Book Review: Accidental Preacher: A Memoir

Accidental Preacher: A Memoir

Author: Will Willimon, Afterword By Kate Bowler

Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2019

242 pages, including Prelude, Afterword, and Index, hardcover

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

About the Author

The following information is from the jacket cover: “Will Willimon is professor of the practice of Christian ministry and director of the Doctor of Ministry Program at Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina. He is an internationally renowned preacher and widely read author noted for his humor, his insight into the Christian faith, and his theological commitment. His many books have sold over a million copies.”

Rev. Dr. Willimon, a Methodist preacher and former bishop, is the prolific author of over 80 books, thousands of sermons, and numerous articles in publications such as The Christian Century. He also has a popular website: 

A Personal Note

Over the years, I’ve appreciated Rev. Dr. Willimon’s written works and website posts. A few years ago, our synod clergy study conference was privileged to have Dr. Willimon as the keynote speaker. He is an incredibly gifted master storyteller, able to tell one story or anecdote after the other ad infinitum. 


There are nine chapters written by Dr. Willimon, each beginning with a biblical citation. The chapter titles are as follows: Fortuitous Baptism, Unwitting Call, Inadvertent Summons, Unexpected Church, Unplanned Disruptions, Adventitious Preacher, Serendipitous Writer, Unanticipated Friends, Unforeseen Commission. 

To whet readers’ appetites, I am going to cite one or more quotations from each chapter.

In Fortuitous Baptism, Willimon has this to say about his mother: “My mother ended her day reading her bedside Bible. That one so fiercely independent as my mother daily submitted to the writings of these ancient Jews made a deep impression.” (p. 19)

Also in chapter one, when a grade four student boasted that he gave his life to Christ, Willimon reflecting on such a boast, counters it with this insight: “You can’t give something to somebody who already owns what’s being given.” (p. 37) 

In Unwitting Call, Willimon reflects on calling, identity and God: “Believing that most of the important things that define us are accidental, externally imposed, Christians believe the question is not “What do I want to do with me?” but rather “Which God am I worshiping and how is that God having his way with me?” (p. 45)

In Inadvertent Summons, Willimon observes: “That we are not self-made implies that we are God’s property, to be called for as God pleases. In the New Testament, “calling” or “vocation” refers to discipleship rather than employment.” (p. 53) 

For pastors, according to Willimon one’s calling, one’s vocation is an ongoing struggle: “Church doesn’t wait for you to have the proper motivation for worship in order to call you to worship. And there are so many times, when you have been called to be a pastor, that you don’t feel like being a pastor but still must act the part. As a pastor, your personal problems take a backseat to the needs of others.” (p. 71)

In Unexpected Church, Willimon shares this humorous tidbit: “To everyone’s surprise, there I was, 1998, delivering the final address at Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral Successful Church Conference. A thousand pastors had gathered around the theme “How to Succeed at Ministry.” I, of course, chose “Failing at Ministry with Moses, Peter, and Just about Everybody in the Bible.” (p. 86)

There are several thought-provoking Willimon statements in Unplanned Disruptions—some may find them prophetic, others cynical and hyper-critical, yet others painfully true.

On the Bible and family: “Scripture’s lack of interest in childhood, parents, and family is born of the conviction that God is more responsible for you than Mom or Dad.” (p. 98)

A critique of and prescription for mainline Christianity: “Buttoned-down mainline Christianity offers aspirin for those in need of massive chemotherapy.” (p. 101)

On Willimon’s experience of racism: “You already know that I grew up in an unashamedly, legally white-supremacist culture. Each day I boarded a Greenville bus that bore the sign: South Carolina Law: White patrons sit from the front. Colored patrons sit from the rear. Nobody questioned that sign, especially those who preached to me on Sunday.” (p. 102)

A critique of natural law: “Natural law is a fiction devised to help us cope with our contingency before God. Sorry, anal-retentive legalists, the world was not created by a lawyer.” (p. 104)

On preachers who pervert the theology of the cross: “Ingratiating preachers transform Jesus’s cross into a snuggly bourgeois blanket.” (p. 107) 

On the upper middle class and pneumatology: “The upper middle class has a myriad of ways to tame the Holy Spirit.” (p. 113) 

On God continuing to work within us: “How easily people like me get it wrong; how disruptively God works to set us right.” (p. 116)

In Adventitious Preacher there are a generous array of homiletical insights. 

