In Rev. Will Willimon’s estimation, self-righteousness is a major pitfall to preachers’ efforts to be prophetic. When religious leaders internalize expectations of saintly perfection, we can be too afraid of saying the wrong thing to risk saying anything meaningful at all. When the idea of “prophets” gets confused with “fortune-tellers,” we feel pressured to speak from a place of all-knowing certainty.
We cannot know everything; but we can try to understand God, and speak truth from that humble place of trying. Willimon encouraged us to dust utilitarian anxieties from our compasses, and to navigate by questions that point to God: “Who is God anyway? What is God up to? And how can we hitch onto that?”
Reaching for the answers can be collaborative with other people, and from the sound of laughter in the audience, it resonated when Willimon joked about how it feels when the Holy Spirit swoops in during the eleventh hour for another crack at the preacher’s notes.
There are times for public discernment, reckoning, and repentance — and what God has to say isn’t necessarily the gentle comfort we’d prefer. Some of the harshest words recorded in scripture were delivered by the ancient prophets to Israel during her moments of greatest suffering. Suffering persists today in old and new ways, and while there is a balm in Gilead, we can stray off-base in our search for a cure-all.
Willimon explained how “Most of my congregations, I confess, are limited to white, powerful, privileged people… and those kinds of people — like me — love to be told that ‘you’ are the solution to what’s wrong with you…” So we caution against individualistic delusions of control and knowing better, and remain vigilant against abuses of power even from ourselves. While personal accountability and peace of mind are important forces, Willimon reminded us that church is “not a place for anxious upper-class people to gather and be soothed.” We are an expansive body of Christ, with material needs and issues — from healthcare, to homelessness, to opening our senses to God’s movements.
In addition to critiquing different interpretations of what it means to be prophetic, Willimon challenged the idea that the sermon is meant to pull all the weight. Much of the work we associate with preaching is actually spread throughout the liturgy. Willimon acknowledged that speaking harsher truths to a congregation feels more approachable in services featuring Communion, when reconciliatory liturgy and invitation to the table can make any pill easier to swallow.
But if the pill is the truth, and the truth has a name in Jesus — we can trust that our neighbors can handle it. During sermon prep, Bible study, while wondering what “moral imagination” sounds like to our community, and even navigating confrontation with a fellow member, we can let go of our need to know or control everything. Willimon stirred peals of laughter in the audience as he portrayed a caricature of the grin-and-bear-it strategy, but the idea holds true in all seriousness, when we dodge the pitfalls to continue accompanying our Christian neighbor: I’m going to love you enough to try to believe God knew what God was doing when God called you to be a disciple.