Durham Herald-Sun Article on Incorporation

Here’s an article written a few weeks ago in the Durham Herald-Sun about Will’s novel Incorporation.

Willimon’s novel, “Incorporation” (Cascade Books) — his first fiction after selling a million books on church, ministry and religion – is set in a large, liberal, Midwestern church.

In “Incorporation,” most of the characters have serious flaws, including clergy. There is conflict all around, between pastors and music ministers and congregants, and even a physical fight between unscrupulous staff. There’s death and gossip and plenty of humor. Willimon describes the novel as about the “underbelly of this institution filled with really human people.” It’s also about the grace of God, he said, as these same people are leading a church. Willimon said he enjoyed writing the novel, which is not based on anyone he knows.

Check out the full article here.

SEJ Sermon :: July 2012

This is the sermon I preached at the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church at Lake Junaluska, N.C. this past summer.  It was a plea to the delegates, just before they elected new bishops, to allow the Holy Spirit to work among them and to follow the Spirit’s leadings in their election of new bishops.  I’d say , from the group of new bishops whom they elected, that my sermon was effective!


Come, Holy Spirit

The Opening of the South Eastern Jurisdictional Conference

Lake Junaluska, North Carolina


In those days Peter stood up among the believers…and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus – for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”….For as it is written in the book of Psalms,…’Let another take his position of overseer.’  So one of those who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of Jon until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these must become with us a witness to his resurrection.  So they proposed two, Joseph…and Matthias.  Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.  Show us which one of these you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”  And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.   (Acts 1:15-17, 20-26)


The Acts of the Apostles begins with a bang.  The resurrected Christ gives the apostles their marching orders and then ascends to heaven.

And what is the very first thing the church does?  Calls a meeting.  Elects a replacement apostle for Judas.  Jesus ascends and the church in response – has the first Jurisdictional Conference, takes a vote (casting lots rather than electronically) — elects the first episcopos, Matthias.

If you listened closely, you heard that Matthias was elected to replace Judas in “his position of overseer (episcopos).”  (Acts 1:20)  Matthias replaced Bishop Judas.  The first bishop to be retired from the episcopacy was Judas.

Moving right along, you are convened to select overseers of our church.  Methodists join most of the world’s Christians in believing, from the first, ministry in the name of Jesus is so demanding that it can’t be done without someone designated to watch over us in love, episcope.  Our constitution permits us to change almost anything about our church except: we can never, ever do away with bishops.  Our earliest name: Methodist Episcopal Church.

The United Methodist Church is founded on two convictions: (1.) Jesus Christ is Lord and, (2.) preachers ought never, ever be left alone, “unoverseen.”

Your job, the election of overseers (episcopoi) is one of the most daunting tasks given any Christian.  Jesus’ mission is too demanding to be done without leaders.  In the Acts of the Apostles, resurrected Jesus ascends and gives the church its marching orders but the very first work of the church?  Election of bishop Matthias (Acts 1:12-26) to replace bishop Judas.

Many of you long for our church to have a future, to grow and move in mission but we can’t do that without first having an election.  Whatever Jesus wants to do with us, he chooses not to do without someone designated for episcope.

Now here’s the message that God has entrusted to me to give to you: you cannot call a person to the ministry of oversight by yourself.  The apostles chose a replacement bishop, after the recent unpleasantness over the Judas episcopacy, through prayer.  Only God can make a bishop.

No one can decide to minister in the name of Jesus; one must be summoned.  That’s why the core of our ordination rite is the epiclesis, prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  No church leader without first Veni, Creator Spiritus, Come, Holy Spirit.  That’s not only because the things that Jesus demands are too difficult to be done by ourselves, but also because all ministry rests upon God’s external authorization.

Surely you clergy will agree when I say that’s one of the joys of being called by God to be clergy: should laity unfairly criticize our ministry (as laity are wont to do) suggesting that we are inept at ministry, we can reply, “Take it up with the Lord!  My being a leader of the church wasn’t my idea!”

If anybody is called to any ministry, whether that of child care, school teaching, preaching, or episcope, it’s a miracle, God’s idea before it was ours.

