Friday, June 24, 2011

Our Finest Hour

We are responding to the affects of the storm over the long haul. Mike Stonbraker, Superintendent of the Northwest District offered these thoughts about our work after the storm. I wanted to share them with you. - Will Willimon

In my weekly emails to the Northwest District pastors preempting Easter, I encouraged them to prepare their church families for the most meaningful Easter season the church had ever encountered, especially during Holy Week. I challenged them to take their people through the daily recorded scripture that was offered to them focusing on the final days of Jesus’ earthly life. I pushed for them to examine the temple (their church) for the money changers and con artist that spoil the holiness of the Father’s House. Upset a few tables and whip a few if you must! From courtyard teachings to final betrayal, mock trials to crucifixion, I shared with them to ready the canvas of the mind’s eye for the sunrise burst of Easter Morning.

So, just over three weeks ago our churches were celebrating the resurrection story of Jesus. My last email in the Easter series begged the pastors to invite their congregations to journey deep into the opened tomb and examine for themselves that it was truly empty. Pray for Jesus to meet with them and call them by name. My final sentence in that email stated something to fact that preaching a sermon about a resurrection encounter with Jesus is one of the easiest things for us pastor’s to do. But once the church has met the resurrected King, that’s when the real work begins. It’s not so much the Easter Sunday morning that counts…but more like the Monday ministry that follows…that’s where the real work begins. If I could ever find someone that can writes good books, I would love to tell them, listen, Willimon’s “Thank God It’s Friday”, or even Capalo’s “It’s Friday But Sunday’s Coming!” is just the beginning, write one that’s entitled “Thank God It’s Sunday, but Monday’s Coming.” To meet Jesus in worship is the easy stuff, taking Jesus home and into the streets is where the difficulty begins.

The command to Mary from Jesus in Matthews Gospel was, “go and tell the boys I’ll catch up with them in Galilee.” I think that was the Master’s way of saying to Mary, “you have seen the Resurrected Lord, now Mary, the real work begins.”

On Easter Sunday little did any of us know what work really lay ahead of us. How many times have you met Jesus in the past 19 days? My youngest son Matthew is a football coach at Smith’s Station High School. I have heard him say to his boys on many occasions, “The way you respond to winning will show your knowledge, the way you react to loss and adversity will show your character.” This Cabinet, the leadership of the North Alabama Conference along with her churches has shown their character. We have risen to the call. Jesus has met us at every turn. But the real work still lies ahead. If you will pardon my recall, I want to semi-quote a phrase and add a few words that have been part of me for many years. On June 18, 1940, while preparing Britain for war, in his speech to the House of Commons, Winston Churchill said, “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bare ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth (the North Alabama Conference) last for another thousand years, her people will say, this was their finest hour.”

Mike Stonbraker

Monday, June 13, 2011

An Open Letter

As Patsy and I have traveled about the Conference to witness the work of our churches in storm recovery many pastors have told us of their frustration that Spanish-speaking friends in the hard hit areas have been reluctant to take help from the church because they were afraid of possible reprisals from the state.

We thought this sad and hoped their fears were unfounded.

Then our state passed the meanest immigrant legislation bill in the nation.

The bill is an embarrassment to our state and does not represent the spirit of hospitality of our churches.

While I'm confident that the bill will be overturned I am proud that a number of our Methodists - those committed to evangelism and mission - are speaking up in the name of Christ to oppose this ill conceived bill that does nothing to help our state and does great harm to our sisters and brothers.

Many of our clergy plan to sign the following letter that will be sent to the governor, legislators and local newspapers. For clergy to add their signature to the letter, please email Rev. RG Lyons at with your name and church affiliation. We also invite all United Methodists to attend an ecumenical prayer vigil on June 25 at 6:30PM at Linn Park in downtown Birmingham. At the vigil we will pray for those affected by this new law as well as voice our opposition. In the coming months, we will also call for open dialogue concerning this law, our faith, and it's implications. For information on these opportunities, please check the conference website soon.

