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.
Will’s friend Jason Micheli who pastors Annandale UMC invited him to participate in their Facebook live service this morning.
As director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Duke Divinity School, Dr. Willimon has loved teaching D. Min courses which combine week-long residency and online-synchronous sessions for pastors looking to step up their game through academic study and peer reflection. Here’s a sample of a story DDS has published about what goes on in the program.
Our students flourish with small cohort sizes, a hybrid learning environment, and spiritual formation mentors. Engagement with distinguished faculty, an emphasis on generating innovative research-based theses, and a commitment to leadership in service to the church make the Duke Divinity School D.Min. an excellent choice.
As we begin Lent this year, I wanted to share with you a sermon I preached during Lent last year at Harrison Church in Pineville, NC (outside Charlotte).
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