On the nature of preaching: “If a preacher finds the words to bring the gospel to speech, it’s only grace. The Christian faith is inherently acoustical. You can’t self-inoculate the gospel; somebody’s got to tell it to you. It’s auditory.” (p. 122)

A couple of priceless quotes from Luther on sermons and preachers: “Luther said ‘a sermon is a surgeon’s scalpel!’ Hey, he also said, ‘Whenever the word of God is rightly preached, demons are unleashed!’” (p. 127) “God can ride a lame horse or shoot with a crooked bow,” said Luther. By God’s grace, even life’s setbacks can be used by God to re-call a preacher.” (p. 129)

On the process of sermon preparation and when the preacher is not satisfied with their sermons: “When composing a sermon, I apply a theological test: What is God doing in this biblical text, and what might God condescend to do in my sermon? In my sorriest sermons, Jesus may elect to preach.” (p. 142) Yours truly has experienced this numerous times over the years!

On a best thing about being a preacher: “One of the best things about being a preacher is that one preaches from, rather than apologizes for, a biblical text.” (p. 144) 

On clergy leaving the ministry: “Of the twenty people who were ordained with me, only two of us made it to retirement as clergy.” (p. 145) 

On the consequence of preaching: “Preaching is judged by its performance in the lives of the saints.” (p. 147) 

In Serendipitous Writer, Willimon links “good preachers” with writers: “Good preachers are voracious readers, recognizing in writers and stand-up comics our kith and kin who, like our Lord and Dostoevsky, create worlds through words.” (p. 163)

A warning about those who write an autobiography or a memoir: “Gertrude Stein dismissed autobiography as inferior literature that “anyone can write,” then proved herself wrong in The Making of Americans. Be suspicious of memoirists who claim to give you a fully accurate rendition of themselves.” (pp. 164-165)

In Unanticipated Friends, Willimon acknowledges preachers’ indebtedness to other preachers: An unindebted preacher is a poor preacher, though the line between grateful apprenticeship and smarmy plagiarism gets thin. My own incriminating paper trail is too long for me to be righteously indignant that a fellow preacher snitched one of mine.” (pp. 185-186)

On the importance of Willimon’s wife as his friend: “Never a truer word was spoken by my mother than “Without Patsy, (Willimon’s wife) you would be a disaster.” (p. 189)

On God’s forgiveness: “Don’t attempt friendship, in marriage or otherwise, without a God who forgives.” (p. 196) 

On advice from Willimon’s friend Rev. Carlyle Marney: “I called Marney and asked him if I should interview at Duke. “Sure. But if you’re hired by Duke, you must become more adept in using a word:bullshit.” (p. 209) 

In Unforeseen Commission, Willimon reflects on the surprise element of prophecy: “Now anybody God chooses, even betrayers like Peter or me, can be enlisted for prophecy.

On the authority of a bishop, Willimon offers this satirical comment: “I wish that Jesus had authorized lapel pins, Boy Scout badges, corporal’s stripes, judge’s wigs, Tasers, or doctoral hoods to give God’s servants clout, but that’s not how Jesus works.” (pp. 226-227)

This memoir is a brilliant example of how God humorously and absurdly chose and called Rev. Dr. Will Willimon into the ministry. All preachers would benefit in some way from reading this volume. 

Book Review: Finally Comes The Poet

Finally Comes The Poet: Daring Speech For Proclamation

Author: Walter Brueggemann

Publisher: Fortress Press

165 pages, including: Preface, Introduction, Notes, and Scripture Index Paperback

At the time of writing this volume, Walter Brueggemann was Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, in Atlanta, Georgia, and President-elect of the Society of Biblical Literature. Since then, he went on to become one of the most renowned, respected and prolific Hebrew Bible scholars.

