  We also believe that he makes possible a people who are able to tell the truth even in a culture of lies.  The church, which is clearly not the most powerful institution in our society, has one great, gracious gift to offer – the One who is not only the way and the life, but also the truth (John 14:6).

Not to be nostalgic, but when I entered the ministry in South Carolina in the early Seventies we young pastors were convinced that the most challenging area of ministry, and the most loving thing we could do for the salvation of a segregated South, was to tell the truth.  We had to ask God for the means to overcome the powerful force of lies and to speak up and to speak out in the name of Jesus.

As bishop, I became concerned that many pastors in my church had allowed pastoral care, the extending of mercy to people in sickness or difficulty, to take over all of their ministry.  Truth-telling seemed to have taken a backseat, in many pastors’ ministries, to caregiving, hand holding, and hospital visiting.  The church as a community of Christ’s truth had become the church as a sometimes helpful member of the secular health care delivery team.

Truth is on my mind, not (as it should be) because of Jesus Christ, but because of the sorry spectacle of Robert Bentley.  Bentley has at last left office, after wasting Alabama’s time and money by lying about his affair with a coworker.  When I, and the bishops of the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches in Alabama sued Governor Bentley over his draconian anti-immigration law, I found him to be a weak, deceitful, little man who had duped many Republicans into thinking he was a fundamentalist Christian standard-bearer.  However, even I never thought that he would stoop to such a low level of sordidness.  The affair and attempted cover up is bad, even for the rather low standards of Alabama politics.  Other Alabama Republicans have been implicated in Bentley’s scandal and some may go to jail for this, along with Bentley himself.  (Be worried that Jeff Sessions was produced by and lived quite happily in the same moral swamp that gave us Bentley.)

Here’s my main point:  Bentley’s lies would have never been exposed (certainly not by his fellow Republicans) without the persistent, courageous, hard work of a dedicated Christian reporter—John Archibald.  I got to know John, columnist for the Birmingham News, when I was in Alabama.  We met for coffee from time to time and I always learned more from him than he learned from me.  Alabama Methodists were quite proud of John because John’s father was a retired United Methodist minister in Alabama.  John Sr. was respected by all as a pastor who stood up for the truth and witnessed to the truth in a time when Alabama punished gospel truth tellers.  John Jr. told me that a chief thing he learned from his dad was that ultimately, truth triumphs.  While his father told the truth from the pulpit, John searched for the truth and then told the truth in the news.

When Rachel Maddow went through the facts about the sex and ethics scandal that forced Governor Bentley out of office, and the further political fallout that could affect others like appointed Senator Luther Strange, she interviewed and then gave a strong, admiring shout out to John Archibald’s reporting.  She noted that Alabama Republicans would never have allowed Bentley to be exposed without Archibald’s heroic work.

It’s no surprise that Donald Trump impugns the integrity of the press.  The values of a free, persistent, truthful press make the press the enemy of all deceivers.   Trump has made us more dependent that ever on the press to tell us the truth in spite of the threats of politicians.

Join me in heaping honor upon John Archibald and the church and parents who produced him.  May John’s work encourage us all to more courageous truth telling.  If John can do it from the pages of the Birmingham News, we too can do it from the pulpit!

–Will

What’s Right with the Church?

Some years ago Bishop Al Gwinn chided seminaries for cranking out pastors “who can only serve healthy churches. That excludes about eighty percent of the churches in my Conference,” said bishop Gwinn.  Fostering the health of a church requires a wide array of pastoral skills. When I was bishop in Alabama, I got to see firsthand the good work of the Center for Healthy Churches. Their coaches and consultants give pastors the set of leadership skills required to encourage congregational health. Thus I was pleased to see this CRC shout out to a book of mine, What’s Right With the Church. Continue reading

Keeping the Easter Vigil at Duke Gardens

In keeping with a Duke tradition and the much older, richer tradition of the church, I had the chance to celebrate the good news of Jesus’ resurrection in the early morning at Duke Gardens again this year. That first Easter morning happened before the sun was up, and it makes sense that we would gather in the same way even now to hear that strange proclamation: He is not here! Christ is risen! Allelulia!

You can read about that morning worship service here.

– Will

Resurrection Thoughts for Easter Monday

“Everything depends upon a red wheel barrow.”

Thus begins a poem by William Carlos Williams.  And that sort of sums it all up, don’t you think?  We are modern folk who begin (and end) with the hard-core stuff of life, what can be seen, touched, tasted, tested.  No metaphysical flights of fancy for us.  Seeing is believing.  Art, like that of Williams, takes a wheelbarrow or a Campbell’s Soup can and renders it noteworthy, forces us to face it for what is, since what is, is about all we can see, all we know.  It all begins with a red wheelbarrow.  And though we may pick apart that wheelbarrow into its various chemical components, may do tensive analysis of its metallic parts, can eventually tell you what microscopic beings are rotting its wood away, we end as we begin, with a red wheelbarrow.  Although now, after the Chemistry Department and the School of Engineering have finished poking away with it, it’s a broken pile of junk.  A red wheelbarrow in the hands of a physicist rather than a poet is a dead wheelbarrow.