In 374, when Bishop of Milan, Auxentius, died, there was a row over who would follow him — conservatives battling liberals, fistfights in the streets,  name calling.  (Sound familiar?)  A Milanese lawyer, Ambrose, dropped by the cathedral one morning, just to watch the fight.

“What we need is a good bishop!” some screamed.  During the uproar, a little child shouts out, “Ambrose, bishop!”

“Yea, Ambrose bishop!”  “Ambrose bishop, Ambrose bishop,” everybody began to chant.

“That’s ridiculous,” muttered Ambrose. “I’m not even baptized.  Besides, nolo episcopare, I don’t want to be a bishop.”

Well, the Jurisdictional Conference, I mean mob, wouldn’t take no for an answer. Unbaptized, untrained Ambrose fled the melee and hid out a friend’s house.  Under a bed.  They dragged him out and in one week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and consecrated bishop of Milan.  He became one of the greatest bishops of the church, the man who converted Saint Augustine.

I recall the election of Saint Ambrose to the episcopacy, not so you can take pride in our sedate electronic balloting but rather to remind you that you cannot elect a bishop.  A call to any ministry is only by the descent of the Holy Spirit.  I worry that our belabored, protracted process of vetting, campaigning, and electing bishops could be– like General Conference and any number of paragraphs in the Discipline — an elaborate, but thank God, futile defense against incursions by the Holy Spirit.

The good news is that Christ promises not leave us to our own devices.  Whenever two or three, much less this many hundred are gathered, Jesus shows up, disrupts our plans if necessary, gives us ideas we wouldn’t have thought up on our own, and sends just the people we need to lead us where God wants us to go.

After the embarrassment of Bishop Judas, the Holy Spirit led the church to Matthias.  Three hundred years later, to a church in turmoil, the Holy Spirit put Ambrose in the mind of the church.  Many of you are here today as testimony that the Holy Spirit delights in summoning odd people and assigning them outrageous jobs to do.  (I really believe that’s how Patsy and I were fortunate enough to be sent to Alabama.)

I believe the Holy Spirit can do it again this week.

My summons to episcope came not when you elected me, but rather after one of our delegation’s protracted meetings in which we attempted to discern the Holy Spirit’s machinations.  In the parking lot afterwards, a member of our delegation (someone I had personally never cared for) said, “I’ve been praying for guidance and frankly, though I’ve tried repeatedly, God is giving me only your name.”

I said, “God has not said that to me,..but I’m listening.”

Her last words to me, before I kicked up gravel and departed, were, “Well, while you are listening for God’s word, remember: sometimes God speaks to preachers like you through laypeople like me.  Good bye.”

She was wrong on gays, wrong in much of her biblical interpretation, but she was my teacher in susceptibility to the Holy Spirit.

Bishop Ambrose once wrote that the church is to God as the sun to the moon. We have no light of our own.  The church’s light is but our reflection of God’s light, through the Holy Spirit.

I want to beg you to vote for transformative leaders who stress productivity, accountability, and growth – bishops who will not merely manage decline but who will dynamically, courageously lead us forth.

But I won’t do that.

I’ll just ask you to risk openness to the unconstrained machinations of the Holy Spirit.  Leadership is Christian to the degree that it emanates from and is instigated by the Holy Spirit.

Church oversight (episcope) requires miraculous assistance.  A low point in my episcopacy came when I had to remove two of my DS’s for adultery.  I met with my decimated Cabinet on Monday, greeted by their hurt, blank, clueless stares.  So I said, “Let us pray.”  I prayed the longest time, praying, ‘Lord, help us.  We messed up, again.  I don’t know which way to turn.  I’ve talked to these people and I can tell you, none of them have any good ideas.  Please Lord. You love to redeem our mess.  Give us a name!  Come on Jesus, do that salvific thing you do so well, redeem us!”

When I said, “Amen,” a DS immediately mentioned a pastor I would never have thought of on my own.  Then another.  We called two amazing pastors to the ministry of oversight, people I learned from and who helped transform our conference.

It was the apex of my episcopacy — and one for which I take no responsibility.