This book was Dr. Brueggemann’s the Lyman Beecher Lectures on preaching at Yale Divinity School. The book’s title was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem, Leaves of Grass: “Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name, the true Son of God shall come singing his songs.”

In addition to the Introduction, the work consists of four chapters: 1. Numbness and Ache The Strangeness of Healing; 2. Alienation and Rage The Old Invitation to Doxological Communion; 3. Restlessness and Greed Obedience and Missional Imagination; 4. Resistance and Relinquishment A Permit for Freedom.

Professor Brueggemann’s writing is, at times, profound and provocative, passionate and poetic. To wet potential readers’ appetites, here are a few quotations:

The act of preaching is not instruction, rational discourse, or moral suasion. It is the invitation and permit to practice a life a doxology and obedience, which properly orders the ongoing relationship of sovereign and subject, which in seasons of trust is that of parent-child, or even friend and friend (John 15:14-15).” p. 68

Praise is always an act of political reality, daring a new way in the world.” p. 69

Judged by any pragmatic norm, praise is foolishness. It has no end beyond itself. Praise is the simple act of enacting our true purpose, namely letting God be God in our life. As that happens, we take on our true human character. In the act of praise, we become the creatures whom we are meant to be; against subjectivity that produces anxiety, against technique that leaves us empty, we are now filled with life as creatures gifted by the Creator.” pp. 73-74

The great fact of the Western world, and therefore the circumstance of our preaching, is that we gather as restless, greedy children of disproportion, caught in an ideology of acquisitiveness. That is, social goods, social access, and social power are not equally distributed.” p. 82

The theological issue in the Sabbath command is rest. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is restlessness. Restlessness touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological.” p. 98

The Jubilee precludes any exploitative economic practice that is ultimately demeaning of human persons and destructive of human community.” p. 102

The event of preaching is an event in transformed imagination. Poets, in the moment of preaching, are permitted to perceive and voice the world differently, to dare a new phrase, a new picture, a fresh juxtaposition of matters long known.” p. 109

It is in the reality of being loved and reloved, treasured, trusted, summoned, and gifted, that we become free enough to be the children of God—freed for life with God.” p. 113

We have only the word, but the word will do. It will do because it is true that the poem shakes the empire, that the poem heals and transforms and rescues, that the poem enters like a thief in the night and gives new life, fresh from the word and from nowhere else.” p. 142

This volume is most likely to appeal to biblical scholars, theologians and preachers.

Book Review: Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism

Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism

Author: Marilyn Salmon

Publisher: Fortress Press

183 pages, including: Preface, Notes, Suggestions for Further Reading, Index of Names and Subjects, and Index of Ancient Sources, paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Rev. Dr. Marilyn Salmon is professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in St. Paul, MN. She is an Associate Priest at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul where she preaches regularly. Salmon is involved in Jewish Christian relations and has served on the Advisory Board of the Jay Philips Center for Jewish Christian Learning for many years.

This volume, is one in a series of Fortress Press Resources for Preaching.

While I found this work quite engaging, I also felt challenged, and at times, disagreed with Dr. Salmon.

In her Preface, Dr. Salmon states the purpose of this volume: “The purpose of this book is to raise awareness of the negative images of Judaism that commonly occur in preaching, to learn to recognize them, and to adopt strategies to avoid repeating them.” (p. X)

Professor Salmon goes on to share a foundational premise for her hermeneutical and homiletical approach to the New Testament: “The Gospels themselves sound anti-Jewish. However, I maintain they are not. The Gospels belong within the context of first-century Judaism. They were written before Christianity existed apart from Judaism.” (p. X) They are Jewish literature, not Christian literature. However, I’m not sure that a majority of Jewish and Christian biblical scholars and preachers would agree with this premise.

This volume is well designed, with five chapters: Introduction, The Gospels as Jewish Literature, Supersessionism, The Pharisees and the Law, The Gospel of John, The Passion Narrative and a Conclusion. There are also several sub-sections of each chapter to enhance the flow of the work. Some of the chapters also contain examples of sermons that Dr. Salmon preached, which intentionally endeavour to avoid anti-Judaism. I confess that I found a couple—but not all—of these sermons rather dry and overly pedagogical, while others were helpful and instructive.

