Last Word

The following is a “last sermon” written by Bishop Willimon for a publication in a collection of sermons. He includes it as his last “Bishop’s Message” for the North Alabama Conference, a weekly message emailed to clergy and laypeople all over North Alabama and elsewhere.

Now these are the last words of David:… The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on grassy land. (2 Samuel 23:1-4)


For my “last sermon” I take as my text the “last words of David.” When King David came to the end, as I am coming to my end, what was the last song the “sweet singer” sang? Now, I’m no David. In my life I’ve not only not established a famed royal house, never written a psalm, but also have never committed adultery or arranged anybody’s death. My finale is therefore not to be as dramatic as David’s.

Yet I am, by the grace of God, a preacher. So you can imagine what I noticed in David’s words. The first words he spoke, in his last words where, “The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me…” Of all King David’s grand achievements, of all his dismal failures – and in his life David had both – that which made David most glad at the last were that God had condescended to speak “through me, his word is upon my tongue.” “The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me….”

David’s last words were, in effect, “Thank God I’ve been a preacher.” In spite of any of David’s talents, in spite of any of David’s weaknesses (and he had both) when he came to the end he confessed amazement and gratitude that God had put God’s word “upon my tongue.”

And that’s the main thing that King David and I have in common. I share David’s wonder that Almighty God has deemed, in spite of my weaknesses and my dismal failures to put God’s word “upon my tongue.”

There have been times when I’ve questioned the Lord’s judgment in making me a preacher. When faced with a tough text within a dismal congregational context, I’ve wished that God had chosen a more courageous person than I to speak the truth to God’s people. I like to be liked and love to be loved. I was elected President of my class every year up through high school and, as most politicians could tell you, you don’t get elected by being good at telling the truth!

In the early days of my ministry, when I glanced at the Lectionary text prescribed for the next Sunday, I cried with young Jeremiah, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” (Jer. 1:6) And the Lord replied, “you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid….” (1:7-8). End of discussion.

And in these, the later days of my ministry, I have said with The Preacher of Ecclesiastes that there was “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” The time for a sermon is not now, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Eccl. 3:7). I have joined my voice with that of a preacher I once visited (after his nervous breakdown). There he was sunk in depression, medicated into a stupor to keep from harming himself. And when I entered his room, all he mumbled was, “They never have once done anything I’ve told them to do in a sermon.”

And yet, by the sheer grace of God, here at the end, I can say that I’ve not ceased to be amazed by the active, vocal ways of the living God. There is something about the Trinity that makes God loquacious, talkative, relentlessly revealing.

There have been moments when I wanted to throw in the towel and go do something for a living that was more useful, predictable and lucrative. In frustration and despair I decide that this is it – my last sermon. I have had it with them and with preaching. God can go find some other chump to clobber them with dependent clauses.

And it was then that some yokel staggered forth at the end of the service, and through tears, stammered, “That was the best sermon you ever preached. God Almighty spoke to me today through your sermon. I’m selling the pickup, quitting my job, learning Spanish and moving to Honduras as a missionary, I’m….”

I confess that it’s then that I know not whether to love or to despise God. Next week I’m back in the pulpit, whooping it up and glad to be flailing away at the saints one more time. Thus I have never ceased to be humbled by the extravagant claim of the Second Helvetic Confession that the preached word is the Word of God.

Bonhoeffer said that preaching is more than the artful conveyance of useful information, more than instruction in sound doctrine. Preaching enables the risen Christ to walk among his people. In the pulpit, I’ve had a great vantage point for watching Christ walk, stride, sometimes cavort and run among his people. It’s enough to keep you preaching for forty years or more.

Thus, on the basis of personal pastoral experience, I’ve been sustained, in some dry place, by God’s promise that “my word shall to return empty….” and to be amazed that, even in my lousy sermons, God keeps that promise. Despite all my limitations, my distractions that kept me from spending as much care on the sermon as the text deserved, and despite all the stuff I’m still working out in my personality and the baggage I bring to the pulpit with me, what was said to big, famous, talented David is said to little old me: “The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.”

Nearly every time I open Scripture, grubbing around for a sermon for next Sunday, something to say after I’ve said so much in the past two thousand sermons, I am so grateful that our God is loquacious, constantly communicative, relentlessly revelatory. There’s always something left to say in a sermon.

“Is there any word from the Lord?” Just about every Sunday, there sure is. Plentitude, effusiveness, fecundity is of the nature of this God. So sometimes in a sermon, when we speak, it’s almost like Genesis 1 all over again. Something is added to the world, a new world takes form out of the formless void, light shines. When one is attempting to listen to a God who creates a world with nothing but words, well, before the sermon is done, it’s just like David said, it’s “like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on grassy land.”