The gesture of ordination is the baptismal act of laying on hands (repeated in consecration of bishops).  Laying on of hands signifies that all ministry is too difficult to do alone.   Therefore the Holy Spirit is invoked.  What you have been called to do in the next few days is too important, too impossible for you to do alone.  Therefore, let us pray for miraculous help,

(all rise)

*                              O Holy Spirit                                                                                    HAMBURG



O Holy Spirit, by whose breath

Life rises vibrant out of death;

Come to create, renew, inspire;

Come, kindle in our hearts your fire.


            Congregation continues:

                        You are the seeker’s sure recourse,

                        Of burning love the living source,

                        Protector in the midst of strife,

                        The giver and the Lord of life.



In you God’s energy is shown,

To us your varied gifts make known.

Teach us to speak, teach us to hear;

Yours is the tongue and yours the ear.



                        Flood our dull senses with your light;

                        In mutual love our hearts unite.

                        Your power the whole creation fills;

                        Confirm our weak, uncertain wills.



                        From inner strife grant us relief;

                        Turn nations to the ways of peace.

                        To fuller life your people bring

                        That as one body we may sing:



                        Praise to the Father, Christ, his Word,

                        And to the Spirit: God the Lord,

                        To whom all honor, glory be

                         Both now and for eternity.




Really now, Lord Jesus, is our sin so serious as to necessitate the sort of ugly drama we are forced to behold this day? Why should the noon sky turn toward midnight and the earth heave and the heavens be rent for our mere peccadilloes? To be sure, we’ve made our mistakes. Things didn’t turn out as we intended. There were unforeseen complications, factors beyond our control. But we meant well. We didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt. We’re only human, and is that so wrong?

Really now, Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, we may not be the very best people who ever lived, but surely we are not the worst. Others have committed more serious wrong. Ought we to be held responsible for the ignorance of our grandparents? They, like we, were doing the best they could, within the parameters of their time and place. We’ve always been forced to work with limited information. There’s always been a huge gap between our intentions and our results.

Please, Lord Jesus, die for someone else, someone whose sin is more spectacular, more deserving of such supreme sacrifice. We don’t want the responsibility. Really, Lord, is our unrighteousness so very serious? Are we such sinners that you should need to die for us?

Really, if you look at the larger picture, our sin, at least my sin, is so inconsequential. You are making too big a deal out of such meager rebellion. We don’t want your blood on our hands. We don’t want our lives in any way to bear the burden of your death. Really. Amen.

From The Best of Will Willimon (Abingdon, 2012.  Check out Will’s novel, Incorporation, a wild ride through the contemporary church – satire and slapstick with serious theological intent.  Available from Cascade Press https://wipfandstock.com/store/incorporation.

Falling in Love at Duke Divinity :: Goodson Chapel, Sept. 2012

“Falling In Love at Duke Divinity”

Song of Songs 2:8-13

Goodson Chapel

September 5, 2012

How many of you have ever been in madly, goofily in love?  Let’s see the hands. This sermon is for you.  (I’m too poor a poet to describe carnal desire to those of you who are innocent of it).

Our text: A poetic overstatement by two overwrought adolescents (or, according to Professor Griffith’s recent commentary, a kinky depiction of Catholic sacramental theology).  You make the call.

“My love is like a gazelle, or a young stag.”  My love is “a raging flame”.  This “desire” is found only three times in the Old Testament, so let’s enjoy its rare appearance.  Bernard of Clairvaux preached 86 sermons on Song of Songs, and didn’t get further than the Chapter 2!

As a former college chaplain I’m suspicious of sensuousness among the young, but particularly among heart happy Methodists.

“Do you use the Lectionary?” I ask a pastor before I visit.

“Bishop, we just want you to come out here and just share your heart,” says the maudlin cleric.

“Trust me,” I reply, “you couldn’t take what’s on my heart.”

“The winter is past, rain is over, flowers appear, the voice of the turtledove sings, fig tree loaded with figs, vines fragrant with blossom.”  It’s like, well, it’s like a whole new world, fragrant, fecund and fertile.  Ellen Davis evocatively notes that whereas our sin got us kicked out of the primal garden God intended for us (Gen. 3:16), Song of Songs depicts a new, restored garden, brimming with life, a “vineyard made of the curse” (Auden).  Or as a sappy undergraduate once put it, day after he fell headlong into lust, er love, “I’m not living in the same world.”

