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Preaching from Year C, August to October 2022

16 June 2022

Hearing God’s Voice Together

Will Willimon is a United Methodist bishop (retired) and Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, USA. He is author of a great many books and is a widely well-respected preacher. His latest publication (which I highly recommend), Preachers Dare: Speaking for God [Abingdon Press, Nashville, £14.99], calls readers back to preaching that is primarily about God. He asserts that preaching to be preaching shouldn’t primarily see itself as a human effort in effectiveness, but rather as daring talk about God in Jesus Christ. In constant dialogue with Karl Barth, Willimon calls us preachers to boldly ‘witness to the very voice of God.’

His words are stirring and made me question whether my preaching has been too often preoccupied with human relevance and my own need to be seen as competent, rather than a risky and determined giving voice to God. As Willimon disarmingly puts it, ‘The sermon is a human activity that can be, by God’s grace, God’s word’ (page 100). Have I too often spoken mediocre and easy words when altogether more radical and God mediated thoughts were required? Perhaps I have sometimes fooled myself into thinking my own eloquence adequate measure of a sermon’s value?

Questioned, as I am, by the seriousness of these musings, I don’t think they mean that human effort and interaction aren’t vital aspects of ‘God talk.’ Indeed, in my estimation, ‘daring speech’ demands carefully synodal preaching. ‘God solicits our participation in communication, utilizing preachers to draw the world into conversation,’ says Willimon (page 91). I think such ‘drawing into conversation’ is a crucial aspect of being synodal in preaching. It means, as Pope Francis himself has preached:

Participating in a Synod means placing ourselves on the same path as the Word made flesh. It means following in his footsteps, listening to his word along with the words of others. It means discovering with amazement that the Holy Spirit always surprises us, to suggest fresh paths and new ways of speaking. It is a slow and perhaps tiring exercise, this learning to listen to one another … and to avoid artificial and shallow and pre-packaged responses. The Spirit asks us to listen to the questions, concerns and hopes of every Church, people and nation. And to listen to the world, to the challenges and changes that it sets before us. Let us not soundproof our hearts; let us not remain barricaded in our certainties. So often our certainties can make us closed. Let us listen to one another.

That synodal listening is well evidenced in the sermons that follow. To cite just a few examples, it is shown in an imagination of response that takes seriously worldly culture beyond the Church (for example, 23 October by Nick Davies, 9 October by Samuel Thomas, or Creation Time by Val Ogden); it is open to challenge and the possibility of learning and heartfelt reflection (for example, 14 August by Rusty Edwards, 7 August by Richard Peers, 11 September by Simon Wright, or 21 August by Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed); it has about it a sense of immediacy and purposeful intent (for example, 18 September by Keith M Phipps, or 30 October by Rosemary Leclercq); and it acknowledges the most difficult of circumstances and the struggles of the human spirit (for example, 9 October by Samuel Thomas, 16 October by John Udris, or 14 August by Rusty Edwards).

Synodal preaching requires of us all, whatever our denomination or tradition, an opening of ourselves to voices other than those with which we are familiar – often those we have previously ignored – in order to hear aright the promptings of a God whose determination is the salvation of the whole world. As Pope Francis has put it, ‘Every encounter – as we know – calls for openness, courage and a willingness to let ourselves be challenged by the presence and the stories of others.’ Through those ‘others’ we may, by God’s Spirit, hear anew the saving hope of Scripture made alive in the world. The Word is always more than we can say, but never less than we can hope.

In his homily on the opening of the synodal path Pope Francis concluded,

‘In these days, Jesus calls us, as he did the rich man in the Gospel (Mark 10.17f), to empty ourselves, to free ourselves from all that is worldly, including our inward-looking and outworn pastoral models; and to ask ourselves what it is that God wants to say to us in this time. And the direction in which he wants to lead us.’

 

References:

Will Willimon, (2020). Preachers Dare: Speaking for God. Abingdon Press, Nashville.

His Holiness Pope Francis, (2021). A homily delivered at Saint Peter’s Basilica at the opening of the synodal path, 10 October 2021. © Dicastero per la Comunicazione – Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

 

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