Will Willimon

An Open Letter to Governor Robert Bentley, Senator Scott Beason, and Representative Micky Hammon:

Forty-eight years ago, while sitting in a Birmingham jail cell, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that, just as Christians have a moral duty to obey just laws, they also have a moral duty to disobey unjust ones. We are a group of United Methodist ministers from all across the state of Alabama who believe that HB 56 is an unjust law. Both proponents and opponents of the bill have described HB 56 as the “toughest immigration law in the country.” Among other measures to halt illegal immigration, it gives police the ability to stop anyone they have a “reasonable suspicion” may be here illegally. It requires schools to verify the immigration or citizenship status of students. It denies bail to anyone arrested for being here illegally. And, it makes it a crime for a citizen to associate with someone who is here illegally, whether that be inviting them to one’s home or church or giving them a ride in a car.

We know that many who support this law are well-meaning individuals who are seeking to find the state's best interest at heart: they are people who are worried about employment in this fragile economy and some feel that the state is strained to pay for services like health care, police and fire protection, and education for those who may be here illegally.

These are all valid concerns. We believe, however, that many elements of this law are not in the state’s best interest. Teachers and principals are already stretched thin and have suffered tremendous budget cuts. Requiring them to also verify the immigration status of students will, in all likelihood, cost rather than save money and can only distract them from their most important task: preparing our children to succeed. Prohibiting bond to people who are here illegally means that more and more people will be kept in jails that are already overcrowded and understaffed. Finally, this law will most certainly be challenged in court and could cost the state millions of dollars at a time when nearly every state board and agency must accept budget cuts in this economy.

As Christian ministers, however, we not only believe that this law is not in the state’s best interest, but we also believe it contradicts the essential tenets of the Christian faith. Scripture is filled with examples of God’s people wandering as “aliens and strangers.” In the Old Testament, God reminds the people, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:21).” Jesus told parables about people like the Good Samaritan – someone who was not considered a true Jewish citizen – stopping to help a battered and beaten man while the leaders of the people passed him by. And the apostle Paul taught us that in Christ there is “no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).”

We believe that God’s call for the United Methodist church is to be a church for ALL people, to be in ministry to ALL people. HB 56 would define many of our churches and many people in our churches as lawbreakers. United Methodist across the state welcome all people, regardless of immigration or citizenship status, to our churches, activities, and programs. Many of our fastest growing churches are Spanish-speaking, and we do not check people’s immigration status at the door. In response to Jesus’ admonition in the parable of the Last Judgment to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger, many churches have ministries to care for those who are poor by providing them with food, shelter, and transportation. Again, we do not check people’s immigration status before inviting them into our church vans and cars. We United Methodist clergy will continue to be in ministry to all people and we call on all United Methodists to do the same.

In Christ’s Peace,

Monday, June 06, 2011

Don’t Be Afraid

This is my sermon for the Service of Ordination at this year's Annual Conference at Asbury UMC in Madison. We had a grand, informative, inspiring Conference. This sermon was my charge to our newest clergy.

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” 8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
6 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

-- Matthew 28:5-10, 16-20

We’re still in Easter, still in shock that crucified, dead Jesus has been raised. The women go to the tomb early on Easter while it was still dark. Where were the men disciples you ask? Don’t. Their’s is not a pretty story. Let’s just note that the first witnesses of resurrection, the first preachers of Easter, are women.

(Take that, you denominations that mistakenly teach that women shouldn’t preach!)

At the tomb, the women are met by an angel. And the angel says, “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid. I’ve got some fearful news to tell you women. Brace yourselves for some terrifying information. Here I go with the frightening news: he is not here. He is risen. He is going on before you.

Question: why would the Easter angel say to the women, “Don’t be afraid”? He gives them the most unimaginatively joyful news and follows by saying, “Don’t be afraid?”

I think it’s because right after the angel says to the women, “He is risen!” the angel says, “Go preach!” Go and publicly proclaim: God wins! Jesus is raised!

Later, when the women meet the risen Christ, he also says to them, “Don’t be afraid.”

You would think he would have said, “Rejoice! I’m raised from the dead!”

But the first thing the risen Jesus says to them is, “Don’t be afraid.” And the next thing he says is, “Go preach! Tell those cowardly male disciples (hunkered down behind lock doors) I have been raised!”

Some kind of connection is being made here, not simply between “He is raised” – “Don’t be afraid” but rather between, “Don’t be afraid” – “Go preach!”

