Preachers Dare: Excerpt II

Preachers Dare is a book that grew out of the Beecher Lectures I was scheduled to give this fall at Yale Divinity School. Drawing on my decades of preaching thousands of sermons, it’s a theology of preaching that begins at Barth’s maxim Deus Dixit, God speaks. For the next couple weeks, I’ll be running a series of excerpts selected by my minion Carsten Bryant, a recent Duke Divinity grad and Methodist preacher. Here’s the second on the wildness of revelation:

The cover of Preachers Dare

Christ’s identity makes preaching in his name dangerous in its consequences and cosmic in its intentions:

Jesus comes to his people in the middle of our storms, yet his saving work is not limited to us. To be the church is to deal with our pain and tragedy but at the same time to be pushed to respond to someone else’s hurt beyond the bounds of the church. Jesus calls us to venture forth with him into the storm, and then he entrusts to us a mission that doesn’t end in the boat. The boat (navis, ancient symbol for the church, insignia of Duke Divinity School) is not Jesus’s sole concern.

Much of systematic theology is an attempt to systematically stabilize, to housebreak and bind this free and living God. We can’t, because Christianity is a revealed religion. Dealings between us and God are up to God. If you have a taste for adventure, are willing to be out of control of the communication, it’s a great way to make a living, watching Jesus elude the church’s smothering clutch and go his own way.

When we preach Christ, we refute Feuerbach’s charge that when Christians say “God,” we are projecting our pietistic feelings about God, naming our dreams and feelings “God.” Really, Feuerbach, if we were merely casting our desires out into the cosmos and calling the echo “God,” would we have come up with Jesus as Son of God? Would we have devised poor old dilapidated church as Christ’s presence in the world? We are capable of projecting gods easier to get along with than the Trinity, I assure you. Revelation is an event whereby God lifts the veil and enables us to discern and then to speak about God.

(p. 18)

Interested? I recorded this promotional video to introduce what I’m up to in Preachers Dare:

Preaching Advent 2020

My longtime colleague Richard Lischer, professor emeritus of preaching at Duke Divinity School, and I are hosting a Zoom webinar November 18th at 7pm on the particular challenges and opportunities associated with preaching during Advent this year. We’ll consider examples and take questions. You can register for it here at this link. The Zoom room is capped at 300, so register soon!

A Post-Election Call for Confession

Prayer of Confession for Trump Enabling Pastors

Dear Fellow Evangelical Pastors:

As increasing numbers of Trump’s buddies jump his sinking ship, I’m sure that his evangelical allies are afflicted with buyer’s remorse.  Even though many of you are in churches that don’t have prayers of corporate confession, we all know that confession is good for the soul, that you are all busy people with mega congregations, and that it may be as hard for you as it is for Trump to admit to wrongdoing. I offer this efficient means of making your belated–but I’m sure still graciously welcomed by our Lord–admission of sin.

Dear Lord:

Even though, as you well know, The Donald has rarely attended a church, knows little of the Christian faith, and brags that he will never, ever confess or even apologize for his sin, I

(check one or more)

  •  confess 
  •  bewail 
  •  decry 
  •  regret
  •  am embarrassed by
  •  sort of feel guilty
  •  wish I hadn’t got caught

I disregarded minimal standards of Christian belief and behavior and, in a four-year lapse of good judgment, and in reckless disregard for the spiritual health of my flock, supported and defended Donald Trump.  

There, I’ve said it.  Please don’t make me say it twice.

And Lord, though I’m sure you know there’s no excuse for me–a Bible-believing Evangelical — to consort with a lying, misogynistic, racist clown like Trump, I humbly submit for your gracious consideration my trumped-up excuses:  

(check any that apply)

  •  have a bad drinking problem.
  • was intimidated by all the Trumpers in my congregation
  •  did not attend a seminary where the Ten Commandments were stressed
  •  feel some of the same things Trump feels for Putin and Kim Jong Un
  •  possess an AK-47 (but only use it as self-defense from my congregation)
  •  believe that our Lord made too big a deal out of serial adultery
  •  feel the same way as Trump about tax collectors 
  •  like Trump, made a few mistakes, assaulted a few women, and stiffed some creditors in my twenties ( ), thirties ( ), forties ( ), fifties  ( ), sixties ( ), seventies ( )
  •  Would, like Franklyn Graham, say or do anything, and sacrifice any principle for an invite to a fancy dinner at the White House
  •  am on my third marriage too

Therefore, I promise to cease making dumb statements like

(check any that apply)

  •  “Lincoln lied too” 
  •  “Bone spurs are no joke”
  •  “Our Lord had a soft heart for prostitutes too”
  •  “Though there’s no evidence for it, maybe he’s changed”
  •  “Abortion, while not mentioned in Scripture, is the only sin that’s actually a real sin”
  •  “My children are not the brightest candles in the box either.”
  •  “Lots of people in the military were suckers and losers.”
  •  “It’s not a lie if you think it’s not.”