I know some pastors who say that they love the ministry because they enjoy fraternizing with church people and they find sustenance in working with folks in need. I’ve not been one of those pastors. Rather what’s kept me going is God’s speaking to me, through me, despite me. I’ve served some interesting churches, with some fascinating people, but none of them as interesting or fascinating as the Trinity. All sermons, even my forty-minute tirades, are too short, because we preachers, no matter how long we go on, can never exhaust the mystery of the Trinity. We could go on forever because God does.

Here at the end it has dawned on me that I’m running out of Sundays and that I’ll never preach all of the odd, exasperating, life-giving, wonderful biblical texts. The Bible is just too rich and effusively revealing for the brevity of my remaining days. And yet, here at the last, it’s comforting to know that because God is so talkative, and because God has so much left to reveal, by God’s grace maybe I’ll get to continue the conversation in Eternity.

Speaking of Eternity, I have no way of knowing whether or not my last words here will be my last words there. Perhaps God continues the conversation over yonder. The Revelation says that there will be no temple in heaven, and presumably no churches, but whether or not there will be no pulpits, no more preaching, who can say? Maybe, whenever there’s a break in all the singing, there will be room at least for street preaching, even when the streets are paved with gold.

Above all, let me say that I’m grateful that, as a preacher I’ve been blessed with such an interesting God to talk about. I don’t mean this as a negative judgment on anyone else’s god, but I’m grateful that my ministry has been constantly renewed and reinvigorated by encounters with the Trinity. There are religions whose god offers serenity and placid detachment from worldly concerns. There are religions whose god offers holiness and righteousness, steadfast rules for living the perfect life. Our God offers himself – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – with richness, complexity, mystery and a kind of dogged determination not to be God without us. And just about everything the Trinity wants to do with us, the Trinity does through words, nonviolent, majestic, fecund, ordinary words.

Maybe I say this because I’m a preacher, but one of the things I hate about death is the silence. When there are no more words and the labored breathing gradually ebbs away into nothing, and in the darkened room all is silent, that’s what I hate. The conversation that so consumed a life, that give-and-take between God and one of God’s children, is ended. Silence.

Now, with the last breath and in the dark stillness, deadly silence, the next word is up to God. “And God said, ‘Let there be light….’” Christians are those who fully expect that the God who was so determined to talk with us in life shall also speak to us in death. Our last day in this life shall be like the first day of Creation. Evening, changed to morning; our end, by the grace of God, fresh beginning, sunrise:

“The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue…. like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on grassy land.”

Thanks be to God!

William H. Willimon

Christ In Leadership

This summer our church will elect bishops, those who will lead our church in the ministry of oversight.

Everyone agrees that we currently suffer a “crisis of leadership.” Our numbers indicate that we have been under led, or led in the wrong sorts of ways. Our indicators of institutional health say that we need to do some things differently.

But I remind you that the first and most enduring “crisis of leadership” is named “Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ not only assaulted our definitions of “God” and “Messiah,” but also disrupted and challenged our notions of leadership. From the first he predicted that the people in charge would reject him. Those early predictions are quickly validated by the response of the authorities to Jesus.

From the first Jesus recruited odd leadership, surprising us by whom he called to lead his movement. Those whom the world regarded as marginalized, ill-equipped, poorly informed, not particularly spiritual or moral, Jesus named as “disciples,” confounding the worldly wise, promising these losers glory in his coming Kingdom.

I’ve read dozens of books on leadership, have even written a few myself.  Books on leadership tend to say, “Here are the personal qualities you must have, here are the skills you must acquire if you want to lead.”  In the world, leaders must be omniscient and omnipotent, capable and courageous, competent and creative. Leaders in Jesus’ name must simply be obedient to his, “Follow me.”

As bishop I am frequently reminded by the Holy Spirit that Jesus was crucified through the leadership of people like me, persons in positions of spiritual authority over others. As bishop, I’m closer to Caiaphas than to Saint Paul. Therefore I have found it a salubrious practice to have close by me King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written by King to someone just like me.

The only good reasons to be in any sort of ministry are theological. Sometimes we do theology reading books or listening to sermons and sometimes we do theology by getting our hands dirty, diving into the fray, attending to the Body, and working with God for the People of God. The only hope we have for accomplishing anything in our church leadership is our faith that Jesus Christ really rose bodily from the dead and is on the move utilizing the same sorts of knuckleheads whom he first called and commissioned.