There are several instances where I do not agree with Dr. Salmon, or if not agreeing, I question or am more ambiguous about her conclusions. Here are a couple of examples.

Dr. Salmon suggests that it is more helpful to read the New Testament from a theocentric viewpoint rather than a Christological one in order to avoid supersessionism. However, I think the “primary subject” of the New Testament is Jesus, and to read it from a Christological perspective need not mean one is promoting supersessionism.

In Professor Salmon’s chapter on The Pharisees and the Law, she writes: “The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath” is not original with Jesus; it reflects general wisdom concerning the sabbath.” (p. 96) My response is, if this is not original with Jesus, then why not cite the original source?

I appreciate the research that Dr. Salmon engaged in for this volume and her concern to overcome unintended anti-Judaism in the Christian pulpit. This work does make a significant contribution towards understanding the Pharisees in a more positive light. For example, she cites E.P. Sanders, who made the claim regarding the ritual purity laws that: “All Jews, including Pharisees, were impure more or less all the time.” (p.100) Dr. Salmon repeatedly emphasises the wide diversity of Judaism at the time of Jesus and after the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. She points out that the caricatures of Judaism by Christians and the use of Judaism as a foil to promote the adversus Iudaeos argument and emphasise the superiority of Christianity over Judaism as a devastating practice has damaged Jewish-Christian relations for centuries; and she advocates the use of more carefully nuanced readings of the Passion Narrative in Holy Week liturgies, providing two online links in her Notes for them; she also includes a resource from Brian Wren’s Piece Together Praise for Holy Week, a Kyrie in three stanzas, with the first line of each stanza containing this prayer: “God, thank you for the Jews.” (pp. 153-154)

I recommend this volume to preachers, and those interested and involved in Jewish-Christian relations.

2019 Synod Study Conference

This year our annual Alberta and the Territories Synod Study Conference featured keynote speaker, Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis. She is the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary and she previously taught at Candler School of Theology, Columbia Theological Seminary, and Augsburg College.

She is the author of John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries(2014).

In addition to addressing matters of biblical exegesis, sexism (according to the study of one scholar, only about 1 per cent of all the people in the Bible are women, and many of them either do not speak, speak only briefly, and many of them are unnamed), racism, a canon within the canon, reading and studying the Bible with the awareness of one’s own built-in biases—Professor Lewis challenged conference attendees to be more aware of what we believe about the Bible, how we read and interpret it (hermeneutics), how we prepare sermons and preach on them.

Professor Lewis also presented her exegesis of the Johannine story of Jesus and the woman of Samaria in chapter four. She encouraged those who read, study and preach on this pericope to pay attention to the details of if not each word, at least each sentence in the story. For example, the text says in verse four: “But he (i.e. Jesus) had to go through Samaria. Why did Jesus have to go through Samaria? At the time Jews and Samaritans were not exactly on friendly terms. Indeed Jews avoided travelleing through Samaria and the Samaritans if they at all could. It is clear by looking at a map that Jesus definitely had at least two options in travelling back to Galilee—he could have taken a route along the coast or he could have crossed the Jordan and travelled on the east side of Samaria. Yet, he had to go through Samaria. Of course, one reason for that was to widen the scope of his ministry; to become more inclusive by welcoming women as well as men, non-Jews as well as Jews into his realm.

In addition to Rev. Dr. Lewis’s presentations, we enjoyed hearing from other presenters and had opportunity to reconnect with colleagues informally, as well as worship together.

Below is a photo of our Synod’s women clergy as well as a few visiting from other Synods and Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis.

NT Wright on Preaching

I don’t think that I’m the only preacher who, over the years, has struggled with preaching on the Pauline letters. In this video, biblical scholar, bishop, author, professor and preacher, NT Wright, is interviewed by another professor of preaching, Ronald Allen, focussing on preaching the Pauline letters.

