Awake in Advent

Sleep is the predominate posture for the church. I first noticed this in the Book of Acts. Some of the most important intrusions of God, such as the revelation to Peter (Acts 10) and the release of Peter from prison (Acts 12), occur while the church and its leaders are fast asleep.

Jesus urged us to stay awake in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42), but we fell asleep. Now, as we move through Advent, the church continues to have difficulty keeping awake. Jesus warns us about God’s advent in which “he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly” (Mark 13:36) and urges us to “Keep awake” (13:37). It is no accident that Mark has placed this parabolic assault on dormant disciples’ right before Gethsemane and the cross. As Jesus comes, and as Jesus goes, we are often asleep.

Whenever the master is absent, it is an occasion for a test of the servants.

“Now class, I am going down the hall to the principal’s office for a few minutes. I certainly hope that I can trust you to act like responsible fifth graders. But just in case, I’m leaving the door open. I have asked Mrs. Moffat, across the hall, to listen for trouble. Now I hope that you will show me how responsible you are. I’m leaving now. I had better not hear a word out of you. You have work to do while I am gone….”

It is a worthless servant who can be trusted only when the master is in town. It is an irresponsible class which can be trusted only when the teacher is present.

We long for presence, for we are at our best when the master is with us. “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” is our advent prayer. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” is the advent hymn. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1). When the master is with us, visibly, actively present, we are at our best. When the master is away, things do not always go well.

We identify with the deep yearning of Isaiah 64. The encroaching December dark, the subdued quality of Advent hymns, this morning’s headlines all testify to a waiting, unfulfilled world. So we light a hopeful candle on the Advent wreath and wait for the coming of the light. It is dark and we flight off the anesthetizing comfort of sleep, feeling that we should be awake, just in case anything happens.

But we wait in the confidence that something has happened. Isaiah prays for the heavens to be cracked open because the prophet remembers that they have been before. Mark’s parable says that the slaves who wait are those who have met and have known the master. This master is not only an absentee who has gone on a journey, he is also a wonderfully reckless boss who has “put his slaves in charge, each with his own work” (Mk. 13:34).

Everything that the master is, and all that he owns has been given to his servants. What sort of master would leave town and place all that he has in the hands of his servants? I have noted, when I was a campus pastor, the best way to make a young person responsible is to give that person great responsibility. The “Therefore keep awake” admonishment of the parable must be read after the “puts his slaves in charge.”

We are waiting here in Advent, “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corin. 1:7). But we are not waiting for the advent of a God whom we do not know. We are waiting for the return of the One who knows us and is known by us. His promised Kingdom is not a future hope, something that might happen by-and-by. His time is now; his Kingdom is here. Already, he has put his servants in charge, now, each with his work. Now, at the office, in the classroom, over the kitchen sink the master’s servants are “in charge, each with his work.”

The church gathers this Sunday, lights one candle on a four-candled wreath, prays and then trembles upon remembrance. The Kingdom of God has been left in the hands of servants.

William H. Willimon

Dare We Rejoice?

She came up to me at the end of a joyous Christmas service. She had just returned from a mission week in Haiti, one of the poorest places in the Western world.

“How dare you, with all the suffering and hunger in the world, speak of joy? The joy of this service was offensive.” I could see her point. With all the suffering in the world, how dare we Christians express joy? Our joy seems in sensitive and uncaring.

In recent years, we preachers have been encouraged do “share your story,” to expose ourselves and our struggles to the gaze of the congregation, to preach “inductively,” inviting the congregation to link its experience with our personal experience in democratically shared conversation, to be “authentic,” that is, self-revealing in the pulpit.

Little in Advent scripture supports such preaching. John the Baptist, at least in John’s introduction of him (John 1:6-8, 19-28), is intent on convincing us that, “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 1:8).The Baptizer’s Jordan congregation is too sunk in old configurations of power, old officially sanctioned readings of the texts, to see anything new without the aid of external light.

Perhaps that is why there is so little real joy in our congregations. If we do experience joy, it is too often the ersatz high of a merely emotional rush brought on by an effective music program–joy induced by a pleasing soprano voice backed up by a pre-recorded tape. If the only theology we have to preach is of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps variety, then we are doomed. Doom produces gloom. In our better moments, we know that the ultimate sources of our mourning are more than psychological–they are political, social, maybe even cosmic. This society tries to convince us that if we are hungry for something more than present arrangements, if we gaze at the full shop windows and can’t find anything we really want, if we wander through the shopping malls in a daze, it is a personal problem, something amiss in our psyche, something in need of corrective therapy.