Now for Peter, this was Easter.  Running out to the cemetery, Mary Magdalene got there first.  To her horror the tomb was empty.  Peter arrived at the cemetery.  It was still dark, he peered into the tomb.  What did Peter see?  A napkin, folded neatly by itself.  The linen shroud, also folded.  And that was it.  Another disciple arrived.  He looked.  He saw.  “He believed,” says John (20:8).  Believed what?  Not that Jesus was risen from the dead.  Nobody thought that.  The text goes on to explain that they did not as yet know anything about resurrection.  So, having seen, having believed that Jesus was dead but that Jesus’ body had now been stolen from the tomb, these two men went home and had breakfast (20:12).  And that, as they say, was that.

“It was a good campaign while it lasted, wasn’t it?” they talked on their way back.

“I’ll never forget that time with Jesus at the wedding, where was it?  Oh yes, Cana, Cana of Galilee, and he turned that water into wine, so help me.  You know something, we ought to write this stuff down so we don’t forget it.”

“John’s good with words, maybe he’ll do a gospel.”

They came.  They saw.  They went home.

In my experience, the most vivid and painful memory of grief is that day when you return home.  Know what I’m talking about?  The funeral is over.  Friends and family depart, leaving casseroles.  Then all is quiet.  And you’re at home.  It’s so quiet.  You see that chair at the table where she sat.  You’ll only need one chair now.  Oh no, there’s her knitting bag.  Put that away.  The grocery list in her handwriting in the book.  The list of telephone numbers of her friend.  The folded linen.  It’s painful.

Mary stood outside the tomb weeping.  She had come with Peter and the other disciple.  Curiously, she stayed, fixed in her grief, weeping at this final outrage.  Where have they taken the body of Jesus?  Where can she find the body of Jesus?

Because that’s a big part of our love.  We don’t love some disembodied “humanity.”  We love those eyes, that hand, that touch.  Edgar Jackson, who studied grief and bereavement, says that one of the most important moments in the grief process is viewing the body, that moment when the bereaved look in the coffin and know—he is dead; I live.

Mary wanted that.  The sight of the stone rolled away, the linen cloths folded, the absence of the corpse, did not move Mary to thoughts of resurrection.  She, like Peter, knew of one conceptual possibility:  they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.  Her logic is faultless.  Dead bodies do not simply disappear. Someone has to move them.  The world is a place of cause-effect rationality.  We live by laws of motion and mechanics.  Things happen as they have always happened.  All science, human reasoning, perception are based upon the pervasiveness of the familiar:  only that which has occurred before can occur now.  Find the body Mary, wherever it may be, then get on with the grief.  Only then will you be able to go home, to get back to business, business as usual.  How is Mary going to find Jesus?

How are we going to find Jesus?  We find Jesus the same way we find anything else—the way of the red wheelbarrow, through science, or history, or whatever manner of thought holds a privileged place in our economy.  Something weird confronts us, our minds immediately attempt to make sense of it.  The folded linen napkin, the world under a microscope, the GNP, the scholarly consensus.  We have rules for what to think and how.

No body?  Where’s the body?  “They have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where to find him.”  Peter, the other disciple, looks in the tomb, sees the evidence of a robbery, and believes.  They go back home.  Mary, slower on the uptake, sees the same evidence but stands there, befuddled about what to think.  “I do not know where to find Jesus.”

Then she hears her name called, “Mary.”  The illogical, unthinkable, impossible, unnatural, incredible breaks in.  The one certified as dead—she saw the napkin, the linen cloth—now greets her, calling her by name.

Mary’s old plausibility structure struggles to make sense.  She takes this one who speaks to be the gardener.  Grasping him, she pleads, “Tell me, where have you laid him and I will take him away” (20:15).  She wants Jesus’ body that she might do the proper, conventional, respectful thing for his corpse.

“Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (20:17) he says.  Mary’s perfectly logical, understandably natural need to pursue the body of her beloved Jesus has not yet room for the miracle that has happened.  The voice of Jesus has called to her, across an abyss of death, thrown a line to her across the cavernous expanse between her little logic of red wheelbarrows and all that and the power of God to work wonder.  Like the voice that shatters glass, the voice of Jesus has shattered Mary’s world, called her forward to new possibility, new future.

Mary is now able to obey, to tell the others, “I have seen the Lord” (vs. 18).  She has moved beyond her preoccupation with the corpse to an encounter with Christ.  Her cause-effect logic is replaced by the larger logic called faith.  She has been encountered, not by the dead corpse she thought she was seeing, but by a living Lord who is on the move and will not be held by us on our little logic.

Now there are at least two ways to think about things: cognition has two paths to the point of recognition.  The first is, say, when you’re working on a tough math problem and after much effort you say, “I got it!”

The other way is, say, when you go to a great movie, and it changes you, lays hold of you to the very depths and you emerge changed.  In that case, you don’t say, “I got it!”  No.  It gets you.

You and I, dying as we are, have various ways of looking for Jesus.  Like Mary Magdalene we hope to find Jesus, to search for him using whatever cognitive means we have.  But you don’t “find” Jesus, apprehend him like a red wheelbarrow.  No.  He calls your name, shatters the world, returns, intrudes.  He finds you.


I invite you to join in our regular conversation around the work of preaching with Pulpit Resource, a quarterly resource that I craft to offer resources for each Sunday using the lectionary texts. You can subscribe to Pulpit Resource through Abingdon Press, in print and digital formats.