If you have difficulty understanding the link between fear and vocation, between terror and the call “Go preach!” then ask any ordinand here tonight. He or she will explain it to you.
I meet with all our ordinands before I lay hands on their heads. In those encounters with soon-to-be deacons and elders I’ve heard:

“I’m afraid that God may have gotten me mixed up with somebody by the same name from another county.”

“I’m really scared that I don’t have the training I need to oversee a congregation.”

Or, “Sometimes I fear that seminary didn’t really train me to lead anybody anywhere.”

In Christian leadership, fear comes with the territory. Scripture says that it is a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.” Presumably, it isn’t fearful to acquiesce into the arms of a dead god, a god whom we use to get what we want. But it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God who uses us to get what God wants.

Well, the male disciples do as the women proclaim. They go to Galilee and, just as he promised, the risen Christ appears. Matthew says that when they saw Christ, “they worshipped him; but some doubted.” Anytime the church gathers to worship Jesus, along with prayer and praise, there’s also doubt. But here it’s not just any old doubt.

What did they doubt? The risen Christ stood right in front of them, had been with them for weeks, say some of the gospels. Surely they didn’t doubt that he was resurrected. What did they doubt?

The answer is in the specific words Jesus speaks: “All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

His resurrection is authorization by God Almighty that Jesus Christ has complete divine authority. But authority to do what?

That is answered by his next words: “Go, therefore,…make disciples, baptizing and teaching all that I have commanded.” Jesus’ authority is the authority to commission, to send these fearful, doubting disciples into the world to make disciples.

I think that’s why “some doubted.” They didn’t doubt that he was resurrected. They doubted Jesus’ authority, or at least his good judgment, in commissioning a rag-tag group of losers like them to, “Go…make disciples….baptizing…teaching….”

Lori, Mark, Alex, Joy, Wade and all the rest, I bet (if Methodists were permitted to bet) that you know exactly why “some doubted.”

How can it be that a crucified, resurrected Lord would summon fearful, doubting people like us to do his courageous, revolutionary work?

Tonight, in this service, that’s what the church tries to say to you:

Don’t be afraid. God knows what God is doing when God calls you for ministry.

Don’t doubt. Jesus believes that you will be faithful to his call, even more than you may believe in you.

In your ministry after this night, believe that. Believe not only that dead Jesus was raised, but that resurrected Christ immediately began calling women and men like you to help him save the world.

After thirty-nine years of ordained ministry the only claim I have for authority, the only hope I have that my pitiful ministry counts is this: I’ve been summoned by a Savior who confounds the wisdom of the world by calling fools like us to grow his Kingdom.

Upon my arrival here, when I laid out my plans for what I wanted to do, a wise, old, experienced pastor asked, “What gives you the right to tell us what to do? D you think that these changes will make a difference? We’ve been declining for a decade and I don’t think you are good enough to turn things around.”

And in the face of his justifiable incredulity at my episcopacy all I could say was, “I believe, despite my fears and doubts, I’ve been called. I believe that this was God’s idea before it was mine. I’m not the smartest or most experienced bishop you could get, but I’m the only one God sent. So there.”

Don’t be afraid! Believe in Jesus’ vocation more than you believe in your human limitation!

I recall the woefully frightened young pastor who was sent, for his first appointment, to a congregation universally acknowledged to be the meanest in the South Carolina Conference. That poor young preacher nearly had a breakdown when the bishop appointed him there.

First Sunday summoning forth his courage, he went out to the church and somehow managed to tremble and shake through his first sermon, terrified to look up from his notes at some of the mean looking Methodists.

Finally he stood at the door, bidding farewell to the stone-faced, cold handed members as they exited. The lay leader of the church paternally put his arm around him and said, “Son. We know what you have heard. We ain’t going to hurt you.”

The terrified young preacher went limp with relief.

“We ain’t going to harm you,” reassured the lay leader. “But we aim to kill that fool bishop that sent you.”

True story.

Newest sisters and brothers in our Conference, my charge to you tonight: “Don’t be afraid. There is no daunting task that Christ sets before you that he will not also give you what you need faithfully to fulfill his summons. Don’t doubt. Jesus has this uncanny gift for calling the right people to do his work.”