What if our problem is more than psychological? What if what’s wrong with us is what’s wrong in the whole society, something out of kilter in the cosmos? What if our pain will be soothed by nothing less than the advent of God? The offer of anything less is cheap substitute, a set-up for even greater despair.

Real, full-throated, full-orbed, let loose joy is a gift to those who have heard the testimony that our God comes.

Which returns us to the question with which we began: How dare we, in a suffering, hurting world rejoice?

The question has within itself an answer. Dare is the right word. If we Christians are joyful, ours is not the simple-minded, bubble-brained cheerfulness of those who deny the world’s hunger and pain or who think that somehow, it’s all for the best. Joy is to us a gift, a Christmas gift of a God who is never content to leave us be, who intrudes, offers, creates.

Sometimes the Spirit intrudes, gives voice to a joy not of our own creation. Sometimes a light surprises our all too accustomed darkness for the first time in a long time, we see. Sometimes we experience so much of the near presence of God that we never stop rejoicing, and even in the worst of circumstances, we dare to give thanks.

“Dare to believe it possible.” The one who calls you if faithful, and he will do this” (I Thess. 5:24).

Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied” (Luke 6:20). This Sunday in Advent, let us dare to rejoice.

William H. Willimon

Preaching Politics

Back in August I was stunned to receive a threatening letter from a law firm in Birmingham in which the lawyer said he would “bring an action against the United Methodist Church in Alabama to terminate its tax exempt status because it has become a political and not a religious institution,” because our church is “so heavily political that it should no longer qualify for a tax exemption under the United States Internal Revenue Code.” The lawyer was upset about “blatantly political” statements. He also said that he intended to enlist the ACLU in his efforts. He set out three demands including a demand that I “Direct that the Methodist Church avoid political activities” and that I “Direct that the Methodist churches in your diocese [sic] hereinafter avoid political activities.”

I didn’t know what to make of his threat against me and our church. I have been bishop here for five years and he is the only person who has ever written me a letter complaining that any pastor or has been engaged in “blatantly political” activity. In my forty years of ministry I have never had a complaint that I was “blatantly political.” Anyone knows from my writing that the opposite is the case – I would rather talk about Jesus than politics of the right or the left.

True, I have been most supportive of Governor Riley’s efforts at prisoner rehabilitation and Katrina relief and once led the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. I also gave a prayer, at the invitation of Methodists, before a meeting of Alabama Arise. Our Conference has been a long time supporter of ALCAP that lobbies on gambling and liquor issues. I spoke at ALCAP’s annual meeting. However I’ve never had anyone, before this exchange of letters with this lawyer, question these activities.

In an effort to try to ascertain what led this lawyer to this action, I asked to meet with him and to meet with any of his clients who shared his concerns. He declined.

Even though I’m sure that all of you know more about the church than this attorney, just a couple of thoughts in case any of our pastors or churches need clarification:

  1. The US Constitution gives Methodist Christians the right to join with anyone else in speaking freely and advocating forcefully for any law or government action that seems, from a Methodist Christian point of view, worthy of our support. Scripture, and the Wesleyan Tradition (including tradition in the North Alabama Conference) give us the obligation to speak up and speak out whenever we feel so motivated by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  2. We are not free (by law and by pastoral concern) to use our pulpits to tell people which candidates to vote for. (I’ve never witnessed anyone do this in a Methodist church, but I mention it just in case.)
  3. Sometimes I wish I were as powerful as this lawyer implies, but I am not free to order our clergy not to preach anything they are led by scripture and the Holy Spirit to preach. United Methodist pulpit freedom is one of our great treasures.
  4. Even if this lawyer could get his friends at the ACLU or the Internal Revenue Service to get us to preach what he would like to hear, we would probably cite Acts 5:29.

Over Thanksgiving I talked to with a number of our churches who had served dinner to over three thousand people in need! Trinity and Robertson Chapel in the Upper Sand Mountain Parish, The East Tuscaloosa Community Soup Bowl, Holt, Florence First, Austinville and Guntersville First have made feeding those in need a centerpiece of their work. Birmingham Urban Ministries has done remarkable work during one of the most difficult year they’ve had financially. This is the primary way United Methodists respond to the weaknesses in our political leadership – not by preaching but by doing.

I urge all of our North Alabama churches to join Patsy and me in giving to the Annual Fountain of Love offering for our fine Methodist Homes Ministry. This is another great North Alabama Conference mission success story.