When I, mid-year, appointed a pastor to a church that had been in unmitigated decline for two decades — right after removing a pastor whose ineffectiveness was exposed in his first three months at the church — and when I congratulated the pastor for effecting, in a scant three months dramatic growth in attendance, membership, and giving, the pastor replied, “Thanks for having the courage to appoint me here. I’ve made a startling theological discovery in the past couple of months: we have a God who is more able even than I believed.”

One reason why so many of our churches praise a rather trivial, allegedly concerned but essentially inactive God is that they haven’t attempted anything so bold and brash that they risk utter, embarrassing failure unless the first Easter women were right and Jesus Christ really has risen from the dead. Hesitant, circumspect practice of ecclesiology leads to a limp and trifling Christology.

My life as bishop has been a rebuke to those theoretical academics who succumb to the docetic temptation to disdain concern with administrative, managerial structures of the church — Jesus Christ is really, fully, completely human; disembodied faith is not faith in him.

But being a Chalcedonian Christian I also must affirm that the mission of the church is utterly impossible without a Jesus who is really, fully, completely divine. His Body, though crucified, is where the fullness of God chooses to dwell. There is no God hiding behind the Incarnation, holding anything back from humanity. Jesus actually is God coming for us, God in motion, more God than we can handle, God refusing to be vague or insubstantial, God with a body, God so near as to demand human response. Any weakening of the divine in Christ results in indecision and uncertainty, a fatal equivocal, indistinct, vagueness that is the death of leadership in Jesus’ name. Just as some wish that Jesus had not come as a Jew, had not refused self-defense and violence, had not turned his back on wealth and worldly power, had not said so many unkind things about religious leaders like me, many wish that Jesus had not made the poor old United Methodist Church his Body, his answer to what’s wrong, an outbreak of the Kingdom of God, his people saved from the world in order to be his means of saving the world.

What God expects the church to do among suffering humanity can’t be done by humanity alone. The Kingdom of God is not devised by human efforts, even very skilled leadership. Any God who is less than the one who raised Jesus from the dead is no match for the deadly challenges facing The United Methodist Church. What God means to do among us is more, so much more, than even a well- functioning organization. So if God was not in Christ, reconciling the world, then being bishop is the dumbest of undertakings.

As my episcopacy wanes I feel much like Moses on Mount Nebo. I’ve gotten a privileged, late career glimpse of the Promised Land. I’ve seen Methodism’s vital future. I’ve been able to participate, here and there, in what I believe will be the tomorrow of our church. (It only took God 400 years to get around to rescuing the slaves from Egypt so who am I to lament that I got so little accomplished in eight years as bishop?) If I live until 2050, which seems unlikely, I may enjoy the reality of a fully recovered and robust Wesleyanism. I believe that the patterns of episcopal oversight that I and some of my fellow bishops have begun shall bear fruit. If I’m wrong, you’ll have to come to the basement of Duke Chapel where I’ll be buried in order to mock me in my error.

Those who say, “Willimon, you are not a good leader,” have their point. I readily admit to many of my leadership liabilities (though I’ve discovered that some of what my critics label as leadership liabilities are, through the work of the Holy Spirit, God-induced assets). My only justification for being bishop is similar to that of any Methodist preacher — God put me here. I’m as surprised by God’s call as my critics. All Christian authority is open to question because it is authority that rests upon Christ’s still-disputed sovereignty.

I think I’m obeying God’s will in my episcopacy, but like any disciple who struggles with self-deception, only God knows for sure.  To lead in Jesus’ name means to be able to admit to sin, a great asset for any leader, utterly essential for a bishop.

Still, in responding to Jesus’ vocation, in attempting to conduct my life more in service to the needs of the church than my personal preferences, in trusting Jesus’ faith in me more than my doubts about my abilities, Jesus’ crisis of leadership becomes a grand adventure, leading not as the world leads but as Jesus commands.

For the good of the church (I hope) and for my great joy (most of the time) I got to play a bit part in the great drama that is God’s incarnation in the world, God’s loving determination not to work alone. It’s a vocation I didn’t deserve but I shall always be grateful I got called. Thanks, church.       

Will Willimon


What I Heard, What We Did

As Annual Conference began this year, I looked back to the dozens of listening sessions that I conducted in my first two months as Bishop in North Alabama.  I wrote down ten key things that I heard.

I shared with the Conference, in rather brief form, some of the ways that we have responded to what was heard in those early sessions. I hope that the church takes heart that we have not only listened, but also responded during 2004 – 2012.

1. “We must start more new communities of faith.”