Lord, if you can forgive some of the stuff I did as a teenager (remember, that was before I got saved), if you could forgive a thief on the cross (who, for all I know, stole more than my former political hero), then surely you can forgive me for my political indiscretions. I’ll admit I’m not the best person in the world, and you know I have my faults, but, Lord, at least I’m not as bad as Trump. Please keep that in mind when separating sheep from goats.

Your faithful servant,


Christian Name Date

Preachers Dare: Excerpt I

Preachers Dare is a book that grew out of the Beecher Lectures I was scheduled to give this fall at Yale Divinity School. Drawing on my decades of preaching thousands of sermons, it’s a theology of preaching that begins at Barth’s maxim Deus Dixit, God speaks. For the next couple weeks, I’ll be running a series of excerpts selected by my minion Carsten Bryant, a recent Duke Divinity grad and Methodist preacher. Here’s the first on the difference between most of the sermons I hear and the “Gospel of God”:

The cover of Preachers Dare

Mainline, liberal preachers in my part of the world preach mostly from the Gospels, rather than the earlier letters of Paul. Is that because the Gospels, replete with Jesus’s words and deeds, couching Christology within narrative, appear to encourage human agency? Christ, the great exemplar of goodness, hanging out with the good country folk of Galilee, giving them a gentle nudge to love their neighbor as themselves; Christ, the beloved teacher who told stories that brought out the best in us; Christ, of use in our projects of the moment.

Maybe Christ as exemplar of good behavior is a First World problem. Paul, at work in 1 Corinthians 15, is strikingly disinterested in details of Jesus’s birth, life, and death, as if the sheer, luminous identity of Christ overshadows his deeds and words, as if in his resurrection, Christ—bodily presence of God’s eternal benevolence—needs no bolstering. God raised crucified Jesus. God raised crucified Jesus. God raised crucified Jesus. This, the sermon Paul was dying to preach, is news that propelled Paul all over Asia Minor, planting churches where nobody knew they needed a church. Is Paul’s “Gospel of God” (Rom 1:2-4) too hot for accommodated, well-adjusted-to- decline-and-death, self-help, bourgeois, progressive Christianity to handle?

Years ago, the errant Jesus Seminar caused a stir by attempting to isolate and identify the few “authentic” words of Jesus, only to be surprised that Christians don’t worship the words of Jesus; we worship the Word. While it’s fair for preaching sometimes to offer helpful hints for persons in pain, therapeutic advice for the wounded, a reason to get out of bed in the morning, a spiritual boost for the sad, or a call to arms for social activists, human helpfulness can never be preaching’s main intent because such concerns are of little concern to Jesus. Besides, why get up, get dressed, and come to church at an inconvenient hour of the week to hear what is otherwise readily available anywhere else. At least Rotary serves lunch.

(p. 12)

Interested? I recorded this promotional video to introduce what I’m up to in Preachers Dare:

Evangelism: The Old-Fashioned, Wesleyan Way (In Contemporary Idiom)

Next month, on election day, Paraclete Press will republish my first “church book” The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything. I put this book together upon arriving at Duke (the first time), having served a couple years in my first South Carolina appointment. You can preorder it from Amazon here.

Here’s the preface I wrote for this new edition:

Years after writing his momentous Romans the great theologian Karl Barth reread his world-famous book.  Much had happened to Barth in the intervening years since he had written Romans in his first, forlorn parish. After reading, Barth exclaimed, “Well roared, lion!”  I’m not Barth nor is this book Romans.  Still, I’m happy and honored that my work from long ago is being again set before the church.

Picture a young pastor, a couple of years out of seminary, stuck in a congregation by a bishop who said, “Son, do what you can, and we promise to rescue you in maybe a year or two.”  Two years passed without the good folks of Trinity United Methodist pledging the budget or fixing the leaking roof.  Nevertheless, Duke Divinity School somehow thought it wise to invite inexperienced, unsuccessful me to teach seminarians.  The dean welcomed with, “Publish!”  So, sitting at our kitchen table, I reworked one of my articles from Christianity Today (“Congratulations,” said the CT editor, “first timers usually don’t get this much negative mail”), strung together five or six of my sermons from Trinity, called it “The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything,”andhad my first “church book.”

Orson Welles said that a person’s best work is done before age thirty-five or after seventy.  Though this septuagenarian is not feeling too creative at the moment, the continued life of this little book may prove Welles half right.  After four decades, the work of a callow, untested thirty-one-year-old preacher lives again.  I’m pleased to see that, before I met Stanley Hauerwas, served Duke Chapel and the episcopacy, or wrote eighty other books, even in my youth, I wasn’t too shoddy a preacher.

My rereading of The Gospel for the Person Who Has Everything surprised me: From the first days I was already working some of the themes that characterized four decades of ministry.  I’ve changed and grown along the way but not as much as I thought. Though kept standing in the wings, Karl Barth was behind many of my arguments – and Kierkegaard too.  In this book are Barth and Bonhoeffer for everybody: grace and law are two sides of the same work of the same God, God is so much more interesting than we are, and salvation is integrally tied to vocation. Though, I should note that Barth would disapprove of my apologetic intent and Bonhoeffer would challenge some of my interpretation. The book is curiously Wesleyan in its stress on Christ’s summons to service, on enacting love on behalf of others in need, and on sanctification as being as significant as justification.  Christ calls us not to make our lives a bit less miserable but rather to enable our lives to count as part of his mission in behalf of his beloved in his world.  So, here’s evangelism the old-fashioned, Wesleyan way rendered into contemporary idiom.