Will Willimon

Re-Thinking Annual Conference Staff Positions

“Form follows function,” they say in art, and in business. After a number of years of frustration, in attempting to utilize a Connectional Ministries form that seemed at times nonfunctional, Dale Cohen, in consultation with the Cabinet, announces a new form of supporting and training our churches that is centered upon the local church and utilizing our connectional system to the fullest. I applaud their creativity and courage and I predict that this will be one of the most important changes made in our Conference (perhaps in any Conference in Methodism) in the past twenty years. We believe that God is calling us to grow and that every Conference position should be focused on working with the Holy Spirit to produce growth.

Re-Thinking the Role of Connectional Ministries’ Staff

In a continuing effort to lead growth in the North Alabama Conference,Dale Cohen, Director of Connectional Ministries, announced today that the staff of Connectional Ministries is being deployed in exciting new ways. “Dale and our exceptional connectional ministries staff are revolutionizing the way our churches are supported and encouraged. This reorganization is one of the most exciting things I have seen, at the Conference level, in my entire ministry,” said Bishop Willimon.

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Muhomba, Director of Ethnic and Multicultural Ministries, will be assigned to Pleasant Grove UMC to work with Rev. John Gates in leading Pleasant Grove into Multicultural Ministries. Dr. Muhomba and Rev. Gates will develop a thriving example of how any church can move toward greater effectiveness in ministering to their community. Dr. Muhomba will continue to work with Conference ethnic congregations (one of our areas of real growth) but on a limited basis as co-pastor of Pleasant Grove UMC.

The Rev. Matt Lacey, Director of Missions and Advocacy, will be assigned to Woodlawn UMC to work with Rev. Larry Horne in developing more missions and outreach to the Woodlawn community and serving as a “coaching church” to assist other churches who desire to grow through outreach and mission.

“In a short time Matt Lacey has greatly expanded the Missions and Advocacy ministries of the Annual Conference including Disaster Response. He will continue his leadership of many of these Conference ministries,” said Cohen.

The Rev. Lori Carden, Connectional Ministries Coordinator, will be assigned to work with the Mountain Lakes District in implementing a strategy for medium-sized congregations to effectively multiply by forming other congregations utilizing the best practices and principles of Natural Church Development.

“Lori is revolutionizing our churches through Natural Church Development. She now has nearly half of our congregations in NCD. This work will continue will now be augmented by asking Lori to play a more active role as advisor to the Cabinet in the use of NCD,” said Bishop Willimon.

The Rev. Robert Mercer, Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, will be appointed to Helena United Methodist Church to serve as the Minister of Youth under the direction of Rev. Mike Edmondson. Although Robert will assist in events that are currently planned including Encounter 2010 and the Academy for Student Ministries, these and other Youth Ministry responsibilities will be transferred to Camp Sumatanga where they will have responsibility for maintaining and growing a vital Youth Ministry for the Conference.

Camp Sumatanga will also become the resource center for Children’s Ministry for the Conference. Camp Sumatanga will thus be undergirded through more opportunities for creating and providing programming in Children’s and Youth Ministries.

“We expect that Camp Sumatanga will once again be a premiere institution of learning and spiritual development for Children and Youth not only in North Alabama but from the entire Southeastern United States,” said Cohen.

Rev. Elizabeth Nall will continue to oversee Children’s Ministries and Adult Discipleship Team. “Elizabeth has formed an extensive network of children’s ministry leaders throughout the Conference, utilizing expertise from our churches, developing a score of new programs. This work is vital if we are to achieve our goals for growth,” said Cohen.

Pam Harris, Support Staff for Ethnic and Multicultural Ministries and for Children’s Ministries and Adult Discipleship will be placed as the Secretary of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Downtown Birmingham. In her new post at St. Paul’s Pam will continue to provide support for Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century and for Natural Church Development, working from a church that the Rev. Marcus Singleton is leading in a dramatic turn around.

“These moves will save the Conference thousands of dollars in a time when some of our churches are having a tough time paying their fair share of Conference apportionments,” said Cohen. “However, this is about much more. Our staff decided to turn the economic crisis into an opportunity for bold creative thinking to align ourselves more directly with our vision of challenging and equipping every church to grow more disciples of Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives.”

“Our thriving congregations are drawing upon a wide array of resources and training beyond our Conference staff,” said Bishop Willimon. “Dale’s transformation of our staff into Connectional Ministries Consultants led Dale and his staff to construct a vision of Conference ministries being led and resourced by staff now placed in local churches. After all, the local church is the basic unit of our Conference. This new arrangement really allows the Holy Spirit to work from the grass roots up, rather than the older model of top-down leadership.”

