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The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon

The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at The Divinity School, Duke University. He retired after serving eight years as Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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Bishop William H. Willimon: Last Word

June 26, 2012

A few years ago I was asked to contribute a "last sermon" to a collection that was being published. Here is that sermon offered as my last "Bishop's Email." Thanks to all those of you who have read these messages and who often responded. I have been humbled by the conversation across the church that these weekly messages (now over 350!) have instigated. Thanks.

Last Word

Now these are the last words of David:... The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on grassy land. (2 Samuel 23:1-4)

 

For my "last sermon" I take as my text the "last words of David." When King David came to the end, as I am coming to my end, what was the last song the "sweet singer" sang? Now, I'm no David. In my life I've not only not established a famed royal house, never written a psalm, but also have never committed adultery or arranged anybody's death. My finale is therefore not to be as dramatic as David's.

Yet I am, by the grace of God, a preacher. So you can imagine what I noticed in David's words. The first words he spoke, in his last words where, "The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me..." Of all King David's grand achievements, of all his dismal failures - and in his life David had both - that which made David most glad at the last were that God had condescended to speak "through me, his word is upon my tongue." "The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me...."

David's last words were, in effect, "Thank God I've been a preacher." In spite of any of David's talents, in spite of any of David's weaknesses (and he had both) when he came to the end he confessed amazement and gratitude that God had put God's word "upon my tongue."

And that's the main thing that King David and I have in common. I share David's wonder that Almighty God has deemed, in spite of my weaknesses and my dismal failures to put God's word "upon my tongue."

There have been times when I've questioned the Lord's judgment in making me a preacher. When faced with a tough text within a dismal congregational context, I've wished that God had chosen a more courageous person than I to speak the truth to God's people. I like to be liked and love to be loved. I was elected President of my class every year up through high school and, as most politicians could tell you, you don't get elected by being good at telling the truth!

In the early days of my ministry, when I glanced at the Lectionary text prescribed for the next Sunday, I cried with young Jeremiah, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." (Jer. 1:6) And the Lord replied, "you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid...." (1:7-8). End of discussion.

And in these, the later days of my ministry, I have said with The Preacher of Ecclesiastes that there was "a time to keep silence, and a time to speak." The time for a sermon is not now, "vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (Eccl. 3:7). I have joined my voice with that of a preacher I once visited (after his nervous breakdown). There he was sunk in depression, medicated into a stupor to keep from harming himself. And when I entered his room, all he mumbled was, "They never have once done anything I've told them to do in a sermon."

And yet, by the sheer grace of God, here at the end, I can say that I've not ceased to be amazed by the active, vocal ways of the living God. There is something about the Trinity that makes God loquacious, talkative, relentlessly revealing.

There have been moments when I wanted to throw in the towel and go do something for a living that was more useful, predictable and lucrative. In frustration and despair I decide that this is it - my last sermon. I have had it with them and with preaching. God can go find some other chump to clobber them with dependent clauses.

And it was then that some yokel staggered forth at the end of the service, and through tears, stammered, "That was the best sermon you ever preached. God Almighty spoke to me today through your sermon. I'm selling the pickup, quitting my job, learning Spanish and moving to Honduras as a missionary, I'm...."

I confess that it's then that I know not whether to love or to despise God. Next week I'm back in the pulpit, whooping it up and glad to be flailing away at the saints one more time. Thus I have never ceased to be humbled by the extravagant claim of the Second Helvetic Confession that the preached word is the Word of God.

Bonhoeffer said that preaching is more than the artful conveyance of useful information, more than instruction in sound doctrine. Preaching enables the risen Christ to walk among his people. In the pulpit, I've had a great vantage point for watching Christ walk, stride, sometimes cavort and run among his people. It's enough to keep you preaching for forty years or more.

Thus, on the basis of personal pastoral experience, I've been sustained, in some dry place, by God's promise that "my word shall to return empty...." and to be amazed that, even in my lousy sermons, God keeps that promise. Despite all my limitations, my distractions that kept me from spending as much care on the sermon as the text deserved, and despite all the stuff I'm still working out in my personality and the baggage I bring to the pulpit with me, what was said to big, famous, talented David is said to little old me: "The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue."

Nearly every time I open Scripture, grubbing around for a sermon for next Sunday, something to say after I've said so much in the past two thousand sermons, I am so grateful that our God is loquacious, constantly communicative, relentlessly revelatory. There's always something left to say in a sermon.

"Is there any word from the Lord?" Just about every Sunday, there sure is. Plentitude, effusiveness, fecundity is of the nature of this God. So sometimes in a sermon, when we speak, it's almost like Genesis 1 all over again. Something is added to the world, a new world takes form out of the formless void, light shines. When one is attempting to listen to a God who creates a world with nothing but words, well, before the sermon is done, it's just like David said, it's "like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on grassy land."

I know some pastors who say that they love the ministry because they enjoy fraternizing with church people and they find sustenance in working with folks in need. I've not been one of those pastors. Rather what's kept me going is God's speaking to me, through me, despite me. I've served some interesting churches, with some fascinating people, but none of them as interesting or fascinating as the Trinity. All sermons, even my forty-minute tirades, are too short, because we preachers, no matter how long we go on, can never exhaust the mystery of the Trinity. We could go on forever because God does.

Here at the end it has dawned on me that I'm running out of Sundays and that I'll never preach all of the odd, exasperating, life-giving, wonderful biblical texts. The Bible is just too rich and effusively revealing for the brevity of my remaining days. And yet, here at the last, it's comforting to know that because God is so talkative, and because God has so much left to reveal, by God's grace maybe I'll get to continue the conversation in Eternity.

Speaking of Eternity, I have no way of knowing whether or not my last words here will be my last words there. Perhaps God continues the conversation over yonder. The Revelation says that there will be no temple in heaven, and presumably no churches, but whether or not there will be no pulpits, no more preaching, who can say? Maybe, whenever there's a break in all the singing, there will be room at least for street preaching, even when the streets are paved with gold.

Above all, let me say that I'm grateful that, as a preacher I've been blessed with such an interesting God to talk about. I don't mean this as a negative judgment on anyone else's god, but I'm grateful that my ministry has been constantly renewed and reinvigorated by encounters with the Trinity. There are religions whose god offers serenity and placid detachment from worldly concerns. There are religions whose god offers holiness and righteousness, steadfast rules for living the perfect life. Our God offers himself - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - with richness, complexity, mystery and a kind of dogged determination not to be God without us. And just about everything the Trinity wants to do with us, the Trinity does through words, nonviolent, majestic, fecund, ordinary words.

Maybe I say this because I'm a preacher, but one of the things I hate about death is the silence. When there are no more words and the labored breathing gradually ebbs away into nothing, and in the darkened room all is silent, that's what I hate. The conversation that so consumed a life, that give-and-take between God and one of God's children, is ended. Silence.

Now, with the last breath and in the dark stillness, deadly silence, the next word is up to God. "And God said, 'Let there be light....'" Christians are those who fully expect that the God who was so determined to talk with us in life shall also speak to us in death. Our last day in this life shall be like the first day of Creation. Evening, changed to morning; our end, by the grace of God, fresh beginning, sunrise:

"The spirit of the LORD speaks through me, his word is upon my tongue.... like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on grassy land."

Thanks be to God!

William H. Willimon

Taken with permission from the Bishop's Blog, North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.


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