Tonight your church rejoices that once again, the risen Christ sends us just the people we need to give our church a future, to enable us Methodists to be faithful. Don’t be afraid.

- William H. WIllimon

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Healthy Congregations

It’s a typical Sunday morning for me and Patsy. We drive past fallow fall fields, trustworthy GPS coaxing us down the rural roadway. Just over an hour outside of Birmingham we descend a low hill, the trees part, and we see a little white frame church, a building that is type cast as everyone’s idea of a church. An hour before the service only a few pickup trucks have gathered in the church’s gravel lot. Spotting an aging Ford Taurus parked in the shade, I comment knowledgeably, “At least the pastor is here.”

“Though this county has lost a third of its population, it now has the third highest influx of Spanish speaking people. That building was built after the fire – in the Forties – they still call it ‘the new church,’” I say, showing off my reading. It is my custom to ask for a summary of the demographic context and the congregational history when I make a Sunday visit. While my sermon preparation is helped by knowledge of the congregation’s past, the truth is that most of our congregations have more history behind them than future before them.

The majority of our congregations, like the one where I’m the visiting preacher today, are located where they were planted a century ago. In every case, the community that gave them birth has relocated. Though the people around the congregation have changed, the congregation has remained fixed on the same land where it was established and, in many cases, fixed in the same rhythms of congregational life that worked for them decades ago, but no longer work today.

That’s one of the things people love about a church – it doesn’t move. It blooms where planted and, long after it has ceased to be fruitful, stays planted. We build our churches to look at least two hundred years older than they actually are. Inside, we bolt down the pews and make the furniture heavy and substantial. That the world around the church is chaotic and instable is a further justification for the church to be fixed and final.

One of my younger churches worships in the “contemporary worship” idiom. The pastor complained to me of boredom: “We are singing the same songs, using the same pattern of worship that we’ve been stuck with for the past twenty years. Worst of all, we call it ‘contemporary’!”

“Why not change?” I asked naively.

“This is a highly mobile suburban neighborhood,” he explained. “Only a couple of my members have been here longer than I. The last thing my people want is for church to force even more change. Contemporary has become our hallowed, immutable tradition.”

In a time when many feel overwhelmed by change – the government’s economic attack on the middle class, high unemployment among our young adults, shifting political alliances, soaring debt to pay for the biggest military in the world, the demise of once sound institutions, changing social mores, the information explosion – the church is tapped to play the role of island of stability amid a sea of change.

What is incomprehensible is that we call this stability-protecting, past-perpetuating institution “the Body of Christ.” All the gospels present Jesus as a ceaseless peripatetic. Never once did he say, “Settle down with me.” No, with vagabond Jesus it was always, “Follow me!”

Consider the first days of Christ’s resurrected life. Not content just to be raised from the dead, the risen Christ is in motion, returning to the rag-tag group of Galilean losers who had failed him. (Matthew 28:16-20)

And what does Jesus say? “You have had a rough time. Settle down in Galilee among these good country folk with whom you are most comfortable. Buy real estate, build a church, get a good mortgage, and enjoy being a spiritual club”? No. The risen Christ commands, “Get out of here! Make me disciples, baptizing and teaching everything I’ve commanded! And don’t limit yourselves to Judea. Go to everybody. I’ll stick with you until the end of time -- just to be sure you obey me.”

How like the rover Jesus to disallow his people rest. Refusing to permit them to hunker down with their own kind, he sent those who had so disappointed him forth on the most perilous of missions. They were, in Jesus’ name, to take back the world that belonged to God. There is no way to be with Jesus, to love Jesus, without obeying Jesus, venturing with Jesus. “Go! Make disciples!”

The theme of this year’s Annual Conference is “Healthy Congregations.” We are going to reflect on our Conference priority of building healthy churches. One way to tell if a person is in good health is if that person is out and about, if that person is able to be a person in motion.

One way to tell if a congregation is healthy is that it is on the move, trying to keep up with the machinations of the risen Christ. Thanks be to God the majority of our churches, thought they may have been planted where they are a century ago, show a wonderful willingness to be in motion with the risen Christ.

William Willimon