  • 10 million invested
  • Refined selection and training of new church pastors, created a diversity of models.
  • 4 new churches this year, two begun by African American pastors, two that target young adults.

2.“The Annual Conference meeting takes too long and costs too much.”

  • Two day AC in order to attract younger members and to accommodate laity
  • Worked on preconference sessions.
  • Moved Memorial Service and Ordination to local churches.

3.“The Cabinet must do a more careful job of appointing clergy.”

  • Created new structures for evaluating and consulting with clergy. (Triads of DS’s, Strengths Finder, Dashboard, First 90 Days, Transition Teams, Letters of expectation for DS, extended, intentional transitions)

4.“We’ve got to come to terms with a shrinking church.”

  • Cut Conference staff, deployed in local churches, moved from 12 to 8 districts (2 million per year saving), budgeting based on projected income.
  • Cost cutting and accountability for district budgets.  Sold conference owned housing.

5.“We need more effective clergy leaders.”

  • Natural Church Development, Strengths Finder, First 90 Days, training events in every district (such as the leveraging work in NE District, Paul Borden events in NW District), complete reorganization of BOOM, recruited 15 new clergy from outside of Conference, removed twenty ineffective clergy, listened and responded to clergy sermons, conducted twenty congregational consultatons.

6.“We need more money for mission and benevolence work.”

  • Move to 8 districts, one DS serving two districts, no bishop’s assistant, more teleconferencing by cabinet, experimented with a “tithe” from churches.

7.“We’ve got to save Sumatanga.”

  • Re-formed Board, cut costs at camp, secured $750,000 grant, $50,000 from districts, conducted capital campaign, changed Directors.

8.“We must pay for the new Conference Center.”

  • Sought additional funds, have been gradually paying down indebtedness, offered space to Birmingham-Southern.

9.“The Bishop needs to be present in the churches of the Annual Conference.”

  • I have conducted dozens of listening sessions in our most vital churches, in newest churches, with our most active clergy, refused Board responsibilities in first four years, preached in over 250 congregations, taught series in thirty of our churches, responded each week to Dashboard data.

10.“We must hold congregations more accountable.”

  • Created Dashboard as a tool for local church leadership, noted those congregations that fully participate in connectional giving, invite local church leadership to work with pastors to set goals for growth.

What a great joy it has been to be part of a responsive, eager-for-transformation Conference!  Thank you for the opportunity that you have given Patsy and me in North Alabama!

Will Willimon

Sent: An Ordination Sermon

Service of Ordination, 2012
Matthew 28:5-8, 16-20

These persons before you, our newest clergy, tonight pledge their lives to one of the most unusual practices in historic Methodism – sent ministry. No congregation can hire a United Methodist pastor; our pastors are sent. Just as your call into the ministry was God’s notion before you thought of it, so in your sent ministry, your assignment in the Kingdom is God’s before it’s yours (or the Bishop’s!).

Like you, I am here because I was sent. And, when the time comes, you will leave, as I am leaving, because you have been sent. A sent ministry is a countercultural challenge. Subordination of your career, marriage, and family, and even the choice of where to sleep at night to the mission of the church, is weirdly un-American. We are a people who have been deeply indoctrinated into the godless ideology that our lives are our possessions to do with as we please, that my life is the sum of my astute choices, and that the life I’m living is my own.

There are less demanding ways to serve Jesus, surely. But forgive me for thinking few more adventuresome than a life commandeered by Jesus into sent ministry. Meeting awhile back, with a young woman attempting to help her discern what God wanted to do, whether Methodism’s sent ministry was for her or not, I concluded the conversation with, “Though I can’t say for sure that God is calling you into the ministry, I urge to you to pray really, really hard that God will.”
This is a prejudiced comment, but I think that few things sadder than an unsent life. What a joy, in good times, but especially in bad, to believe that you are where you are because you have been put there, and you are doing what you are doing because God means for this to be so. In a sense, we believe that every follower of Jesus Christ, clergy or not, is sent.

At ten, I was minding my business in Miss McDaniel’s sixth grade class, dutifully copying words off the black board, when I got the call: “Willimon, Mr. Harrelson” (the intimidating, ancient principal) “says he wants to see you. Go to his office.”

Shaking with trepidation, I trudged toward the principal’s office. Passing an open door, a classmate look out at me with pity, saying a prayer of thanksgiving that I was summoned to the Principal and not him. Ascending the gallows I went over in my mind all of the possible misunderstandings that could have led to this portentous subpoena. (I was only a distant witness to the rock through the gym window incident; in no way a perpetrator or even passive conspirator.
“Listen clearly. I do not intend to repeat myself: You, go down Tindal two blocks and turn left, go two more blocks, number fifteen. I need a message delivered. You tell Jimmy Spain’s mother if he’s not in school by this afternoon I’m reporting her to the police for truancy.”