A preacher to preachers

A preacher to preachers

Those of us who preach, more or less weekly, are also in need of inspiration from, if you will, a preacher to preachers. One such mentor whom I appreciate is Frederick Buechner. Here are a few words of wisdom from Buechner on the power and inspiration of words, sermons and preaching.

“Sermons are love letters.”

A sobering question for me as a preacher is: How much love do I put into sermons as I prepare and deliver them? I’m sure there’s always room from improvement, speaking for myself. And do parishioners hear and receive sermons as love letters? If they do, then there shall be a whole lot of understanding and harmony in the parish, and they will be inspired and encouraged.

“Language itself is revelatory and gives life.”

If that’s true, then we preachers shall always be searching, with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, to find the right words and transform them into God’s Word for his people via the sermon.

Buechner’s sermons contain what’s been referred to as an angular vision—i.e. seeing something just above or below, not directly, to describe the everyday and apprehend the holiness.

It has been said that Buechner’s book, Telling Secrets, is a life transforming one for preachers.

“Secrets can do damage, they undermine facing the present head on. Doubts, failures, mysteries, imperfections, warts and all—tell all the secrets, the truth will set you free.”

Buechner says that we preachers need to be whistling in the dark.

“Without darkness, people cannot appreciate the light. Writing and preaching are like whistling in the dark. It is trying to convince ourselves as preachers that there is something, someone more than the darkness.”

I like this image of “whistling in the dark,” for me it is an image of hope, courage and joy—that even in the face of sufferings and an uncertain future, we can dare to live with hope, take courage, and be joyful. Why? Because God—Immanuel—is with us.

According to Buechner:

“There is nothing more powerful than a preacher speaking with love to a congregation.”

This reminds me of the captive audience of the disciples on the Emmaus road with the risen Christ, when Jesus opened up the meanings of God’s Word.

“Silence is the first language of God. We need to listen to God in silence. Preaching is born out of silence.”

The times my sermons fall on deaf ears are likely due in part at least to the reality that I did not spend enough time in silence to germinate the Word or hear what the Holy Spirit was speaking to me.

Buechner’s writing is often darkness before the light, the muck before the cleanliness.

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found.”

Amen to that, for that’s the Good News of the parable of the prodigal son in a nutshell!

Transfiguration Sunday Yr B

Transfiguration Yr B, 22/02/2009

II Cor 4:3-6

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta


“For we do not proclaim ourselves”


Preachers and preaching. In today’s second lesson, the apostle Paul is speaking of himself and his co-workers. He says: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” Paul and his co-workers are facing charges from some in the Corinthian congregation. The charges seem to be that Paul and his co-workers are not genuine preachers and their preaching is not authentic. In response to the charges Paul insists that he and his co-workers are genuine and their preaching is authentic.

From the beginning of the Christian Church, right up to the present day there have been charlatan preachers preaching deceitfully. I don’t know if you’re like me, but on occasion, I have heard a few preachers so egotistic that their sermon was all about themselves. Every story in the sermon was from their life or a member of their family. If I were the preacher’s spouse or family member I’d have felt rather embarrassed and perhaps even resentful about such stories. A preacher needs to practice discernment and ask permission from family members before he or she tells family stories from the pulpit.

Some preachers are tempted by fame and status. They covet being the most popular preacher in the world. Or they become obsessed with climbing the social ladder; desiring to hobnob with the rich and famous. Worldly gain is their game; some making millions of dollars a year by distorting Jesus and the gospel into an entrepreneurial empire. Their affluent lifestyle is on public display for us to see as if they were saying: “Look how rich and successful I am!” Their theme song is “How great I art.” I wonder what Jesus thinks of such preachers?