Some of you are here more eager to snag a life partner than to inculcate principles for good hermeneutics.  I want you to hear Song of Songs as a God’s word to you in your first weeks at Duke Divinity School.

Others of you may be committed to pure, chaste, repressed Evangelical George (whom you dated your senior year of college). I hope that you are open to playing the field, fooling around, and risk falling into the arms of Saul of Tarsus, Catherine of Sienna, or John of Aldersgate.

Even platonic Plato noted connection between eros and learning; you can’t know a subject unless you are willing to risk seduction.

Though I’ve been an active faculty member for only two weeks that does not constrain me from wild generalizations about our faculty.  Be warned.  Divinity School faculty are not harmless; the best of them crave not only for your understanding of their theology but also for erotic attachment to the subject.

Take Dr. Ellen Davis: A recent divinity school graduate, now serving God in the wilds of Birmingham, told me how much he enjoyed Hebrew with Dr. Davis though, “She did rough me up a bit before one class.”  What?

“I strolled into Dr. Davis’ class, after a big party weekend, unprepared.  She glared at me, suggested that I was a disgrace to the school, questioned my vocation, then she got really nasty.”

“Never seen that side of Professor Davis,” I said, stunned.

“I was a fool to slack off with a professor so passionately in love with Hebrew.  Learned my lesson.”

Thus in a recent Divinity School promo video Dr. Davis unashamedly proclaims, “We are here for more than a head trip.”

And so are many of you.  You are here, not out of idle interest in religious ideas but rather because you heard the voice of the Beloved, as if a turtle dove, and your spirit rose, and it was spring in your soul.  Though in many ways you are not loveable, the Beloved lovingly whispered sweet nothings to you that you heard as summons, vocation.  Your dry desert burst into bloom.

Jesus has that effect.

I hear Song of Songs as a wild, uninhibited love song to God.  But isn’t it wonderful how this ancient love poem attempts to heat up our love God by working analogously from punch drunk young love?  You will grow and mature in your knowledge of God, once we faculty have our way with you.  But in a weird way, some of you insouciant, callow youth know more about God (in the biblical sense of knowing) than we faculty.  I pray not to quench your sappy, kinky adolescent love of God through my classes.

It is the nature of the Incarnate Word to personalize truth, quickly to move beyond the superficiality of the rational, to violate boundaries, to transpose cool deliberation into white hot, go all the way, sweaty engagement.

Jesus never asked us to work justice toward our enemies; he commanded us to love.  They accused Jesus of lots of things; nobody accused him of being reasonable or moderate.

When I was where you are, my first week, Yale Divinity, in orienting us to theological education the Dean urged, “Don’t limit yourselves to academic studies. Get to know the delightful diversity of your fellow students, take time for others, make friends.”

As he gathered his papers the Dean added, “And, uh, while you are making friends, don’t neglect those buried in the library.  There, you’ve got thousands of saints who walked this way before you, eager to seduce you, dead but just dying to be your new best friend.”

The words and ideas I’ve laid on you are not the highlight of this service, because the Christian faith is more than mere words and ideas.  At heart, what is all this about?  Have some bread, take some wine.  Admit your hunger, your carnal need, your deepest desire.  How loving of the Lover to deal with us as the creatures we are.  Allow Jesus to have his way with you, soul and body, passionate, heated, unrestrained, risky, too much for words.  Amen.



A farmer goes forth to sow seed and—carefully, meticulously—prepares the ground, removing all rocks and weeds, sowing one seed six inches from another? No. The farmer, without preparation, begins slinging seed. A dragnet is hauled into the boat full of creatures both good and bad. Should the catch be sorted, separating the good from the bad? No. The Master is more impressed with the size of the haul than with the quality of the harvest. One day, not today, it will all be sorted.

A field is planted with good seed. But a perverse enemy sows weeds in the field. Should we cull the wheat from the weeds? No. The Master says that someday he will judge good from bad, but we are not to bother ourselves with such sorting today. The Master seems to be more into careless sowing, miraculous growing, and reckless harvesting than in taxonomy of the good from the bad, the worthwhile from the worthless, the saved from the damned.