So this wasn’t about me. It was worse. God help me. Jimmy Spain, toughest thug of all the Sixth Grade. Sixth grader who should have been in the eighth. And what’s “truancy”?

Pondering these somber thoughts, I journeyed down Tindal, bidding farewell to the safety of the schoolyard, turned left, walked two more blocks, marveling that the world actually went on about its business while we were doing time in school. The last two blocks were the toughest, descending into a not at all nice part of town, terra incognita to me, what was left of a sad neighborhood hidden behind the school. Number 15 was a small house, peeling paint, disordered yard — just the sort of house you’d expect Jimmy Spain to be holed up in, rough looking, small but sinister. There was a big blue Buick parked in front. As I fearfully approached the walk, a man emerged, letting the front door slam, stepped off the porch, and began adjusting his tie, putting on his coat.

I approached him with, “Are you, Mr….Spain, sir.” Just then I remembered that everybody at school said that Jimmy was so mean because he didn’t have a daddy. The man looked down at me, pulled his tie on tight, and guffawed. “Mr. Spain? Haw, haw, haw.” Laughing, he left me standing there, got into his car and sped off. (I had to wait until I was in the eighth grade before someone whispered to me the dirty word for what Jimmy’s mother did for a living, and until my Boy Scout Court of Honor before I realized the man I met that day was a member of City Council.)
I stepped up on the rotten porch and knocked on the soiled screen door. My heart sank when it was opened by none other than Jimmy Spain whose steely eyes enlarged when he saw me. Before Jimmy could say anything, the door was pulled open more widely and a woman in a faded blue, terrycloth bathrobe looked down at me, over Jimmy’s shoulder.
“What do you want?” she asked in a cold, threatening tone as I marveled at the sight of a mother in a bathrobe even though it was early afternoon.

“Ur, I’m from the school. The principal sent me, to….”

“The principal! What does that old fool want?”

“Ur, he sent me to say that we, er, that is, that everybody at school misses Jimmy and wishes he were there today.”

“What?” she sneered, pulling Jimmy toward her just a bit.

“It’s like a special day today and everyone wants Jimmy there. I think that’s what he said”

Jimmy — the feared thug who could beat up any kid at Donaldson Elementary, even ninth graders anytime he wanted, indeed had on multiple occasions — peered out at me in….wonderment. Suddenly this tough hood, feared by all, looked small, being clutched by his mother’s protective arm, his eyes pleading, embarrassed, hanging on my every stammering word.

“Well you tell that old man it’s none of his business what I do with James. James,” she said, looking down at him, “you want to go to that old school today or not?”

Jimmy looked at me as he wordlessly nodded assent.

“Well, go get your stuff. And take that dollar off the dresser to buy lunch. I ain’t got nothing here.”

In a flash he was away and back. His mother stood at the door, and after making the unimaginable gesture of giving Jimmy a peck on the cheek, stood staring at us as we walked off the porch, down the walk, and back toward Tindal Avenue. As we walked back toward the school, we said not a word to one another. I had previously lacked the courage to speak to Jimmy the Hood, and Jimmy the Tough had never had any reason, thank the Lord, to speak to me and walking back to school that afternoon was certainly not the time to begin.

We walked up the steps to the school, took a right and wordlessly turned toward the Principal’s office. I led him in, handed him off to the Principal’s secretary who received my ward. For the first time Jimmy seemed not mean and threatening at all, but very small. As the secretary led him away, Jimmy turned and looked at me with a look of…, I don’t know, maybe regret, maybe embarrassment, rescue? But it could have also been thanks, gratitude.

That evening, when I narrated my day to my mother at supper, she said, “That is the most outrageous thing I’ve ever heard! Sending a young child out in the middle of the day to fetch a truant. And on that street! Mr. Harrelson ought to have his head examined. Don’t you ever allow anyone to put you in that position again. Sending a child!”

But I knew that my mother was wrong. That day was the best day of my whole time at Donaldson Elementary, preparation for the rest of my life, my first experience of a God who thinks nothing of commandeering ordinary folk and handing them outrageous assignments. That day, walking down Tindal Avenue was dress rehearsal for a summer night two decades later, when I knelt before a bishop, and he laid on hands, and pronounced the words, “You, go down Tindal two blocks and turn left, go two more blocks, number fifteen. I need a message delivered….”