Palm Sunday at Pulaski Heights UMC

I had the chance to be with Pulaski Heights UMC and to preach there on Palm Sunday. It was good to be with such a vibrant Methodist congregation! I hope you enjoy the sermon I offered there; it begins around 24:11 minutes into the service.

—Will

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Reclaiming Jesus

Friends: As you know I’ve been concerned for some time about support for immoral people in high places, particularly when that support comes from Christians. As we approach Holy Week, it is important for Christians to let the world know that Jesus Christ represents another way. So when my friend Jim Wallis convened a number of us to reflect upon our national dilemma, I was eager to participate. The fruit of our prayerful work is found here. Our hope is that this initiates a vigorous conversation among Christians about our responsibilities to witness to the Lordship of Christ.

Read our statement here: Reclaiming Jesus

—Will

Goodbye, Rex

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a national scouting convention, “Will Willimon is one of my favorite writers,” which thrilled me. Then Rex spoiled it by boasting, “I’ve read everything he has written.” No way Rex would have had time to climb to the top of Exxon if he had done that much reading.

Rex was impressed by my confession (when I spoke at the hundredth anniversary of the Boy Scouts) that anything I know about leadership I learned in Scouting. When a District Superintendent told me, “Bishop, there is no way you are going to talk the Conference into reorganization,” I replied, “You clearly don’t know to whom you are talking. I convinced a group of fellow twelve-year-olds—Camp Old Indian, near midnight on a Saturday in January, ten degrees and sleeting, no electricity—to go to the creek and wash the pots and pans from supper. I am a visionary, results-oriented, entrepreneurial, transformative leader!”

   In claiming that the main thing I got out of scouting was leadership, I’m being less than truthful with Rex. The chief training I received in scouting was an advanced course in works righteousness and the cultivation of overweening ambition. Scouting’s constant encouragement to climb the ranks, to accumulate merit badges, and to out shoot, out chop, out learn, out fight everyone else, kept ambitious male adolescents like me busy.

God and Country Award by twelve, Order of the Arrow (Brotherhood rank, no less) by thirteen, Eagle as I was turning fourteen, National Jamboree, I kept my mother busy ripping patches off my uniform and sewing on new ones as I ascended the ranks.

I wasn’t any good at sports (blame my fatherless, rural childhood). If I had had a father and had lived near town, I would have been Jackie Robinson. Scouts was my sole way of climbing, though no junior high school girl has ever gone steady with a boy because he was an Eagle Scout.

Thanks, Rex, for reading my books and thanks for your service to Scouting. Thanks for being a good Boy Scout and not lying or stealing. You were right in what you said about the President. No way your successor, Mike Pompeo, is worthy to lace your boots, sycophantic boot-licker that he is. I’m genuinely sorry that the last truthful person has left the Trump administration.

—Will

Pulpit Resource for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

I want to share some of the work we do with Pulpit Resource, to encourage your labors in proclaiming the gospel each week. Pulpit Resource offers weekly reflections on the lectionary readings, focusing on a primary text through short exegesis, additional resources, and a longer proclamation piece to share with you. If you would like to subscribe to this resource, you can do so through Ministry Matters.

As the Fourth Sunday in Lent nears, may you find encouragement in the preaching office in these reflections below: Continue reading

Memories of Billy Graham

Billy Graham walking to Duke Chapel to deliver a sermon in 1973. Photo courtesy Duke University Archives.Sharing

Billy Graham accepted my invitation to preach in Duke Chapel my first year, and, to my surprise, is the nicest evangelical famous preacher one could hope to meet.  Billy is so admired by so many for so long because Billy never stopped preaching God’s converting gift of a second chance.  One of Billy’s best-selling books was How to be Born Again. 

His sermon in Duke Chapel was a muddle—set pieces from Billy’s work over the years, little biblical content, no discernable theme. Nobody noticed.  Just being among the crowd as Billy preaches is sermon enough.

We mainline, non-evangelical, non-invasive preachers pat a congregation on the head as we murmur, “There, there, God loves you just the way you are.  Promise me you won’t change a thing.”  Billy consistently preached the Gospel of the Second Chance.  Those in desperate need of a second or third chance (for whom buttoned-down mainline Christianity is giving aspirin to someone in need of massive chemotherapy) require more than “progressive” sermons — bourgeois conformity with a spiritual tint.

“You will have a wonderful ministry here,” Billy reassured me as we stood in my study after service.  “Many of these students and faculty are unaware that Jesus Christ is eager to have them.”

I’m sorry that my friend Karl Barth disapproved of Billy’s preaching.  And I wish Billy had not been cynically snookered by Nixon. Sometimes we evangelists, in an effort to love someone for Christ, get seduced.  Besides, Tricky Dick and I need all the second chances God’s got.  Shortly after Billy’s sermon in Duke Chapel, Margie Velma Barfield fed her North Carolina preacher husband tapioca laced with ant poison, thus provoking his gut-wrenching death.  When the state medical examiner suspected foul play, the man’s body was dug up.  The sheriff supervising the exhumation was asked if an autopsy would confirm murder.  “All I know is that there ain’t a damn ant within a mile of this cemetery.”

Velma, who probably murdered many, some by poison, others by arson, was easily convicted and ordered to be executed.  While I led protests, Billy’s helpmate, Ruth Bell Graham, began corresponding with Velma on death row. Velma took the Graham cure, repented, asked Christ into her heart, and was redeemed.  Ruth pled with the (liberal Methodist) governor to spare Velma.  The governor, believing in equal rights for women more than he believed in the God of the Second Chance—refused, making Velma the first woman to be executed in North Carolina in decades.

Back when I served as Junior High rep to the Official Board of Buncombe Street Church, Billy announced that he would lead a city-wide crusade in Greenville.  The whole town mobilized for the biggest event ever to hit town.  At the Board meeting grownups debated our congregation’s participation.

“It’s a bunch of Baptists trying to get a leg up on us,” said one.

“Graham says that there will be no separation of the races during the meetings,” gasped another.  That did it. The Board voted to protect our church from Graham’s miscegenation.

After the meeting, I went out the side door closest to the bus stop.  Down a dark church hallway I heard weeping.  I crept down the hall.  Light shown from an open door.  I peeked in.  Our pastor, Dr. Dubose, was sobbing, holding his head in his hands.