“Utilizing our healthiest churches as teaching churches, we can create a greater sense of connection as churches collaborate in teaching/learning together,” said Cohen. “Rather than relying on Connectional Ministries Staff to be ‘on retainer’ with all the concomitant costs (salaries, benefits, etc.), local church practitioners will both serve the local church and be available to consult with other churches. And if we hereby reduce Conference expenses, it will enable us to put even more money directly into missions and new church development.”

Questions about any of these changes should be directed to the Rev. Dale Cohen at (205) 226-7954 or at dcohen@northalabamaumc.org .

Will Willimon



Sermon: "Buncombe Street, Through Faith Colored Glasses"

This fall I was asked back to my home church for their 175th Anniversary. Here is my sermon, to a Thanksgiving the ways that God blesses the church.

“Buncombe Street, Through Faith Colored Glasses”

November 15, 2009

175th Anniversary of Buncombe Street United Methodist Church

Acts 2:43-47

Luke’s gospel was such a success, somebody said to Luke that which nobody has ever said to me, “Why don’t you write another book?”

And Luke did just that, a second volume, the Acts of the Apostles as if to say, “All that crucifixion, resurrection commotion caused by Jesus didn’t end with Jesus – it continues even today in the church.” Of course, by the time Luke wrote Acts, that church was nearly as old as Buncombe Street, so Luke was looking back on the first days. And you know how we often look back through “rose colored glasses.”

Awe came upon everyone (in First Church Jerusalem), because many miracles and signs were done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and disturbed the income to all, anyone who was in need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:43-47)

Wow. That’s quite a church. A church where every Sunday there were miracles, a church where everybody sold what they had and gave it to the poor, a church where every covered dish supper was a Love Feast, a church that grew everyday in numbers. Wow. This passage comes right after Luke’s report of Pentecost, right after Easter. It’s like Luke is saying, “You want proof of the resurrection? You want undeniable evidence that the Holy Spirit really descended upon ordinary people turning them into saints? Then here it is: the history of First Church Jerusalem, a church full of miracles, amazing growth, and 100% giving to apportionments.

I wish I could have been the pastor of that church.

The majority of Methodist preachers will never serve a growing church. The average Methodist gives less than 3% of his income to Jesus. Our congregations are spending a larger portion of their congregational income on themselves than at any time in our history. Do you think Luke might be guilty of some rose-colored-glasses embellishment in his history of First Church Jerusalem?

“Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved?” Hmm. Fully half of my churches have not added a single member in the last two years.

Back in 1965, Mr. A. M. Moseley (I still remember him a Southern gentleman) published, The Buncombe Street Methodist Story. Everybody in the church got a copy of Mr. Moseley’s history of Buncombe Street.

Our Church was built on land given by Vardry McBee who donated land with but one stipulation – that we promise never to bury anybody in our front yard. We have kept that promise over the years, I think. In 1873, when a fine new building was dedicated, Mr. Mosley reports an eye witness saying, “the weather most satisfactory, the sun shining in sympathy with the day, showered bright and joyous rays.” (But when the church was short on the final payment for the construction, Pastor Meynardie had all doors locked until donations closed the gap. Five persons gave a hundred dollars each and dinner was served.) By the way, on that glorious day, Bishop Doggett preached for over an hour, but Mr. Moseley says that nobody minded the Bishop’s verbosity because the sermon was “brilliant.”

Mr. Moseley picked 1889 as the grandest year in our church’s first century. After a revival by a talented Presbyterian evangelist, Buncombe Street experienced a spike in membership and giving. That same year Rev. W. A. Rogers proudly reported that “dram drinking and profanity” were “not common” among the membership of Buncombe Street, a report that I’m sure your pastor could make even today.

“Our church, without a doubt, has been blessed with the best ministers,” said Mr. Mosley. All had “that rare gift of oratorical persuasion to lift some members at times to such spiritual transfiguration that they feared to put their feet on earth again.” Hmm. I remember my mother’s evaluation of one of those preacher’s sermons (on our way home after Sunday service) as remarkably different from Mr. Moseley’s

Only rarely does charitable Mr. Moseley admit to some less than glorious moments in Buncombe Street’s past. In 1892 a financial crunch required the cessation of the of the $200 salary for paid singers. The Board asked them to accept a slightly lower salary; the paid choir took a walk. In 1912, Dr. Mark Carlisle, in a letter to the congregation, said that even though he had been sent to Buncombe Street to build a new sanctuary, he was fed up with the constant bickering and had therefore asked the Bishop to rescue him from this impossible church as soon as possible. In 1915 the Rev. B.F. Kilgo reported that Buncombe Street was a place of “aloofness and indifference” to newcomers in the congregation and if the Board proceeded to invite Evangelist McLendon to do a revival, Rev. Kilgo, who abhorred McLendon, would be absent. When the church refused to build a garage for Rev. Kilgo’s new car, he built one himself in 1919. When he was forced to move in November of 1919, he refused to move unless the church paid for the garage — $25. It was worth it to get that quarrelsome parson out of town, said one member of the Board.