Though there are dated references to Oral Roberts, the Rev. Moon, and Erich Fromm, I’m impressed by the continued relevance of the book’s major concerns.  That’s a bit depressing.  The notion that Christ is among us mainly to meet our self-defined needs – that Jesus is a somewhat primitive therapeutic technique for solving our problems and soothing our complaints – is a hard heresy to defeat.  In this book I set out to nix the notion that Jesus is here to give you whatever it is you think you must have in addition to Jesus.  Judging from many of the sermons I hear, and some that I preach, my goal for this book, to defeat Pelagianism, isn’t yet accomplished.

Just this past week I worshipped in a church where the pastor opened the service by plaintively saying, “We are here hurting, anxious, and groaning, seeking answers, lamenting amid the racism, sexism, ageism, and anthropocentrism.” 

Looking around the gathered all-white, upper middle-class congregation, they looked to me like they were in pretty good shape.   A congregation of modern, relatively affluent, North American folk like us need pastoral encouragement to be even more self-centered and self-consumed?   Can worship be reduced to a weekly deep dive into our innate narcissism.

Decades before we learned to label our theological pathology as moralistic therapeutic deism, this little book, for any of its flaws, named it.  Perennial is our attempt to turn Paul’s “the gospel of God” (Rom 1:2-4) into a means of getting what we want out of God. But the gospel is God’s means of getting what God wants out of us. 

When Methodists stop talking about God, we enjoy talking about ourselves.  How is it in your church?  Without God, we are free to fall face down into the worst excesses of carping moralism and saccharine sentimentality.  Except for a few notable lapses, by the grace of God, I’m glad to see that in this book I avoided both.  The book’s title begins, not with my attempt to assess human need but with the word “gospel” – the most interesting (and ultimately truthful) word the church has to say to the world of any age.  

Sure, there’s the awkward phrase, an occasional sappy illustration, a cringe-worthy idiom or two.  Although I like the opening sentence that states our pastoral ease “with the person in the gutter rather than the person at the top,” I wish I hadn’t ended the book with a paragraph that sounds close to a blathering platitude by Joel Osteen.  That makes me even more grateful that Lillian Daniel – one of the most clear-eyed, risk-taking, tell-it-like-it-is, platitude-free preachers I know – overlooked my youthful indiscretions and wrote this edition’s preface.

Still, for any of its faults, I’m rather pleased with the book’s straightforward, eager-to-be-heard style.  I’m surprised that a thirty-one-year-old, novice theology professor, fresh from a little, nowhere Methodist congregation, had the self-confidence to lay aside concerns about what my sophisticated theological friends might think, or how my inexperience and ignorance disqualified me, and just say the good news of God that people deserve to hear.  I don’t remember feeling self-confident at the time.  A three-hundred-member congregation that no one has ever heard of, where the Treasurer sheepishly says, “If you can’t find a way to make these deadbeats put more in the plate, you won’t be paid this month,” had not instilled in me self-confidence.

 I therefore believe that any strength in the book is attributable, not to the poise or solid academic preparation of a young preacher, but rather to a reckless God who saves by capturing unqualified people like me and using them – even though they be unawares and ill-prepared – for good purpose.  Perhaps I talk about risk and vocation so much in the book because three years into ordained ministry, I was still reeling from the shock of God having picked me, of all people, to deliver the word.  

That vocative God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is so much more interesting than the rookie preacher who wrote this book.  Yet I am bold to believe that the Gospel announced by and embodied in that God explains me and this book. 

Will Willimon

Courage and Compassion: Preaching a Prophetic Message

I appeared yesterday on a panel hosted by my fellow Wofford Terrier Rev. Lisa Yebuah with Rev. Dr. Jevon Caldwell-Gross of St. Luke’s UMC in Indianapolis, Indiana and Bishop Gregory Palmer of the West Ohio Conference. Entitled “Courage and Compassion: Preaching a Prophetic Message,” we hoped to provide preachers with the encouragement they need to continue preaching bold, true, and powerful sermons amidst difficult and divisive times.

Audience members said things afterwards like:

  • Participants gave refreshing approaches to a difficult but necessary subject. I could hear knowledge of and respect for individual and collective parishioners. For me it gave a clue to evaluating preaching. No matter the text or preaching style, consider the clear call of the gospel preeminent.
  • It encourages me to speak the truth, despite the backlash!
  • The panelists’ words were so prophetic and so accessible. God’s power was expressed in a way that let those who are preaching about racism and other justice issues could understand that this battle is the Lord’s and we can rest assured justice and truth will prevail. I loved this. Thank you.
  • I was feeling pretty bummed — this morning I was told a member was quitting because my sermon series on racism was “too political.” After today’s webinar, I’m ready to jump back in.

You can watch it on the Amplify Media website here.