Other preachers are hooked on Hollywood. They strive to be the Rev. Entertainer; the single, most important criteria for their preaching is the question: “Are my sermons entertaining?” For them, wowing us with dramatics is cool. They may compromise their moral-ethical integrity to preach manipulative, emotionally stirring sermons to get what they want for their own selfish ends. Preachers who tip the scales too far this way may be tempted to develop a cultic or sectarian following like some of the Televangelists. Cultic and sectarian followers are brainwashed, programmed to do almost anything for their leader who has absolute authority and control over them. In recent times, we’ve witnessed how such cultic and sectarian followers have killed and committed suicide in God’s name because they’ve been brainwashed by their leaders.

How radically different are genuine preachers! Paul says you can tell a genuine preacher from a charlatan. He says a genuine preacher does not preach herself or himself. No. Rather, he or she preaches Jesus Christ as Lord and himself or herself as slaves for Jesus’ sake. Or in the words of The Message: “Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you.” I like that—we’re messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. If I am going to be a reliable messenger I need to listen very closely to the message I’ve been given to share it with you accurately. I need to learn the message and communicate it well for you. I also need to take orders willingly from Jesus so that I can run the errands he gives me. I need to be in shape spiritually to run his errands. So an authentic preacher feeds daily and deeply on God’s Word. Unless I feed daily and deeply on the Bible, how can I feed you spiritually? An authentic preacher also listens to Christ speaking through prayer. Without listening to Christ in prayer, I cannot feed you.

When I read and study the Bible and feed deeply on it; when I listen to Christ in prayer I, like Paul will strive to preach the message that Jesus is Lord. At the heart and core of all Christian sermons is the earliest confession and creed: “Jesus is Lord.” What does it mean to preach and confess Jesus as Lord?

Well, it means several things. Jesus as Lord means that his power and authority is the highest power and authority of all. No human being, no human institution has a higher claim on our loyalty if Jesus is Lord. Our loyalty to Jesus as Lord is greater than our loyalty to family. Jesus as King of kings and Lord of lords has a claim on our loyalty that is higher than our loyalty to any political party, government, or nation. Preaching and confessing Jesus is Lord means that his claims on us to be loyal to him are higher than the claims of race, class, or gender. The confidence of Christian preachers in preaching Jesus is Lord gives them courage and their people courage to confess Jesus as their Lord even in the face of the most powerful forces and authorities on earth.

On the scaffold in a Nazi prison, within months of the end of the Second World War, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was superior to the might of Adolf Hitler because he knew that Jesus is Lord. This is the testimony of countless witnesses and martyrs throughout the ages, some known to us and many unknown to us. This is the witness when, on our deathbeds, in our dying moments, the faithful in Christ triumph over the failures of medicine and of the body, because we say and we know that Jesus is Lord. Who is Jesus? Jesus is Lord; and as long as there are people in the world who, in the worst of times under the most dangerous of circumstances, yet declare that Jesus is Lord, this world and all of its powers will never ever have the last word.1

We preachers and you listeners who follow Jesus continue to place all of our hopes and fears, sufferings and triumphs in the One whom we confess to be: Jesus is Lord. We believe with our whole being that if Jesus is Lord then, come what may, we shall endure it for he is always with us right up to the end of this life and into the open door of eternity. Fear not brothers and sisters in Christ, for Jesus is Lord!

Coming back to what Paul is saying to the Corinthians and us today, because genuine preachers preach Jesus is Lord, they are “your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” In the New Testament Greek, the word doulos can be translated both as slave or servant. The word slave today may have negative connotations—since we in the Western world worked hard and even fought to end slavery. I think what Paul is driving at here is not the negative realities of slavery. Rather, I think what he means here is something like this: because Jesus has a claim on us preachers as Lord, we are compelled to give of ourselves in love as he did for the people we serve. The self-giving love of Jesus will pour into us if we are called to be preachers so that we can give this same self-giving love to those we serve.

In making personal sacrifices as preachers, we discover, more often than not, the truth of Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” For Paul, it means putting the needs of others first by serving them. A colleague and friend of mine of blessed memory, the Rev. Dr. K-Henry Reitze, inspired me with putting others first by serving them. Whenever we gathered together for a meal at church, he would go to the end of the line and insist on being last. We are your slaves for Jesus’ sake. We are here to serve you. I don’t think Paul meant that as slaves we serve out of fear. Nor do I think he meant we serve as hirelings. Moreover, I don’t think that Paul equates slave here with abuse or misuse. Rather, I believe Paul meant that as slaves for Jesus’ sake we serve out of his love. The love we receive from Christ is not horded and kept to ourselves; it is shared with you whom we serve. In serving you, we serve Christ himself, which is the highest privilege that I can think of in this life.