“Which one of you?” to paraphrase Jesus’ questions in Luke 15, “having lost one sheep will not leave the ninety-nine sheep to fend for themselves in the wilderness and beat the bushes until you find the one lost sheep? Which one of you will not put that sheep on your shoulders like a lost child and say to your friends, ‘Come party with me’? Which one of you would not do that?”

“Which of you women,” Jesus continues, “if you lose a quarter will not rip up the carpet and strip the house bare and when you have found your lost coin run into the street and call to your neighbors, ‘Come party with me, I found my quarter!’ Which one of you would not do that?”

And which of you fathers, having two sons, the younger of whom leaves home, blows all your money, comes dragging back home in rags, will not throw the biggest bash this town has ever seen, singing, “This son of mine was dead but is now alive!” Which one of you would not do that?

And which of you, journeying down the Jericho Road, upon seeing a perfect stranger lying in the ditch half dead, bleeding, would not risk your life, put the injured man in the backseat of your Jaguar, take him to the hospital, spend every dime you have on his recovery, and more. Which of you would not do that?

The answer is that none of us would behave in this unseemly, reckless, and extravagant way. These are not stories about us. These are God’s stories—God the searching shepherd, the careless farmer, the undiscerning fisherman, the reckless woman, the extravagant father, the prodigal Samaritan. Jesus thus reveals a God who is no discrete minimalist. Abundance is in the nature of this God. So when Jesus, confronted by the hunger of the multitudes (Mark 8), took what his disciples had and blessed it, there was not only enough to satisfy the hungry ones but also a surplus, more than enough. Jesus demonstrates a surfeit that is at the heart of all God-given reality.

From The Best of Will Willimon (Abingdon, 2012.  Check out Will’s novel, Incorporation, a wild ride through the contemporary church – satire and slapstick with serious theological intent.  Available from Cascade Press https://wipfandstock.com/store/incorporation.

God in Motion

Most people in our society appear to want God to be generic, abstract, vague, distant, and arcane. “God? Oh, can’t say anything too definite about God. God is large and indistinct.” For many of us God is this big, blurry concept that we can make to mean about anything we like, something spiritual, someone (if we have any distinct notions about God) whom we can make over so that God looks strikingly like us.Ruin’d nature now restore, Now in mystic union join Thine to ours, and ours to thine.

In Jesus of Nazareth, God got physical, explicit, and peculiar, and God came close—too close for comfort for many.Jesus Christ is God in action, God refusing to remain a general idea or a high-sounding principle. Jesus Christ is God in motion toward us, God refusing to stay enclosed in God’s own divinity. Many people think of God as a vaguely benevolent being—who never actually gets around to doing  anything.

It is as if we are threatened by the possibility that God might truly be an active, intervening God who shows up where we live. We’ve designed this modern world, controlled by us, functioning rather nicely on its own, thank you, everything clicking along in accord with natural laws, served on command by technological wonders of our creation.So who needs a God who relishes actually showing up and doing something? We modern people are loath to conceive of a God who is beyond our control or a world other than the one that is here solely for our personal benefit.

This is the deistic God of the philosophers, a minimalist, inactive, unobtrusive, noninvasive, detached God who is just about as much of a God as we moderns can take. There’s a reason why many thoughtful modern people seem so determined to sever Jesus from the Trinity, to render Jesus into a wonderful moral teacher who was a really nice person, someone who enjoyed lilies and was kind to children and people with disabilities. To point to a peripatetic Jew from Nazareth who wouldn’t stay confined within our boundaries for God and say, “Jesus is not only a human being but also God,” well, it’s just too unnerving for us enlightened modern people to handle. Note how frequently many people refer to “God” and how seldom they refer to “Christ,” and you will know why the statement “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor.5:19) is a threatening disruption to many people’s idea of a God who stays put.

From The Best of Will Willimon (Abingdon, 2012.  Check out Will’s novel, Incorporation, a wild ride through the contemporary church – satire and slapstick with serious theological intent.  Available from Cascade Press https://wipfandstock.com/store/incorporation.