Mr. Mosley tantalizingly notes that in its first 75 years Buncombe Street retained only a couple of preachers more than two years. Out of 67 pastors, only 13 managed to endure Buncombe Street four years or longer. If everything was so sunny in the early Buncombe Street, how come so few preachers wanted to stay for the fun?

I’m not accusing saintly Mr. Mosley of lying, but I do suspect him of joining St. Luke in remembering the history of the church through rose colored glasses. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that both Luke and Mr. Mosley look through “faith colored glasses.” What you get, in the Acts of the Apostles or in The Buncombe Street Story is church through the eyes of faith.

many miracles were done by the apostles. All who believed were together. They sold their possessions and disturbed the income to anyone in need.

That’s not a false view of church. It’s what you see when you look at church sub specie aeternatis, church as God sees church, church remembered in faith. Remember how the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 11:1) defines “faith” as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”?

Vardry McBee, was not only the man who helped birth Buncombe Street; he was also the state’s largest slaveholder. But how do you read that? That this church was birthed as beneficiary of terrible social evil or that God almighty takes our wrong, and brings good out of our bad?

It all depends on how you look at it. John Calvin said that scripture is the lens, the “spectacles” through which Christians view the world.

This church, like any that has ever been, including Luke’s First Church Jerusalem is a mix of glorious divine flights of Spirit and grubby descent into human muck and mire. This is not only the place where Mrs. Cureton handed me my first Bible but also where Stanley Starnes slugged me in the jaw after Sunday School. Both of those events made me who I am.

Thank God we’ve got a Savior who doesn’t wait until we get it all together, until we are all cleaned up and spotless before he comes to us. Jesus takes us as we are, warts and all, and redeems all that we, in our sin, mess up. We never said that this church or any other is perfect; we just said that it’s on the way to redemption. Revelation says that Jesus Christ manages to look at the church the same way every groom looks at his bride; as the most beautiful one in the world. This poor old, compromised tart, the church, will one day miraculously be all dolled up as nothing less than the spotless Bride of Christ.

I was invited back to Buncombe Street many years ago. After I spoke I was thrilled to see one of my old Sunday School teachers.

“Larry, thank you for what you meant to me back in the ninth grade. I will never forget that Sunday School class.”

Larry responded, “Yea, I’ll never forget it either, no matter how hard I try.”

What? “I told Dr. Cook, I don’t know anything about teenagers. I’m not that good with the Bible. Get somebody else. Cook wouldn’t take no for an answer (he had too much dirt on me so I was afraid of him). That year was miserable. You kids wanted to talk more about sex than the Bible. It was awful.”

“I don’t remember any of that. I just remember getting a lot closer to God because of your class.”

“I guess it’s all in how you look at it,” said Larry.

It was a Buncombe Street, Body of Christ sort of moment. Larry was right. When it comes to church, this church or any other, it’s how you look at it. Often I look at my church, and see a declining, bickering, back-biting, boring all-too-human institution bent on its own demise. St. Paul looks at us and says, “You are the Body of Christ!” You’re the form Jesus has taken in the world. Jesus looks at his rag-tag group of disciples and says, “I’m going to take back what belongs to me — guess who’s going to do it for me?”

It’s all in how you look at it.

Back when I was in seminary at Yale (partly paid for by Buncombe Street), one night one of my seminary buddies asked where I grew up. I told him Buncombe Street Methodist Church. He responded, “You’ve got to be kidding? That’s the name of a church? Buncombe? What were they thinking? Buncombe? St. Luke’s. Trinity or something religious but Buncombe?”

Since he was from Illinois I refrained from slugging him. I said, “Look, that church believed in me before I believed in me. That church had dreams for me that I would have never dared on my own. Those people introduced me to the God I would have never met without them. You idiot.”

Buncombe Street, happy 175th birthday. God give us all the eyes to see our church as Christ our Lord sees us. Amen!

William H. Willimon