So, thank you for granting me the privilege of serving you. Most of all, thank God through our Lord Jesus Christ for the privilege of serving him and for giving us the Gospel, the Good News, which is meant to be shared with you and all people. Whether we are ordained or laity, we are all called to spread the Good News in word and deed. May the Holy Spirit give us grace to make us willing to share this Good News. Amen.


1 Peter J. Gomes, Strength for the Journey (New York: HarperCollins & HarperSanFrancisco Publishers, Inc., 2003), pp. 213-214.



Third in a series on preaching

Third in a series on preaching

WARNING: This is a post primarily for preachers. Readers who are not preachers most likely shall be bored beyond belief, because this is “shop-talk” about the art and craft of preaching.

A seasoned mechanic knows the “how,” the nuts-and-bolts of machines. There are many principles and rules determining how a motor works. The same is true of preaching and preachers. David Buttrick’s Homiletic: Moves And Structures endeavours to make preachers more conscious of the “how to” principles and rules of preaching and sermons. Here is more advice from Professor Buttrick on what to avoid in preaching and sermons and how to prepare and deliver sermons. If you agree with Buttrick and practice all or most of his advice, bless you! If not, then argue with him, test his advice, learn and grow in your preaching, and bless you too!

Avoid conceptual words, vague general terms like: goals, relationships, situations, desires, and the like. Instead use visual images or analogy. Instead of: In our homes, in daily life, we do not take time for God or prayer. Use language like this: At home, around a kitchen table, or when it’s tuck-in-time for bed, we don’t bow our heads much, do we?

Instead of flat verbs like look, see, or realize, revise, removed, omitting, spoke, use colour verbs having visual character like: peer, scan, peek, stare, study, puzzle, probe, gaze, take in, grasp, catch on, make out, savvy, penetrate, set out to, edit, scrapping, scratched, fit to scribble, frame, hand out, and the like. Use adjectives very sparingly, they only snuff out comprehension. Verbs & nouns are strong; adverbs have some power; but, orally, adjectives are weak words. Use pronouns like: you, we, us rather than human beings, or people. Use present tense and active voice most of the time, use passive voice when we are not concerned with agency or wish to imply indirect agency. Use mostly short, clear sentences, although mixing short with longer sentences works and is normal in ordinary speech.





Second in a series on preaching

Second in a series on preaching

WARNING: This is a post primarily for preachers. Readers who are not preachers most likely shall be bored beyond belief, because this is “shop-talk” about the art and craft of preaching.


Continuing with David Buttrick’s Homiletic: Moves and Structures, here are a few more words of advice. If I had to sum up what Professor Buttrick advises below in one sentence I would say: Keep your sermons short and simple or KISS. The advice to keep them short may be debatable however—especially among preachers who do not celebrate Holy Communion on a regular basis. Moreover, maybe a sermon needs to be longer, not shorter to increase the listeners’ opportunity to actually retain 35 percent of it. J I do wonder about the source(s) of Buttrick’s research, which he fails to cite. I also wonder how researchers do know what they say they know regarding their research—i.e. what methods do they employ and are they reliable? That said, his advice in using the 5,000 word vocabulary rather than the erudite 12,000 word one does have wisdom. Preaching is about communicating the Gospel clearly in order that folks listening really do hear and/or encounter Christ in the preached word.

