Friday, June 15, 2012


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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

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….”

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reaching a New Generation

One of our Conference priorities is empowering and reaching a new generation of United Methodist Christians. A rising median age of our church indicates that we have much to do to position ourselves to reach our youth.
A huge step forward has been our appointment of Clay Farrington, a Deacon, to oversee our Conference work with youth. Clay is leading us in some exciting ways.

Clay says that Conference Youth Ministry exists for two reasons:

1.     To develop youth ministry leadership – both students and adults
2.     To host excellent student events that strengthen the local church

To those ends, we're doing a few things…

August 25: Bread & Butter: Youth Ministry Training

A jam packed one-day youth ministry training event. $20 registration fee!. Last year Duffy Robbins was our featured speaker with around 20 breakout sessions covering the gamut of student ministry. This year our featured speaker is Jason Gant from the Church of the Resurrection. The event will be at Trinity UMC in Homewood. This event is perfect for our smaller congregations who want to get back into youth ministry.


The cherished event in Gatlinburg has been reborn. This winter we had more than 500 students and leaders from throughout the North Alabama Conference present. We gleaned a huge number of names of young persons who feel called into ministry. Dr. Thomas Muhomba and the office of Ethnic Ministries partnered with Conference Youth Ministry to help reach a number of ethnic United Methodist youth.

Battle of the Bands

In an ongoing effort to develop student leadership for ministry, this year we will host a youth battle of the bands in Munger Auditorium during Annual Conference. The winning band will lead worship for Bread & Butter and a set during Encounter 2013. Clay says, “If Annual Conference gets a little boring, come on over to Munger and see the future of the North Alabama Conference.”


Clay is doing a remarkable job drawing upon the youth ministry leadership talent we already have in many of our churches. By this Annual Conference each district will have a Youth Leadership Team (DYLT) made up of 2-3 of the best youth workers in the district and 8-12 stand out student leaders (some of whom responded to the call to ministry at Encounter). The DYLT's will be given a budget from Conference. Districts have been asked to match funds. And the DYLT's will be charged with planning and implementing a youth ministry event for their district – student led as much as possible.

How well is your congregation doing in reaching and retaining youth? If you want to do more, write Clay!

Will Willimon

P.S. Join me in praying that we will have a productive and invigorating Annual Conference this week. The North Alabama Annual Conference will meet on the campus of Birmingham-Southern College May 31-June 2. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Fear of God

When Jesus rose from the dead the disciples were told, “Don’t be afraid.” Those who knew Jesus best, and were in turn known best by him, knew that, while friendship with Jesus is sweet, it is also demanding, difficult, and, at times, even fearsome.

As the Bible says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Presumably, it’s not fearful to fall into the hands of a dead god, an idol who never shocks or demands anything of you, who is no more than a fake, a godlet, a mere projection of your fondest desires and silliest wishes. Out in Galilee—a dusty, drab, out-of-the-way sort of place, just like where most of us live—the disciples of Jesus were encountered by the living God. That Jesus could not only give death the slip but also be in Galilee suggests that the risen Christ could show up anywhere, anytime. And that’s scary.

Here is God, not as a high-sounding principle, a noble ideal, or a set of rock-solid beliefs. Here is God on the move, moving toward us; God defined by God, God ordering us to be on the move into the world with God. And that’s a joyful thing—but more than a little scary too. When it dawns on you that the living God is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah we didn’t expect, the Savior we didn’t want, God in motion—well, fear is a reasonable reaction.

The modern world has many ways of turning us in on ourselves, eventually to worship the dear little god within. Christianity, the religion evoked by Jesus, is a decidedly fierce means of wrenching us outward. We are not left alone peacefully to console ourselves with our sweet bromides, or to snuggle with allegedly beautiful Mother Nature, or even to close our eyes and hug humanity in general. A God whom we couldn’t have thought up on our own has turned to us, reached to us, is revealed to be someone quite other than the God we would have if God were merely a figment of our imagination—God is a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly. This God scared us to death but also thrilled us to life.

- From The Best of Will Willimon, Abingdon, 2012

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Jesus’ Family Values

On the cross, Jesus gets into it with his mother. “Woman, behold thy son,” he says to her. Mary, look at the child you are losing, the son that you are giving over for the sins of the world. Maternal love is that love that loves in order to give away. In Mary’s case, it was particularly so. When Jesus was born, old Simeon had predicted, “A sword will also pierce your heart.” From the first, it was not easy to be the mother of the Son of God. And now, even from the cross, Jesus is busy ripping apart families and breaking the hearts of mothers. Because he was obedient to the will of God, because Jesus did not waver from his God-ordained mission, he is a great pain to his family. “Woman, behold thy son.”

In that day, in that part of the world, there were no social attachments as rigid or determinative as that of the family. Family origin determined your whole life, your complete identity, your entire future. So one of the most countercultural, revolutionary acts of Jesus was his sustained attack upon the family.

In a culture like our own, dominated by “family values,” where we have nothing better to command our allegiance to than our own blood relatives, this is one of the good things the church does for many of us. In baptism, we are rescued from our family. Our families, as good as they are, are too narrow, too restricted. So in baptism we are adopted into a family large enough to make our lives more interesting.

“A new commandment I give to you that you love one another as I have loved you,” he said elsewhere (John 13:34). Watch closely. Jesus is forming the first church, commanding us to live as if these foreigners were our relatives. Church is where we are thrown together with a bunch of strangers and are forced to call these people with whom we have no natural affinity, nothing in common, “brother,” “sister.”

So after this moment, never again could the world say family without Jesus’ people thinking church.

On campus one evening, debating the future of our fraternities and sororities, this student says, “One reason why I love my fraternity is that it has forced me to be with a group of guys, many of whom I don’t like—guys of a different race and culture from my own—and call these losers ‘brother.’ That’s made me a better person than if I had been forced to stay with my own kind.”

“I’ve never thought of a frat as a church,” I said.

That day when they came to Jesus saying, “Your mother and your brothers are looking for you,” Jesus responded saying, “Whoever does the will of my Father, he is my brother.” In other words, Jesus is naming and claiming a new family for himself, that family made up of disciples. Now anybody who attempts to follow Jesus is one of the Family.

- From The Best of Will Willimon, Abingdon, 2012

Monday, May 07, 2012

Lost and Found Loving the Lost

I am sometimes asked why so many of our Methodists have actively opposed Alabama’s controversial Immigration Law. Many of our leading educators, law enforcement personnel, and business persons have criticized Senator Beason’s law. From what I’ve seen, the motivation of many Christians in opposing the law arise from our own experience with Christ; we were aliens from the love of God, lost, then we were found.

One reason that Christians tend to move toward those on the boundaries, tend to feel responsibility for the hungry and the dispossessed is because we worship the sort of God who has moved toward us while we were famished and out on the boundaries. God looks upon us all, even us fortunate ones, as the hungry and dispossessed who need saving. This is just the sort of God who commands, “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed” (Luke 14:13-14). Here is a God who, for some reason known only to the Trinity, loves to work the margins inhabited by the poor, the orphaned, and the widowed; the alien and sojourner; the dead and the good as dead in the ditch. It is of the nature of this God not only to invite the poor and dispossessed but also to be poor and dispossessed, to come to the margins, thus making the marginalized the center of his realm. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it unto the least of these . . . you did it unto me” (Matt 25:40).

The story “I once was lost but now am found” is the narrative that gives us a peculiar account of lost and found, a special responsibility to seek and to save the lost. If we want to be close to Jesus—and that’s a good definition of a Christian, someone who wants to go where Jesus is—then we’ve got to go where he goes. Christians go to church in order never to forget that we were strangers and aliens out on the margins (Eph 2:19).

“You know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exod 23:9). We were lost and then found. That continuing memory of the dynamic of our salvation—lost then found—gives us a special relationship to the lost, the poor, and anybody who does not know the story of a God who, at great cost, reaches far out in order to bring to close embrace.

- Adapted from The Best of Will Willimon, Abingdon, 2012.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Nonviolent Resurrected Jesus

On the night a squad of soldiers arrested him, Jesus mocked them, undaunted, asking if they were armed to the teeth to arrest him, an unarmed rabbi, as if he were a common thief. Ironically, the soldiers were not the only ones with swords. Peter, the most impetuous of Jesus’ disciples, the “rock” upon which Jesus promised to build his church, whipped out a sword and nicked off a bit of an ear—despite Jesus’ clear commandment that his disciples not carry weapons. Jesus cursed Peter: “Those who take up the sword die by the sword.” That night, Jesus once again refused to practice violence, even in self-defense.

“Those who take up the sword die by the sword” is one of the truest proverbs of Jesus. Both the victor and the vanquished must finally submit to the power of the sword. The sword we thought we were using to secure ourselves becomes our ultimate defeat.

As everybody knows, there is no way to get anything really important done without swords. That’s why we have the largest military budget of any nation in the world—to achieve security and then preemptively to spread peace and freedom everywhere. What war has been waged except from the very best of motives? To call Jesus a “Prince of Peace” is an oxymoron. A political leader who doesn’t make war when national security is threatened is no prince. And peace that is based on anything other than a balance of military power is inconceivable.

Thus, one of the most perennially confusing qualities of Jesus was his refusal of violence. “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer them your left cheek as well. Some Roman soldier commands, ‘Jew, carry my backpack a mile,’ take it one mile more. Pray for your enemies! Bless those who persecute you! Do not resist the evil one!” As if to underscore that his kingdom was “not from here,” Jesus healed the daughter of a despised Roman centurion. Was this any way to establish a new kingdom?

It would have been amazing enough if Jesus had said, “I always turn the other cheek when someone wrongs me,” or “I refuse to return violence when violence is done to me.” After all, Jesus is the Son of God, and we expect him to be nice. Unfortunately, Jesus commanded his disciples—us, those who presumed to follow him—to behave nonviolently. How do we get back at our enemies? “Love your enemies!” What are we to do when we are persecuted for following Jesus? “Pray for those who persecute you.” Thus, we have many instances in the New Testament of people violating and killing the followers of Jesus. But we have not one single instance of any of his followers defending themselves against violence, except for Peter’s inept, rebuked attempt at sword play.

This consistent, right to-the-end, to-the-point of-death nonviolence of Jesus has been that which Jesus’ followers have most attempted to modify. When it comes to violence in service of a good cause, we deeply wish Jesus had said otherwise. There are many rationales for the “just war,” or for self-defense, capital punishment, abortion, national security, or military strength. None of them, you will note, is able to make reference to Jesus or to the words or deeds of any of his first followers. You can argue that violence is sometimes effective, or justified by the circumstances, or a possible means to some better end, or practiced by every nation on the face of the earth—but you can’t drag Jesus into the argument with you. This has always been a source of annoyance and has provoked some fancy intellectual footwork on the part of those who desire to justify violence. Sorry, Jesus just won’t cooperate.

William H. Willimon
from The Best of Will Willimon, Abingdon, 2012