Research indicates that in a reasonably good sermon, only about 35 percent of the language will be functional; the rest will have suffered instant erasure, dropping out of consciousness almost as soon as it is spoken. While such deletions are usually the result of weak starts and finishes to moves or, possibly, a lack of point-of-view control, some erasures are caused by regrettable language patterns. So, if we are to achieve, at minimum, a 60 percent retention of language, we will have to sidestep some common pitfalls. Also, it is thought that the graduate from seminary has about a 12,000 word vocabulary. Whereas an average congregational member will have a vocabulary of about 7,500 words. However for oral speaking you can reduce the common shared vocabulary of a congregation to about 5,000 words. The language of preaching should be the vocabulary of everyday conversation. Remember, the vocabulary of the New Testament’s koine Greek is not much more than 5,000 words. Unless we are eager to parade erudition, the limited vocabulary of preaching need not disturb us. Moreover, when we speak of important moments, the profound if often troubling moments in our lives, we invariably revert to simple words—i.e. the words we learned in the first 5 years of our lives. Slang words and phrases, if used in shared, everyday language can be used in sermons.

 To be continued…  










First in a series on preaching

To be continued…

First in a series on preaching

WARNING: This is a post primarily for preachers. Readers who are not preachers most likely shall be bored beyond belief, because this is “shop-talk” about the art and craft of preaching.

Every once in a while, we preachers take a refresher course or workshop or read a book on preaching. In the old days, when I was in seminary, homiletics courses often got assigned to the more flexible professors who were willing to teach it, even though the field of homiletics was not their specialty. Although my Profs didn’t specialize in homiletics, nonetheless I am grateful to them for what they taught me in my homiletics courses. We had two professors in particular who were excellent preachers. Nowadays, professors do specialize in homiletics and the field has gained more respect in seminaries. Along with this, the field itself has evolved over the years.


One of the still fashionable methods of preaching is the narrative or story sermon—sometimes also described as the inductive rather than deductive sermon. Inductive preaching begins with the particular and moves to the general; whereas deductive preaching begins with the general and moves to the particular. According to homiletics specialists like Dr Fred Craddock—if I’ve understood him correctly—the narrative sermon makes preaching as much an event engaging both preacher and listeners as it is a focus on the content of the sermon.

Right now I’m reading a book that I likely should have read a couple decades ago, when it came out in the late 1980s; Homiletic: Moves and Structures by Professor David Buttrick—better late than never, I guess. This work is, among other things, an attempt to build a new homiletic from scratch on up. I’m not convinced Buttrick accomplished that—however; there is much to be learned from this volume. Buttrick presents here a phenomenology of language, wherein he studies how sermons work or form in the consciousness of a congregation. Every preacher knows that oral language is different than written language. Buttrick insists that this principle is absolutely crucial in preparing and preaching meaningful sermons. Therefore, he is full of advice on the dos and don’ts of what he calls language moves and structures in the sermon. A move is a single idea developed in the sermon consisting of a) a beginning, b) the main body of the idea, and c) a conclusion of the idea. Buttrick thinks there should be five to six moves in a sermon. The structure of a sermon concentrates on how the moves fit into and serve the whole sermon. Here then are some words of advice from Buttrick on what to avoid in preaching, which he claims are based on research, yet I find that he is short on citing the sources of his research. I’m not necessarily endorsing all of Buttrick’s don’ts here. For example, the use of very is more common in everyday conversations among people I encounter than Buttrick gives credit for.

 AVOID beginning sentences with words like: this, these, those, that, one.

Use it at beginning of a sentence only when immediately following a sentence with a firm noun, never have 2 or more it sentences in sequence. All of these result in instant erasure of consciousness.

Avoid intensifiers like very, really, just, indeed. Written they work to add emphasis, but not orally.

Avoid delaying words or phrases like: actually, we can see…, we can see, however, that…, it is clear that…, it is evident that…Such words and phrases work in written scholarly works, but not in oral sermons.

Sentences beginning with numbers like: first, let us…, in the third place, we can…, will delete from consciousness.

Thus and therefore are seldom used in ordinary conversation, so should be avoided in sermons. As should other words not used in ordinary language.

Do not over use syntactical rhythms like: repetition, doublets, and triadic clauses. Unless disciplined, they can sound through an entire sermon, so that every different idea will be cadenced in the same way. Thus, for example, sin will sound the same as grace; Christ will sound the same as evil.